Among the shifts that have been taking place in publishing houses over the past decade is an increase in the head count dedicated to marketing and a decrease in head count dedicated to sales. This reflects the reduction in the number of bookstore accounts and the transfer of “discovery” from store shelves to digital search.
The reduction in bookstores and the concurrent and related reduction in print books sold in stores also affects how publishers view the economics of the sales departments and the entire support system for print distribution. The big houses still need sales forces and warehouses and sophisticated systems to track inventories and payments and returns but the “throughput” of print from their own publishing programs is declining. For many, that means that distribution clients are increasingly important. They provide the volume to support scaled operations without requiring the publisher to invest in publishing more titles. For at least four of the big five (HarperCollins being an apparent exception), distribution of other publishers’ books, with or without providing the sales force effort, is a critical component of maintaining the volume that keeps unit costs in line.
But that adds risk. Distribution contracts vary in length, but they generally only extend two or three years out. With four major publishers plus Ingram, which has, effectively, five different full distribution options to offer, on the prowl for clients, there is a plethora of choices for any publisher seeking to shed their own fixed-cost distribution or to switch distributors. Indeed, the percentages being charged for distribution services have dropped drastically over the past two decades. The competitive environment is likely to perpetuate that trend.
While the big publishers doing distribution have (so far) tended to insist on fairly large clients, Ingram is using its multiple configurations to try to serve publishers of all sizes and entities that aren’t primarily publishers at all. Today a publisher that is really a literary agency or, before long if not already, a bank, an advertising agency, or a not-for-profit with a mission, can put a book or a list of its own into the book publishing arena with sales and distribution capabilities competitive with the biggest and most experienced publishers. So a revolution that began with Amazon enabling indie authors, starting about ten years ago, to reach a big percentage of the total book market through Kindle and CreateSpace, is being dramatically extended. Going after real bookstore distribution definitely requires incremental investment and marketing savvy, even with the machinery in place to help.
But incremental investment and marketing savvy were always far easier to come by than the machinery has ever been for the small or occasional publisher.
While this levels the playing field in a major way, there are still distinct advantages to size and a B2B publishing brand. The diminishing bookstore shelf space has made the also-diminishing mass merchant (Walmart, Target) shelf space relatively more important. Between the chains — primarily Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million — and independent stores, there are only about 1000 to 1200 points of purchase for books provided by bookstores. There were three to five times that many two decades ago. So the additional thousands of opportunities to put a book in front of the public through the mass merchants are critical, particularly to move bestseller quantities.
But relatively few titles can make the cut for those outlets and the pressure on them to perform quickly is immense. Returns are high. These slots are simply not available to publishers who aren’t recognizable B2B brands with a solid reputation for backing their books effectively. These outlets represent the competitive advantage that remains for the Big Five publishers.
For the past few years, pretty much since the demise of Borders in 2011, the number of bookstores has been going up a bit each year. (It is not clear that the bookstore shelf space has been going up; indie stores seem to be smaller, on average, today than they were two decades ago, or at least there are fewer mammoth ones.) It could well be that, aside from Borders, the indie revival is also fueled by the reduction in shelf space for books at the mass merchants. If so, that is good for smaller publishers and it is good for backlist, both of which are seriously challenged getting in front of the public through mass merchants.
So, while it is definitely true that the dizzying pace of change we saw during the early years of ebooks has subsided, and it is true that the print format has not yielded much share, if any, to ebooks in the past couple of years, it is not time to celebrate a new stability. The marketplace itself is still changing; the online share when you combine print and digital is still growing and the ratio of shelf space available for backlist and slower-sellers is still declining. The smallest publishers are getting better and better market access and the biggest publishers are seeing escalating risk in how they place the books they publish and in the danger they’ll face a sudden decrease in distribution volume that would turn their fixed costs into a burden.
This is a great time in the book business to be very big (among your peer group) or very small and focused. It is a challenging time to be anything else.
A very frequent point of contention when negotiating distribution arrangements is how Amazon will be handled and compensated. Amazon is almost always the single largest account and it is not uncommon for it to represent — on many books and even some publishers — 50 percent or more of the sales. Although sophistication definitely helps in dealing with Amazon, it is also true that Amazon provides incentives to give up the “other half” of the market and just work through them. Any sophisticated businessperson is likely to get more money out of Amazon working it themselves than any distributor can get for them, even before distribution fees. (IF, and this is a big if, you discount the marketing value of books throughout the supply chain which, counterintuitively but frequently, will raise the level of sales at Amazon from what they would have been without books broadly distributed.) In any case, being able to really add value to Amazon sales would be a Holy Grail. Right now, most of the time, distributing publishers really have to make the argument that you can’t effectively split things and that they will add so much value in the rest of the world, and do the work around Amazon, that the overall relationship is worth the trade-off.