Friday, May 27, 2005

Distribution

Many months ago, I pitched an idea to my publisher.

I did over a hundred 'drive-by' signings last year. I'd drop in a bookstore unannounced, meet the booksellers, and sign any copies of Whiskey Sour that they had on the shelves.

I met a lot of bookstore employees, and I'm pretty sure the books I signed and branded with the "Autographed Copy" sticker eventually sold, but all in all it wasn't the best use of my time and money. With gas prices today, driving a hundred miles to sign three copies of a book is a tad counter-productive.

Enthusiasm and idealism trump logic for first-time authors.

For Bloody Mary, I considered my alternatives.

I've often seen books at stores that were pre-signed by the author. The industry calls them tip sheets. An author gets a big stack of blank book pages, or a bunch of stickers, and these are placed in the books and shipped to the stores.

Collectors don't like them, because the author never handled the actual book. I'm not a huge fan of them either. I like the book to be signed on the title page, and the tip sheets are usually inserted at the very beginning, sometimes even using a different type of paper. It looks like the book was assembled, if that makes any sense.

So I asked Hyperion if, on my dime, I could visit the distibutor and sign books there.

A distributor is a company that warehouses books and ships orders to bookstores. Large publishers have their own distributors. There are also independent distributors like Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Distributors are essential to the publishing business. Even a small print run of five thousand copies takes up a lot of space.

Here's a way to visualize it. Ten copies of a hardcover fit into a box the size of a case of beer (and I'm sure all my readers can picture that.) Imagine 500 cartons of beer in your house.

Besides being a pleasant image, it's also a crowded one. Many rooms would be filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes.

Now picture a 20,000 print run (2000 cases of beer). Or a 100,000 print run (10,000 cases of beer).

Most publishers have multiple authors, and multiple books in print. Where can they store all of these books, and who will fulfill the orders?

Hence the distributor.

I thought I could use this central hub of activity as an advantage, and asked my publisher if I could visit the nearest warehouse.

A few months pass. Then my editor gets in touch and I can, in fact, visit the distributor.

Which I did, yesterday.

The Time Warner warehouse is located in Lebanon Indiana, three hours away from my house (three and a half hours when you get pulled over for going 80mph in a 55 zone). I got a warm welcome, met several of the wonderful (and highly efficient) staff, and spent four and a half hours signing 3000 copies of Bloody Mary.

I'm proud to say I used up every bit of ink in a new ballpoint pen.

The books were placed in boxes that had "Signed Copies" printed on the sides. We filled three large pallets worth, and spent much of the time singing classic rock songs. Well, I spent much of the time singing. The staff spent much of the time giggling at me--though they did join in when I broke into "Baby Got Back" by Sir Mix-A-Lot.

After the signing, I was treated to a tour of the warehouse.

It was big.

How big was it? Over a million square feet. Remember the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the government flunky pushes the boxed Ark into a massive warehouse, stretching back as far as the eye can see?

This was bigger. And this wasn't a matte painting.

I was awed when I looked down a single row, which stretched back hundreds of meters, crammed with floor-to-fifty-foot ceiling stacks of books... and that was just The DaVinci Code aisle.

The place ran like clockwork. With less than two hundred employees, they shipped 500,000 books that day.

Orders came in, boxes were put on a Dr. Seussish conveyor-belt network that looked like a giant roller coaster, while human beings, assisted by computers, filled and dispatched thousands upon thousands of orders, from a fifty box shipment of The Lovely Bones to Barnes and Noble, to a seven book shipment of different titles to a small indie in Colorado.

I was greatly impressed, and the admiration turned to glee when I saw more than a few copies of Whiskey Sour being shuttled around.

Then came the shocker. The warehouse shipped 97 million books last year. And 20 million were returned.

Many of the returns were remaindered (which an author doesn't earn a dime on). Many were pulped. A giant grinding machine shredded books by the hundred.

I knew about remainders, and about stripped paperbacks that were thrown away by the bookstore. But I didn't have a clue about how many books are literally recycled.

Answer: lots.

That took a little wind out of my sails. With the staff, I'd made jokes about putting remainder stickers directly on the copies I was signing, to save time and shipping costs.

The jokes didn't seem very funny anymore.

The VP proudly exclaimed that the pulping machine paid for itself in the recycled paper it produced.

It produced a lot of paper.

Which reminds me... I better get back to work. I'm sure there's some self-promotion I need to be doing.