The Value of Book Distribution Is Often Misunderstood by Authors

During my career in publishing, several factors have led to self-publishing becoming a viable and profitable path for authors. These include:

  • The growth of ebook sales, which in some ways replaces the mass-market paperback
  • The rise of online retail: the majority of books are now sold online regardless of format—and we all know where, at least in the US
  • The advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology and distribution

This last one has been of tremendous benefit to traditional publishers and authors alike. It means that no one has to take a financial risk on a print run when demand is uncertain. Nor does anyone need to worry about warehousing and inventory management. Rather, the book is printed only when an order is placed, then it’s immediately dispatched to the customer.

As of 2021, most readers cannot tell if the paperback they’re holding in their hands is print-on-demand or from a traditional offset printer. Even hardcover print-on-demand is seeing an increase in sales and acceptance by consumers. Yes, print-on-demand carries carries a higher unit cost (and thus lower profits), and it has some design and production limitations. But for the average self-publishing author, this makes publishing more accessible and affordable than it has ever been. (The same is true for small presses, of course.)

As more and more books get purchased online, it doesn’t matter if your books are available on a physical bookstore shelf or not. You don’t need a bricks-and-mortar presence for your book to be discovered and purchased. All you need is a product page at the major online retailers. Readers won’t know how the book is printed or that it’s only printed when they order it, or they may prefer a digital edition.

Print distribution using POD can be set up quickly by anyone, at no or little cost, using Amazon and Ingram. Amazon KDP is the portal that self-publishing authors use to upload their book for sale in both print and ebook formats. Ingram is the biggest book distributor in the world, and authors can access its distribution network through IngramSpark. Cost is minimal, $49 for initial setup and $25 for changes after that. Ingram sells to anyone and everyone who buys books, including your independent bookstore, libraries, chains; it also has a global distribution network that reaches just about any country you can expect to sell in. Your book is available to be ordered at thousands of retailers once it’s active in Ingram’s system.

So quality distribution is not hard. It can be obtained by anyone by simply signing up and uploading printer-ready book files or ebook files.

So why do people talk about the need for “distribution” so much if distribution is essentially free for all?

Some people conflate book distribution with having a sales and marketing team.

There are two types of distributors in traditional book publishing. One type of distributor actually sells the book into retailers, in significant quantities. Sales reps pitch specific accounts or buyers. They try to secure orders for hundreds or thousands of books prior to the publication date. (Learn more about this type of distributor from publisher Joe Biel.) This makes sense in a traditional publishing model where there’s a print run and you’re trying to generate as much interest and demand as possible in the lead up to publication, to get as many books on shelves as possible. The print run might even be adjusted based on how much accounts order.

The other type of distributor simply ships books when they’re ordered. They take care of warehousing and fulfillment. They are not selling and marketing books, but they are also taking a smaller cut of sales than the type of sales-responsible distributor discussed above.

Ingram is a bit of a confusing character in all this because it handles both types of distribution. But for the purposes of self-publishing authors, it really only serves the latter role: it makes books available to be ordered. Your book is included in its database of thousands upon thousands of titles. But they’re not actively going out and selling or marketing titles to accounts, any more than Amazon has a sales force that sells your ebook or POD book.

If you’re investing in a print run, then distribution is in fact a major challenge

Imagine spending thousands of dollars to pay an offset printer to ship you 1,000 print copies of your book. The books have arrived at your front door on a pallet. Now what? How will you get these books into retailers’ hands? Where will you store them? Who will ship them? This is a big problem and it used to be that authors relied on Amazon Advantage to solve it. But Amazon Advantage is now closed to new accounts.

It is exceedingly difficult to distribute print books as an author when you do a print run. You really need to be working with a service company of some kind, or a hybrid publisher, or someone who can warehouse the books and fulfill orders for you over the long term, who has a relationship with Ingram, Amazon, and so on. There is no realistic way for a single-title author to work directly with either of those companies unless you’re using their print-on-demand services.

Still, distribution doesn’t equal sales

Let’s say you decide to work with a hybrid publisher or some kind of publishing assistance firm. They help coordinate that print run and get your book warehoused then fulfill all the orders that come in.

But who is creating demand for that book? Who is ensuring the orders arrive in the first place? Hopefully, the company or hybrid you’re working with has a sales team or otherwise offers marketing and promotion support that ensures someone somewhere is buying, and you’re not storing thousands of copies indefinitely, hoping interest will generate out of thin air.

Even if the company does have a sales team, their sales efforts may fail. Or they may have only modest success in securing orders. Worse, books can get returned by retailers who can’t sell them. There’s a lot of burden on you, the author, to invest in marketing and publicity to ensure sales.

It makes one wonder: why not just choose print-on-demand in the first place and avoid that risk of having a bunch of copies you have to pay to store, fulfill, and ship?

The only print distribution many self-publishing authors need can be found through Amazon KDP and IngramSpark, because you don’t really “distribute” a POD title beyond those two services. The printing and the distribution are all wrapped up in the same service offering. You could order as many of those POD copies as you like, and fulfill special orders or bulk orders on your own if you like. Or you could do a print run off to the side for special orders if you have enough of them. But that’s not distribution. That’s you selling direct.

What you need to remember

  • Any company touting the power of their “distribution” may be focused on selling you something you don’t need. You can get the most important distribution of all by simply having your book available for sale at Amazon (use KDP). Even traditional publishers sell 60 to 70 percent of their books through Amazon. For self-publishers, it’s about 90 percent. While I don’t advocate a distribution strategy that’s all about Amazon, you can succeed with one.
  • Be honest with yourself about the need for a print run, if you’re considering it. POD is much less risky for first-time authors or those without certain demand.
  • If you do invest in a print run, know where and how those copies are going to sell. If you’re banking on the publishing service provider or hybrid publisher to sell those books for you through “distribution,” you may have a sad story to tell in the near future.
  • For more guidance, see my post on distribution for self-publishing authors.
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