Watching the AMS-PGW debacle unfold makes me wonder why so many independent publishers are willing to be pawns in the increasingly lose-lose game of book distribution. Being auctioned off in a bankruptcy proceeding does not equal independence. Or handing over your most important business functions—sales, customer relations, fulfillment, and the tracking and collecting of your receivables—to a third party over which you have absolutely no control. Is this a smart way of doing business? What's independent about being part of a $100- or $300-million-a-year sales operation?
While Perseus paints itself as the knight in shining armor, swooping in to rescue publishers left stranded on the shoals by an Enron-like corporate shipwreck, how can it possibly be in the best interests of these publishers to scramble aboard an even bigger conglomerate distribution ship? Will the biggest clients be given the sweetheart deals they had at PGW (low percentage takes and money collected in 30 versus 120 days)? If so, the smaller publishers should understand that it is their cash that is being used to float the entitled big guys. And what's to stop the Perseus empire from being sold to another AMS-like corporate overlord?
It's time to wise up. Any size publisher can do its own sales and distribution. In fact, it's easier now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. There are many more choices for acquiring affordable distribution software, many options for outsourcing the actual warehousing and fulfillment, and thousands of ways to make your product available.
Except for one misguided year, Chelsea Green has always handled its own sales and distribution. From the moment my husband and I launched our first list of three titles almost 23 years ago, we have done it the hard way. Fledgling though we were, we managed to secure a few intrepid rep groups and to open bookstore and wholesale accounts. We did the picking, packing and shipping ourselves, and learned every step of every function, meeting every customer as we picked them up (oh, so slowly), in the beginning. We learned how to do it all: how to sell, how to set up accounts, how to invoice, how to collect, how to manage cash flow and receivables.
We gained true independence as a result. It was up to us to make the smart publishing and business decisions to remain alive and afloat. To be sure, we made plenty of mistakes, but they were our mistakes. And while we whined along with everyone else about the sagging fortunes of independent bookstores, the takeover by the chains, the fickleness of the marketplace, the decline of a literate reading public, what we didn't whine about was how bad a job our distributor was doing selling our books (or not paying us) nor did we worry about whether said distributor was going out of business and taking us with them (remember Kampmann & Co.? Remember InBook?).
We also gained margin, margin that could be put to use in editorial and marketing, and we gained total control over our cash flow, collecting money in an average of 60 days. We learned about the marketplace and our customers and how best to serve them, and we gained flexibility and speed, allowing us to jump on a book like Don't Think of an Elephant! and get it into the marketplace in a scant six weeks when timing was everything, and then go on to sell 300,000 copies.
It's easy to fall for the "bigger is better" mentality, but the reality of today's increasingly fragmented marketplace favors a niche sales strategy over a mass merchandising approach every time. We are taking this approach a step further, doing what traditional distributors and publishers will tell you cannot be done by a company our size: bringing our sales force in-house and going direct to our customers, booksellers and specialty retailers alike.
The future belongs to the small, the nimble, the quick and the truly independent. So forget the distributors, throw off your shackles and (apologies for the corporate slogan) just do it!
|Margo Baldwin is president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing Company.|