Updated June 30, 2015 (eliminated Vook, which changed its business model and its company name to Pronoun, as of this date unknown services).
The purpose of this post is to define the terms aggregation and distribution and to introduce you to the tools and services I recommend so that you set out on the right publishing path.
Indie authors can upload ebooks to each online ebook retailer directly, but we might instead choose to distribute them using an ebook aggregator like Smashwords, IngramSpark, or BookBaby. Likewise, we can upload our print book to Amazon via CreateSpace directly but distribute to other online print book retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores via a distribution service like IngramSpark.
Yeah boy, that is a lot of geeky publishing terms! So let’s wind it down and go through it in slo mo…
An online ebook retailer is an online store that sells ebooks. The major online ebook retailers are Amazon (which enjoys the majority of the market), Kobo (with its wide international reach), Barnes & Noble and Apple. There are many, many others. You can rather tediously sign up for each of their publishing programs, type in
your automatic payment information, and upload your ebook to each of these stores separately, and many authors do. But many authors also find that using an ebook aggregator is much more efficient, giving us more time to do what we love to do, which is to write.
When you understand the difference between the terms aggregation and distribution, you’ll be more equipped to make good decisions about with whom to spend your publishing dollars.
An ebook aggregator distributes and sells your book to a wide range of online retailers. Aggregators collect a percentage and pay you at intervals. Many authors feel that the small percentage (on average, 15%), is fair trade for the wide distribution plus centralized accounting and payment services.
A book distributor sells your print book (POD/print on-demand in most cases) to the online booksellers and even brick-and-mortar bookstores. IngramSpark is currently the only reliable distribution channel that indie authors can use to reach brick-and-mortar stores. (Even though Amazon CreateSpace books are listed in the ipage database that bookstores see, they generally will not order books from Amazon, for obvious reasons.)
Some of the aggregators/distributors also provide ebook formatting and other services. Here’s a summary of the companies I most often recommend.
Smashwords is a wonderful ebook aggregator that provides ebook distribution just about everywhere except Amazon Kindle. They offer lots of perks and features, including library distribution, pre-orders, author “self” interviews, gifting and discount coupons. Format your book according to their style guide (or use one of Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates in Word for under $60), and submit it to their Premium Catalog via the Smashwords “meatgrinder.”
Smashwords also allows you to upload an EPUB file, via Smashwords Direct, created with a tool such as PressBooks, Draft, Scrivener (for Mac and Windows), Folium Book Studio, or any ebook formatting service. (Sign up for my indie author newsletter and get a free list and description of these tools and more.)
If you can’t manage to format your Word file according to the Smashwords Style Guide, or you don’t want to buy a book template, you can hire someone to do it for you. A list is available from Smashwords at “Mark’s List.”
The maximum file size for Smashwords is 10MB so it’s not a viable option for books with a lot of images. So if your have a “big” ebook, look to one of the following aggregators, instead.
IngramSpark is owned by Ingram (the largest book distribution company in the world), so they have very wide reach. Most of the other aggregators “hook in” to Ingram’s distribution service, so you don’t have to use Spark to get Ingram distribution. However, Spark is the only service that offers both ebook and print book distribution in a single dashboard. (Note that IngramSpark replaces their Lightning Source publishing service, so unless you’re a legacy user of Lightning Source you’ll sign up with IngramSpark.)
Centralizing your activities in one place is a great reason to use IngramSpark, though they don’t have book creation tools… yet. Again, you can use Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates or another tool or service to create them. Stay tuned… I’ll let you know when they have it.
BookBaby will distribute your ebooks to the online retailers and they can create your ebook for you – including Fixed Format EPUBs for complex and image-heavy books for a very reasonable fee.
Finally, Blurb has emerged as the place for full-color ebook and print book authors with their great tools for creating Fixed Format EPUBs along with print versions of your book. Their BookWright tool does this concurrently and I highly recommend it. Blurb recently added distribution to Amazon and I wouldn’t be surprised to see distribution via the Ingram network before the end of 2014.
