Baggage Claim

Hello, I’m Oliver (aka SuitCase.) Visit the comic I help make, dig around my old website, tweet at me, ask me stuff on Spring.me or email me.

Distributing a Book is Interesting

This is the second part of a series of posts about making Bittersweet Candy Bowl Volume One. Please read: the introduction and part one.

I’m breaking with (blog title) convention here, because for all the pain I thought we might run into when figuring out how to send hundreds of hardcover books, I ended up with an overwhelming feeling of.. enlightenment. I learned that things could be a lot easier, at least once you set them up. I would recommend the lessons in this post this to people who need to ship books en masse.

I understand not everyone cares about our idiosyncratic situation, especially if they’re reading this to learn about distributing their own book, but I have to set up the scene:

  • We live in Sydney, Australia.
  • The books were to be printed in a factory in Quebec, Canada.
  • Three-quarters of our paying customers are in the USA.

Also to complicate matters (or, more likely, make them harder for you in following our example) we have bank accounts, residential addresses and tax IDs in both Australia and the USA. Enabling us to set up accounts for stuff in both countries, which you may not be able to do.

So, given this situation, what did we do? The “straightforward” thing would be to have our printer send all our books to Sydney, then mail them out at the local Australia Post to customers all around the world. This is how we’ve dealt with our other merchandise, so far. Buy 400 buttons in a big box from the USA, have them shipped to Sydney, mail them out across the world as we need to.

But two things made that option not very straightforward. First, it’d cost a thousand to ship the (factory-fresh) books to the US, but likely thousands to ship them to Australia. Second, it’d cost about $20 to mail a book at our post office, and $30 if it was to the USA. (They have a security surcharge on packages heavier than 500 grams, now.) As a comparison rate, USPS have media mail for merely $3 a book.

Now, the thousands extra in freight we might be able to stomach, but your average American buyer eyeing a $49 comic compilation is probably gonna vomit if they see that it costs $30 in postage to get it. And I didn’t really like the idea of having to repeatedly lug boxes of books to the post office every week for the next year, either way. This would be far more annoying than your average small merchandise order.

So, what to do? Well, a member of our IRC channel, Starwatcher, overheard me discussing these problems, and let me know about a service called “Fulfilment by Amazon” (FBA) that he used at his work. It’s not unique, there are other companies like Shipwire that do the same thing. Generally they call themselves fulfilment services. And they work like this:

  • You ship your boxes of stuff to their big warehouse.
  • You log into a website, and tell them who to send things to, and in what quantities.
  • They ship it to your customer.
  • They charge you for the shipping, and some kind of ongoing fee for the space your stuff is taking up.

I won’t go into price comparisons with competing services. Overall, I found FBA was simply the easiest, cheapest, best-documented solution to this problem.

So, we sent Amazon the majority of our books. 1400.

An empty space

I wish I had a photo of 1400 books to insert here. It’d be impressive. But I don’t, because we never saw them. Direct from the printer to Amazon. But I do have this:

Screenshot of the FBA interface

Wow! And it only cost $400 to get them all there, because the warehouse Amazon puts FBA books into is in Pennsylvania, not far from the printer.

We did run into a bunch of problems, of course. Things are never that easy. First, let’s go through the issues we had in getting the books to Amazon.

Barcodes

See this thing? It’s an ISBN barcode. And next to it, an Amazon SKU barcode. The ISBN barcode is just one of those things a “real” book has. You need it to get into book databases and libraries and stores and stuff. Now, the SKU barcode? Remember, what seems like a database entry on a website to us is actually a physical book in a warehouse somewhere. So the people picking and packing this stuff need to know what each item is, simply by scanning it. So Amazon supplies you with this barcode and says you have to put it on all your items.

My perception was that since we had an ISBN (we had to pay $250 for the privilege, remember!) Amazon could just use it as the identifying barcode for each of our books. They do have something called “stickerless commingled inventory”, where you can get them to rely on the barcode printed on your product’s packaging for their inventory management.

But.. not for books! Apparently. You have to print out the stickers.

This was a real problem for us, because we knew we weren’t going to have access to the books before Amazon received them. There was the option of getting them shipped to Veronica’s mother’s house, stickering them ourselves and then re-shipping them, but that would take a long time (1400 copies, unpacked and repacked!) and would cost twice as much in shipping.

