The creative process is officially complete. The artist is now at a place where they’re ready to launch their creative work in the marketplace. The process of distribution is ready to begin. This is when artists find themselves stumped with the how when the real question is: ‘where’, ‘who’ and perhaps even ‘why’.
- Brick-and-Mortar Retailers and Service Providers
As the Publisher at Mith Books, I know that most authors dream of the day when they see their books in the bookshelves of their favourite bookstore or local library. Many of them don’t even feel like they’re a real author till this happens. Since the advent of ebooks, I have come to view this dream as one that is either grossly outdated or needlessly glorified. That is not to say that I think that retail businesses or traditional publishing is dead. I don’t. It’s more that there are now more options available to artists than ever before.
All brick-and-mortar retailers–regardless of industry–have gone through an overhaul in the recent decades. If we juxtapose the book business with the music business–I can’t remember the last time I purchased a CD. To think as I adolescent I often frequented HMV and other family-run CD shops. These distribution channels may have ceased to exist, but people haven’t stopped listening to music. Similarly, while some bookstores may have shut down, people actually haven’t stopped reading.
I believe the real dream for an artist is to get their work in front of an audience. Whether that’s through an ebook downloaded online or through a paperback purchased at brick-and-mortar store; that comes down to the distribution channels one chooses and has access to.
- Online Retailers and Service Providers
This is an obvious choice in this day and age. If we harboured any hesitations about selling, marketing and purchasing goods and services online–I believe the Coronavirus pandemic has left us with no choice. Back in the day–and by that I mean last year–people still had residual trust issues surrounding purchasing certain items online or enrolling in an online higher education program.
If we look at the education industry, online programs were once viewed as an alternative to traditional university courses. But not anymore. Whilst challenges to actually teach and facilitate in this ‘new normal’ remain, educators have undoubtedly had to make significant changes in the way that even higher education is conceptualised and delivered.
In either case, there are pros and cons to both the brick-and-mortar or online distribution strategy–which is why for the debut artist it may be worth focusing on one channel before expanding to another.
I feel this question needs to focus on who the artist is trying to reach as opposed to who is doing the actual distribution. Once a product–be it a book, artwork or a recording of music–enters the market, it inevitably faces competition in the marketplace for goods and services.
- The Marketplace
Close your eyes for a second and imagine yourself walking down your favourite shopping district in your locality. Think about the customers who frequent those stores. Are they window shoppers or potential buyers? What is the demographic that this store attracts? Is it a family-run business or a corporation? Is it a large MNC or a small business? Marketplaces are typically filled with a variety of players; both big and small; both niche players and highly diversified businesses.
Bigger is not always better. The larger a company is and the more diversified its product offering is, the more difficult it can be to define who its customer actually is. It may be tempting to buy into the idea of having a big brand name behind you; but niche businesses usually have a stronger foothold in a particular area. They tend to be well-known names in their local community or industry; even if their influence doesn’t carry forward to the general population.
- The Channel
In an increasingly crowded considerably noisy marketplace, how can an artist ensure that their voice is heard? The distribution process is one that most artists (and producers in general) relegate as an ‘operational concern’–which is admittedly part of the equation. However, from a marketing perspective, the channel(s) with which one chooses to distribute their work is equally important. If the channel doesn’t attract the clientele that you’re looking for–your voice will never get discovered, let alone heard.
Now stop for a second and think of the online retail space. The exact same rules apply. Imagine you’ve written a book on mythology. Whilst listing on Amazon is the obvious choice, there are other platforms like Etsy where one is more likely to establish a niche. Similarly, a gift shop at a museum be a more suitable retail partnership than a large bookstore.
In light of that–where should you be listing your work and how should it be positioned?
As the middlemen in the process, distributors are ultimately looking to provide value to their customers. As artists, it is worth asking ourselves the following questions: who are we working with? Why are we choosing to work with this particular distributor? How are we choosing to work with them? And does our partnership create value for both our customers?
- Mutually Beneficial
Any business relationship should be mutually beneficial. It may seem common sense and obvious; but this is not how a majority of relationships between artists and distributors seem to function. Whilst there is a ‘product’ at sale, artists and creatives are ultimately selling intangible assets. The ‘value’ generated is highly subjective to everyone involved–from the creator, to the producer, to the distributor, to the person who finally purchases your artistic creation.
The core principal behind a mutually beneficial relationship is that both sides are getting something valuable from engaging in the partnership that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. Distributors typically don’t make money unless a sale has been made. They receive a percentage of the revenue generated. On the surface, it may seem that they have a vested interest in selling your product. The truth is that distributors–whether small or large–carry a whole range of product lines. In light of that, the artist must remain vested in creating visibility for their work.
- Preparing for Pullout
For creative businesses, it is a statistical fact that not all projects that are invested in will bear fruit. A work that may be deeply personal to the artist, simply may not have commercial potential. Unlike conventional businesses, creative businesses, however, typically do invest in projects that may not generate a profit; especially if it has intrinsic value. For instance, if a book is able to garner literary prizes or is critically acclaimed–even if hardly anyone buys it. Again, we are investing in the intangible here; so this is to be expected.
In either case, once a distribution channel has been decided upon, it is often very costly or difficult to change. The distribution networks we build and participate in are usually contractual. Both the artist and the distributor will seek to minimise their own risks in the event that things don’t work out. If it’s time to pullout, however, both artists and distributors should keep in mind that when the ‘mutually beneficial’ criteria of any business relationship is not met; neither party is obliged to single-handedly carry the brunt of the burden.
Artists don’t actually want to starve and neither do businesses.
When changing distribution channels, one thing to bear in mind is: if customers are used to going to a particular place for a particular product, it’s challenging to change their buying behaviour. Every time a new technology is introduced, it is often met with resistance in the marketplace. It takes time before new seeds take root in any market.
The decision on who to have onboard as a distribution partner needs to make sense in terms of the operational perspective as well as the marketing, strategic and profit-sharing perspective.
Regardless of what distribution channel you choose, the real goal for any business or artist is to create either tangible or intangible value for the end user. That, fortunately, will never change.
So focus on the people you’d like to reach; and map out a journey on how you’d like to get there.
About the Author
Dipa Sanatani is the Publisher at Mith Books and the author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories. In The Merchant of Stories, Dipa takes the reader on a personal journey–narrated through a series of candid journal entries–on what it takes for entrepreneurs and creatives to start their very first venture.