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A journey from the publishing house to the bookshop: the dance of the distributors in Spain

In the book trade, for everything to be ready, we must consider factors such as the hustle and bustle of the copies, which come and go from printers to warehouses until they reach the shop windows. To give us an idea, a large distributor such as Logista Libros can send some 120,000 books to bookshops every day, according to its general manager, Daniel Oropesa. Of course, the figure may vary depending on the time of year, but it indicates how many books move until they reach our shelves.

“Every day, we receive books from the printers,” says Oropesa, “which are received, counted and placed in the warehouse in positions that the system automatically assigns according to space availability and a previously established order of priority. Simultaneously, we receive orders from the bookshops, which are prepared, depending on the distributor’s tools, and sent to the different points of sale”.

Daniel Oropesa, Logista Libros

Logista Libros works with eight publishing groups and various imprints, up to a total of eighty, including Planeta, Urano, Wolters Kluwer, Kalandraka and Panamericana, to give a broad overview. “Our activity is not only limited to conventional distribution, as we also provide e-commerce services. In total, we move some 17,000 different titles a day, and we have some 300,000 references represented in our warehouse,” says the director. In the total market, we estimate that we move around 400,000 references a year that are considered to be live”. 

Antonio Castillo,  Distriforma

According to Antonio Castillo, “it is usual for the publisher to have distribution contracts, whether exclusive or not, with a limited number of distributors, often with just one. Distributors carry out the task of presenting, promoting and disseminating new titles among bookshops, large chains, online bookshops, etc., and managing orders, logistics, etc.”. Antonio is the Managing Director of Distriforma. The company works with around 150 very diverse publishing imprints and all kinds of genres. Castillo explains, “several publishers represented by us say that we are known as a distributor specialising in comics and manga, small independent publishers and university and institutional publishers”. He highlights, for example, Norma Editorial, Milky Way, Bellaterra, Hatari Books, Salamina and the University of Barcelona. In particular, he explains, “at Distriforma, we handle some 60,000 different ISBNs a year, of which more than 3,000 are new titles. Proportionally, we would be within the average for the sector”.

Both Oropesa and Castillo are members of the Federación de Asociaciones Nacionales de Distribuidores de Ediciones (FANDE). “In Spain, It is the representative body of the book and periodicals distribution sector. Created in 1979, it currently has more than 150 associated distribution companies throughout Spain, integrated through the three associations that are part of the Federation: ADILE, which represents national and regional independent distributors, and of which I am President; ANDP, distributors of periodicals, and UDNE, which represents the rest of national distributors, as well as digital distribution,” explains Castillo.

FANDE‘s activity focuses “on the representation and promotion of the publishing distribution sector, through contact with other associations in the sector – publishers and bookshops as well as with the different public administrations and private bodies, both Spanish and foreign, related to the business world in general, and the book and periodicals sector in particular”.

A business with several particularities

But let’s continue with the numbers. According to the census of the Bookshop Map presented at the last Bookshop Congress in June 2022, there are 2,977 establishments in Spain. Additionally, there are more than 6,000 points of sale, if we include retail outlets such as stationers or kiosks, which sell books although not their primary activity. “This wide variety of points of sale guarantees the diversity of the book sector and proximity to the end customer but requires a highly competent, organised, agile distribution network deployed throughout the country,” says Castillo.

It is necessary to mention the high number of new titles per year and the “800,000 live titles available to bookshops and their customers”, representing “an enormous bibliodiversity. However, it also means that the supply of titles for sale and new titles are not generally governed by market demand criteria, which limits the commercial possibilities of many new titles and the physical availability in bookshops”.

Factors such as the fixed price or the problem of returning books are other peculiarities that the professional points to, especially the latter. “It is the other side of the coin of excess supply versus demand. According to the conditions they have agreed, the points of sale can return unsold printed copies to the distributor, and the distributor in turn to the publisher, after they have been in the bookshop for a certain period”, he explains.

The heads and tails of oversupply

Oropesa agrees with him, for whom “without a doubt” this is “the differentiating factor over any other activity. Any customer can return unsold books, which generates important traffic of books that go to the bookshops, also those that return to the warehouses. Today, the average return rate for general literature books is around 30%. In other words, out of every ten books that go out three are returned. This implies high logistical and management costs, as well as other disadvantages. “Working in this way,” he continues, “is due to some extent because our market publishes several new books yearly, specifically 55,000 paper titles in 2021, meaning that the shop’s turnover is very fast, certainly more than it should be”.

However, although these characteristics of the Spanish book market generate “structural inefficiencies”, Castillo reflects, they also “guarantee, in my opinion, the main value of the sector in Spain: diversity, the opportunity for small and independent bookshops, whether they are bookshops, distributors or publishers, to compete with large corporations, which means that the end customer has a variety of points of sale and titles to choose from -bibliodiversity- unparalleled in other sectors”.

It should not be forgotten, he points out, that “distributors function to cover the needs of two of the main agents involved in the chain, bookshops and publishers. And the structure of distribution in Spain responds to the structure of the book market. Distributors are not essential – intermediaries never are – but they exist because they are necessary and offer a quality and specialised service”.

A digital future

As for the evolution of the national panorama, both agree that there is a concentration process, “with the progressive disappearance of local or regional distributors that have merged to create companies with more muscle, or that were absorbed by other larger ones”, Oropesa describes. “In this way, economies of scale have been created which allows making investments to improve distribution’s efficiency”. On the negative side, Castillo points out this has also implied “unfortunately, the disappearance of some companies that have not been able to deal with the new demands of the market”.

A panorama that, moreover, was inevitably altered during the pandemic. Then, recalls Oropesa, “our natural market, the bookshops, remained closed for several months, and book launches came to a standstill. Only the emergence of e-commerce, whose volume tripled compared to previous years, allowed distributors to maintain a certain level of activity”.

“The importance of the online sales channel, even for small bookshops, was probably the most important effect of the epidemic,” Castillo analyses. This phenomenon has meant that in a market where the price is not the competition factor, due to fixed prices, availability and delivery times have become decisive for the entire book retail trade, both for online and face-to-face sales. Distribution has had to respond to the phenomenon by optimising its information on availability and facilitating the immediacy of delivery times, as well as with an increasingly agile and fast service, even providing direct delivery to the bookshop’s customer”, he reflects.