How to Get Your Book Distributed: What Self-Published Authors Need to Know

book distribution

Photo credit: The City of Toronto / CC BY

Note from Jane: This post is part of a 101 series on self-publishing. 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.

Ebook distribution

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).

You could even choose to use two ebook distributors. For example, you might sign up with Pronoun (because they offer the best royalties on Amazon ebook sales), but then add in Smashwords to get the library market that Pronoun doesn’t cover.

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.

Print-on-demand distribution

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
  • CreateSpace, a division of Amazon; no upfront fees

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 CreateSpace to distribute their print books strictly to Amazon (do not choose their “extended” 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 CreateSpace-provided ISBN with any book you want to distribute via IngramSpark.

A key difference between IngramSpark and CreateSpace: CreateSpace offers a range of paid services to help you prepare printer-ready PDF files. These files are required to make a print edition of your book available and on sale through retailers. (PDF files consist of an interior file and your cover file.) IngramSpark does not offer any editorial, design, and production services; you have to come prepared with your files ready to go.

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 CreateSpace 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.

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.

Parting advice

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.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

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 co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

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. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017).

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.

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30 Comments on "How to Get Your Book Distributed: What Self-Published Authors Need to Know"

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Kate Sherwood

Good information – thanks!

Just one bit of US-centrism, though – Bowker is only the US distributor of ISBNs. Other countries have other organizations, and some (for example, Canada) provide ISBNs for free. So authors should be sure of the situation in their jurisdiction before making any decisions based on the cost/nuisance of getting ISBNs.

Anne Hagan
Great article! I would just like to add that there are five major eBook distributors now and they all have their strengths. Draft2Digital (D2D) is the easiest to work with to get the formatting right where Smashwords is the hardest to upload to but they have access to more markets than D2D. I’ve used them both in concert with each other for some time. There’s also Streetlib and PublishDrive which both give an author access to GooglePlay – something the other two do not – and to many smaller distributors throughout Europe and Asia. Pronoun is newer on the scene… Read more »
Stewart

What happens when you move a book that already has Amazon reviews, please?

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[…] The most important thing any author needs to know about book distribution is that more than half of all book sales (regardless of format) take place online.  […]

Alan Horne

Any kind of physical distribution for a self-publisher is like taking on a second full-time job.

Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would even attempt it.

Shelley Schanfield
Thanks for summing up the options, Jane. I’ve directly uploaded e-books to Amazon and used Draft2Digital for other retailers. Easy-peasy for both, but I think I’m going to try Pronoun for my upcoming release. A recommendation for a print service: I used Thomson Shore, a well-established book manufacturer in Dexter, Michigan (next door for me–I live in Ann Arbor). They do manufacturing for all the major publishers (they did a marvelous hardcover for Eggers “A Hologram for the King”) and do POD as well as print runs and distribute to all the major book distributors like Ingram as well as… Read more »
Shelley Schanfield

Regarding my recommendation for Thomson Shore, I should add that I worked with an independent book designer for cover and formatting and did all the legwork for IBSNs, LCCNs, etc. They do not provide services like that.

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[…] the steps to creating and distributing a self-published book? Publishing guru Jane Friedman posted this fantastic article unpacking the book distribution process: the best ways to get your book (print and ebook) as far as possible, while avoiding the pitfalls […]

Manu Herbstein

I’ve published six works of fiction, paperbacks at CreateSpace/Amazon and Ingram Spark and ebooks via Pronoun. Would there be any point in approaching some of Ingram Spark’s bookstore and library customers directly, submitting publicity material and inviting them to place orders? Is there any economical way of obtaining email addresses of libraries and bookstores in the U.S. and elsewhere?

Ryan Petty

Jane,
Thanks for this great information.

Would you mind also sharing anything you know about Amazon’s new POD service, accessible directly within its KDP service? I’m particularly interested in the way(s) it compares to Createspace… because it looks like Amazon has set up its new POD service to compete directly with its existing Createspace subsidiary.

I’m interested in the PROS and CONS of using the new service, particularly vs Createspace (but also, in general).

Thanks!

Gina Conkle

Thanks for this wealth of information, Jane. A great post and much appreciated.

Natalie Ducey

Thanks for sharing this with us, Jane!

Karen D Dowdall

Hi Jane, thank you for the great advice for writers! I also use Createspace and their distribution as well as KDP. Both are fantastic and have made the process of publishing in print and Ebook a so easy and the books are always perfect, whether print or Ebook! Great post! 🙂

Emily Buehler
Hi Jane, Thanks for all the great info. I have a question about distributing a print book through Amazon. You wrote about Amazon Advantage, which I take to be selling the book with Amazon as the seller. How about selling the book as a private seller? Ten years ago (when I started self publishing), Amazon didn’t allow you to sell a book as a private seller unless they also sold the book, but they made an exception for private sellers who had a certain upgraded, paid account, which thankfully my dad had (go Dad!). We were able to sell my… Read more »
Jemima Pett

For UK based authors, I recommend Blurb.co.uk for your POD paperbacks. They use a desk-top publishing approach which gives you control of your book layout, using their freely downloadable software. Blurb.com handles other countries’ authors, but this gets UK indies over the constant problems of US shipping (both cost & time). Blurb says I should get my box of books within ten days, and it’s usually there in four. Choose distribution via Ingram at the set-up stage.
Good luck.

Brian Astbury

Thanks for this valuable post. I have been busy researching Pronoun. But now I’ve just heard about Zola Books’ Everywhere Store. – https://zolabooks.com Do you know about it? It looks interesting, but my poor old brain clogged up trying to work out what it was all about (I’d been reading up on Pronoun for more than an hour…) and I suffer from what my late wife called Wallpaper Syndrome. She used to take me shopping for wallpaper with her, but after looking at five-or-so patterns I would go blind…

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