Evaluate Small Publishers Like A Pro

You’ve been offered a book contract. Woo hoo! As a long-time Sub It Club reader, you’ve done your homework. You’ve made sure the publisher isn’t a vanity press that will require you to pay to publish. You’ve had a publishing lawyer review the contract to make sure it’s free from questionable terms. It’s time to dive right in, right?

Not so fast. One piece authors often fail to investigate is how well their small publisher can get books into readers’ hands through libraries, bookstores, and other retail outlets (Target, Walmart, airport stores, etc.). Known as distribution, where your print book will be sold is important since a significant number of books still sell offline. (See U.S. trade print book units by channel).

For this post, I tapped picure book author Tara Luebbe (SHARK-NATE-O and I AM FAMOUS). Tara has worked in all facets of retail, from sales to buying offices to wholesale distribution. She is the former owner of a specialty book and toy store near Atlanta, Ga. Tara has provided a pro’s perspective on what to consider when it comes to distribution and evaluating smaller publishers. So WELCOME, TARA!

(Note: Tara’s comments presume that you are publishing with the goal of getting your books into as many readers’ hands as possible. If your goal is simply to hold your published book in your hands and give it to a few friends and family members, Tara’s tips won’t necessarily apply.)

Kirsten: Thanks for joining us, Tara, and sharing your expertise. First, can you give us an idea of how booksellers find out about new books?

Tara: Publishers have traveling sales and phone reps who advise them on upcoming books, including the must-have titles. The reps help the booksellers place their orders. Booksellers also find books at trade shows like the American Booksellers Association (ABA) regional shows, Book Expo, Winter Institute, Bologna Book Fair, and more. And they read trade journals, review magazines, and publishers’ paper catalogs. They can also learn about new books from their distributors, which I discuss in more detail below. And the big chain stores are given private sales presentations by each publisher.

Most bookstores use Edelweiss, which is a huge database of publishers’ catalogs that has ordering information for each book. Retailers can log on, look at all the details for a particular title, and place orders through the system. This is why distribution is key. If your publisher does not have distribution channels or a way to get in front of the retailers, buyers will never discover your book.

Let’s say you ask your local store to carry your book. If it is a distributed title, the store’s buyer can just go into Edelweiss and add it to their current order. Easy peasy. But what if your book is with a small publisher that only has direct shipping? The retailer needs to set up a new vendor account with that publisher, apply for credit terms or pre-pay, and meet the minimum order (number of books). You have just become a hassle for this retailer, and most retailers simply won’t do it. And if on top of that, the books are not returnable … fuggedaboutit. So even if a store wants to help you, sometimes they can’t. Retailers are extremely busy people and wear many hats, so ordering needs to be simple. Dealing with extra invoices and new vendors is not something they welcome.

Kirsten: Who are book distributors?

Tara: Some of the big publishers act as a distributor for smaller publishers by handling their sales and distribution. Examples include Random House, Simon and Schuster, Chronicle, and Hachette.

Then there are distributors who sell books from multiple smaller publishers together as one company. Some examples of these are Independent Publishers Group (IPG), Publisher’s Group West (PGW), National Book Network, Compendium, Diamond, Baker and Taylor, and Ingram.

These are all legitimate distribution channels. You can go on these companies’ websites and find the list of publishers they distribute.

Kirsten: What questions should authors and/or author-illustrators ask smaller publishers to ensure their book have an opportunity to sell beyond the internet to bookstores and libraries?

Tara: I would ask how and by whom they are distributed. And then I would double-check by doing some research, as a lot of information can be found online. For example, I discovered one small publisher whose website states they are with a major distributor, but I could not find even one of their books in the distribution catalog. So always check.

1) The first thing to do is to look on the publisher’s website. Most of them will have  information about distribution under “Ordering”, “For Retailers”, or “Contact Us.” See what it says, and check up on it. Here is a great example. When I look under “wholesale orders” on POW books, I know right away that Random House handles their distribution. Annick Press’s ordering site directs you to Publisher’s Group West, an independent distributor.

2) Go to Edelweiss and look there. You can register for a free account, which lets you search the same database used by booksellers and librarians. If the publisher’s books are on Edelweiss, everything is good. Bookstores and libraries will be able to stock your book.

3) Check the Baker and Taylor catalog. I found a few instances of legitimate, smaller publishers, like Peter Pauper Press and Compendium, who were not on Edelweiss but were offered through Baker and Taylor’s catalog.

4) To check on library distribution, you need to search through WorldCat. WorldCat is a database of libraries all over the world that will show you which libraries have a certain book (not all libraries are members, though). Plug in several titles by a publisher and see what happens. If only a handful of libraries come up, that tells you they do not have good library sales established, which in turn, means your books most likely won’t be in many libraries either. Compare books from other publishers to see the difference if you are unsure.

5) If you still can’t locate the information you need, go to your local bookstore and ask them about a publisher. Give them an ISBN number of one of the publisher’s existing books to look up, and they can tell you what they find out.

6) Check Kirkus reviews. Libraries rely heavily on trade reviews to make purchases. Does this publisher get reviewed by Kirkus and other professional review publications? However, note that Kirkus does allow self-published authors and small presses to pay for reviews. It is disclosed under the review that it was from the “Kirkus Indie” program. If you do not see this term indicated, it was a traditional, non-paid review. Look at the book reviews from your potential publisher If they don’t show up at all, that is a red flag. If they are all paid reviews, that is another data point for you. Librarians know the difference.

7) Does this publisher exhibit at the American Library Association (ALA) and American Booksellers Association (ABA) trade shows? You can sometimes find the list of publishers exhibiting at Book Expo, Bologna, and the other major shows on the shows’ websites. If the publisher has a booth at these shows, that is a good sign, but still, check all the other data points. Here is a list of publishers that recently attended the ALA show.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. Legitimate publishers with different distribution models include publishers like Usborne, Kane Miller, and Barefoot Books. Some of my tips will not apply to these specific companies (WorldCat will be key there). I also do not have knowledge about distribution for the educational, school, e-book, or religious markets.

All of my tips are geared toward the trade print market, and I hope the information I’ve shared will empower you with knowledge to make good decisions for your careers.

Kirsten: Thank you so much, Tara! I know this is a lot of information, so if you have other questions, post them below.

Tara Luebbe credits a lot of her success to those years spent purchasing and selling books, which gave her an in-depth understanding of the entire sales process. She is the co-author (along with her sister, Becky Cattie) of I AM FAMOUS, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Albert Whitman) and SHARK NATE-O, illustrated by Daniel Duncan (little bee books). Forthcoming titles include I USED TO BE FAMOUS (Albert Whitman, 2019), OPERATION PHOTOBOMB (Albert Whitman, 2019), and CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Roaring Brook, 2020). Tara also founded the Writing With the Stars mentoring contest. Follow her on Twitter, like her on Facebook, and learn more at http://beckytarabooks.com/.

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