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Distribution | Inside Publishing



Chris Holifield 2017Although it might be the least glamorous of subjects, distribution plays a key part in getting your book into the bookshop, so it’s as well to have some understanding of how it works.

Most of the big publishers have their own distribution centres, with large warehouses to store the stock. Smaller publishers either distribute their books through a specialist distributor or use one of the big publishers’ facilities. Self-publishers go through one of the big distributors too, usually as part of the print on demand process.

Book distribution used to rely heavily on manual handling and was thus quite labour-intensive. A stable and quite large labour force worked in 'the warehouse', which would be at a location well away from the publishers’ expensive metropolitan head offices.

The introduction of new technology

With the advent of technology all this has been swept away. Efficient distribution demands substantial investment in modern warehouses, computer systems, fork-lift trucks and highly automated order-picking and despatch procedures. Only large companies with deep pockets can aspire to this, so it’s the corporate publishers and the specialist distributors who have tended to survive.

But not all manually-based facilities have bitten the dust. I have, relatively recently, seen a well-organised, stable distribution centre which worked, rather successfully, in the old-fashioned way. Although this costs more in terms of paying the workforce, it needs less investment and things are less likely to go badly wrong.

The introduction of the new technology has not been easy. Horror stories are legion of warehouses which seized up when a new computer system or an automated picking line were introduced. For vulnerable and poorly-capitalised small publishers it can literally spell bankruptcy if their distributor goes belly-up and they are unable to fulfil orders for their books.

In the meantime there have been a number of ways in which new technology and the rise of online sales have affected distribution, which are reflected in thisi article by Jake Rheude, The Future of Distribution.


Publishers often used to store their books in bulk long-term and more active short-term warehouses, bringing stock forward to the picking area as required. Now the stock location and picking instructions are computer-controlled, so it is more common to hold all the stock relating to a particular title in one location, with bigger picking areas to deal with titles currently in demand.

Just-in-time ordering procedures and more efficient control of overstocks mean that most publishers no longer hold large stocks of individual titles in their warehouses. It is cheaper in the long run, and less risky, to print fewer books and reprint more often. Print on demand is also affecting the way that publishers handle their backlists, so they no longer hold small stocks of lots of slow-moving backlist stock.

For self-publishers, this has transformed the possibilities, because no-one needs to fill their garage with a big print-run.

Deliveries to the warehouse

Printers arrange for the stock which they have printed on the publisher’s’ instructions to be delivered to the warehouse as part of the service they provide. It all has to be booked in in advance, or it will usually not be accepted and it will arrive on pallets to be handled by the warehouse's equipment. When the stock arrives it is assigned a stock location by the computer and will then be moved to that position, which can be on a high ‘shelf’, using huge fork-lift trucks.

Picking and packing

Computerised order- picking and automated packing lines have replaced the order-picking staff in warehouses. The latest technology is impressive. At its best it can deliver the books as packages ready to go out without the books being touched by hand. Greater despatch speed and considerable operating cost reductions are the benefits technology can provide.


The book parcels are then fed into the distribution system, using whatever combination of postal and special delivery services the publisher has opted for. Some chain bookshops, such as W H Smith in the UK, want most stock to go through their own warehouse, which gives them more control but can cause further delays in getting a book into the shops.

Many independent bookshops order their books through wholesalers, such as Gardners and Bertrams in the UK, and Ingram in the US. These wholesalers carry vast stocks and deliver very quickly, in the UK within 24 hours. If you order a book in a bookshop, it will be delivered specially for you.  Bookstore orders are handled electronically and passed very quickly down the line to the wholesaler or to the publisher’s warehouse. These days many of these orders are for books which are printed using print on demand, and the wholesalers work with print on demand printers or offer this service themselves.

Once the book has been delivered to the bookshop, it still needs to be unpacked in the stock room and put on display – an obvious point to make perhaps, but there can be delays at this point if the staff are busy.

Does distribution matter to the author?

From the author’s point of view, it’s important that your publisher has an efficient warehouse and distribution network. Your book needs to be in the shops before it can sell. Small publishers are vulnerable to poor service from their distributors, but one of the benefits of larger publishers is that they have usually been forced by the demands of their business to invest to heavily to achieve a good distribution service.

If you are self-publishing, it's worth considering whether the organisation handling your book has a good distribution system.

Chris Holifield