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Publishing Note: Where’s My Book?

There it is, finally. Your book stands proudly displayed in the local bookstore where you’ve been browsing and buying books for years. But how did it get there and what might prevent it from being there?

How Did My Book Get There?

A somewhat oversimplified description of the book distribution pipeline is that books get to consumers in two stages.

1. Wholesale: Publishers sell to booksellers

The first stage is wholesale distribution, where the publisher, often through a distributor, sells books to retailers (online and brick-and-mortar). Publishers rely heavily on go-betweens, what used to be called middlemen, to distribute the books they publish. They may employ their own sales team, they may hire an independent rep group, or they may engage the sales team employed by their distributor.

2. Retail: Booksellers sell to consumers

The second stage is retailers selling books to consumers. When an author stores their inventory at a distributor’s warehouse such as Ingram Content Group, they may see that they have no stock on hand. However, retailers may have already purchased inventory and hold it in their own warehouse or bookstore. Although an author should definitely make plans for more inventory, it would be false to think that there are no sellable copies in the marketplace. More on this below.

Think of a company that produces hotdogs—Love Them Franks. They sell Love Them Franks hotdogs to retailers, such as grocers, restaurants, and street vendors. Consumers purchase these hotdogs at grocery stores, in (admittedly not five-star) restaurants, and at baseball games from vendors. Similarly, publishers sell their books to bookstores, big-box merchandisers (e.g., Walmart, Target), online retailers (e.g., Amazon.com), and other channels of sale. That’s the wholesale step. Those bookstores and other companies in turn sell a publisher’s books to consumers. That’s the retail step.

This sales two-step involves exchanging products from one company to another and handing off the connection to the customer from one company to another. The publisher is twice-removed from the people who purchase their books, and the author is thrice-removed. Disintermediation is the technical term for this loss of connection.

Author—>Publisher—>Distributor—>Bookstore—>Consumer

Many forces determine whether a given title shows up in bookstores. Some of these forces have to do with the book itself, or factors related to publishing the book. Others have nothing to do with the book but nonetheless directly impact the book’s sales and distribution.

1. Forces directly related to the book itself

  • Author-related: the reputation and platform of the author
  • Content-related: the book’s subject matter, BISAC category, its title and subtitle, and book description
  • Product-related: cover design, the look, feel, size, shape, and heft of the physical book, the retail price
  • Publisher-related: the colophon on the spine (i.e., the reputation of the publisher), the publisher’s sales team’s efforts to sell the book to booksellers, the marketing and publicity campaigns marshaled to promote the book

2. Factors unrelated to the book

  • Timing: the day, month, and season of the year when the book is published
  • Social and geopolitical events (local, regional, national, and international): a national tragedy, war breaks out between two countries, an uprising against a ruling regime erupts in a country
  • Natural disasters: a hurricane, massive wildfire, flooding, landslide, or tornado
  • Economic events: a market crash, a huge company goes into bankruptcy and lays off all its employees, a chain of bookstores goes out of business, shipping carriers go on strike or have a workforce shortage

All of these forces can either work to make your book appear in a bookstore and online, or conspire against a retailer stocking and selling your book.

Why Isn’t My Book There Now?

Perhaps the scariest thing for both an author and a publisher is for a book to be out of stock. When that happens, it freaks out authors, publishers, booksellers, virtually everyone associated with selling the book. Unfortunately, sometimes supply doesn’t meet demand. The publisher may not have predicted demand accurately and they printed fewer copies than consumers wanted to purchase, or promotional efforts hit an unanticipated gold mine. With printing lead times of 3 to 4 months ahead of publication, it’s not hard to see how this can happen. Publishers are trying to read tea leaves and new developments can change circumstances quickly.

Returning to our Love Them Franks hotdog illustration, let’s say Love Them Franks produced 1,000 hotdogs and sold all those hotdogs to various retailers. Those are wholesale sales, from distributor to retailer. When those hotdogs left the Love Them Franks factory and were delivered to the store rooms of retailers, they moved one step closer to consumers, but they don’t represent a retail sale. Those 1,000 hotdogs are no longer available from the factory to retailers, but now they are available from retailers to consumers. If the Love Them Franks company runs out of hotdogs in its factory, that doesn’t mean consumers can’t purchase hotdogs at the grocery store, in the restaurant, or at the ball game (at least immediately). If the factory continues to be empty for too long, then yes, grocery stores will run out and won’t be able to restock Love Them Franks hotdogs, and their customers won’t be able to buy them. When that happens with a book, it is flagged as out of stock until more copies show up in the distributor’s warehouse. And no one in the publishing business wants a book to be out of stock when consumers are demanding it.

The book industry is not set up to know exactly where each copy of every book is at any given moment: in transit from printer to warehouse, on a truck from distributor to bookstore, sitting on a loading dock waiting to be checked into the bookstore’s inventory. Once a distributor sells a copy of a book to a bookstore, the distributor is no longer involved. The bookstore takes over in the chain of action that leads to a consumer purchasing the book. When the bookstore sells the book to the consumer, they report that sale to an industry-wide sales data repository. But they are the only ones who actually know who bought the book and where it ended up.

Though you may be disappointed that your book isn’t available from a given retailer, now you have a more detailed picture of the distribution chain. Knowing how your book gets to online and physical retailers and what could be behind it not being available is crucial information. It may not prevent books from being unavailable but it will help you uncover why and figure out how to solve the problem.

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