Published: September 23, 2021
Book distribution, or where and how people can find and purchase your book, is an important aspect of independent book publishing. As a self-published author, you need to understand the options and set up a system that works for you.
In this article, you’ll find helpful info on book distribution:
- Intro to book distribution
- Ebook distribution
- Printed book distribution
- Final thoughts on book distribution
Let’s start with the basics:
What do we mean by book distribution?
Distribution refers to the process and logistics of making your book available to the customer. For print books, it means going from your printer to a retailer or directly to your reader.
Book distribution is a crucial aspect of self-publishing. Just like traditional publishers, you want your book to be available through multiple channels, maximizing the opportunity for customers to find and buy your product.
There are many options available, and you need to choose which combination works best for you.
Printed versus ebooks: Two distribution systems
The first distinction when it comes to book distribution is about the format of your book. Printed books and ebooks have different ways to get into people’s hands. Even if you decide to publish your book both physically and digitally at the same time, you’ll deal with two separate distribution systems. Fortunately, there are ways to simplify the process and make your book available in every format in all major retailers.
If you are asking yourself, Should I publish my book as an ebook? The answer, with very few exceptions, is Yes! There are basically no downsides to publishing a digital version of your book, and lots of benefits.
We recommend an ebook version to almost all of our authors. Ebooks increase your audience potential, especially among young adults. They offer a more effective range of marketing options and provide higher royalties at very little, if any, extra cost.
Does that mean you should only publish in ebooks? Probably not. The prediction that ebooks would end the era of printed books never became a reality. The self-publishing industry is still dominated by print books. There are a few market niches driven by ebooks, but unless you have a clear strategy and you’re publishing in those niches (mostly short nonfiction self-help series, and how-tos) the majority of customers will still prefer the printed version.
So, how do you make your ebooks available on digital stores like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and more?
Based on your strategy you can decide to sign up directly on every platform and publish and manage your ebooks, or you can use an aggregator. Our advice is to keep it simple and use KDP, Amazon’s publishing arm, to distribute through Amazon, and use an aggregator like Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, or StreetLib for everyone else.
Let’s start with Amazon. With 83% of the US ebook market (data 2016), Amazon is the largest marketplace for ebooks, and that’s the first (and sometimes the only) digital store you want to be on.
The best way to do it is signing up directly with Amazon’s KDP, uploading your EPUB, KPF, or DOCX file and following the publishing process. Within the platform, you’ll have control over your books and access Amazon’s marketing tools—such as the Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) advertising platform and KDP Select’s Countdown Deals. Technically, KDP (distributor) and Amazon.com (reseller) are two different entities, but they are so integrated that there’s no benefit in using a third party to sell on Amazon.
Once you’re set up through KDP, you’ll need to decide if you want to take advantage of some of the programs they offer. KDP Select allows you to add the book to the Kindle Unlimited program and access extra marketing tools.
When you choose to enroll your book in KDP Select, you’re committing to make the digital format of that book available exclusively through KDP. During the period of exclusivity (minimum 90 days), you cannot distribute your book digitally anywhere else, including on your website, blogs, etc. However, you can continue to distribute your book in physical format, or in any format other than digital.KDP website
There’s no right or wrong with this decision; it really depends on your strategy, how much you’re going to invest on the platform, what your genre is, and how Amazon-centric your readers are, and how much time you want to dedicate to managing multiple stores. At Luminare Press, we guide our authors throughout the whole process, and we help them decide what’s best.
The ebook world outside Amazon. If you want to be able to sell your ebooks directly on your website and on other digital stores (like Barnes & Noble, Kobo, or Apple Books), or you have an international audience, you probably want to consider “going wide” and using an aggregator. Aggregators are services that allow you to make your books available for sale on almost any digital store from one single place, making it easier to publish, control your editions, make updates, and check sales reports. The cost for the convenience is usually a flat fee or a share of royalties (typically 10% of the sales price).
To recap ebook distribution
You should almost always consider publishing and distributing an ebook version of your self-published book. These are the major ebook retailers:
- Amazon (Kindle)
- Apple (Apple Books)
- Barnes & Noble
- Google Play (for Android devices)
To sell on Amazon, use KDP. For everyone else, you can either sign up directly with each retailer separately, or use an aggregator like Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, or StreetLib. While going directly with each platform will save you a (small) cut on your royalties, using an aggregator will save you time and some headache. Depending on your strategy, you may decide to limit your ebook’s distribution to Amazon and enroll in its exclusivity program.
Printed book distribution
Printed book sales make up the bulk of the market both in terms of revenues and number of books sold, with the vast majority of customers opting for a paperback copy when it comes to purchasing a book.
The two most common book distribution solutions for publishers are a full-service or a wholesale distributor. There are many differences between the two systems, which, however, are not antithetic.
As a rule of thumb, self- and small publishers will almost always opt for a wholesale distributor because it is suited to print-on-demand (POD) printing, while bigger and traditional publishers will use full-service distributors who can warehouse and distribute large, off-set print runs of books.
