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Indie Magazines and Distributors

I’ve long been thinking about working with distributors to get Offscreen in more brick and mortar stores. With issue No5, I’ve finally made a decision; here are my combined thoughts on the topic of distribution for indie mags.

In the publishing world, distributors work as middlemen between publishers and retail shops by purchasing publications in large numbers and then supplying them to the shops in their network. The benefits for the shops are that they can choose from a large catalogue of publications and have them all shipped to them by one point of contact. For the publisher the advantages are that distributors usually order a bulk quantity, promote the magazines to shops and organise the shipping to those shops. Distributors take a cut of the cover price (usually 15-30%) that comes out of the publisher’s end. So if a magazine sells for $20, the shop will usually keep $8 (40%), the distributor gets $4 (20%) and the remaining $8 go to the publisher.

Frankly, I have a very “vigilant” attitude towards distributors. Most of the large distribution houses have a complicated, overly bureaucratic process that involves a lot of paperwork and gives little or no oversight to publishers where and how their products are sold.

I understand that managing a lot of products and stores can get complicated, but most of them seem to still live in a different century. One distributor’s contract (an attached 7 MB Word document) made clear that it may take 365 days for final payments to come through — mailed in form of a cheque. How are publishers supposed to budget with this? Reading through these conditions, you wouldn’t think distributors actually depend on us publishers to make money.

Wastage is another huge issue for me. Distributors usually hope to stock as many shops as they possibly can, because, well, they get kickbacks from every copy sold. The problem is that they may supply many different shops with, say, 500 copies in total, but due to poor research or market conditions only end up selling 300 of them. The remaining 200 copies will be destroyed since it’s almost always too expensive to return them to the publisher. This model is not just unsustainable, I simply hate the idea of copies of Offscreen being shredded in stores while it sells out online.

Like so many other aspects of the publishing world, coming from the web industry a lot of their processes seem strangely outdated. I don’t like pointing fingers, but do I need to say more than refer you to this distributor’s website?

With all of this in mind I was very hesitant to partner up with a distributor. After much discussion with other publishers, I was referred to two new-ish distributors that stood out: Antenne in the UK and New Distribution House in the US/Canada. Whether they really understand the indie publishing world and try to break with antiquated traditions that treat publishers as if they were at the bottom of the food chain remains to be seen, but so far I’ve had really constructive conversations with both of them.

And so, with the launch of issue No5, for the first time in Offscreen’s short history, I will be working with two distributors in order to get the mag into more local book shops across the UK, Europe, the US and Canada. As much as this move is about selling more copies and expanding our readership, my highest priorities will continue to be being in control and making it sustainable.

With around 90% of Offscreen’s readers buying their copy online, there’s also the question of whether brick and mortar stores remain relevant for the success of a print magazine. The answer — at least in Offscreen’s case — is probably “no”. However, there are few things I find more inspiring and enjoyable than browsing through a high-quality, well-stocked book store, and of course, it’s exciting and humbling to see Offscreen on shelves around the world. For me that’s incentive enough to partner up with distributors and support these local shop owners.

UPDATE: please see this post for the latest on distributors.

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