Demystifying Book Distribution: 5 Questions with Christine Foye

We’re thrilled to have Christine Foye on the GFP blog today to discuss the secrets behind book sales and distribution. Christine is a retail field sales representative for Simon & Schuster, covering Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. She graduated from the University of Texas with a BA in literature in 1990 and went to NYC hoping to get a job in the glamorous world of book publishing. Her first job was at St. Martin’s Press working in telephone sales. From there she moved into international sales, and when a job opened up in Seattle as a retail field sales rep, she jumped at it (at that time her territory was Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Idaho, Utah, and Montana). She worked for St. Martin’s for several years, then worked for herself in an independent sales rep group representing mostly academic presses. She’s been with Simon & Schuster for almost four years.

1. Books sales and distribution can feel mysterious, even to those in the business! In the interest of drawing back the curtain, could you give our readers a synopsis of the way distribution works for a traditional publisher—from finished books to books in stores?

After a book is printed, it must travel from the printer to our warehouse. These days, printers are often overseas so the process takes several weeks. Once the book is received into our warehouse, we can start shipping it out as orders are received. We ship books directly to our various customers (independent bookstores such as Elliott Bay Book Co. here in Seattle, chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, “big box” stores such as Target or Walmart, online retailers, and specialty stores such as Made in Washington or Urban Outfitters). We also ship large amounts of books to what are called wholesalers. Wholesalers act as a sort of adjunct warehouse for us in various regions of the country. They stock our titles in large quantities, and that enables customers to restock books quickly wherever they may be in the US (our warehouse is in New Jersey). Wholesalers are fast—that is the upside of using them. But the discount when ordering from them is slightly less than it is when ordering from us directly, so that is the downside. The one thing we generally don’t do is ship directly to individuals.

2. There are a number of POD platforms out there that advertise distribution to bookstores for self-pub authors. But there’s more to getting into bookstores than a simple listing in the Ingram catalog. Can you explain what happens between the catalog listing and books being shelved in stores nationwide?

A catalog listing is like a webpage. The information is there, but you have to drive people to it and pique their interest in it for the book to get any traction. As a sales rep, I visit bookstores and sit down with the buyers, and we go through catalogs book by book, page by page. The buyers place their orders with me—usually four to eight months ahead of pub date—and I send the orders to our warehouse, and then the books are shipped as they become available. What makes a buyer buy a book? Good catalog copy. Quotes from other (hopefully well-known) authors writing in the same field. Indications that the publisher is committed to the book and the author with a big print run, advertising and marketing budgets, and an author tour. And a good book jacket—it is true that this matters. Because we are buying so far ahead of time, the books in our catalog can start to generate reviews, and publicists can work on booking events and publicity. All of this factors into how a buyer buys a book too. If I can say, “This author is booked on Good Morning America and we just got a great review in Publishers Weekly and it will be featured in Vanity Fair magazine,” that makes a huge difference. That’s an extreme example—many fine books don’t get that kind of national attention—but the point is that a book needs time to build up reviews and attention before it is published. Sometimes an author can finish a book, find an agent, editor, and publisher, and that book still won’t hit shelves for a year or two. We generally announce a book two seasons ahead and put it in a catalog one season ahead. As I write this, I have just finished selling our summer titles and will start selling fall titles in late April.

3. Can you explain the role sales reps play and how they operate in a network based on regional and local territories? Is it possible for a self-published author to hire a sales rep to ensure their book’s distribution to stores? Would this work? Why or why not?

It is the sales rep’s job to make sure that the stores are ordering all of our big books, all of our local/regional authors, and any books that we feel will be helped by active authors or authors who have ties to marketing-friendly people, organizations, or entities. For instance, a debut author is hard to sell, but if that author went through a graduate writing program with Mary Karr, that’s a great selling point. If the author’s brother is a national newscaster, even better. The author is a former lawyer who worked in the White House? Perfect. We need to know everything about authors and their connections, so we hope authors will share that information with the sales and marketing team. Sales reps make a huge difference for an author, but we can’t work miracles. For one thing, it isn’t possible for every bookstore in America to see a sales rep. Geography, time, and the small size of most stores prohibit that kind of care. Authors should also keep in mind that their own books are very important to them but in the world of publishing, dozens if not hundreds of books are published every week (by traditional publishers—combining this with self-published books, this number has been estimated at 1,400 books per day). For your book to have a fighting chance, you must be a publishing-savvy and active author, the retail price of your book must be in line with similar books, and you need to have had your book professionally edited. Another role that sales reps play is to funnel local and regional authors into various bookstore events, book shows, cultural festivals, and other literary events.

Regarding self-published authors hiring sales reps, it simply isn’t economically feasible. The volume of books sold would have to be astronomically high for a rep to make a reasonable amount of money selling one book. When I was a commission rep, our fee was ten percent of the net amount of every unit sold, and that is a workable model when one is selling two thousand titles in a season. It is not a workable model when one is selling only one or a dozen or thirty titles in a season. (Book publishing works on two or three seasons per year, depending on the publisher. Most sell a spring season, a summer season, and a fall season.)

4. In so many ways, self-publishing is now able to mirror traditional publishing. Distribution seems to be the biggest exception. Do you see any potential for that changing for self-publishers? What would have to happen for it to change?

Self-publishers with only one or two books will always have a hard time getting good distribution. It is costly for them to warehouse, bill, and ship their own books and they will try to roll those costs into the retail price of the books, and no one wins in that scenario. The regional wholesalers that I mentioned above will sometimes take on the warehousing and billing aspects of distribution, but they won’t act as sales reps; that responsibility remains with the publisher. And generally this happens only when the book has a strong local hook, like a travel guide to the area or a cookbook by a popular local restaurant.

When publishers get a little bigger, with perhaps fifteen or more titles, they can become attractive to companies that specialize in warehousing, billing, and selling for small publishers. Companies like Consortium, Perseus, Publishers Group West, and Ingram Publisher Services will take on small publishers, but each has their own set of criteria that involve yearly sales, yearly return rates, obligations to future publication schedules, etc. The idea is for small publishers to become bigger publishers and not to remain one-book presses.

5. For authors being traditionally published, what are some of the most important things they can do to get their books into stores? Are there any tips you would give new authors regarding what they can do on their own and how they can work with their publishers?

Be active on social networks, not only because it keeps you in view and connected, but because it makes you easy to find when a bookstore, blogger, or fellow author wants to get in contact with you. Keep all of your sites and feeds updated. Visit your local bookstores and make yourself known and helpful, but don’t be a pest. Your local bookstore will do anything for you if you are polite and cheerful. And yes, it is great to drop in and sign your books—but be sure you tell someone on staff who you are first!

Talk to your marketing people and your publicist about small, inexpensive, but impactful things you can do like create bookmarks or Post-its or an easel back for your book. Offer yourself to do blog posts for bookstores or guest Twitter feeds. Don’t be an attention hog regarding events—some of the best events I’ve seen are group author events. The dynamic that comes from several authors sharing ideas and experiences can be really fun and really powerful. Talk to your author friends and do group events. If you don’t have any author friends, make some on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!

Every region has a bookselling association—here in the Northwest it is the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (pnba.org). Get to know them, join, and attend. You will meet booksellers and learn a lot from them and from other authors and industry people. The associations also offer all kinds of economical ways to advertise your books on their sites, which reach every member several times a month.

Be visible. All of the above will help your visibility, but I guess in older parlance I mean “Always Be Networking.” The more your face, name, and book are seen and repeated, the better chance you have at success. Your job isn’t over when you finish writing!