As explained by Ingram Group:
A full service distributor is a service provider that offers a wide-range of services such as: warehousing, external sales representation, order fulfillment, and back end office functions, like paying royalties and collecting payments.
The services rendered by a full service distributor often vary depending on the relationship they have with each client. Each of those services usually comes with an associated cost, which can manifest as warehousing fees, fulfillment fees, or a percentage of sales. These associated costs represent a publisher’s potential value to the distributor.
Full service distributors look at publishers like an investment. They want to ensure any relationship they develop with a publisher will be a profitable one.Ingram Group website
On the other hand, most independent authors can get their self-published books into a wholesaler, such as Ingram Content Group or Baker & Taylor, who will still provide wide availability of the book but won’t actively promote it. Because POD books aren’t produced in large quantities, there’s no need for warehousing or a sales force to deliver books to stores. The wholesaler will accept and fulfill requests for bookstores and other retailers who order titles directly from them. This allows the retailers to order the same way they would for a traditional book, with systems that are familiar to them. Wholesalers make it possible to put in bulk orders for a wide variety of titles from different publishers, which is cheaper than ordering one title at a time. As an author, you want your book to be among the available titles.
Who are the players and how does the process work?
Printer: the printing service that creates your book. Most self-publishers will use a POD printer, either KDP or IngramSpark.
Warehouse: the logistics center that stocks and ships high volumes of books printed in large print runs. It’s mostly used by traditional publishers who use full service distributors.
Wholesaler: the service that provides fulfillment of book orders from bookstores and libraries. Ingram and Baker & Taylor are the largest wholesalers in the US to stores and libraries respectively.
Retailer: the stores, libraries, and online retailers that allow readers to buy books. Amazon and other online booksellers, Barnes & Noble, and the independent bookstores in your city fall in this category.
Ingram is the largest warehouse and wholesaler to stores. Baker & Taylor is the largest wholesaler to libraries.
Wholesale/Online distribution system
In the rest of this article we’ll focus on the wholesale distribution system, both because it’s what we use at Luminare Press and because it’s the most common for self-publishers. The wholesale system is also called online distribution as most of the orders are placed online (either by direct customers or store owners) without the intervention of sales representatives.
1. Printed book distribution through Amazon/KDP Print
Just as you can use Amazon to distribute your ebooks, the combination of Amazon.com and KDP allows you to sell your books directly to the readers, totally skipping a wholesaler or a distributor. KDP Print uses print-on-demand printing to collect the order from Amazon.com and print and ship the copy to the customer with no intermediaries.
To make your paperback (and hardcover) available on Amazon.com, you can use the same process mentioned for the ebook version, from the same KDP account. Of course, you’ll have to upload a different file, an interior PDF designed for printing, your metadata, and the cover PDF for your book. You can see our tutorial on how to publish on Amazon.
While this is very efficient, and it’s the best solution for reaching Amazon shoppers, it doesn’t reach the rest of the potential readers. To do that you can either use Amazon’s Expanded Distribution program, which makes the book available in other distribution networks still using KDP Print, or use a wholesaler like Ingram. Even though it may be simpler to only use Amazon, its Expanded Distribution is limited compared to others and has higher costs.
2. Printed book distribution through Ingram Content Group
Ingram is the largest wholesaler in the US and one of the largest internationally. Similarly to Amazon, Ingram has two separate parts that work together to complete the distribution process: IngramSpark is the POD printer that receives the orders and ships directly to the customer or to their warehouse; Ingram Content Group is the wholesaler that sells and ships books to retailers and stores around the county. Any author can create an account on IngramSpark, upload the book, and set up the distribution system using Ingram network and POD printing, making their book available to 39,000+ retailers (including Barnes & Noble and local independent bookstores), libraries, schools, and universities, and many online retailers, including barnesandnoble.com, powells.com, and walmart.com. POD allows online retailers to display your book and make it available for sale, with no need to order physical inventory: when the book is ordered, it can be printed and shipped.
Can I use both Amazon/KDP and Ingram to distribute my book?
Yes, because neither KDP Print nor IngramSpark requires an exclusive agreement, you can use these companies together for distribution, taking advantage of both distribution services.
To do so, you must opt out of Amazon’s Expanded Distribution program and use KDP to serve only Amazon customers. IngramSpark can then be used to serve its huge network of distributors to reach wholesalers, bookstores, and libraries.
For Luminare Press authors, we take care of the setup and publishing process on both systems.
3. Printed book distribution through other online publishing services
Although Ingram is the largest player on the market, there are other companies you can use. Among those are BookBaby.com, Barnes & Noble Press, and lulu.com. You may find it convenient in some cases, but it’s not usually what we advise. The publishing and distribution process with these companies is similar to what you go through with KDP Print and IngramSpark, but the distribution is often limited or, if they are going to use Ingram or Baker & Taylor as wholesaler, you may end up losing some of your royalties or facing higher costs.
4. Printed book distribution to physical bookstores and retailers
At this point, you may have a better understanding of the many players involved and the process that takes your book from your computer (or your publisher’s) to the hands of your readers.
