Distribution: How your book gets to your readers
With all the aggregation and distribution services available to you, it can be difficult to choose a path. This post aims to clarify those terms and the tools and services I most recommend to independent authors.
Let's start with this statement and unwind from there.
Indie authors can upload ebooks to distribute to eeach online ebook retailer directly, but we might instead choose to distribute them to many using an ebook aggregator. Likewise, we can sell our print book to online print book retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores directly or use a distribution service.
Yeah boy, that is a lot of geeky publishing terms! So let’s wind it down and go through it in slo mo…
The difference between ebook and print book distribution
When you understand the difference between the terms aggregation and distribution you’ll be equipped to make good decisions about where to spend your publishing dollars.
the formation of a number of things into a cluster
(on the Internet) the collection of related items of content so that they can be displayed or linked to
the action of sharing something out among a number of recipients
the action or process of supplying goods to stores and other businesses that sell to consumers.
An ebook aggregator distributes your ebook to a wide range of online retailers. Aggregators collect a percentage of sales (about 10%) to provide you with wide distribution plus centralized accounting and payment services. Most people say “distribution” to mean “aggregation,” but that’s okay. It has come to mean the same thing: getting your book in whatever format to all the stores. Later in this post I'll share my recommended vendors for ebook aggregation.
A book distributor sends your print book (POD/print-on-demand, in most cases) to the online booksellers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. IngramSpark is currently the only reliable distribution channel that indie authors can use to reach brick-and-mortar stores. Why? Because they offer the 53% discount and returns program that bookstores require. Even though Amazon CreateSpace books are listed in the database that bookstores see, they generally do not like to order books from Amazon and they only offer a 40% discount (and no returns). My favorite way to distribute print books is by using a combination CreateSpace and IngramSpark and offering a 30% discount and no returns. I'll share the details on that a little further down the page.
Ebook aggregators distribute your book to online retailers, print book distributors send your print book to the online retailers and bookstores. It's all called "distribution."
Even though ebook aggregation is different from book distribution, most people just call it all distribution, especially when the company does both. Smashwords provides ebook aggregation only, but IngramSpark provides both print and ebook distribution.
Your customer doesn’t care if it’s called aggregation or distribution, they just find your ebook in the store they like to shop in. That store is called an online retailer. Once the customer buys your book, they’ll get it in the mail (if they order the print version), or download the ebook to their ebook reading device in Kindle format (if they bought it from Amazon) or EPUB format (if they bought it in any other store).
Some more definitions
An online retailer is an online store that sells ebooks in print, EPUB, or Kindle format to your customers. The major online ebook retailers are Amazon (which enjoys the majority of the market and sells both print and ebooks), Kobo (an ebook retailer a wide international reach), Barnes & Noble (print and digital), Apple (ebook only), and Google Play (ebook only). Competing (or to compete) with Amazon is Walmart who sells both print and ebooks (via Kobo), too. There are many, many others. You could 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. But many authors find that using an ebook aggregator to reach all the retailers is much more efficient.
Here's an important FYI: Amazon sells about a third of printed books in the US and is now opening brick-and-mortar retail bookstores, too. Books-A-Million, or BAM!, is the second-largest brick-and-mortar book retailer in the US after B&N. They also sell books online.
An ebook reading device is any device or app that can read the ebooks purchased from an online retailer. iPad owners have been trained to download the EPUB version and Kindle owners know they need a Kindle (KF8, mobi, or azw) file. You can read Amazon Kindle books on your iPhone using a Kindle app that you download from the app store. However, you can’t read an ebook in EPUB format on your Kindle ebook reader, because it’s a dedicated, one-purpose device that only reads Kindle files. Today, most people read ebooks on a multi-purpose tablet computer using an app.
What is a bookstore?
The definition of a bookstore is changing. A bookstore is both a bricks-and-mortar business and an online book retailer. Does your local independent bookstore have a website? Probably! And you can probably purchase books online from them.
Pure-play retailers focus only on selling one thing. An example of a pure-play bookstore is B&N. Amazon is not a pure-play retailer.
Selling direct from your own website or at events or even from the trunk of your car is another way to distribute. There are a lot of tools that will help you sell books on your own website by embedding a widget. Check out Gumroad, Leanpub, and Patreon to get familiar with the kinds of things you can do.
My go-to list of aggregators & distributors
Here’s a summary of the companies I most often recommend to authors who have professionally produced a book and need distribution to the ebook and print book retailers. There are lots more in the Consumer's Guide.
Smashwords is an ebook aggregator that provides ebook distribution everywhere except Amazon Kindle. They offer lots of perks and features, including library distribution, pre-orders, and marketing tools like author self-interviews, gifting, and discount coupons. Format your book according to their style guide or make it easy on yourself by using a Book Design Template in Word or InDesign for between $37 and $77), and submit it to their Premium Catalog.
Smashwords also allows you to upload an EPUB file, via Smashwords Direct, that you’ve already created with InDesign or a tool such as PressBooks, Draft2Digital, Scrivener (for Mac and Windows), Vellum, 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 Design Template, you can use Draft2Digital or hire someone to do it for you. A list is available from Smashwords at “Mark’s List.”
I like Draft2Digital, also an ebook aggregator, which reaches Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, Inktera, Tolino, and 24Symbols. They have an automatic book formatting tool on their site and great customer service. Like most vendors, Smashwords, they keep 10% of the sales price.
The advantage of D2D over Smashwords is that they will format your book for you and give you the EPUB and MOBI (Kindle) file so you can do with it what you will, such as upload it to other aggregators and sell it on your own site, too. (Using a tool like Gumroad, for example, which is listed below.)
