Should I pay for the distributor package for my self-published book?

Question posted to a LinkedIn forum:

My publisher is trying to convince me to go with a distributor package to sell my self published book – through Baker & Taylor and Ingram; is this a smart move? I am not doing any marketing now.

My reply, posted January 19, 2012:

Yes, with a couple of important caveats. I’m the Consignment Buyer for an independent bookstore with six stores (I’m the Consignment / Local Author contact at two of those stores).

Consignments are tedious, time consuming, and 95% of them are not profitable for us (I would love tips on how to make consignments profitable), so we take them only from local authors as a community service. For other titles, we order only from our established accounts. Using the big distributors fits your book easily into our existing, automated ordering, return, and payment processes. (We also happen to order from Partners West, a regional distributor.)

If Ingram or B&T carry your book, we can order a copy or two from them, and then return them 6 months down the road if they haven’t sold. BUT your publisher may not tell you that WE DO NOT “BACKORDER” FROM B&T, which is how most self-published books are available from B&T. “Backorder” is NOT the same distribution that established publishers get with B&T, so it won’t make it any easier for an indie to take a chance on your book if that’s the only way we can get it from them.

And, if you go with Ingram, make sure the books are “returnable,” which I believe costs you a couple hundred dollars more. If your books are available through the print-on-demand service from Ingram Tennessee but are not returnable, we wouldn’t carry the title in our open store stock, because we can’t return the title for credit if it doesn’t sell. We’ll order non-returnable Ingram Tennessee POD books on request for specific customers, but we require prepayment, the customer can’t return it if they don’t like it, and it takes a couple of weeks to get it.

You’re going to need to do your own marketing, though. Ingram and B&T are distributors, not marketers. They make your (or your publisher’s) marketing efforts pay off more, but you may still find yourself calling indie bookstores and asking if we can try out your books. Just make sure they’re not B&T “backorder,” and that the bookstore can return them to the distributor for full credit if they don’t sell.

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