With all the 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.
What you'll learn in this post
In this post, you'll learn:
- What is ebook distribution?
- What is print book distribution?
- Definitions of distribution terms
- What is a bookstore, really?
- My go-to list of distributors
- The combination I recommend the most
- Feel like experimenting with direct uploads to stores?
- What to do when you need a full-service solution
- Why you should always purchase your own ISBN
- What to keep in mind when formatting your book
An ebook distribution service distributes your ebook to a wide range of online retailers. They collect a percentage of sales (about 10%) to provide you with wide distribution plus centralized accounting and payment services. Later in this post I'll share my recommended vendors for ebook distribution.
Print book distributor
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. It's not good practice to use Amazon's distribution service because bookstores generally do not like to order books from Amazon. Besides, they only offer a 40% discount and have no returns program. My favorite way to distribute print books is by using a combination Amazon and IngramSpark and offering a 30% discount and no returns. I'll share the details on that a little further down the page.
Your customer finds 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 distributor 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 has changed. 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 because it sells all kinds of products.
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 print book and ebook 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.
Draft2Digital acquired Smashwords early in 2022. So go straight to Draft2Digital instead of using Smashwords now. Draft2Digital has a beta program for print. I talked with them the Nonfiction Authors Association podcast in July 2022. Listen here.
Draft2Digital provides ebook distribution to all the major retailers online, plus hundreds of storefronts worldwide.
They offer an automatic book formatting tool on their site and great customer service. Like most vendors, they keep 10% of the sales price.
You can format your book using D2D's free tool and distribute it elsewhere if you like, but you might like D2D's customer service and stay.
IngramSpark will distribute both your print book and ebook to all the stores, both online and bricks-and-mortar bookstores. It is owned by Ingram (the largest book distribution company in the world), so they have very wide reach. Most of the other distributors “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. IngramSpark offers both paperback and hardcover book production and distribution.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is Amazon’s tool for self-publishers to sell your print book and Kindle ebook in the Amazon bookstore. They do require you to exclusively use Amazon only for 90 days if you use their Amazon KDP Select marketing program for ebooks. Only use this program if you've checked out their marketing tools and you're sure you want to use them.
Other Interesting Options
Publish Drive and StreetLib are proud of their global reach and Scribl has some interesting marketing features. Find reviews of these services in the free consumer's guide when you sign up for my Free Publishing Toolkit.
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:
Learn more from the podcast
I host the Nonfiction Authors Association podcast where I interview authors, book publishing and marketing experts, and founders of companies who create the tools to help you publish. Find it here.
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) IngramSpark to go wider.
Plenty of authors upload their books directly, hitting the major retailers.
- Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (Kindle Store) for ebooks and paperback
- Amazon KDP Select if you want to try exclusive ebook sales for first 90 days
- Barnes & Noble Press for ebooks and print books
- Apple Books for Authors
- Kobo (Kobo Writing Life) which has an awesome author program for authors who upload direct
- Google Books Partner Center
Amazon KDP Select and Kobo Writing Life have really strong author programs. With Rakuten Kobo supplying the Walmart eBookstore they're a great option for you. B&N Press also offers a publishing program to their store.
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 the copyright page for all versions of your book.
A note about book formatting
I recommend Book Design Templates for those of you who work with Word and InDesign. But Scrivener 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. 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 distribution. There are many other 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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