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Participating in the book trade

Posted in Distribution, and Just for Writers

All kinds of industries

I've been a business entrepreneur all my life, primarily in the software and IT industries. In addition to building companies, I've had to build a working understanding of other industries and sectors in order to provide services for them: logistics, health care, educational testing, banks, brokerages, and several others. My businesses were small and mid-size, but most of my clients were large Fortune-500 sorts of companies.

I've prided myself on being able to dive into a new-to-me industry and burrow down into its basic gears and levers, so that I can analyze how it works. In many cases, I've had to understand it well enough to create software for it that would cover all situations, and that takes a deep understanding of what can happen.

So when I decided to become an independent author, I was cocky about applying the same acumen to the book trade. After all, I wanted to know all about how it worked and how to match my new business with it successfully. That naive expectation didn't last long.

Here's the problem…

Integrating new participants into an existing industry

When a new player joins an industry, say, a new trucking firm (that little gear on the top right), he knows he has to find out how the entrenched services work — how to book freight across a national network, how to present tariffs, how to make his services known, and so forth. He has a learning curve to ascend.

The industry as a whole, especially its large players, expect this. They know they will be welcoming new small trucking firms all the time, and there are industry magazines at all levels, conferences, and other supports in place for them. They believe in economies of scale — the more small trucking firms there are, the more flexible everyone's business decisions for freight shipping will be, and the more internal business-to-business customers will be created for industry services (insurance, digital technology, etc.)

Not all industries self-organize in this way.

As little connection as possible for new industry participants

As a micro-publisher, a newcomer to the book trade, I can tell you it strikes me more like this.

The entrenched distribution network has small points of entrance that are available to small players, but the concept of an abundance of small players, arriving all the time, that need support and guidance is more than a bit alien to them. There seems to be little sense that new players constitute opportunities for the existing industry and its B2B participants.

Outside the older industry, new providers have stepped up, especially in the independent author movement, to more-or-less bypass this barrier. As an indie, you can publish directly to some end-of-chain retailers, disintermediating the primary distribution networks, and some new distributors are offering a way in to other retailers, as a sort of end run around the existing distribution networks.

But for those of us who wish to also participate directly in the existing distribution networks, we find we need to create almost the entire missing apparatus of integration for new players that other industries provide. As individuals or micro-companies.

That's as if the new trucking firm above had to create the industry magazines, conferences, workshops, and all the other support and guidance materials, based on the tantalizing hints of players already in the industry.

And, in fact, that's what's going on, facilitated by a few insiders such as Ingram and various groups of indie authors, such as the Alliance of Independent Authors. This is time-consuming and frustrating.

The problem is, we don't know what we don't know. And even the industry players that want to participate with the new players don't understand our ignorance about their standard practices, their customs, and the special privileges of their largest players.

I've had my share of frustrating conversations with providers of ONIX records, with providers of ISBN records, and so forth — not on the grounds of price, but just on the basic definitions and expectations. You see, they don't need to think about that for the entrenched players, and haven't prepared for anyone else.

Library distribution, as a subset, is just as bad or worse. The barriers to MARC record creation by newcomers is quite a sour joke, especially when compared to the results when so-called professionals create them.

As someone with a data processing background, I can not tell you how infuriated I am at being forced to tolerate flawed formatting for metadata like book descriptions, flawed MARC records, the stocking of only partial entries in an entire series, missing metadata like book covers, barriers to revised and corrected information, lack of sufficiently detailed standards for categorization,  and so forth. As an outsider, it's difficult for me to tell how much of this is my own fault, how much a breakdown in the existing handoffs, and how much an insufficiency of data transmission and other industry definition standards — I strongly suspect all three. I can't even track books at the end-of-chain retailers with any reliability, since the lists of such retailers from the various ad hoc distributors are persistently out-of-date.

And, boy, how I wish I knew how all the money flowed within the industry so that I could understand how the incentives worked between the players.

What a way to run an industry!

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  1. But Karen, it’s CULTURE! Surely you don’t expect ART to follow BUSINESS rules, do you?

    All the big publishers are owned by international consortiums of business groups – and they do the doublespeak. For their corporate bosses. Who may some day decide their big executive bonuses aren’t worth it.

    They are terrified their insides will become known – because those insides are in very bad shape.

    January 18, 2017
  2. Karen, as a retired IT professional, I can SO relate to this. I was used to constant change in the IT world, but I thought I left that behind me. Not! The more things change, the more they stay the same?

    February 7, 2017

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