Most authors are familiar with the publishing people they interact with: their agent, their editor, and maybe a publicist or someone from the marketing department if they’re really lucky. But a lot more is involved in getting a completed and edited manuscript onto the shelves of a regional bookstore, let alone into a national retailer or a library collection. While some of these roles are handled by the publisher themselves if they are a small house or just getting started, most of them require outsourcing. Some services can’t even be accessed until the publisher has a proven minimum sales record and backlist. This startup stage is when publishers must hustle to sell and ship their frontlist titles, and build their own backlists or buy the rights to books and catalogs from other publishers. After a publisher’s backlist gets to a certain size, they usually need to budget time and money for the following.
The easiest way to get a hard copy of a book onto a shelf is to use a print-on-demand (POD) service. This is where a printer holds the electronic files for a book and can print as few or as many copies as needed whenever they are ordered. This cuts down on inventory storage costs (no warehouse needed!). However, it is expensive to print: paper and ink cost less per piece the more you order. This makes many POD books more expensive than their offset-printed competition. How many consumers will pay twenty dollars for a two-hundred-page paperback novel?
The other standard method is to locate an offset printer. Many also offer binding services (yes, it’s not enough to just print the pages—you have to keep them fastened together with a cover!). Most of these printers are independent businesses, who work with many other businesses. Only the large publishers have dedicated printers that only print their material. This means that your print job has to fit into their schedule and use materials that will work with their machines. Most offset printers won’t do print runs under a thousand books, as it costs them time and money to set their machines up to print each new job. To put it in context, many indie publishers find it a challenge to sell more than eight hundred copies of a novel, and two thousand is considered very successful.
Of course, printing costs the publisher money. Ebook and audiobook production also cost time and money, although not quite as much as a hardcover print run.
Distributors are the folks who make contact with the bookstores, gift shops, libraries, and all the larger stores that carry books. They have catalogs of all the titles they represent, and they know their customers well enough to make suggestions on what they might like (cookbooks for Williams Sonoma, the latest YA best seller for Target, a famous memoir for an indie bookstore in a suburb, etc.). It’s more efficient for larger retailers to place one order with a distributor than many smaller orders directly from publishers, and time is money!
Distributors range in size, from
Ingram to Small Press Distribution. Each company has guidelines on what kinds of books they will represent, the retailers they will work with, and the sales minimums they expect a publisher to meet. Distributors don’t completely take over the sales responsibilities of a publisher, but they can reduce the amount of time spent traveling to each retailer, and they can provide access to retailers and markets beyond the resources of a small publisher with a limited staff.
Of course, this service costs the publisher money.
When books get printed in large quantities, they have to stay somewhere ready to be shipped to a retailer or even directly to a customer. Being made of paper, they need some climate control, pest control, and inventory management. Small publishers with a few titles can stash their titles on pallets in their garage, but as they grow larger, their space and shipping, handling, and tracking needs are more complicated. A wholesaler will safely store all the books from the printer, then pack and ship them out to wherever the publisher (or distributor) indicates. They can have multiple locations, making sure books get to New England at the same date as Texas.
Of course, this costs the publisher money.
Notice a theme? Most people understand that the cost of physical paper and ink goes into the price, but other services that actually get the completed book into the hands of retailers and make it available for more than local consumers to purchase are a bit more invisible, yet just as critical.
If you want to learn more about this and other parts of the publishing business, I highly recommend the class The Business of the Book taught by Kent Watson, Executive Director of PubWest and an instructor at PSU’s publishing program.
An additional note: sometimes distributors will offer wholesale warehouse services and sometimes printers will offer design and other services. Lines can blur, but most of it costs additional fees that come out of half of the book’s retail price the publisher gets. Once a publisher gets large enough to increase their sales volume, their profit margin may drop even though their cost per book of print materials drops.