What is distribution? For a self-publisher (or as they are now sometimes called, author-publisher), distribution can be the most confusing part of publishing. This is because the term has various meanings. In general, it refers to the means by which books go from the publisher to the retailer (e.g., a bookstore), who then sells them to readers.
Before self-publishing became so popular, the distribution system worked a certain way and was intertwined with publishing houses. Some publishing houses had their own distributors and some used outside distributors. Among these traditional distribution methods, some are now technically available to author-publishers, but a large part of the system is filled by publishing houses, which makes these methods in practice fairly unaccessible to author-publishers. There are new methods of reaching retailers that also fall under distribution and are accessible to author-publishers. There are also publishing services that include some form of distribution in their service packages, which further complicates the picture. The addition of e-books and e-book distribution makes the picture even more confusing.
As an author-publisher, I’ve sold print books directly to readers (i.e., no distributor) via my website and the Amazon Marketplace, and used a few e-book distribution methods. I’ve read about other methods available to author-publishers. I have no first-hand knowledge of the more traditional distribution methods but learned about them in a recent webinar presented by Angela Bole of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA).
I’ve attempted to list the methods here. If you know of something I’ve left out, please share it in the comments.
Print Book Distribution
There are now three methods of printing books: offset printing, digital printing, and print-on-demand (POD). Offset printing is the long-standing method and makes sense for large print runs (~1000 books or more). Digital enables small print runs at reasonable prices. POD uses digital technology to print books one at a time, as they are ordered; note that with POD, books usually go directly from the printer to the reader. The diagram below includes the distribution methods that are most relevant to new author-publishers, with additional methods described in the text only.
- Distribution without a distributor (Author 3 in the diagram above): The author-publisher pays to print a bunch of books, either using offset or digital printing. She sells them from her website and mails books when orders come in. She might visit local or relevant bookshops and ask them to carry the book, offering a wholesale discount. If the book sells well, the bookseller might want to order more, but because there is no distributor, the book is not “in the system” to easily reorder; the author might have to check back to keep the bookstore ordering. The author can sell on Amazon (a retailer, not a distributor) using the Amazon Marketplace; again this involves the author mailing the books when orders arrive. With this method, the author keeps most or all of the profit.
- Distribution with POD companies (Author 2 in the diagram): The author-publisher lists the book with one or more POD companies; the author sets a wholesale discount as if the POD company is a bookstore. When someone (a reader via an online retailer or a physical retail store) orders a book, the company prints and ships it; they take their cut, but there is no fee for acting as a distributor. The two biggest companies are CreateSpace and IngramSpark, and there are many articles comparing the two. As of 2017, best practice (because of the fees charged) was to use CreateSpace to list the book online at Amazon, and to use IngramSpark to list the book everywhere else.
- Distribution with POD companies via a publishing service (Author 1 in the diagram): The publishing service takes care of getting the manuscript to the POD companies; usually an author would only use this route if he’s also buying additional services, such as design and editing. Start by searching “full-service publishing providers” online; read not only directories but also articles that rate and review the companies. There are good and bad publishing services out there; be sure to read reviews before signing up to work with one.
- Traditional, passive distribution: The publisher uses a distributor (such as Ingram, the biggest, or Baker and Taylor) to handle billing and shipping, but there is no sales team pitching the book to retailers. The distributor simply lists the book as available and stores copies. The agreement should be nonexclusive—the publisher can sell the book elsewhere. There is an application process; the author-publisher must have significant sales and might be required to offer a certain discount, accept returns, pay a fee, and more. This only makes sense for books that are selling thousands of copies. The company is sometimes called a wholesaler rather than a distributor.
- Traditional, passive distribution with Amazon (for sale on Amazon only): Amazon offers several distribution services that authors can pay to use, that do not seem to have much of an application process. However, the author pays fees, including storage fees with some services, so if the book does not sell, the process could be costly. Here is a summary of Amazon’s services: (1) With Amazon Advantage, Amazon is the seller, orders books when needed, and sets the price. They will drop your book if it does not sell. (2) With Fulfillment by Amazon, you are the seller but Amazon stores and ships books, which are eligible for Amazon customer services. (3) With the Amazon Marketplace, you are the seller and also ship the books as they sell. The professional account has a monthly fee, while the individual account has a fee per item sold. (This third service does not really count as distribution.)
