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Zine Distribution: The Realities
by Daniel Sinker
excerpted from Punk Planet

For about a year and a half, I've tried to write a DIY Files about getting your zine distributed. Each time I would finally feel like I had the entire subject covered, something unexpected would happen with a distributor, and I'd put off writing the piece until the next issue... when some new distribution twist would rear its ugly head. Seeing as this is the last self-distributed issue of Punk Planet, I think I can safely write the final chapter in the distribution game.
I've also recruited a couple of people I've met along the way to assist me in this article. One of them, David Hirschi has written a sidebar called Negotiating the Labyrinth which lets you see the distribution game from the point of view of someone that works at a distributor. The other person, Dok Kaper (his name has been changed to protect the innocent), will be supplying point/counterpoint to my article; if you see a little number in the article (it looks like this 1) then that means to go check out what the good Doktor has to say. That said, let's go...

Consider This a Warning... Distribution is a living hell.

There is nothing fun, rewarding, or even mildly amusing about getting distribution for your zine. It's exhausting, frustrating, and demeaning. You spend hours on the phone, hours staring wistfully into an empty PO Box, and hours trying to figure out where that money you don't have because you've never been paid is going to come from.
But, the reality is that until someone comes up with a better system, if you want to get your zine read by people all over the globe, people that you can't easily get your zine to by yourself, you're going to have to face the grim reality of distribution. 1

First Contact

Your initial contact with a distributor may shape your relationship with them for all time. Make sure you get off on the right foot. That means, whatever you do, DON'T CALL THEM BEFORE YOU MAIL THEM YOUR ZINE. Distributors are busy people. Buyers for distributors are even busier. The buyers I've talked to are overworked, underpaid, and usually have piles of zines next to their desks as tall as they are. The last thing a buyer wants to hear is your voice on the other end of the phone asking her if she'd like to see a copy of your zine. Of course she doesn't! She's got 7000 other zines next to her desk to read. All the buyer on the other end of the phone is going to tell you is to mail it in and she'll get around to looking at it when she's got time. She'll then hang up the phone and page every mail clerk in the office to make sure that she NEVER gets your zine.
Do I sound paranoid? I may be, but either something like that's happening or there are hundreds of copies of early issues of Punk Planet caught in some parallel dimension, because every follow-up call I ever made to those buyers were always met with the same response: "I never received your magazine. Could you send it again?" They'll never receive that one either.
Beat the buyer at their own game: just send your magazine in unannounced.
Okay, not TOTALLY unannounced. Like I said, buyers have a shitload of shitty magazines to dig through so you need to do whatever it takes to make yours stand out quickly. The best move you can do is put together a one-sheet that you include with a copy of your zine.
What's a one-sheet? It's a single sheet of paper with all the pertinent information about your zine. It allows a buyer to get a good feel for your zine quickly and will serve to draw her into the zine itself. A good one-sheet should include some brief historical information (when did it start? who started it? why did it start?), information about the content (what's in the zine? why is it different than all the others?), information about the printing (current print run, how frequently it comes out, approximate page count what format (paper, newsprint etc..)), and any other information that sets your zine apart (you say you write it with your toes? you've got Larry Livermore writing columns?).
The other thing you should include on your one-sheet is any favorable reviews you've ever gotten. Reviews from 'larger' zines (Factsheet Five, Maximum, Punk Planet, all that...) help even more, because there's a good chance that the buyer has actually HEARD of those.
Make your one-sheet look attractive. Remember, it's the equivalent of a bouquet of flowers on a first date. If the buyer likes what they see on a one sheet, they're going to look even more favorably on the zine itself. They may even spend some actual time looking at the zine, instead of just skimming through it.
Now staple that one-sheet (those suckers like to wander off) to the current issues of your zine and stuff 'em into an envelope along with a few back-issues.
"Whatyoutalkin'boutWillis — did you just say back issues?" 2

Back Issues: The Big Catch 22...

