Negotiating the Labyrinth
by David Hirschi
excerpted from Punk
Don't be naive. The rules of distribution were
not made to work for you. They were made to benefits retailers
(mostly the chainstores) and glossy mainstream publications like
Fish & Stream. These rules revolve on regular publishing
schedules and the destruction of unsold copies by the retailer.
The system was created long before the advent of zines. This
creates the old political dilemma: is it better to work within
the system or from without? You have to answer this for yourself,
so arm yourself with all the information you can get. The best
source is going to be from other publishers.
also predicated upon volume: moving the largest number of units
through the warehouse in the shortest amount of time. Your zine
becomes just one more unit in the flow. It isn't special. It
gets thrown into the box and shipped off the same as any other
magazine. Unsold copies will be destroyed by the retailer like
any other magazine. You're going to be put in line to be paid
along with hundreds of other magazines. Your baby is going to
be swallowed up.
That said, fortunately
some distributors are flexible enough to bend the rules, and
this you'll find out by asking around. Talk with other publishers
who are working with several distributors. Choose a few distributors
after you've done your homework and send a couple issues and
a cover letter to their buyers (see Dan's article for more detail
about this). When you get to the point of negotiating terms with
a distributor, you won't know what they may be flexible about
unless you ask. Distribution terms include 1) when you'll get
paid, 2) what percentage off the cover price the distributor
takes and 3) how they report unsold copies to you. Feel free
to attempt to negotiate any of these points. You, too, are going
to have to be flexible though. Distribution is a dialog between
publishers, retailers and the distributor, each of which has
their own concerns. More on dialog later.
Once you're in
the system, there are ways to keep from being gobbled up. Don't
rely on the distributor to let you know what these ways are.
This is not from lack of concern on the distributor's part or
because distributors are somehow evil incarnate. The distributor
gets the smallest piece of the pie. In order to survive on the
small margin they get, they have to push volume through their
warehouses and, especially true of the smaller distributors who
are flexible enough to agree to distribute zines, are usually
understaffed, and what little staff there is, is underpaid and
extremely harried. What this means is you'll have to come down
from the ivory tower of the embattled artist and roll in the
muck of business a bit by following up on payments and sales.
Here's how you do it:
First, get a calendar.
According to the terms you worked out with your distributor make
a note in your calendar on the days you're supposed to be paid.
If you don't get a check within a week of that date, give the
distributor a call (and another call and another call until you
get the check). Do this for every issue you ship. Note carefully:
distributor payments are triggered by their receipt of subsequent
issues. If you put your distributor on hold because of slow payments,
you need to let them know, otherwise your payment may never come
up on their computer.
Ask your distributor
for a distribution list. This will show you where your magazine
is going and will come in handy if people ask where to find your
magazine and will also give a clue as to whether or not your
title has been adequately promoted by the distributor. If you
don't feel that it has, call your distributor and find out what
promotions they do and ask if you can be a part of it. For example,
most distributors will routinely mail out publisher-supplied
flyers to their retail accounts to promote a title.
Once you've shipped
your third issue to a distributor, ask your distributor to do
a sell-through report. This will show the distributor who's selling
and who's not. If your sales have fallen below 50 percent of
the amount you shipped, you may ask your distributor to put your
account on manual order adjustment meaning that they will adjust
the orders the retailers have given for your title to a number
which more closely resembles actual sales. Don't be premature
with this request. Distributors will have no idea of sales for
a particular issue until at least a month or two after they have
shipped out the next issue.
Being in the middle
is not an easy place to be. Distribution is a balancing act between
the expectations of publishers and the needs of newsstands. Yet
it is this middle path a distributor must trod if they are to
do the job well. Unfortunately, most publishers don't understand
that the distributor is performing this balancing act every minute
of every day amid the clamor of getting the magazines out of
the warehouse. From where I sit (my desk looks out over our warehouse),
I know how hard we work to do what we do. I don't expect publishers
to know this, but I do expect them to listen. The distribution
system is indeed flawed. Yet as flawed as it is, it is the system
we have for getting magazines into as may people's hands as possible.
I believe that the only hope for negotiating through this web
with some success is dialog: you tell me your concerns, I tell
you mine, and hopefully we discover together a common ground
from which to begin. Once begun, the dialog must continue. New
problems will always arise. That's simply the nature of the beast.
I believe that this dialog is essential if integrity is to become
a part of the system.
will sometimes completely break down, in which case it's time
to terminate the relationship. Personally, though, I do not think
that those hopeless cases should mean we don't bother with attempting
dialog if we can. To find out that a problem exists third-hand,
through a nasty article in a zine or via a zines newsgroup, is
not much of an incentive to communication, being as it is a one-sided
bitch without much constructive use. Easy to be a sonofabitch
when protected from response. Dialog is lost. Email replaces
discourse. Our ability to affect change is diminished.
I feel that the written word has the power for change and that
the zine explosion is essential to feed a hunger for stories
other than the ones we are force-fed by corporate media. (I actually
don't watch television or read newspapers anymore. Instead I
read through huge stacks of zines and small press and feel my
world is better reflected.) What is needed is a re-visioning
of the written word and how best to disseminate that new vision,
without hampering that dissemination by misguided correct politics.
Don't waste your time doing another music magazine with cute
personal stories. Be courageous enough to develop your own voice.
The corporate media
has powerful distribution engines in place for propagating its
message. If it is possible to counter the corporate media's investment
in keeping us paranoid through nightly visions of terror and
violence brought to us courtesy of the local news, then we must
take advantage of the possibility however it presents itself,
including working within the system and attempting to resolve
apparent conflicts through dialog.
This article appeared in Punk Planet #16,
January/February 1997. © 1997 David Hirschi. Posted with
permission. Hirschi was a buyer for Desert Moon Periodicals.
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