Related Articles: Literary, All

Pushin' Books

How Bay Area distributors get some of the best books into your hands

Middlemen don't always have the best reputation. Think of that car salesman who added on all those strange extra charges or those rental listings that make you pay to subscribe and then have the nerve to tack on a finder's fee. Yes, at times it seems like middleman do little other than find creative ways to take your money.

However, our local Bay Area book distributors prove that not all middlemen are evil. In fact, if you're a fan of creative books that may not be commercially viable enough for the likes of Random House, you'll appreciate our Bay Area book distributors. Without firms like Publishers Group West (PGW), Small Press Distribution (SPD), and Bookpeople, many independent presses would find their markets shrinking precipitously, in some cases even down to zero.

Say, for example, you're SPD's publisher Cinco Puntos Press. You have a nice website with short descriptions of your titles, and you even take orders via mail and credit card. This is all well and good, but look how your situation changes once SDP employs its resources on your behalf.

First off, your titles are placed into SPD's catalog and representatives of SPD will travel to promote your book in trade shows. That alone gets you exposure to thousands of bookstores. Secondly, SPD will handle the orders, doing everything from processing the sale to warehousing your books to handling the inevitable overstock returns and customer service issues. If you're affiliated with a larger distributor like PGW you will even have a team of sales representatives sweeping the nation state by state, bookstore by bookstore to sell your books for you.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? So how exactly does it work?

The first thing an independent press needs to do is shop its titles around to a distributor, which is usually done by submitting review copies and an application. If the distributor likes what it sees, the two will enter in to contract negotiations. Probably the most important aspect of the contract is the profit sharing system where the distributor and press decide who keeps what from each book sold. The contract also specifies other things, such as if free desk copies can be issued to academic institutions and terms regarding international sales.

In that framework, the books start to move. Generally the press will contract a third party to print the books, although the distributor can advise the press as to how to accomplish this. Once printed the books are shipped to the distributor's warehouse (often books are printed as far away as East Asia) where they are stored until sale. Several months before the book's "due" date (the day it is scheduled to arrive in the warehouse) distributors place their books in one of several yearly catalogs and begin utilizing sales representatives, advertisements, trade shows and other types of marketing to sell books. If the book sells well, the distributor may advise the press to order a reprint, although the final decision rests in the hands of the press and it is not unheard of for a press to fail to reprint a book with strong sales. The entire process is known as fulfillment, and there is also wholesaling in which one distributor buys books from another at a steep discount (generally 50% or more) in hopes that the books can be resold.

Now that we know the basics of how distributors work, let's look at the Bay Area's three local distributors:

Publishers Group West
Located in Berkeley, PGW was established in 1976 and first topped $100 million in sales in 1997 with a big boost from Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. It is the largest distributor of independent books in America.

Small Press Distribution
Also in Berkeley (just blocks from PGW) SPD was founded in 1969 and is the only non-profit distributor of books in America. Average SPD titles sell about 50 copies and SPD distributes for over 400 presses located throughout ten nations.

When Bookpeople was founded in 1968 it consisted of distributor Bookpeople and press Book Works. The two split in 1971 when Book People became entirely employee owned. Bookpeople is a wholesaler of independent books.

So the next time you're out browsing books, check the copyright page and see who distributes the book in your hands. It might just be one of our very own Bay Area distributors.