// you’re reading...


President of IPG, Mark Suchomel, talks about book distribution.

Say you're a publisher. You've found an author to write a book; you've edited it, designed it, printed and publicised it; but if you want to make a buck out of it, you've got to get it to the market or else. That's where distribution can come in. Mark Suchomel is president of the Independent Publishers Group, based in Chicago, and he talks about distribution and some of his personal favorite books.

READERSVOICE.COM: Are you from Chicago originally? Where were you raised and what was it like?

MARK SUCHOMEL: I’m originally from Mt. Vernon, Iowa, a small town in the Midwest. It’s a town of about 3,000 in the middle of prime farm country but highly influenced by Cornell College. It was a great place to grow up. As kids we left the house and could go anywhere we wanted as long as we were home by dinner. Our doors were never locked (back then) and most everyone in town knew who you were.

RV: How did you get started in the book distribution business?

MS: As a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, I was employed as the sports information director. I made a decision to seek my fortune in Chicago and was lucky enough to land a job in the sales department of Contemporary Books, which at that time was a big player in sports book publishing.

RV: Can you give a bit of a description of how your career path took you to where you are today?

MS: It’s not terribly interesting, I’m afraid. After a few years with Contemporary Books I left publishing to find a job in another industry. I didn’t look too hard as it was summer and I was young and enjoying the city. Curt Matthews, now our CEO, heard I was out there and called to see if I wanted to interview for the job as sales manager at Chicago Review Press. I didn’t, but somehow he convinced me to come in. I thought the place looked cool and that they could use a guy like me so I took the job. That was 1986.

In 1987 Chicago Review Press bought Independent Publishers Group. I’m still there but the company has changed tremendously.

RV: In its simplest form can you describe how distributors work, and how they make their money?

MS: Most distributors take a percentage of the net sales price. For that they do the selling, data management, fulfillment, collection, etc. Books from all of our clients are combined into one shipment, invoice, sales presentation, etc. to achieve economies for the publisher and the customer. We can usually perform these functions for much less money and much more effectively than a publisher can on their own.

RV: What kind of decisions do you have to make daily, and what sort of responsibilties do you have?

MS: My responsibilities include keeping the company financially healthy and continually improving our services to remain the best distributor in the industry. I primarily decide which publishers to work with and try to help them reduce risk and work with them to maximize sales. Decisions include which new directions to take in sales and marketing (we’ve just started calling on gift stores with about 100 gift reps) and how to best present ourselves to the industry.

RV: Are most people in distribution as into reading and writing as say employees in publishing, or is general skill in business, sales and marketing more important?

MS: It’s definitely a publishing business. In fact, since we have a wonderfully diverse list of books and publishers, I think IPG employees learn a lot more about publishing than someone in a company with a more defined publishing focus. We have seen all kinds of mistakes yet are forced to be very creative and have knowledge about how books will appeal to readers of children’s, computer, academic, mind body spirit, Spanish, and many other categories.

RV: What criteria have publishers got to meet to get a distributor like IPG?

MS: They have to have good, saleable titles and be willing to work with us to help make their books as saleable as possible. They also have to actively promote their books to the ultimate consumer.

We don’t care how many titles a publisher has. Some of our bigger publishers have started with us with one or two books. We look for books that will move into backlist well and that will sell for many years.

That said, we take on only about two percent of the publishers that approach us. We feel we have a responsibility to our accounts to be selective and provide them with a high quality list.

RV: The distributor Trafalgar Square, which IPG took over in 2006, had some large publishers as clients, like Harper Collins. Is IPG moving toward distributing more for the big publishing companies now more than the smaller independent publishers?

MS: We’re doing both. Each distributor will maintain its identity but we will achieve economies for us and our accounts by shipping and billing everything together. So far it’s been great.
RV: Can you list four or five of your favorite books of all time and maybe say why you liked them?

MS: Most of these won’t be new to too many people, and I’ll refrain from promoting the IPG list. Some of my favorite books, in no particular order are: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, Post Office, by Charles Bukowski, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, by Richard Yates, and War With the Newts, by Karel Capek. I’m a fan of good fiction and nonfiction but I seem to favor fiction for my top picks.
RV: What changes do you see on the horizon for the publishing and distribution industries?

MS: Of course there will be challenges. I think the main one is the competition for entertainment dollars from inexpensive and easily acquired alternate forms of entertainment such as movies via download and cheap DVDs.

I think the distribution end of the industry is in good shape to grow as more mid-size publishers learn they can’t continue to make the investments in the systems and infrastructure needed to best service the major accounts and thousands of small accounts needed to stay healthy.

RV: What advice would you give people who are interested in getting into the distribution business?

MS: Get some experience in some part of the book industry. We have some key employees who started their careers in book retail. That helped them learn about the industry and gain instincts for how consumers might react.

Others started with us as interns and were able to impress us while learning about what we do. Overall, we are impressed with people who can show that they know how to work hard and can communicate well about any subject. The subjects we deal with change all the time, so if someone can learn about something in detail and communicate the important points well to someone else, we know they can probably do well recommending a book to someone.