In addition to printing books, Bookmobile offers book distribution through Itasca Books, and on December 1, we switched from our home-grown book distribution system to iPub, a purpose-built system for publishers and distributors. So far—fingers crossed!—it has gone pretty well, primarily because we spent 2-1/2 years customizing and testing the new system. As with all software projects, it has been a learning experience.
Bookmobile Distributes Books Through Its Itasca Books Service
We offer two kinds of distribution services:
- A trade distribution service, selling books on behalf of independent publishers to book wholesalers and retailers
- A fulfillment service, fulfilling orders generated by publishers on their website or through their own sales efforts.
We grew the distribution business using software we developed internally. By 2013, that software was extremely long in the tooth. It also required way too much manual entry, wasting many hours every month. We decided to replace it. The problem was that while our homebrew software was weak at many things, it was also very good at doing things specific to our business, especially our Automated Replenishment Program (ARP), in which we manage inventory for print customers.
ARP is like Print-On-Demand (POD) for books that will actually sell more than a handful of copies. Instead of printing books one at a time, as with POD, we keep an eye on stock and reprint as necessary to make sure that we have stock on hand at all times. The benefits, compared with POD, are that we can provide many customized print options that are impossible with POD, higher quality, and almost always a lower cost per book. Also, our distribution warehouse is right next store to our print plant, so there are no freight costs or transit time between printer and warehouse.
Publishers use our eFirst ARP system in different ways. Some use it primarily to fulfill orders generated on their Direct-to-Consumer (D2C) website and through their Amazon Merchant account; others use it to order batches to replenish their main distribution warehouse.
From a systems point of view, eFirst exists as an order hub where book orders from virtually any electronic source—eCommerce website, XML feed, Amazon Merchant account, web form—can be processed and fed into our distribution system.
The trick with ARP is that it involves three separate software systems: 1) The eFirst order hub, 2) the distribution system, and 3) the system that runs the printshop. The three systems have to talk to each other in real time to make it all work. Our old distribution system did this pretty well: feeding title information to the eFirst order hub and receiving orders from it, letting our printshop system know how fast inventory was turning for each title in the ARP program, and what the current quantity-on-hand was. As reprints to replenish stock occurred, then the printshop system had to be able to hand off inventory to the distribution system so that any pending orders could be fulfilled ASAP.
That’s where we had to customize iPub. iPub had great strength in handling order processing and shipping, as well as the crazy kinds of transactions that are standard in the book business—wholesalers taking credits for returns they haven’t actually shipped back, for instance. But it didn’t know how to talk to other systems. Les King and his crew from iPro Business Systems, built a brand new API for iPub which enabled us to make our order hub eFirst and our printshop system communicate with iPub.
The process was not without its bumps. At times both the iPro crew and our crew were sidetracked by other projects, which is why it took 2-1/2 years from contract signing to go-live. At times, to be honest, I wished we had just rebuilt our old system instead of working with another developer. Now that we have iPub up and running I’m glad we stuck with it: iPub is a much stronger foundation upon which to continue growing our distribution and fulfillment business.
Need a printing quote, eBook conversion quote, or more information?
I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email. I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!
Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.