Publishers-cum-distributors are opening branches because they want to be close to their customers in the fast-growing new educational markets in schools and teaching centres that have sprung up everywhere in the major cities. Many are small-time showrooms that cater to a wide variety of school texts and guides or double up as news agents and stationery stores. But most are situated adjacent to schools or institutions for whom they act as providers for a variety of daily needs and therefore become an integral part of the distribution chain. Whether big or small, publishers can no longer ignore them because they provide the crucial links between the publisher and the final customer.
Two questions. Why do publishers depend on the small-time distributors instead of mass distribution and why has the small-time distributor become a key factor for the success of a book? Is he likely to replace the established bookseller as the main distributor because he has been around in the field and has more resources? The answer to both questions lies in the simple fact that distribution and sales are the key problems in book publishing today, especially in small towns because they are difficult to reach by rail or road. But, more importantly, for the publisher and distributor it is the recovery of outstanding dues that poses as the real problem in the absence of reliable banking facilities. The cost of sales to small-town booksellers is too high. It is better to route sales through established booksellers in big cities at higher costs than to depend on small shopkeepers who resort to seasonal sales in the new academic year.
Publishers and distributors have never had a cozy relationship: booksellers have a string of standard complaints like low discounts, tight credits or delayed supplies that rob them of spot sales during the peak seasons. Publishers are usually known for their dissatisfaction with the timely payments for one reason or another. But with small-town outstation transactions, the delays are compounded to the point when the entire amount has to be written off because the collection of dues becomes expensive.
It is a sad fact that a book sells because of the contact a bookseller has with his potential buyer. Of course the contents of the book and its relevance are important. But it is the local contact that clinches the deal because of the various favours he renders to his potential buyers on a regular basis. Publishers recognize the importance of contacts and therefore use the bookseller as the conduit for sales and marketing. But they know that it is information about grants, their allocation and utilization that matters and it can be provided only by those who move around the clerical corridors of power.