Heading ashore. Image &copy Jain Lemos.

After shaping the subject of your documentary book, the next section I’ll cover in The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books is planning distribution. One reason this topic is near the beginning of the process is because without a delivery strategy your book can’t succeed. A distributor is the link between publisher and retailer. They also supply libraries, educators and other end point sales outlets in the publishing chain. They need to be engaged as soon as the book project has been given a green light, ideally at least six months in advance of books being delivered to their warehouse.

Figuring out how distribution is going to intersect your workflow will depend on your exact role for the project. If you work as an employee for a publisher your “title” might be managing or project editor. If a publisher hires you as an independent to produce a documentary book, they’ll consider you a packager and you can hammer out how you want to credit yourself when you negotiate the contract.

In both of these cases, the publisher will have a person or department in charge of distribution. You’ll be working with them throughout the project, providing all of the book’s details, like the title, description, pub date, format, sales price and other book specifications (I’ll cover specs in part 7 of this series). They’ll be handling all of the logistics of getting your book to the reader so you can focus on creating the book and getting it done on time and under budget. An in-house editor typically oversees the book to the warehouse and then the publisher’s distribution, sales, marketing and publicity teams take over. As a packager, you’ll be responsible for getting the book to the final mechanical stage, which means ready to print, and then it’s all on the publisher. Sometimes a packager is asked to go on press or to provide some other post pub services, all of which are negotiable. You can pitch your book idea and producing services to a publisher with the aim of getting them on board from the beginning. You’ll be paid in stages, usually three: On signing, on acceptance of finished photography and manuscript, and on final mechanical delivery.

Most publishers have partnership agreements with major book distributors and it’s almost always an exclusive arrangement. I’ve worked with Ingram, Independent Publishers Group (IPG) and Publishers Group West (PGW) to name a few. For physical book distribution services, these three giants have been around forever and provide publishers with everything you can think of now including, of course, digital and print-on-demand distribution. At one point they started publishing their own books causing many a tear, especially when they produced similar titles at deep discounts. I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Now what if you don’t have a publisher lined up? Guess what: you’ll be the publisher! Which means you’ll have to set up distribution either on your own or in agreement with people who do it for a living. I recommend forming an LLC or other corporate structure. Be ready to fund everything. I won’t cover budgets until part 8 but suffice it to say that you shouldn’t take on this role if you aren’t starting out with a bare minimum of $30,000 in the bank for the simplest documentary project. That stack of purchase orders will not pay what you’ll need to layout in advance to have a book materialize.

Chicago Review Press (CRP) is the parent company of IPG. They also own Small Press United (SPU), which is an example of a distributor that will work with new publishers (I have not worked with them). Their boilerplate contract requires becoming your sole and exclusive worldwide distributor for all editions of the book—including digital—and even future titles. You can’t sell any books yourself—other than individual books through your own direct solicitations or coupon advertising—meaning you’ll turn over all orders for sales to book stores and wholesale/retail outlets to SPU for billing and fulfillment.

They make their money via a service charge, which is typically 30% of net billings for print copies (20% for digital). Net means gross billings invoiced by SPU but not including shipping charges or returns. You’ll be charged at 10% for returns. They also have a set-up charge ($200) and other fees along the way. These are for storage levels, review copies, membership fees, salespersons’ samples and so on. They do add up. Keep in mind the books they warehouse are considered “on consignment” from the publisher and you’ll need to provide insurance for them, too.

The most important service a distributor provides is getting your books into stores and outlets where you don’t have direct access. They handle all of the processing, billing, collections and shipping. Your book will be listed in their databases which is how sales materials are created. Did you ever ask a bookstore if they had a particular book in stock? Distributor databases are where major book retailers and wholesalers access your title. They’ll make sure your book is found online, too. Don’t forget you’ll need an ISBN number. That’s easy; register with our friends over at Bowker.

If working with a major distributor sounds too ominous, you can try to take on that role, too. There are fulfillment companies that will handle shipping but you have to get bookstores to order from them. I’m not going to cover self-publishing in this series using services such as those Amazon provides because I don’t have a lot of firsthand knowledge working with that business model. It’s getting better all the time but do some major homework if you are thinking about going that route.

Moving right along, the next topic will be Planning Sales. I wonder when I’m going to get to the fun stuff.

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) provides a list of major distributors.

Producing Documentary Books: Shaping the Subject
Producing Documentary Books: Planning Sales