The Distribution of the Future

Several weeks ago we blogged about The Publishing Landscape.

Now if somebody can just find my book on these shelves …

Somebody commented that the benefit of traditional publishing is the distribution, so getting a 7.5% traditional publishing royalty of something is better than a 100% self-publishing royalty of nothing.

This is an interesting statement.

But is it still applicable in today’s landscape?

Let’s break it down.

Distributors are Subcontractors

A distributor is a subcontractor who works to get books in stores. They can be retained by traditional publishers, self-publishers, and individual authors alike. The distributor will examine the merit of the book, it’s likelihood of being stocked, and its commercial viability. That’s their judgement criteria.

A distributor cannot guarantee that a bookshop will take on your book. Also, there have been cases where the distributor has gotten the book into one branch of a franchise, but not another.

The distributor is also not responsible for the marketing of the book to the greater market.

Publishers Have Various Distribution Means

Small publishers might distribute through a bigger publisher. A big publisher is likely to have a contract directly with a book chain, rather than employing a distributor. In these regards, a self-published author cannot compete, but that’s no different to any business: the big companies have more money to spend.

It’s not a level playing field out there. This is worth keeping in mind rather than having a generalised view that something is simply good or bad, and that having a distributor will magically generate sales.

Being Distributed Doesn’t Equal Success

Walk into any bookstore. What do you see?

Bestselling authors, celebrity books, and flavours of the month will occupy the prime real estate – that means they’ll sit face-out on a ‘Most Popular’ or ‘Bestsellers’ or ‘Recommended’ shelf. Every other book will sit spine out on general shelving. The bulk of bookstores are made up of these shelves.

If you’re a new author and a distributor manages to get you into a bookstore, you’re unlikely to get the prime real estate. Your book could become a bestseller. It happens. But think about the number of books released weekly. How many new authors break through and achieve that? It’s rare. Other authors have been toiling for years, and remain midlist. Due to a lack of sales, some just aren’t published anymore.

So although you might be distributed, it doesn’t mean your book is going to sit in a prime position. Those spaces are limited. The number of books being released grossly outnumber those spaces.

Now think about your browsing habits. Do you read the title on every spine-out book? Likelier, you read the first few and then skim, hoping to find a title that’ll attract your interest. At this stage, you’re not seeing the cover or the blurb – two other things that might attract you to a book.

Spine-out throws your book amongst the casual-browsing masses.

You Can Approach Independent Bookstores

Big chains mightn’t talk to the independent author, but smaller chains and bookstores will. They’re usually happy to help promote books. That’s their business. Bookstores local to you are likelier to do this, as they want to try help local authors. They might even offer a promotion, e.g. a book signing.

Some of you might be rolling your eyes, thinking this is why you need distribution. It shouldn’t be up to you to be selling your book.

It’s Not Really About the Distribution – It’s About the Marketing

Even if your book was sitting face-out on some ‘Most Popular’ shelf, there’s no guarantee it would sell in any meaningful numbers.

And the reason?

Let’s use movies as a parallel. We all know where to go to see a movie – the cinema. But why do we go? Because we know that’s a place that has movies? Well, usually no. We generally don’t randomly wander into a cinema and pick out a movie to see.

We actually go because we’ve gained an interest in a particular movie beforehand. That interest might’ve come from a trailer, a review, or word of mouth.

What’s happened here is that creating the awareness has generated your interest in the movie, and thus motivated you to go to the cinema and watch it.

It’s the same with books. Just because a book sits in a bookstore doesn’t mean it’s going to sell.

You need to create awareness and interest in your product before people will seek it out.

This is your responsibility. If you publish traditionally, the publisher will try to arrange interviews, reviews, and other promotional opportunities. But you’re just one of a number of authors in their stable, so you’re going to have to sell yourself.

But That Still Means You Need Distribution

Obviously, it’s going to be better to have distribution than to not have distribution. That increases your chances of creating awareness for your work.

And, yes, there will be the random sales here and there from somebody who’s browsing in a bookstore, picks up a book they’ve never heard of before, and buys it. But a whole lot of random sales aren’t how bestsellers happen. It’s about people knowing what they want and getting it.

Some might think this is still a case for distribution as we’ve known it – once people have learned of a book’s existence, they need to be able to go somewhere to get it.

But think about our changing landscape. Shoppers now break into one of four categories.


  1. Go into a store and buy something
  2. Go into a store, find an item, then go online and buy it
  3. Go online and buy something
  4. Go online, and then try to find the item in a physical store.

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to shop you went to a store. That was your option the bulk of the time. There was no such thing as ‘online’. The closest option was buying something from an advert in printed material. But that’s target-specific marketing.

The internet has radically altered the landscape. Now you have four options. Doing things online occupies three out of those four choices – 75% of that 100%. Physical retailers also have online shopfronts. Why would I go to the trouble of getting in my car, driving to their store, and having a look around, when I can browse their online catalogue from the comfort of my own home?

Online shopping is becoming more and more common – and will continue to develop into the dominant option. It’s the default’s option for today’s youth. What will it be tomorrow?

Popular Australian chains like QBD and Robinsons have websites from which you can order. And, of course, there are popular online retailers like Amazon, Booktopia, or Book Depository.

Then there’s simply another option: ebooks. Order and have it delivered immediately to your reader.

Let’s go back to movies as a parallel. From 1980 to the early 2000s, we’d go to a videostore to rent a movie as a VHS cassette. Then DVDs took over. Then BluRays became a thing. And what happened next?

Now, we have mediums like Netflix, Stan, and Amazon Prime. We no longer have to go somewhere to get a movie. We just stream it directly to our television. Kids of tomorrow won’t even know what a VHS or DVD is.

The children of today are acclimating to a totally new landscape.

We Provide Distribution

We provide distribution so that your book filters into the databases of online retailers (Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository, etc.), and will also appear on the databases of physical stores. If somebody was to go into a store and ask for your book, it would come up on that store’s computer. They could then order it. Sell enough, and the bookstore will stock it. But is this still the model for the future?

Kodak – once a giant in the realms of photography – famously misread the market and dismissed the advent of digital photography.

Technology moved forward and Kodak were left behind.

Now all we have is digital photography – on cameras, on computers, on tablets, and phones. It’s just a matter of time before smartwatches take pictures. Who knows what comes next?

The same applies to publishing. Stop thinking about the way things were done yesterday.

The landscape has changed.

And continues to evolve.

If you want to compete, you have to change with it.

One response to “The Distribution of the Future

  1. Brilliant summation! One other issue I have encountered is so many authors who see print on demand, ebook sales and the likes are actually completely disconnected with reality. They don’t even examine their own purchasing behaviour as ‘readers’.

    They also often assume, like new parents, that their ‘baby’ is special and the public are passively waiting for it to emerge. No actual professional author work required of them.

    Radio stations simply waiting to interview them (and they can’t write or don’t write effective press releases). Daily mastheads also waiting to run stories on them, and the book, with an actual journalist seeking them. They expect any award nominations, or worse paid entry ‘competitions’ and awards to be the main marketing tool.

    Basically there is delusion at work combined with a lack of professionalism and Industry knowledge, including market research. Is their book written in a style, voice genre or area of readership for niche markets currently ‘in vogue’.

    As an ex-writing tutor, I am so over this lackadaisical attitude. I will not buy any of these people’s books, but I do buy as many local releases as possible given my budget and literary taste.

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