Getting your zine distributed on an issue #1 is pretty damn hard to do. Sure, you're first issue may be incredible. It may be unstoppable. It may be better than SHAKE magazine (although I doubt it). But the fact of the matter is, distributors want to be sure that you can produce more than one issue. They may pick you up on the strength of a single issue, but they're going to feel a lot more comfortable if you can prove to them that you can pull it off more than once. If you want to make your distributor really happy, prove to them that you can come out on a regular basis. This is also your best bet on getting paid (more on the elusive concept of getting paid in a while).
Yes, your best chance of picking up distribution is to have a couple of issues under your belt. Sure, it means that you've got extra issues of the first few issues of your magazine (we've probably got close to a thousand copies of Punk Planet #1 sitting around in a recycling center somewhere), but you'll see things pick up after a few issues. As much as we'd all like to think that quality is job one, for distributors consistency makes the world go around. 3
When you really think about it, putting out a consistent zine is really IS more important than putting out an incredible issue and then sitting around for months and months (years anyone?) assembling another issue. Sure, it may sound like a good idea, but by the time you get the next issue out, you've lost almost all the steam you had from your first issue. Do as good a job as you can, but get it out in a timely manner goddamnit. The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the better your zine gets. Like they say, practice makes perfect.

First Contact Part Two: The Follow-up Call

Wait at least two weeks before you pick up that phone! Sure, you want to find out if they've seen your zine. Sure, it's the greatest thing since SHAKE (yeah, right). Sure, the distro's buyer should have run to the mailbox every day just on the off chance that you WOULD send one to her. But remember that big stack of magazines I was telling you about? Your magazine is sandwiched somewhere at the bottom between yet another leather fetish glossy and a mountain biking rag. Give the damn buyer a chance to dig your diamond out of that shit pile. Two weeks may be enough time, but don't be surprised if an exasperated buyer apologizes and says that she hasn't had a chance to take a look at it. Even though you won't be blacklisted for calling too early, you may want to wait about two more weeks before calling again. Actually, wait three.
Have faith, grasshopper, eventually she will look at your zine. Of course, she probably won't remember it when you call her. Don't be surprised if you find yourself having to describe the cover, the contents, everything about the zine to jog the buyer's memory. It's not that they didn't like it, it's just that they saw about 5000 other zines on the same day (the funniest response I've ever gotten was after describing everything, the title, the cover, what was on almost every page, and had virtually given up, the buyer said "oh, yeah, the one with the page numbers... I'll take 200.").
Even after all you've gone through, there's a very good chance that the buyer is going to tell you that while she liked your zine, she just can't carry it right now. Yes, its a brush off, but it doesn't mean the end of the world. Keep sending her your latest issues of your zine. Don't call after every one, but be sure to keep in touch. Remember what I said about consistency? After seeing a few more issues coming out on a regular basis, and hopefully getting better, she may very well pick the zine up! 4

So You've Been Picked Up...

Once you've been picked up, a distributor may do one of two things. They may just outright ask for a bunch of magazines (don't be surprised if they order a really small number like 25 to start, if your magazine is any good, it'll go up), or they may mail you a contract first.
"Wait... what's this about a contract????"
Don't get your knickers in a twist, big guy. Yes, some distributors, especially distributors that specialize in magazines (as opposed to music distributors that carry zines too) will send you a contract. It's not that big a deal. A standard distribution contract deals with a number of points. Here's the main ones, and what they mean to you:

1) Payment. Many distributors will want to negotiate terms with you that are different from your regular consignment rates. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth it. The contract they send you will have prices and some sort of payment times on them. Remember, it's a contract, so you can change anything you want on it! Of course, they have to agree to your changes, but if they're reasonable and you are too, you can probably agree on something. The average distribution payment is 55 percent off the cover price and payment 60 days after receipt of next issue. Through negotiations, I've gotten some distributors to go up to 50 percent, but it took a lot of work. However, that 60 days thing is almost impossible to move up. 5 If a distributor does agree to it, they're probably lying to you (yes, they do that. A lot. A whole lot.).
Whoa, that's a bunch of numbers, what does it all mean? It means that if you're magazine costs $2 at shows or in a store (that's your cover price, whether it's really on your cover or not (it should be!!)) at 50 percent off you're cover price it's going to cost $1 to distributors. 55 percent would mean 90¢ per issue.
Why do distributors take such a big cut? Because the distributor has to turn around and sell it back to a store (or sometimes even another distributor) at a price that is going to make the store a bit of a profit, while still making the distributor a little profit too.
So when do you get that payment? As much as you'd like to get paid immediately, you have to wait for your next issue to come out, PLUS an additional 60 days before you can start bitching to get paid. Why is that? It's because most stores don't process returns until they receive the next issue of a given zine. It takes everyone a while to process those returns, and then it takes your distributor a while to process the processed returns. The whole return dance is going to take at least 60 days after your next issue. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