- Traditional, active distribution: The publisher has an exclusive agreement with a distributor, who is the only one who can sell the book to retailers. The distributor handles billing and shipping and also has a sales team that actively tries to sell the book. Many distributors will not work with author-publishers, although this is changing, but there must be several books and significant sales, as well as other qualities like the publisher’s perceived longevity and prominence in the marketplace.
Note that with a traditional distributor, the author and/or publisher only receives a small fraction of the sales price. Author-publishers should be clear about which type of distribution they are receiving—they often think there will be active selling when really they are working with a passive distributor. There is a list of distributors at the IBPA website, here: http://www.ibpa-online.org/page/distributors (these distributors have not been vetted).
Some of the traditional distribution companies mentioned above also handle e-books; if you work with one of those companies, make sure you understand the agreement and what is included (i.e., do you retain the e-book rights?).
The main decision of publishing an e-book is whether to work directly with each retailer (and keep more of the profit) or to use a distributor (and have less work, plus the ability to reach additional markets) or to use a mix of both. If you choose to work directly with retailers, remember that any change to your e-book will need to be made at each retailer; you might start with one and see how it goes before uploading to the rest. The methods listed below are the most common for an author-publisher.
- Distribution without a distributor (Author 3 in the diagram below): The author creates e-book files and sells them directly to buyers. Note one complication with this situation: As the seller, the author could email the e-book to the buyer, but the files are often large and buyers expect to download an e-book as soon as they buy it. Creating a system where the buyer is taken to a webpage to download the e-book requires some technical know-how; there are also security issues to consider. Thus, it is easier to use an intermediary to deliver the book. These intermediaries are called “digital distributors” and they take a cut of the profit, but I still consider using them as “selling direct to buyers” and the cut is smaller than that taken elsewhere. I use Gumroad.
- Distribution via single-channel distributors: Single-channel distributors enable an author to sell his book at one online retailer; for example, Kindle Direct Publishing enables e-book sales on Amazon. These distributors are “self-serve” and straightforward to use; simply follow the instructions for formatting and converting the document to an e-book and upload, and the e-book will appear for sale at the retailer’s site. Authors can access these distributors themselves (Authors 2 and 3 in the diagram below) or with a distribution service (Authors 1 and 2 in the diagram).
- Distribution via a distribution service (Authors 1 and 2 in the diagram): A distribution service publishes an author’s e-book at whichever retailers she chooses, and takes a cut of the sales. Currently the most popular distribution services are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. There are many reviews comparing them, so I won’t get into that here. Distribution services usually have their own storefront, meaning that they’ll sell your e-book to readers and take a cut but there won’t be an additional cut taken by another retailer, like Amazon; however, sales from these storefronts are not typically large.
Another decision is whether to publish exclusively with Amazon KDP Select (which offers promotional advantages) or with as many retailers as possible. If your target readers are using Kindle Unlimited, publishing exclusively with Amazon makes sense. To find out, look at the top books in your category on Amazon and see if these books are available in Kindle Unlimited.
Note: Bookbaby is sometimes listed as a distributor. Bookbaby’s business model is different: authors pay up front for services, then keep all the money from sales. Bookbaby might more accurately be described as a publishing service provider.
What’s going on with these e-book authors?
- Author 1 is taking the simple route: using a distribution service to handle all e-book sales. The service will convert the manuscript to an e-book and upload it at all the retailers’ websites. Either the service will cost money to use, or the service will take a cut of sales. The retailer (e.g., Amazon) will also take a cut.
- Author 2 is uploading the book directly to Amazon, the biggest e-book retailer. This way, only Amazon will take a cut of sales of e-books sold on Amazon. To reach the other numerous e-book retailers, the author uses a distribution service.
- Author 3 is selling e-books directly from her website. She is also selling them at Amazon and other select online retailers; unless she is so famous that people will seek out her e-book on her website, using other retailers is smart because many more readers will find the book. Author 3 might try to sell with all the other retailers, but there are many, and some do not accept e-books from author-publishers; she might use a distribution service to reach only those other retailers (this is not show on the diagram).
I hope this post clears up any confusion about book distribution. Of course, the situation is constantly changing, with new services appearing and old institutions gradually accepting the legitimacy of self-publishing. New paths might open for author-publishers any day!