The chain gang

Last week I wrote that if content is king, access is now the executive. What then of distribution? Without it, access is irrelevant and content simply withers—alone and unloved. The issue of getting books to consumers (and vice versa) has been raised twice at recent events—and on each occasion from a slightly different perspective. At The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference Tiffany Tasker from SuperAwesome asked the audience what their digital distribution strategy was (outside of e-books); and at the Literary Platform’s “Zero to Hero” event last week, publishers operating in niche areas lamented the lack of wider distribution for their work. The connection? As what we do changes, so must the routes we have to consumers.

Distribution can be seen as something remote and invisible, but in truth it is all around. Waterstones is key for publishers not simply because of its buying power, but because its 250 shops act as mini-distribution hubs—taking books to customers and bringing readers face to face with books. The apps market has largely failed for publishers precisely because it cannot do what high street booksellers do so well, get the right content in front of the right customer at the right time: digital offers the promise of solving all distribution problems, but in reality, in an environment where everyone can distribute everything all of the time, it also raises new issues.

For trade publishers, distribution is an ever present concern. But the system—complicated though it may be by a network of distribution centres, wholesalers, and retailer hubs—mostly works, and when it stops working we tend to find out quickly. Yet all of the big publishers, including Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins, are investing in their physical distribution centres, partly to keep up with changes in demand and levels of consumption. In the academic sector, as PA president Stephen Barr told us, the role publishers play in disseminating electronic texts has become a vital weapon in their efforts to remain relevant. However, for publishers working in niche areas or on new types of (often digital) product there are fewer good solutions. Many innovative books I’ve seen launched over the past few years have struggled not because they were bad, but because they have been unable to get in front of audiences large enough. Equally, many niche books stay in their nooks because breaking out (of them) can be hard to do.

If content is king, access the executive, then distribution is the infrastructure. Tasker’s question was smart because it puts the onus on publishers. If we want to find new audiences and “look beyond the book”, then we need to open up new supply routes. Simply put, if you don’t build it, then they won’t be able to come.