So I begged our printer to do it, and they were surprisingly quite cool with the proposal. I paid them a total of $200 to print out a bunch of adhesive labels and sticker over the ISBN (an Amazon requirement) with the SKU barcode needed. It added about 15 cents to every book we had them print.

A photo of the SKU barcode applied to the book.

So, kinda stupid, but that was done. (They had to label every shrinkwrapped pallet of books with a special label, too. But this wasn’t so annoying, as there were “only” about 15 pallets.)

Once stickered, another point of confusion came in arranging the delivery. Amazon seem to prefer having UPS come to pick up your stuff (from a US address, of course), and make things a little harder if you want to send them stuff on your own. Essentially, if you’re sending more than a few things for them to store, your shipment is classified as a “LTL” (less than truck-load) delivery. That’s some kind of shipping jargon I still don’t fully understand, but what it meant was that the company delivering the books had to make an appointment with the Amazon warehouse to deliver the books. In the end, I didn’t have to deal with that, I just sent the printer the instructions and I guess their shipping company worked it out. But it was a little stressful, and added much to the literally 100+ emails I sent back and forth to our sales rep during the production of the book.

Eventually the books arrived. A short notification came in an email. And the numbers in that screenshot above appeared. Kinda weird to think about all the people packing and moving and taking inventory of these many hundreds of books, because I never saw them. Just numbers on a screen going up and down. But they exist! I’ll show you.

I discovered a few of the problems involved in delivering the books.

First of all, remember where I said “You log into a website, and tell them who to send things to, and in what quantities”? Well, I can confirm that it all works, but with one caveat. You can’t change the country to anything other than “US”. Why not? Apparently, it’s because Amazon refuse to fill out customs forms (as are required for international shipments) unless they sell the book themselves.

So while I have the (kind of amazing) power to click “Submit” on a web form, and have a book immediately sent out to anyone in the US with a street address, this power is useless for anyone outside of America. It’s neat, and it means we can take book orders through our PayPal web store (which I later “process” by feeding into the Amazon web interface), none of this applies to our international orders. We can do nothing for them.

EXCEPT! We can sell on Amazon. That fixes it.

Unfortunately, this is where things get complicated right where I don’t want them to be. I’m not a retail guru by any means, but I know that putting confusing obstacles in the way of potential customers is a terrible thing to do. But now, we had to account for all sorts of junk, and get the customer involved in deciding things they shouldn’t have to think about.

Realising this was the only way, we set up a listing for the book on Amazon, linked it to our book inventory, and directed international customers to use it. The downsides are numerous:

  • Amazon takes about $11 of the $49 list price as commission.
  • Amazon doesn’t allow you to issue promotional codes on books, so we had to do this stupid “It’s $7 off for three days only!” promo for all our people on the mailing list.
  • Amazon doesn’t take PayPal. (A lot of people around the world rely on PayPal’s local bank transfer integration, not having a credit card.)
  • Because we are merely “Selling on Amazon”, users have to go through the following stupid mess to buy the book:

Instructions on how to buy the book from Amazon

Why isn’t there a big “Buy item” button like any other Amazon listing? Because you only get that if it’s a book “sold by Amazon”. Even though Amazon stores the book, takes your payment, and ships the book, officially speaking, we’re selling the book, not them, and so it doesn’t work the same way. Very stupid. There’s a way to get around this called “Amazon Advantage”, but our $11 selling fee would become $27. Goodbye, profits!

There are some advantages. We get random people finding us on Amazon.com (maybe), and Amazon.com plus FBA basically runs itself (we get an email saying a book was sold and shipped, and never have to think about the order beyond that. It’s a bit like Spreadshirt.)

Anyway, I’d say this part of the FBA equation turned out worse than I expected. A lot of people have had trouble paying on Amazon, and I never liked the idea of having to pay $11 commission when I’m not actually getting any exposure or benefit from the page for 90% of the sales (which I’m sure are coming from our Store page’s link to the Amazon site, and not random Amazon customers who stumble across the book.)

So, having already confused our customers by saying “buy here if you’re in the US (using PayPal)”, and “buy here if you’re not in the US (using Amazon.com, here are the convoluted instructions)”, we had to come up with a third option for buyers.

