Distributors are wholesalers in a specified country or region who keep stock of a publisher’s titles and sell it on to their customer base, whether trade customers (sub-wholesalers and retailers) or educational institutions. A modern distributor’s service should include a marketing element appropriate to the list in question, especially for educational and academic product for which the target market is readily identifiable. Local stock-holding, supported by the distributor’s stock control and replenishment, offers the advantage of speed to market, a factor which is becoming of paramount importance in the context of (a) online selling alongside the availability of digital media, supported by a global supply chain, with increased awareness on the part of the final customer of what is available and at what price; and (b), following the pandemic, major disruption to the previously well-established network of international book supply. Taking these factors into account, local printing including print-on-demand (POD) may play a part in agreements made with distributors.

A key advantage of a distributor is that they will take responsibility for supply into their market(s). Crucially this means that they become a hub for the publisher who is then spared direct dealings with the much wider customer base that would bring with it increased demand on resource and added requirement for collecting payments.

This point about customer base has become important in Europe post-Brexit: with the added burden and cost of administrating imports from outside the Single Market, it is reported to be unviable for retailers in e.g. Germany to order direct from the UK, as has been long-established practice for some of the larger ones. Thus the wholesaler/distributor becomes the route to market, including UK-based exporters.

In appointing a distributor, it is important to be aware of the relative strengths and activities of the companies, and of how competition between them may affect market dynamics.

It is also vital not to be lured into a distribution agreement by promises of seductively large orders: orders need to be commensurate with market possibilities, and over-ordering will store up problems for both parties.

A particular question arises in agreements with distributors as to whether they are exclusive or non-exclusive: that is, whether the publisher agrees to supply only that one distributor for the specified territory. The relevant considerations regarding the product and the territory need to be taken into account here: for trade publishers exclusive distributorships have become rarer, though they remain the norm for the major English-language markets: the US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and increasingly for India. For certain educational and academic lists exclusivity remains the only practical solution across a wider range of markets: the principle applied is that where a distributor undertakes a significant level of sales and marketing activity in support of a publisher’s titles, and is not acting solely as a key element in the supply chain, that distributor needs the assurance that their marketing activity will bring sales to them and not to a competitor.

The European Single Market gradually modified a previous system which applied particularly in mass-market paperback publishing whereby a distributor was appointed exclusively for each country. Cross-border supply e.g. from Germany to other EU states is now established, though the distributors mostly remain the main channels for market access to their respective countries.