Note from Jane: This post is part of a 101 series on self-publishing and is regularly updated. Visit this post for background on how to self-publish.
Distribution used to be the biggest challenge that self-published authors faced in selling their work—at least before online retail came to dominate bookselling.
Today, the most important thing any author needs to know about distribution is that more than half of all book sales (regardless of format) take place online. Self-published authors have the same access to online retail distribution as the major publishers. This access is also largely without upfront costs, making it straightforward for any author to begin selling their book at Amazon, the No. 1 retailer of books in both print and digital format.
You do not have to hire an expensive self-publishing service to get your book distributed through Amazon and other online retailers; you can secure distribution on your own at little or no cost for both your ebook edition or print book edition. Here’s how.
Once you have ebook files ready to go (EPUB and/or MOBI files), you have a choice to make. Would you rather deal with each online retailer directly, or would you rather reach them through an ebook distribution service?
- Working directly with online retailers usually means better profits, more control, and more access to marketing/promotion tools (but not always).
- Working with ebook distribution services usually means giving up a percentage of your profits to the distributor, in exchange for the centralized administration and management of all your titles. Some ebook distributors can also reach outlets you can’t on your own, such as the library market, and may offer you helpful tools to optimize book sales and marketing.
The good news is that you don’t have to choose between working directly with online retailers and using ebook distributors, since it’s rare for any distributor to demand exclusivity. For example, you could choose to work directly with Amazon KDP to sell your ebooks on Amazon, then use an ebook distributor such as Draft2Digital or Smashwords to reach other retailers. Or you could choose to distribute directly to Amazon, Apple, Kobo, and Nook (by using their do-it-yourself portals), then use Smashwords to capture the rest of the market (such as Scribd and libraries).
Bottom line: There’s no one right way to go about it, since it depends on your time and resources, your books, and your marketing strategy. You can also change your mind at any time (although not without some administration hassle and sales downtime).
Print book distribution
Print book distribution is fairly straightforward if you’re making use of print-on-demand technology to print your books, rather than investing in a print run (where you produce hundreds or thousands of books at a time).
Print-on-demand printing means that your book isn’t printed until someone orders and pays for it; when an order comes through, one copy will be printed and shipped to the customer. If books are printed only when they’re ordered, that reduces your risk, but it also means that you’re probably not going to see your books sitting on bricks-and-mortar retail shelves nationwide (or even regionally)—that’s the drawback.
However, don’t assume that if you do a print run, that means you can get distribution into physical retail stores. First-time self-published authors rarely have a sufficient marketing and sales plan in place (or a sufficient track record) that would justify bookstores ordering and stocking books on their shelves. Also think it through: If you did invest in printing 500 or 1,000 copies, do you already have customers or accounts that you know would purchase those copies? Do you have speaking or event opportunities where you could sell them? If not, it’s probably best to go with print on demand. You can always order print-on-demand copies at a reasonable unit cost if you want 50 or 100 copies on hand to sell at events.
Assuming you’ll go the print-on-demand route, then you have two key distributors to consider:
- IngramSpark, a division of Ingram, the largest book wholesaler/distributor in the US; distribution fees cost about $60 per title
- Amazon KDP, no upfront fees. (Note: CreateSpace, the popular print-on-demand service provider owned by Amazon, merged into Amazon KDP in September 2018.)
Again, as with the ebook distribution decision, you don’t have to be exclusive with either. You can use both and benefit from both. I recommend that authors use Amazon KDP to distribute their print books strictly to Amazon (do not choose their “expanded” distribution), then use IngramSpark to distribute to the universe outside of Amazon (bricks-and-mortar bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, and more). This will maximize your reach and your profits from each sale. It does require buying your own ISBN numbers from Bowker—you cannot use a Amazon-provided ISBN with any book you want to distribute via IngramSpark.
Both services allow you to purchase copies at unit cost plus shipping. My book, Publishing 101, costs about $3.60 per unit if I want a copy, plus shipping. There’s nothing to stop you from ordering 50 or 100 copies at a time if you want to sell books to local or regional stores on consignment.
If you really, really want to encourage bookstores to order and stock your print-on-demand book: Make sure you use IngramSpark, and set the discount at 55%, and make the books returnable. This will reduce your profit and also risk returns, but these are the industry standard terms required if you want bookstores to place an order.
The end result of using either Amazon and/or IngramSpark is that your print book will be available to be ordered by nearly any retailer, as a print edition, and available for sale through their online storefronts if they have one (such as barnesandnoble.com).
How to distribute when you have a print run
If you do invest in a print run and are comfortable fulfilling orders from your home or office, then you’ll need to sign up with Amazon Advantage to distribute and sell your print book through Amazon. It costs $99/year and they require a 55% discount off the retail price. You must also pay for shipping your books to Amazon. (Unfortunately, this program is currently closed and has been closed for a long time. I’m not sure it will re-open.)
As far as reaching other retailers with your print edition, it’s far better to use IngramSpark’s print-on-demand service. If that’s not a possibility for you, then you’ll have to find a formal distributor who can help you, and that’s a difficult challenge for the first-time author. IBPA has some recommendations of who to approach.
A self-published author can quickly get their print and ebook distributed to the most important online retailers by using just a couple services, all of which have no or very low upfront costs. Don’t be fooled by expensive self-publishing packages that claim to distribute your book to thousands of outlets. Today, the most critical distribution is within the reach of each individual author at no cost.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.