It came in a US-based reader and FRIEND OF THE COMIC, ToastyJester. I figured he’d have the spare time to receive and store a bunch of books, and mail the books out to people that need to use PayPal. I’m gonna put a new “Buy here if you’re in Canada, or if you’re not in the US and cannot buy on Amazon.com” option on the site, charge $49 + shipping, and give him $10 on each sale.

Oh, did I forget to mention Amazon refuse to send the books to Canada, even if you buy through the Amazon.com website? Yeah. Some tax reason. So Toasty is gonna fulfil all those orders. It’s the only way to ship books to the second-most important country.

ANYWAY. I’d say besides the whole Canada thing, we could probably just tell those overseas people to get a credit card and deal with Amazon. But I worry it’d lose us sales, so we’re gonna try this experiment. I was able to send out 80 books to Toasty for something like $100, and I set him up with packing materials and an email-based order system. We’ll see how that goes.

The observant among you may have noticed I went from talking about 1600 books to 1400. This is because we chose to receive 200 ourselves. 30 in Hartford, CT, 170 in North Brunswick, NJ.

Let’s talk about the 30 copies, first.

We came to America this June, and left in July. We booked the flight earlier in the year after Qantas sent me an email telling me about a crazy cheap flight they were offering, and after a trip to the travel agent we were left $2,800 poorer but with new big plans for the four-week uni holidays.

For part of our trip, we arranged a table at ConnectiCon, an anime\comic convention in Hartford, Connecticut. We planned to sell the books there, and hopefully make a decent amount on them all.

There’s a lot to say about ConnectiCon, but I can write a blog post about conventions later. To boil it down:

  • The printer said the book would be ready weeks after ConnectiCon
  • We urged the printer to expedite the printing so that it wouldn’t be that late
  • We determined that it’d arrive at New Jersey on the week we left for ConnectiCon, even if they printed them quick
  • So we had them rush 30 copies to our hotel room in Hartford, for delivery on Saturday (just in the nick of time!)

This cost us some extra in shipping that we only barely made back on our meagre 8 book sales that weekend. (Conventions are kind of a shit way to make money! Uh, I mean, wait until the convention post later.) But it was the first time we got the book, and it was pretty exciting to be there with BCB fans approaching us and talking to us about the book right after we saw the finished product for the first time.

After that, we packed our bags (with 20 extra books inside!) and went back to New Jersey, and spent a hectic week shipping off the other 190 books manually.

What for? Sketch editions!

You see, we initially offered a run of 75 “Limited Edition” books that would come with a poster and a sketch inside for an extra $20 over the preorder price. As always, we’re overrun and surprised by the interest our fans have in anything “limited”, so those 75 sold out quickly, and were followed up by 130 more “sketch edition” orders (with sketch but sans poster).

Now, while it’d be nice to just get those sketch editions sent out by Amazon, it’s impossible to write in the back of a book you don’t have access to. So it was necessary for Veronica to spend three days cooped up in front of a TV watching Cold Case Files and Unsolved Mysteries marathons on A&E, drawing sketch request after sketch request.

Veronica watching TV and drawing in books

This wasn’t all that simple. So many people either forgot to use the Paypal “instructions to seller” field to tell us their request, or they changed their mind, or they had questions, that it took me about 8 hours in front of my MacBook Air tabbing between Numbers and Mail to compile a huge spreadsheet of definitive sketch requests, along with numbers (the Limited Edition was numbered in order of order time) and accurate mailing addresses. I had to send out 4 or 5 different bulk emails to all the people who forgot to request anything, and AGH.

Part of the big book shipment spreadsheet.

There’s a snippet of that huge spreadsheet. Crude, but it worked.

For the start of it, I had to stay with Vero while I corrected the spreadsheet. After it was done, we all went out to a few office supply stores and bought the material we’d need for all our packing and shipping work. Turns out it’s a pain in the ass to send all this stuff! We needed packing tape, adhesive labels, even a laser printer (I didn’t trust the inkjet they had already) and, of course, a couple of big boxes of padded mailers. (I bought the mailers from Uline, a good company!)

It all coalesced into this chaotic garage scene:

The garage where we packed and sent a billion books.

