Friday, May 27, 2005


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.


Stacey Cochran said...

I've written eight novels. I'm thirty-one. I've been writing full-time for four years.

It wasn't until this past year that the vastness of distribution began to become real in my mind.

I published two of my early books with POD publishers last year in order to learn some of the basics: getting a book in a bookstore, understanding library acquistions, getting on programs at conventions with the book, developing cover art, getting in at, B&N online, understanding fair royalties, etc.

Without a doubt, the biggest eye opener in the past 12 months has been the reality that distribution is the name of the game.

Correct me if I'm wrong, Joe, but really for a novelist to make money, he/she simply has to have a boatload of novels in a boatload of different places: a pharmacy in Ft. Smith Arkansas, say, a newstand at JFK International, a Barnes & Noble in Duluth. All over the place.

Distribution is the key.

And only your major NY publishers have the kind of established distribution network (whether through their own distributor or through Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc.) by which a writer actually has a chance to sell copies of books.

It takes a different way of thinking to get your mind around things like: if this add is seen by 500,000 people and 1% of them actually visit the website listed on the ad, and 1% of those actually by the book that that results in 50 copies sold.

Usually, we walk around and we know you know maybe 100 people or 200 people total in our daily lives. But to be successful as a writer, you've got to be thinking, well, if I can get 1.5 million people to see this ad for under $5,000 dollars, I might stand to break even on tangible book sales.

It's just a different way of thinking.

Have you ever heard the statistic that 95% of book sales take place in actual, physical brick-and-mortar book-buying places. I.e., that online sales only account for 5% of book sales.

Is this estimate correct?


Rebecca Laffar-Smith said...

Wow! I have a huge urge to hunt down a book distributor and check it all out for myself. I never really considered the warehousing side of the book business. Now I'm enthralled. I've added this kind of trip to my list of goals for the coming years. :-)