2) Returns. Most big distributors won't return full copies of your magazine. Some will let you ask, but there's a good chance the stores they're selling to won't do it. Your best bet is to ask for covers back, that way you can count 'em up & hold them in your hands, and know that the amount they returned to you is the amount they're really deducting. Plus, you don't get stuck with ratty old back issues. However, the really big distributors will only agree to "affidavit returns" what this means is that the distributor sends you sheet after sheet of lists of returns from your zine. Yes, it's a pretty shady thing, and I don't like it at all, but it's the ropes kid. 6
One word about affidavit returns. You're going to be getting little slips of paper from your distributor every few weeks with returns listed on them. READ AND SAVE THOSE SHEETS. There have been times where I've caught mistakes on the return sheet. You can call your rep at the distributor and tell them that there was a screw up (whether it really was a screw up or an attempt to screw you is up for grabs), and they'll adjust your account accordingly. If you don't check 'em and call them on it, it's your loss.
The thing to remember about returns, and it sounds pretty stupid but I'm going to say it anyway, YOU DON'T GET PAID FOR RETURNED COPIES!! If a distributor wants 1000 copies of your magazine, don't go out & score the cocaine and blow jobs yet. The zine may only have a sellthrough (distributor jargon for how many magazines actually sold) of 40 percent, which means that you only get paid for 400 magazines (more about ACTUALLY getting paid for those magazines later). Surprising as it may sound, a good sellthrough percentage is only about 60 to 70 percent. Expect to sell about that many through distributors, and have the rest counted as returns.

3) Bar-codes. Most larger distributors need a bar-code on your zine in order to get their computers to work right, and to cater to stores that have bar-code scanners. The distributor is going to fight you tooth & nail to get you to put a bar-code on your zine. If you want one, then you've got no problems. Your distributor is going to do all the legwork for you and can probably score you a pretty good deal on a bar-code. Yes, as strange as it may sound, you have to BUY a bar-code. They cost a few hundred bucks to get, but it's yours forever.
If you don't want to have a bar-code printed on your zine (lets face it, they're ugly), the distributor is going to charge you for putting a bar-code sticker on your zine. They charge somewhere between ten and twenty-five cents EACH MAGAZINE for this service. Do the math on that. It means that pretty quickly it's actually cheaper to buy the bar-code and be done with it. It sucks, but again, you wanted the distro and you don't want the bar-code on your zine, so you pay the price.

4) Distribution Rights: This is a section where the distributor explains where they will distribute your magazine, while all distributor sell to a ton of independent stores, this section of your contract mostly deals with what chain stores your zine would go to. Make sure that nowhere on your contract it says anything about an exclusive distribution deal!! Exclusives fuck you up. The distributor has all the power and you have none. Not many distributors have exclusive rights anywhere. Stay away from those that do.
Remember, if you don't want your zine going into chains, they don't have to. If your contract says anything about going into chain stores, you can cross that section right out. The distributor will probably groan a little, but respect your wishes.

5) Other Charges: Some distributors will charge you for other things. The biggest rip-off a distributor can try to pull over on you is something called "re-shipping". What that means is that the distributor charges you to ship your magazine to the stores they distribute to. It's a totally fucked up charge (they charge you to ship them, even if the store doesn't sell any), and I'd recommend negotiating it out of your contract, or not going with a distributor that tries to charge you for re-shipping.

The most important thing to remember about your contract is that it is just that, a contract. The Webster's Dictionary that I keep next to my desk defines a contract as "An agreement between two or more people to do something, especially one formally set forth in writing and enforceable by law." A contract is an AGREEMENT. That means that if there's anything you object to in your contract (be it payment terms, chain stores, or whatever...), you have the right to negotiate something that both you and your distributor agree to. I've managed to lower percentages, restrict places where Punk Planet can go to, and even enact a late-payment fine by negotiating contracts with distributors. Another important part in that definition of a contract is that it's enforceable by law. That means that if your distributor doesn't pay you when they say they're going to, in theory you could sue them for breach of contract. Most of the time that's not going to be feasible, but you can always throw that weight around if things get really awful (I never have). However, that's a two way street; if you break some part of the contract, your distributor could have you by the balls.