All of these vendors, except IngramSpark, have their own storefront where you can sell your book and receive 85% royalty.
A NOTE ABOUT AMAZON
Amazon KDP and CreateSpace are two separate online book retailers – KDP for ebook and CreateSpace for print – with separate dashboards and payment systems.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is not an aggregator, it is Amazon’s tool for self-publishers to upload ebooks in Kindle format for sale in the Amazon store.
You don’t have to use KDP, all the above aggregators, with the exception of Smashwords, aggregates to KDP. (Once you’ve formetted your book for Smashwords though, you’re already 90% there. Just make appropriate changes in the front matter and upload it to KDP yourself.)
Amazon CreateSpace is an online print on-demand (POD) book creation tool and their free Expanded Distribution program claims to make your book available to online retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
That’s kind of a stretch, because CreateSpace does not offer the discounts and returns program that brick-and-mortar bookstores insist upon. Self-publishers must use IngramSpark for that job. (Do remember that you must actually market to the booksellers.)
Therefore (and this is a big therefore!), I advise that you opt-out of Amazon CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution program (which is free, but don’t be tempted) and instead use IngramSpark to distribute your PDF-formatted print-on-demand book everywhere else. That way your book will always show “in stock” in Amazon and you get Ingram’s great distribution everywhere else. Including brick-and-mortar stores.
Not to confuse you, but more options are available. You may find reasons to combine services. Many authors end up with something that looks like this:
1) IngramSpark for all POD except Amazon,
2) CreateSpace for POD distribution to Amazon.com, and
3) an ebook aggregator like Smashwords, IngramSpark, or BookBaby to reach the online ebook resellers.
Full color book authors will want to use Blurb or IngramSpark for their POD or offset print distribution or short run printing.
Right. So many combinations are available it can make your head spin. What’s my best recommendation? I hate to say it, but it depends.
My aim is to clarify, but if you’re still confused by the end of this piece, please contact me for a free 15 minute consultation.
MY BEST RECOMMENDATION FOR MOST AUTHORS
I’ve written a lot about this in my book, The Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, but I’ll summarize my best recommendation here. Most of you will be happy with one of the above services to create and distribute your ebooks. But make sure that for the print book, you exclude Amazon from your print book distribution agreement, so that you can upload it CreateSpace on your own.
Why? Because the Amazon store is the world’s largest bookseller and it’s likely that 90% of your POD book sales will happen there. Unfortunately, if you don’t use CreateSpace, your book may be listed as out of stock.
This has been seen as unfair business practice by some and, by others, an understandable delay in receiving availability reports from outside distributors. Whatever the reason, it happens, and so you will benefit from a one-on-one relationship with the Amazon.com store via CreateSpace.
A NOTE ABOUT ISBNs
To make myself even clearer on this, owning your own ISBNs and having direct access to MyIdentifiers.com makes a huge difference in your business as an indie author. Authors who are publishers, aka author-entrepreners, should always retain full control and this is the only way to do it.
When you buy ISBNs you’ll get a special offer for self-publishing packages that include special discounts on ebook formatting and distribution. Most authors only need the “prime” package for $395.
A NOTE ABOUT BOOK FORMATTING
I love Joel Friedlander’s interior and cover Book Design Templates for those of you who work with Word. But Scrivener – for Mac and Windows – is my favorite writing and ebook/print book formatting tool (it exports to all formats automagically).
For more information on those tools and others, please indie author newsletter sign up to get my list of trusted tools and much more, such as other places to sell your book and build your author platform.
There you have it: A short-and-sweet introduction to book aggregation and distribution. Of course I’ve left out a lot of other aggregators and distributors, but these are the ones I most highly recommend.
What do you think? Would you change any of my definitions? Do you have direct experience with any of these companies? I’d love to hear about it. Would you recommend another company besides these five? Please let me know in the comments below. I’d really appreciate it!