Once upon a time, many centuries ago – in 1440 to be exact – a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press. Utilizing movable print in large quantities his press was able to print upwards of 3,600 pages per day in contrast to the approximately forty pages that could be done by hand-printing. It was a huge step forward and it revolutionized the ability to reproduce and disseminate books. For many centuries the printing press remained the centre of the book publishing industry. And while there were advances and improvements to the original Gutenberg Press, his invention, or a form of it, remained very much the status quo for almost seven centuries.

Recent times however have seen major changes. In fact, like an announcer on the London underground when a train has reached its destination, it really is a case of ‘all change please, all change.’ Given how static things were in the printing industry for so long it is almost hard to follow the developments that have occurred as a result of the digital revolution. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the seven things that you should know about book distribution companies and options available to you in 2021 (and indeed beyond).

1. Publishing and printing are no longer synonymous

There was a time not so long ago when publishing something meant printing it. That is no longer the case. And while it can still mean that, the digital revolution now means that publishing can be a purely electronic event. Yes, you still get a book – but unlike the traditional book, they can now be e-books produced for Kindle and other e-reading apps. 

2. Barriers to entry are much lower

Anyone can write a book – that is and has always been the case. What has changed significantly though is that in the past, you could write a book, but ensuring that is could be read was very difficult. The cost of production was huge, but beyond that, distribution was a nightmare. In short, if you didn’t have a deal with a major publisher your book would never go anywhere. That scenario has changed radically and suddenly self-publishing is not only viable, it’s also quite an attractive route for many people. Quite simply, the biggest barrier to entry now is your motivation to write the actual book. Beyond that production and distribution can be done on a book-by-book basis using print on demand solutions.

3. There are platforms for everyone

Traditionally books were things that you read. Now they can be things that you listen to as well. The audiobook has grown significantly in popularity in the last while with sales of this format increasing exponentially over the last decade. According to more than 55 million people listen to an audiobook each year and that number continues to grow. What is interesting is that this is now another distribution channel and one that makes books available to a whole new group of people (the blind, the illiterate, the dyslexic or even just those people who traditionally were too busy to read).

4. Still scope for the good old days

Just because there has been a lot of change, doesn’t mean that the old ways of book publishing and distribution deals have gone. For many the allure of becoming a modern day Agatha Christie or John Steinbeck is what it is all about. For those folk, sending manuscripts to publishers and hoping to be signed will always be the answer. The reality is that major publishers receive an extraordinary number of unsolicited manuscripts annually. Reports suggest that a 2014 survey of authors by Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest showed that approximately 13.4% of all manuscripts submitted will end up published. So the chances are there but they are not high. What is guaranteed however is that if you choose to self-publish, no matter how good or bad your work is; it will definitely end up published!

5. Print on demand is a game-changer 

Wikipedia defines it well when it describes print on demand calling it a “business process in which book copies are not printed until the company receives an order, allowing prints of single or small quantities.” It is a wonderful model but by itself, it doesn’t solve the self-publishing author’s distribution problem. You still need to sell work to your community and networks to acquire orders and then do the delivery. But that changes too when you realise that companies that offer to print on demand will now also take care of the fulfilment side of the deal. So if you like the POD model, don’t just find somebody who will print your book, make sure your partner is an outfit that offers both book printing and distribution services. This means they only print a book when a retailer or wholesaler orders it and they then ship and package for you.

6. Mega-stores are in decline

The 1990s saw the rise of mega-bookstores. Book hypermarkets if you will. But these mega-stores are now in decline according to a recent survey on book distribution trends, which showed that independent bookstores are firmly on the rise. While this might be a pain for the big publishers who prefer to negotiate deals centrally in big numbers, it is great news for smaller publishers and self-publishers who can build key relationships with the people who sell their work and in turn the people who read it. A former worker at San Francisco’s famous independent bookstore, City Lights commented on Twitter on the importance of distribution when he wrote, “book publishing is hard on many levels but the most important deadline is distribution. Bookstores have your book set for counter space near the front door, when that book is late is throws everything off. Chain stores especially.” 

7.There is money in independent publishing

For so long self-publishing was seen as a last resort. Not anymore! For a long time, Amazon was the only real platform in town for the independents, but that has all started to change with Apple and Google both making plays to position themselves as attractive options. Competition between these major platforms is a huge win for writers as it means bigger market-places and audiences. It also means that those self-publishing in South Africa suddenly have access to a global market and a genuine opportunity to make some real cash. As self-publishing author Robert C Jacobson points out on Twitter, the more distribution points there are; the better chance you have of going viral. “As an independent author, reviews of my book are critical for expanded reach and distribution. If you have not already done so, can I count on you to post your review in the next week?” he asks.

In a time of change, it is the nimble who are able to adapt and thrive. After operating largely unchanged for centuries the publishing industry is currently in the throes of its most significant changes for centuries. The fourth industrial revolution coupled with the effects of the Covid pandemic have meant both major changes and new opportunities in the world of publishing. Not just how books are produced, but how they are distributed and purchased. Perhaps now is the time for you to finally commit to sitting down and writing that novel that you have been dreaming of producing since those halcyon University days.   

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