Your New Life With Your Distributor

So you got the call, you signed the contract, you sent the issues, everything's coolio now, right? Wrong. Now is the time that your real relationship with your distributor starts.
The relationship you have with your distributor can spell success or failure for your zine at that distro company. If you get along well with your representative at the distributor, they're going to really push your magazine to their stores and make sure that things are going smoothly for you as far as payment goes. And yes, exactly the opposite happens when you don't get along with your rep.
Keep in touch with your rep. Don't bug them every day, but don't just call to get the next issue's order. Let them know what's happening with your zine, what people are saying about it, what's going to be in upcoming issues. Ask them for their opinion on things. Most reps won't read your zine, but if they think that you're going to ask them about it, they'll start reading it, which will help them sell it to stores too!
I can't stress enough how important it is to have a rep on your side. Having a rep that doesn't like you or your zine makes everything a nightmare. Punk Planet has had such a bad relationship with one of our distributors (we've recently dropped them HAW HAW!) that the last time I checked their on-line catalog, we weren't even in it! Trying to deal with difficult distributors totally saps your energy. You have to call them all the time, you have to fax them mean letters, you have to be the consummate advocate for your zine.
However, even the best rep can't be on constant watch for your zine and what's best for it, so it's up to you to ask the right questions. Any distributor can supply you with a list of what stores your zine is going to, how many they're taking, and how many they're returning. In a perfect world, your rep would be watching this and adjusting their order accordingly. It ain't a perfect world, it's best if you keep an eye on your list, and if you see a store that is always selling out of your zine or another one that is only selling two copies, to let your rep know to adjust those stores accordingly.
Sometimes you can have a great relationship with your rep., but then they leave the company and you find that you don't get along so well with the new person. That's exactly what's happened with Punk Planet at a couple of different distributors. When we first signed on with them, I got along swimmingly with the rep. Thusly, we got paid more or less on time, the zines sold a phenomenal amount, their orders kept going up, and everyone was happy. Then the reps quit and our orders have either been stagnant, never increasing past the point that the good rep got them to or, even worse, going down. That's a bad situation to get caught up in and once you're in it, there's very little you can do about it. The best move you can make to get in better with the new rep is to try and start over. Apologize for starting out on the wrong foot, and re-introduce yourself and your zine. Remember, the rep may have never seen your zine, since he started after you had already been picked up. Offer to send him some back-issues so he can get a feel for your zine. You may feel like a dork doing it, but remember what I said about being in good with your distributor. Not only does it make things go more smoothly in general, it is also your biggest asset in the ultimate distribution mess: getting paid.

Getting Paid

Getting all this great distribution has made your little zine go from being distributed in your town to being distributed all over the globe, that's great, but it also means that your printing costs as well as your shipping costs. have gone up. You've got bills to pay, and you need to get paid to pay 'em.
In a perfect world, your distributor would pay you 60 days after the receipt of your next issue, just like they said they would in their contract. Once again (say it with me now) IT AIN'T A PERFECT WORLD! Getting paid by your distributor is the most time consuming, annoying son-of-a-bitch you will ever know.
Good distributor or bad distributor, there isn't a single one that I've ever come across that pays on time. Some distributors pay consistently, but late. Other distributors barely pay you at all.
That said, it's up to you to be eternally vigilant in order to get paid. Keep track of when you shipped your zines to the distributor. If you shipped via UPS, get the tracking number and call to find out when the distributor received it. Once you know, run to your calendar and mark down 60 days later (if that's the payment terms your contract specified, if it isn't mark down the number of days that it DID specify). Once that date comes up, call up the distributor and let them know that they should be issuing you a check soon. If you don't get your check in a week or so, call them again. Keep calling them until you get your check. Find out who your accounts payable person is (that's the person at the distributor that's in charge of cutting your check). Start calling and asking for them if you're calling about getting paid, instead of going through your rep.
Getting paid is the one situation where the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. If you hound them for your payment, you'll eventually get it. If you don't, you won't. I'm serious. I had one distributor not pay Punk Planet for an entire year just because I didn't call them up and demand payment. Silly me, I expected them to adhere to their contract. I learned from that. You've got to keep on your distributors if you want to get paid. End of story.
If things get really out of hand remember that you signed a contract. If your distributor doesn't pay you according to the terms that both of you agreed to, you have the law on your side. Unless you're a lawyer or you're friends with one of have one in your family, you're probably not going to be able to afford going the legal route, but your distributor doesn't have to know that. See if they'll call your bluff; they know they're breaking the law, they're just banking on the fact that you don't. Now you do.
Perhaps the most important element to getting your zine distributed is keeping your eyes, ears and mind open. No distributor is perfect and no distributor is going to do everything you need them to do. It's up to you to make sure that they do the best job possible for you. Good luck!

This article appeared in Punk Planet #16, January/February 1997. © 1997 Daniel Sinker. Posted with permission. Sinker is the big cheese at Punk Planet and couldn't be happier that he never has to deal with distribution ever again.

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