IngramSpark is both a print book distribution service ebook aggregator. It 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 IngramSpark to get Ingram distribution. However, IngramSpark is the only service that offers both ebook and print book distribution in a single dashboard. (Note that IngramSpark replaces Ingram’s Lightning Source publishing service so, unless you’re a legacy user of Lightning Source, you’ll sign up with IngramSpark.) IngramSpark offers hardback book production and distribution.
Amazon KDP and CreateSpace are two separate online services and neither aggregators nor distributors. They simply get your book into the Amazon store. KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is Amazon’s tool to get your ebook into the Amazon store and CreateSpace gets your paperback book into the Amazon store. They have 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. If you're using IngramSpark, don't worry about it. They will distribute your Kindle formatted book to Amazon. Smashwords doesn't distribute to the Amazon Kindle store. No problem. Just edit your Smashwords file and upload it to KDP.
Amazon CreateSpace is an online 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 the Amazon store and you get Ingram’s great distribution everywhere else.
Gumroad for Direct Sales
Gumroad makes it easy for you to sell your book on your own website using one of their WordPress widgets. Just upload your digital files and customers pay for and automatically download your books while you sleep. Got autographed books or other physical objects to sell? You get an order form so you can fulfill it yourself.
Other Interesting Options
Publish Drive and StreetLib are proud of their global reach, Scribl has some interesting marketing features, and Type & Tell in the UK and Sweden may be of interest if you live and work in those countries. Find reviews of these services in the free consumer's guide when you sign up for my Author Friendly email news.
Educating yourself on the possibilities can cause a headache, I know. So here's where I provide the distribution scenarios I recommend most for self-publishers.
The combination I recommend the most
This is the combination I recommend to most authors:
- Amazon CreateSpace for your paperback, to enjoy a direct relationship with Amazon.
- IngramSpark to distribute your paperback to all the other online retailers and bookstores, plus the hardback, if you make one.
- Amazon KDP for your ebook for direct to the Amazon Kindle store.
- Smashwords to distribute your ebooks everywhere else. (Alternatives include PublishDrive, StreetLib, and Scribl. Draft2Digital is good, too, but distribution isn't as wide.))
- Gumroad for direct book sales and autographed books via their sales widget on your WordPress website
- Use Amazon KDP and Amazon CreateSpace, plus IngramSpark for print and Smashwords plus Amazon KDP for ebook distribution.
- Add these options to any of the three options above:
- If you chose 1 or 2, above, upload your book to the Smashwords Standard Catalog as well, to take advantage of their store and features like coupon codes.
- Add Gumroad for direct book sales and autographed books via their sales widget on your WordPress website.
My best recommendation for self-publishers is Amazon CreateSpace + IngramSpark for print, Amazon KDP + Smashwords for the ebook, and Gumroad for direct sales.
Learn more from the podcast
The Author Friendly Podcast is a 30-minute one-on-one with the people who created the companies I recommend in this post. Learn what they have to say about the features they offer. It'll help you make an educated decision about your distribution strategy.
Feel like experimenting?
Use Draft2Digital to dip your toe in the market with distribution to the major stores (including Amazon) and then expand distribution with (or switch to), Smashwords, or IngramSpark to go wider.
Plenty of authors upload their books directly, hitting the major retailers.
- Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (Kindle Store) for ebooks
- Amazon KDP Select if you want to try exclusive ebook sales for first 90 days
- Amazon CreateSpace for paperback books only
- Barnes & Noble Press for ebooks and print books
- Apple iBookstore
- Kobo (Kobo Writing Life) which has an awesome author program for authors who upload direct
- Google Play Books
Amazon KDP Select and Kobo Writing Life have really strong author programs. With Rakuten Kobo supplying the Walmart eBookstore they may rival Amazon's offerings. B&N Press recently merged their ebook and print book publishing platforms and we can hope they'll experience a revival.
Amazon KDP Select and Kobo Writing Life have really strong author programs. With Rakuten Kobo supplying the Walmart eBookstore KWL may rival Amazon.
Need a full-service solution?
If you are finding this whole self-publishing thing incredibly frustrating and want to offload it to a service who will do it all, I can recommend BookBaby and Gatekeeper Press. These are full-service ebook and print book formatting and distribution companies with editing and design services, too. Do purchase your own ISBNs.
Always purchase your own ISBNs
You can obtain ISBNs and barcodes from all of these services but I always very strongly recommend that you buy your own from Bowker MyIdentifiers in order to retain full control of your book. (This link is for authors in the US, so if you’re not in the US search for the ISBN agency in your country.)
To be even clearer on this, owning your own ISBNs and having direct access to MyIdentifiers makes a huge difference in your business as an independent author. Authors who are publishers, aka author-entrepreneurs, should always retain full control and this is the only way to do it.
You’ll need one ISBN each for:
- and so on (such as the multimedia edition)
List the ISBNs for each edition on your copyright page for all versions of your book.
Buy a pack of 10 or even 100. Don’t bother to buy a barcode for print versions. You can get one free using IngramSpark’s book cover template generator.
A note about book formatting
I recommend Book Design Templates for those of you who work with Word and InDesign. But Scrivener (for Mac and Windows) is my favorite organization and writing tool. Scrivener exports your manuscript to ebook formats automagically, however, the PDF for print isn’t very good. I like PressBooks, which does a great job of PDF for print and ebook formats. Use LeanPub to beta publish, test your market, and make some money, too. If you’re on a Mac, Vellum is an awesome, easy-to-use book design program. If you need a book creation service and don’t want to manage your own team, BookBaby and Gatekeeper Press are two popular services that both create and distribute your book.
There you have it: A short-and-sweet introduction to book aggregation and distribution. There are many 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 the ones I mentioned? Please let me know in the comments below. I’d really appreciate it!
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