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Procedures to Avoid Getting Skinned

First, most people are honest. However, the dishonest ones can cost you a lot of money and/or a lot of trouble if you are not careful. Unfortunately, when you have no experience with or knowledge of a business you need to assume they could potentially be a problem. You can often gain useful information from other publishers. A business or individual who is a scam artist, or very inefficient in ways that cost you money, tends to cause the same problems in a number of places, even to work on a recognizable pattern.

Re distributors (to retailers and wholesalers): First, do you really need one? I have never used one, and I think one is unnecessary if you can sell to retailers through Ingram and/or Baker & Taylor and/or yourself. My impression is that it is an unstable type of business and some distributors tack on extra fees that really add up. If you do use one, other people on this list can give you a lot more information than I on who to work with and how to read their contracts. Quality Books is a major library distributor for small presses and they pay on schedule. There are many smaller library jobbers who occasionally send small special orders. Most seem reliable, though I've seen complaints on this list about one or two.

Re wholesalers: The big two are Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Ingram is hard to negotiate with and you probably won't be able to get them to prepay. Baker & Taylor can be very slow to pay when given credit, but you can put them on prepay--and I'm much happier since I did.

Make sure the business really is a distributor or wholesaler, and not a retailer. I have encountered several retailers who claimed to be "distributors," meaning they wanted larger, wholesaler/distributor discounts for books they would sell to end consumers at full price. Some actually published some books or manufactured other items that they did sell to other retailers, but also sold many other businesses' products directly to consumers. Distribution and wholesaling is not selling to the public, but to retailers and/or wholesalers. I check on the business's website and if necessary their print catalog. If they sell to end customers at all, I point out that they are in fact (at least partly) a retailer. I say I am happy to sell to them as a retailer, but want no distributor services from them and that I will not give them a distributor discount. It helps to keep the distributor/wholesaler information out of the discount schedule you send to retailers--if they don't know what it is, they're less likely to "reach for" it.

Re retailers: We deal with lots of them, from large chains (mostly special orders, since chains tend to buy from wholesalers) to one-person hobby businesses. Retailers are used to getting credit from publishers, especially if they are at all large, and this makes it harder for a prepay-only publisher to sell to them. (Very small and hobby businesses aren't as used to credit and can often be gotten to prepay.) Our standard terms & conditions say, "For orders of 50 dollars or more, please supply four written credit references, including one bank reference, or prepay the order. Shipments will be held until this condition is met."

Beware of anyone who refuses to either give credit references or to prepay. In most cases, when I've refused to sell to a business because they gave no credit references, I later encountered other vendors who sent merchandise they were never paid for, or customers who paid for merchandise they never received. Don't accept excuses such as, they need the books _really fast_ so there's no time to check credit references or to mail you payment. This is sometimes a scam. Don't accept vague references. I was once told "Our credit is good everywhere!" Then the retailer should have been able to name specific vendors. Don't accept unrelated references, such as organizations they belong to. You need contacts with people they have actually bought from. If you have any doubt about the retailer, require prepayment. If you still have doubts, cash the check or process the credit card _before_ shipping.

Other potential problems may be either scams, or retailer disorganization. Either way they can cost you money. Always get purchase orders in writing, even if it's just email. If someone phones you and says "Send some books," you have no written record of whether the business ordered, what they ordered, or which employee placed the order.

We usually send media mail because it is cheapest. Some retailers and customers "lose" shipments, even though the post office is generally quite reliable. If any retailer or customer complains about a lost shipment, I check with the PO about arrival times for media mail during that season (pre-Christmas, for example, is slower). Often the complaint is simply that the customer wanted it sooner, rather than its being lost. I've had customers complain their package didn't arrive before we even sent it--and we ship weekly. Ask them to wait for a reasonable amount of time for arrival. If you must eventually replace the order, send replacement books rather than refunding their money. Some publishers insure all shipments and this might be a good idea. UPS and Fed Ex Ground are easier to trace but more expensive; and you can seldom get customers to pay for a UPS or Fed Ex pickup.

Apply your terms uniformly to all retailers and stick to them. Most who try to negotiate will tell you whatever terms they want are "standard," or that "everyone else does this for us." Tell them the FTC requires you to apply the same terms to all retailers and that you do; these are _your_ standards. Usually they will back down and buy anyway. Some people just routinely try to first see if they can get a special deal.

Usually when a retailer or customer wants to pick up books at your office, it is to get around shipping charges. They may tell you it's because they need the books _right now_, but usually they got your marketing literature months ago and could have ordered earlier. I don't allow this, as I still have to process the order, pay for a box to put it in, and my home office is not set up for pickups. Nor do I do personal deliveries, which some people request--for free, of course.

Be very wary of anyone who tries to persuade you to do something via unprofessional behavior, such as screaming at you on the phone or abusive email.

We require all foreign customers to prepay in full, because it's especially hard to collect from other countries if there is any problem.

If a retailer proves to be a real problem in any way, quit selling to them. There are a few customers you just don't want. If you tell them to buy only from your wholesaler from now on, this is a polite way to "fire" them without necessarily losing their orders entirely.

Make sure this really is a retailer, and one who resells books. I often get orders from small businesses and end customers wanting one book for personal use, but who first try to get a retailer (or even library) discount. Or they ask for a free copy "for examination." Again, look for their website and see who they are. Not giving any discount for any single-copy order to anyone helps to cut down on this. Likewise, don't send your discount schedule to consumers or post it on your website. If this is a real bookseller, point out that return privileges give them ample opportunity to examine the book without getting it free. Of course, sending an examination copy to the buyer for a big chain is more worthwhile--but in my experience, most chains order without asking for one.

I'm spending a lot more time on this email than I expected, so I'll be quick in regard to end consumers. They do not generally expect credit, so you can get them to prepay in full. Hold their checks for clearance before shipping. Never send the package unless the order is prepaid in full. If they insist on having it _right now_, say in time for Christmas, but won't pay now (it doesn't matter what reason they give) and you send it--you'll never collect. Check that the amount the check is written for is what they owe. If they underpay and you send the books anyway and invoice for the rest, you'll probably never collect. I send these orders back unfilled with a polite note asking for the remainder, and usually I never hear from the person again. Check that Canadians paid in US dollars and not Canadian. Hand writing "US" above the amount does not make your bank process it as US dollars; the sender has to actually convert the currency.

If you want an informal reference for an individual or a very small business, many people are on eBay now. Search on their email address as a seller or buyer (it doesn't matter which) to access the feedback rating relating to their transactions. This can reveal whether the business or person has a pattern of slow payments or nonpayments, "lost package" scams, or other shady behavior. Or, on the contrary, whether they are great to work with.

Scam book reviewers are another issue and I don't have time to discuss them now. {Editor's Note: see "How To Spot A Phony Reviewer" elsewhere in the "Advice For Publishers" section of the Midwest Book Review website}

Francis Grimble
Lavolta Press

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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