House Tour: Manufacturing and Distribution

Wow! We are back on our whirlwind publishing house tour! As we start moving, we ask you to look to your left as we quickly leap from the building to the sunny skies of the Midwest and China. Because those are close enough together to see in one view. It’s casual.

Welcome, folks, to Manufacturing and Distribution!

While this may be difficult to hear as you fork out $29.99 or more for a hardcover, the publishing industry in recent years has been operating on tightening budgets and dwindling profit margins. In such a market, it is vitally important for the industry to save every single penny, enabling continued cash flow to invest back into new books. To maximize profits, it is critical for manufacturing and distribution teams to combine the knowledge of art, editorial, and sales teams with their own skillset in order to both produce the ideal final product and ensure it gets into the hands of consumers. Any slip in this area may have a significant impact on whether or not a book is deemed financially successful.

There are multiple phases in the lifecycle of a book in which manufacturing and distribution teams must make correct choices to ensure a book’s profitability. Let’s go through a few of them, shall we?

Acquisitions Phase

Manufacturing teams are typically consulted early in the publishing process while editorial teams work through a Profit & Loss statement to determine the feasibility of picking up a title. While novels and other standard trade books are easy to budget for, because they typically do not have major design elements that would drive up the cost, books that are projected to require specialty elements like interior color printing, heavier paper, or stitched bindings get tricky. Manufacturing experts can help acquisitions teams determine if a book can be produced and distributed cheaply enough to remain profitable at the price point sales teams expect consumers to accept.  

Choosing a Printer

When it comes to printers, there are so many options to choose from both within the United States and abroad, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

American printers are more expensive. They also do not necessarily have the ability to create higher quality books, especially those with higher quality stitch binding. If they do, they may not be able to do so at a price point acceptable to the publisher. However, American publishers have an edge for any title that needs to be printed and distributed quickly. They also have an edge for any publisher (or individual title) that will gain value to the targeted consumer audience with a “Made in the U.S.A.” sticker on the front.

Overseas printers, typically in China, are cheaper for publishers to use, even when accounting for international shipping. They are also more capable of including complex design elements to the final printed and bound copy than their American counterparts. But slow international shipping does negatively impact cash flow. It also is not unheard of for shipping containers to become lost on the journey to the U.S., forcing the print and shipment process to start over and further delay the timetable. (Big yikes). 

Unfortunately, it is usually not so easy to just pick one printer and call it a day. What experts tend to do, when quality is not a question at least, is use a combination of local and foreign printers to succeed. They may use a printer in China for the initial run. If the book starts selling like hotcakes, they will place another order with that same Chinese printer to fully replenish the stock for their distributors. But, to ensure the book stays on the shelf in the meantime, they’ll also place a smaller order with a local printer. This is the best way to keep a title available to consumers while reducing costs overall.

Using Distributors

One of the most profitable periods of a book’s lifecycle is the longtail. Take, for example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Do you think that book made more money the year it came out or the ten years after?

I am hoping that was a rhetorical question. If it wasn’t for you, then the answer is the ten years after.

The longtail of a book is the period of time well after initial release when a book just sells because it is good. People who perhaps bought it when the marketing efforts were at its peak have now read it and are recommending it to friends. It has slipped out into paperback or even mass-market editions, making it cheaper for consumers to pick up. This is all with very little investment of time or marketing on the publisher’s part, making it extremely profitable. Publishers with a great backlist of books have a huge edge in the market since they can rely on these backlist titles to continue driving sales that fund new titles.  

To fully benefit from a book’s longtail, publishers must ensure that a book can continue to reach retailers and consumers, which is where distributors come into play.

Distributors are ultimately middlemen. They have warehouses, usually in the Midwest where they can more quickly reach either coast, filled with books. Though some publishers use their own distribution methods, others pay distribution services like Ingram Content Group to connect their backlist of titles and on-hand printed works with retailers.

Distributors will take a service fee, usually a pretty significant one, but it is often a cost-savings for publishers to outsource the cost of employees, warehouses, shipping, and logistics to a third-party organization. All they need to do is ensure their printers keep sending their distributors an appropriate level of stock to keep the cash flowing.

When to Use Print on Demand

Print on demand is a relatively new technology using complex printers to rapidly create books for consumers as they are wanted (see this little guy in action!). This is a great technology that has especially benefited self-publishers who may not have the capital or resources to invest a ton of money in print copies that may never sell.

Print on demand is extremely expensive. It should only be used by a publisher when they are tremendously fearful of a book running out of stock as American or international printers work on completing a larger run of copies. Though the cost may eliminate profits all together, the marketing that is received by staying on bestseller lists is significant enough to make it worthwhile in a pinch.

A final note about print on demand is that it is limited in its design capabilities. Quality products simply take time to produce. Manufacturing and distribution coordinators at a publishing house must therefore use extreme care in choosing when and from whom they order books to prevent a reliance on print on demand.

So, after all that I hope you can walk away with a newfound appreciation for manufacturing and distribution. Is she as glamorous as the editorial offices in a New York skyscraper? Not really – but she is the one that keeps the entire publishing machine moving.