Every once and a while, somebody asks me what I have against full service book distributors. The question could as easily be what favorable things I have to say about them, and I can certainly think of a few things. The context for this post is my preferred publishing method of the last four years, which is using Lightning Source POD to print and distribute my books both directly and through Ingram. Ingram Book Distribution, despite the name, is usually called a wholesaler in the trade.
Whether you call Ingram a book wholesaler or a book distributor often depends on whether you are a publisher or a bookstore, but nobody (that I'm aware of) calls them a full service distributor. Note that Ingram does offer many of the same services as a full service book distributor, but for additional fees. On the other hand, Ingram generally expects a 55% discount from publishers (they pay the publisher 45% of the cover price) while full service book distributors typically expect a discount in the 65% to 75% range (they pay the publisher from 25% to 35% of the cover price). Note that shipping costs make a big difference in the math, and some distributors pay for shipping.
Full service book distributors usually demand an exclusive relationship. There are some logical reasons for this relating to returns and to ordering confusion, but the one reason I don't accept is that they are investing heavily in the publishers titles. Spending some money listing your titles in their catalog and getting them into stores is their business, it's what you're giving them the big discount for, so they aren't doing you a favor. If you are looking to get your books into a specific market, like specialty retailers rather than bookstores, you should look for a boutique wholesaler in that area, rather than a full service book distributor. For example, a specialty wholesaler who works with pet stores will do a better job getting your titles on their shelves, won't ask for an exclusive relationship with the book trade, and may even pay a better price for your books.
I think that the main confusion that comes in with full service book distributors is over marketing. Many self-publishers believe that they have done everything right, except marketing, and figure that a distributor can do that for them. Unfortunately, that's not the distributors job. A book distributor has a sales force to get your titles into bookstores, not to market them to consumers. Getting your books on bookstore shelves or chain warehouses beats having them sitting in the garage, but without marketing, they are probably going to end up right back in the garage, somewhat worse for the wear. Some distributors, through their catalogs, may have success selling your books in very specific markets, such as academia, where librarians and professors may look at their catalog and order books based on their descriptions. If your titles have academic potential and the full service distributor you are considering at has a strong academic catalog, it may be good match.
The reason Lighting Source's POD distribution deal works so well for me is I never targeted bookstore shelves. My marketing steers customers to Amazon or to special ordering through their local bookstore, and it allows me to offer low cover prices, set a short discount for distribution, and earn a good living. If I move from POD back to offset printing in the future, I'll have to redesign my books for bookstore shelves, re-price them to absorb the distribution discount and returns risk. The decision I would have to make at that point would be whether to go direct with Barnes&Noble, Borders, Amazon, et al at that point, or sign with a full service book distributor to offload all of the warehousing and billing work. Whether a distributor would get my books onto the shelves at the chains any better than I could remains a question mark, but it certainly makes no difference at online bookstores.