There’s one more question many clients ask us at the beginning of their publishing journey: Will my book be available on bookstores’ shelves? The answer is, realistically, no. Having printed copies of your book available in hundreds of bookstores next to traditionally published books is very hard to accomplish. Retailers are the last step in the chain, they have to buy the books they put on display in advance, and they need to focus on what is most likely to sell if they want to make a profit.
Usually at this point, there is understandable confusion from authors: If it’s true that the wholesaler makes the book available for retailers to buy, why aren’t bookstores ordering it to stock? Remember, a wholesaler won’t promote (or sell) your book; it will simply make it available. It would be physically impossible for a bookstore to carry every book on the market, but there are still plenty of good reasons to make your book available to bookstores.
So, how can you make a bookstore buy your book? Local bookstores are often happy to promote local authors, particularly if they can purchase the book through their preferred channels (Ingram) rather than having an author provide them, or having to buy them at a higher price because you only distribute through KDP. If you are having a book signing in a store, it allows the store to purchase copies of your book, again from Ingram, for signing, so that both you and the store realize a profit (you when your book is sold wholesale—your book royalty—and the store from when it is sold retail). If a customer requests your book from a store, a store can easily make a special order for it, which can also raise the awareness of your book. And it never hurts for an author to create a professional relationship with a bookstore: it will improve your ability to promote yourself and your books.
Is this all bad? Should you quit the idea of self-publishing because your book won’t be in every bookstore in America? No at all, because in the end, bookstore distribution for self-published authors doesn’t matter as much. The huge advantage of self-publishing and print-on-demand publishing is that you can lower all costs while still reaching a very large audience and keeping much higher royalties. Every time you add a company in the chain, you’ll have to give it a cut. Physical retailers typically buy books at a wholesale discount of 55%, which enables them to sell the books for a profit at list prices, but will reduce your profits. You can offer a lower discount, but that reduces the interest in your book. The point is, unless you, and the retailers, are sure to sell thousands of copies, this model won’t be efficient nor profitable.
There are a few other ways to tap into brick-and-mortar sales, but all increase your risk and costs since you’ll need to either provide a certain numbers of copies or be willing to buy back whatever is unsold after a defined period of time.
To recap printed book distribution
Printed book distribution is more complex than ebooks because it involves more players, a physical product, a longer process, and much higher costs (printing, logistics, shipping). The best way to lower cost, keep a high level of royalties, and still reach a large audience is to use print-on-demand (POD) publishing technology and the online distribution system. Your book won’t be on the shelves of every bookstore, but it will be available in every digital store, both for direct customers and retailers to order.
The most efficient way to publish your book is using Amazon KDP Print service to sell on Amazon, and IngramSpark and Ingram Content Group to sell everywhere else. The combination of these two networks will allow you to reach a huge potential market both in the US and abroad (including Barnes & Noble, local independent bookstores, libraries, and schools). To start selling your book on Amazon, you just need a KDP account, while to access the Ingram network you need to make your book available through IngramSpark.
Do you need a ready-to-upload file for your book? You may want to consider our interior formatting service.
You can see that navigating the book distribution system can be complicated and the learning curve is steep, especially for first-time publishers. As the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) puts it:
As with all aspects of self-publishing, it’s crucial to seek professional help from service providers and demand the highest possible standards to ensure your books are indistinguishable from those produced by traditional publishers.ALLi website
Luminare Press is an ALLi member (you can see our rating on their website) and has helped hundreds of authors go through the maze of self-publishing. If you need help too, you can start looking at our publishing services, or, as soon as you are ready, booking a call to get a free publishing consultation.
A few other questions you may have:
How much do printing and distribution cost?
Printing costs vary based on the number of pages, color of the interior, and type of cover. A standard-length novel, with a black-and-white interior, and paperback cover, costs between three and five dollars. Distribution costs are usually calculated as a percentage of the retail price and can vary between 15% and 65%. For more details, you can read our guide on how to price your book.
Where can I find a list of book distributors?
The main book distributors in the US are the following:
- BAKER & TAYLOR – www.baker-taylor.com
- CARDINAL PUBLISHERS GROUP – www.cardinalpub.com
- GREENLEAF BOOK GROUP – www.greenleafbookgroup.com
- INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS GROUP (IPG) – www.ipgbook.com
- INGRAM CONTENT GROUP – www.ingramcontent.com
You can find a longer list of US and international book distributors on Wikipedia, or on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) website, you can find a list of wholesalers and distributors.
How can I calculate my royalties?
Royalties are your earnings after all other costs. Start with your retail price and subtract all costs for your book, including printing, distribution, and, if present, publishing. For example, Luminare Press does not take a cut of your royalties, while other hybrid publishers do. Our guide on how to price your book also shows you how to calculate your royalties.
What should I do if I want to publish and distribute my book?
You can use the different tools we mention in this article and go through the maze of self-publishing alone, or you can use our services to publish a book that’s professionally designed and widely available on the market.
If you’re interested in publishing your book and getting the best distribution system, you can get a free estimate for your project.