Members of the Independent Book Publishers Association are discussing the merits of forming their own distribution cooperatives, an idea that gained momentum during Publishing University 2024. Spurred by the abrupt closure of Small Press Distribution in March and motivated by barriers to discoverability and solvency, indies have begun taking matters into their own hands. During a webinar, “The Mechanics of Distribution and Forming Publisher-Owned Distribution Cooperatives,” organized by IBPA and Microcosm Publishing CEO Joe Biel, indie publishers talked about how they market their books, fulfill orders, and track inventory. IBPA called it “one of the highest attended IBPA webinars ever—clearly a hot topic among independent publishers.”

Biel opened the webinar with a crash course in distribution, echoing his 2018 book A People’s Guide to Publishing and vlog on the topic. He touted Microcosm’s cooperatively owned business management platform, WorkingLit, which enables subscribers to handle data-driven tasks in-house. Microcosm is a self-contained publisher and distributor, with commissioned sales reps in 48 states and an Edelweiss account for posting catalogs.

Publishers that do their own distribution or form cooperatives can set their own priorities, Biel asserted, rather than rely on a “one size fits all” third-party company. He noted that SPD worked on a “baseline fulfillment model,” operating a warehouse and focusing on major accounts with Amazon and Ingram, while “cutting out a lot of the discoverability” for the indies it served.

“In theory the books were available, but they weren’t necessarily putting their bookseller data into all stores,” and SPD didn’t have telesales or field reps, Biel said. “When you own the means of production, you can pivot a lot faster than these more entrenched larger companies can.”

Representatives from four innovative indie publishers took turns describing their approaches to distribution and ideas for the future. Ambika Sambasivan, who founded Yali Books in 2014, and Suhani Parikh, who founded Modern Marigold Books in 2019, brought their imprints together this year to form children’s publisher Sambasivan & Parikh. Their titles center South Asian diasporic identities and social-emotional learning in books for the school and school library market.

“We saw a really good fit,” Parikh said. “Each imprint had its own identity, but they worked well together when we saw them side by side.”

Intending to scale up, “we started looking at margins, how much we’re giving to the distributor, how much it would actually cost us to warehouse and do it ourselves,” Sambasivan said. “We ran so many spreadsheets. Once you do that, you have a clear understanding of how much it takes to distribute your books.”

They also considered the advantages and disadvantages of print-on-demand versus offset printing for a growing company with limited space. Sambasivan started Yali Books with POD titles, which come with a high product cost, while Parikh used offset printing for Modern Marigold books. “We need to find a system that works more in our favor,” Parikh said. As they work out printing and distribution, she added, “building strong strategic partnerships with wholesalers is going to allow us to focus on the markets that are key to us and our catalog.”


Their comments resonated with fellow panelist Meia Geddes, founder of indie publisher Poetose, who would like to switch to offset but worries about distributors’ storage fees. “Poetose is not a nonprofit, so I want it to have a sustainable business model, pay authors fairly, and be able to take risks on work that might not be as commercial,” Geddes said.

Barter is another distribution strategy practiced by indie presses, explained Mark Fischer, cofounder with Brett Bloom of Temporary Services, established in 1998, and Half Letter Press, founded in 2008. Fischer and Bloom started by creating publications in conjunction with art exhibitions and giving that work away, then expanded to selling work at zine fests, art book fairs, and stores.

“Participating in those events has helped us expand our community and meet other people with shared interests and values all over the world, who often become collaborators in some aspect of our distribution,” Fischer said. “Last year, about 60% of our sales were through our own web store.”

Fischer said he and Bloom spend $2,500–3,000 a year "buying the work of other publishers to resell through our web store.” Sometimes they'll make a direct trade of books with a similar price. Otherwise, he said, "we pay for people’s work up front—it’s a lot easier on the accounting.” The exchanges are a win for everyone: When people visit Half Letter’s web store to buy a book from another publisher, they discover other titles too.

Biel agreed that Microcosm has done the same. “We would trade books with other publishers,” he said, “and because we did that, literally hundreds of stores began relationships with us because we were a place to order those titles. That’s a huge strategy when you're starting out.”

Tamara Mayo, founder of Taevo Publishing, also distributes other publishers' titles, and her own, out of her office. (Following Microcosm’s example, she removed all Taevo titles from Amazon and sells exclusively through her website.) In response to Fischer’s bartering examples, she told the panel she’d been feeling “a little ashamed” of “this side hustle of selling other people's books that Taevo didn’t publish.” Now, she has decided, “it’s OK to be a hype woman for other publishers”—especially because she is serving Black-owned, independent bookstore startups that often succeed by spotlighting local and specialty niche authors.

Mayo said she joined IBPA to meet other traditional, Black-owned publishers like Taevo, then got excited about how distribution cooperatives might address “a pain point every single one of us has been facing.” Distributors serve a multitude of publishers with vastly different missions, she and the other panelists observed, and the time has come for indies to forge distribution alliances and operate as collectives in a crowded, noisy field.

“Everywhere I go, I hear either good stories about distribution or absolute horror stories,” Mayo said. “Most of the horror stories end with someone saying, ‘It was better for me just to do it on my own.’ ”