In this room, we spent a day and a half packing, labelling and sealing packages for:

  • 75 limited edition book customers
  • 120 sketch book customers
  • 10 new Bittersweet Club International (BCI) members
  • 170 existing BCI members (who we needed to supply with their second gift, a small lapel pin)
  • 15 customers who ordered various othermerchandise
  • 20 BCBCon attendees, who we had prepared a special lapel pin for, but which arrived late so we could not hand out in person.

It wasn’t a disaster in itself, but it took a long god damn time when it was basically me, Veronica’s mother, and nobody else. We got about an hour of help from Veronica’s easily-distracted cousin, and Michael, Veronica’s 8 year old half-brother, did an admirable job separating envelopes into different boxes.

That was it, though. Veronica was upstairs on her laptop, colouring comic pages, because the site had ran out of page buffer and her fans were angrily demanding content. Her friend (who I had hoped would come over to help us pack) was unavailable.

We were still packing on Friday, with our plane leaving for Chicago on Saturday morning. We tried to get it all done before the post office closed at 6pm that day. We failed.

Feeling like the worst end-of-day customers ever, we rolled into a small local USPS store with a giant SUV full of packages, and asked if there was any chance we’d get them out before the close of business. Turns out the answer was no, and as nice as the guys were to us, we got barely any sent out.

We also found out you need to fill out a customs form, by hand, for everything going overseas. (There were a lot of things going overseas, including 80 of those pins for BCI members.) Eek.

So what ended up happening is we gave the books going to the US to Veronica’s dad, who mailed them out that Saturday (after we’d left), and left Veronica’s mother to fill out about 200 customs forms and stand in line for several hours at the USPS while they weighed and printed labels for everything. (We owe her so much, it’s ridiculous.)

And that was that. Kind of. Have you been keeping track of numbers? We had 200 books on hand, and sold 8 at ConnectiCon, and had to send 75 limited editions, as well as 130 normal ones. That’s right, we were short about 15 books! I noticed that the amount of books we were short matched up precisely with the amount of people who forgot to specify a sketch. So, despite Veronica’s wailing, I decided to screw ‘em, leave their order unaddressed, and send off an email about it, essentially saying “because you forgot to provide a sketch request, we’ll send you a standard book from Amazon, and mail out a sketch on a piece of paper from Australia in a couple weeks.” Those who responded with a request got their request. Those who responded with nothing got one of these:

One of Veronica's stupid turtle sketches

So far we’ve had no complaints. (We offered refunds to those who’d be upset by the fact it wasn’t sketched in the actually book, of course. No takers.)

A few final notes: I made the stupid decision to fill one of our checked bags with books, so that we could benefit from local shipping rates for the 20 or so Australian book orders. Damn stupid idea, because guess what? What’s $3 as a local media mail package at USPS is as much as $16 in Australia. We lost about $150 on undercharged postage there, and should have just bit the bullet and left them with Veronica’s mother to mail out at the (eerily similar) international rate. Oh, and we had a dreadful time getting past the scales at the airports on the way home. What a mess.

Also, a few of those leftover people who forgot to ask for a sketch lived outside of the US, so I couldn’t just tell Amazon to dispatch them! Instead, I had to add all their addresses to my personal Amazon account, briefly lower the book’s price to 99 cents, and order 8 books, each to a different address, and pay for it all as some kind of strange jet set book customer with home addresses spanning Europe, South America and South Africa. Wherever I lay my hat, etc.

I forgot to talk about mailing lists here, by the way. I don’t know what to add about them. I gathered a list of 1450 email addresses “interested in the announcement of Volume One”, I used MailChimp to send them notifications of pre-orders, paid them a monthly fee for a few months, and then reverted to a free account once the second “Hey! You can buy the book now!” email went out. I found that about a third of the people who got the email never read it, about a third checked out the special preorder site, and about a sixth acted on the emails and bought a book in response.

The top of one of our notification emails

There’s this whole art to writing newsletters that catch attention and sell books. I did my best, but I have to say my only philosophy was to keep it clean and simple, and I have nothing more interesting on it than that.

Next time, we’ll round up where the money went (including for FBA!) and whether it was worth doing all this crap to begin with.

  1. su-itca-se posted this