You’ve published a book—or you will soon—and you know that you’ll need to get it to readers. But how? That basic question is what we’re going to clue you in on. The very concept of book distribution confounds a lot of first-time publishers, so we’re hoping to make it all clear here.
Before we even start the discussion, we want to emphasize that you should plan for distribution well before your book goes to press. This goes for both printed books and ebooks. Marketing is very important, and you need to work out a preliminary scheme before you print (or, ideally, before you even write) your book.
Keep in mind that bookstore managers and librarians place their orders through only one or two major book distribution centers. These folks are busy and generally do not have the time or inclination to order directly from you no matter how great your book might be. And so this is why book distributors exist.
There are several models of book distribution. We’ll tackle them in order of current popularity, addressing printed books before ebooks. Use this little table of contents to jump to any topic you wish:
- What book distribution is and why you need it
- Online book distribution schemes
- Full service book distribution
- Warehouse book distribution
- Ebook distribution
- Your bottom line
What is it? Distribution is how you get your books from your printer to your retailer, or directly to your reader. Here are the most common routes for getting printed books to readers:
Not every single publisher needs a warehouse and wholesaler for every single book; it depends on the audience you’re trying to reach.What do you know about book distribution? It's an important topic for indie authors and publishers of all sizes. https://bit.ly/3n5jz9c Click To Tweet
Book “distribution” through Amazon.com
Why the quotation marks around “distribution”? Because the thing with Amazon is that it’s not a book distributor at all. It’s a printer (Amazon KDP) and also a retailer to the public.
Amazon KDP is the most popular system for getting a book into the hands of readers these days. If you use their services, they will print each copy of the book when it’s ordered and send it out right away. It’s the most efficient method for many publishers, but it only goes so far—because not everyone wants to buy books online. And libraries and bookstores are completely left out of the picture.
Of course, if you’ve printed your book elsewhere, you can still use Amazon to sell your book by simply sending them copies as needed. Or you can have Amazon print on demand for their customers while you print and sell other copies some other way. You might want to review our our article about how this works.
Book distribution through IngramSpark (LightningSource) and Ingram
Using IngramSpark in the US (or LightningSource anywhere else) is an equally great way to print books on demand and sell them directly to individuals, bookstores, libraries, and even to Amazon. Or you can use both IngramSpark and Amazon at the same time for printing and efficiently get the best of both worlds.
You’ll notice in the chart that IngramSpark sends books to Ingram. Hmmmm, what’s up with that? Ingram is the largest book warehouse and book wholesaler in the US, and every bookstore orders almost exclusively from them. They run both IngramSpark and LightningSource. So if you print on demand with IngramSpark, you skip the warehouse. Or if you print in bulk through IngramSpark, your books will sit in Ingram’s warehouse, waiting to be ordered by bookstores, libraries, or even Amazon.
The other wholesaler that keeps appearing in the illustrations on the right is Baker & Taylor, which is the largest wholesaler to libraries. They order from Ingram or whatever other book distributor or warehouse is holding your book, and sell to libraries.
Book “distribution” through other online publishing services
If you’ve published or simply printed with BookBaby.com, Barnes & Noble Press, lulu.com, or any other online publishing or printing service, each will explain its scheme for distribution and retail sales. We can’t review them all here or give you advice on what’s best for your book. Just read the Distribution section of each website to see if they can sell directly to readers, plus send books to libraries and retailers—or whether they rely on a middleman for this. For instance, when a store orders a book from Ingram, Ingram lets BookBaby know, so they print a copy, send it to Ingram, and Ingram sends it to the store. Some of the POD services are connected directly to Amazon, and the same process takes place when an Amazon customer orders a book.
You can see from the illustration that they sell a few books directly to readers through their own websites. But, honestly, as an example, have you ever even browsed the lulu.com bookstore page?
One caution here. Before you choose an online publishing service, find out what you’ll have to pay to get copies of your own book. If you’re required to purchase them at full retail price, how could you possibly make a profit at a bookstore event or through your website? Please check this out before you decide.
There are companies out there that do the labor for you, and they even have a sales force, too. These are called book distributors, and though other companies call themselves distributors, too, once you read about their services, you’ll understand that there’s a difference. Here is what a full service book distributor will do for you:
- Store your previously printed book in their warehouse
- Send printed books to Amazon, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, individual bookstores, libraries, and universities
- Convert books to ebooks
- Upload your ebook to online vendors
- Include your book in their annual catalog and their online listing
- Offer group advertising rates in popular library magazines such as Publishers Weekly and Library Journal
- Offer free advice and instruction for your individual marketing efforts
- Keep track of your orders and inventory
- Receive book returns
- Print books in small batches to replenish your supply (some do this, others do not)
- Bill customers
- Send you a monthly statement and pay you.
For all of these services, they do take a small slice of each sale.
The online companies discussed above also do many of these things. For instance, all of the POD printers display your book on their sites and send you regular payments.
So why opt for full service book distribution? Convenience and scale. For Book Design Made Simple, we use IPG, a full service distributor, and for the most part we’re happy to let them take a tiny bit of each sale just so that we never have to think about any of it ourselves. They know what they’re doing and they do it well. And we already have our hands full with our ongoing marketing efforts.
How to find a full service book distributor
Some distributors do not accept single-book or small publishers at all. Others specialize in certain topics or certain markets. To begin your search, you might want to check out this 2020 list from Wikipedia. The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) also has a useful list.
In order to have your book accepted by a full service book distribution company, you must plan ahead.
First, there’s the application process, which takes place more than 6 months before your official publication date. You’ll need to show them your book cover, send at least a section of your book, and reveal your printing plans plus your marketing scheme and budget.
Once you’re accepted, you’ll sign a contract. Most contracts establish exclusive rights to distribute your book, with the exception of sales through your website or from personal appearances. Please read the fine print.
Thanks to Amazon.com, the number of book distributors has been shrinking. In our case, our original distributor (Partners Publishing Group) went under without warning but sold the books to another (Midpoint Sales). Then Midpoint merged with yet a third distributor (Independent Publishers Group). (Ironically, IPG had rejected Book Design Made Simple when we first approached them.) We’ve published only one book, which was fine with our original distributor, and luckily for us, the subsequent ones have kept us on despite our tiny size. Through all these changes we’ve never had any problems.
Some of you publishers don’t need full service book distribution. Perhaps you have an established audience (for a specialized annual anthology, for instance) but no time to send out orders yourself. Or maybe you want to save money by printing large quantities (lower cost per book than POD), and then using a warehouse to ship cartons or individual copies to Amazon or Ingram (lower cost than doing it yourself).
For publishers like this, a book warehouse is really all you need. The warehouse most likely will alert you when the supply is running low, and some might even print books on demand to tide you over for a while.
Using a simple warehouse saves the costs of a sales force and advertising. Some warehouses set up an Amazon account for clients, and others let you do that for yourself. Most wholesalers are less fussy about the books they’ll accept, which makes the application process a lot easier. Once again, IBPA has a useful list to help you find a reputable book warehouse.
As far as distribution goes, ebooks are easier to deal with.
You probably already know that there are three basic ebook file formats: EPUB (for all reflowable ebook readers and devices), MOBI (for fixed-layout Kindles, such as comics) and PDFs.
If you decide to sell your ebook on Amazon, watch for the choice called KDP Select. It’s an exclusivity agreement that does not allow you to sell your ebook through any other vendors for at least 90 days. The KDP Select program does give you certain advantages, so consider it. You can learn more about weighing your ebook marketing options in this Reedsy blog post.
You probably also know that you need digital rights management (DRM) in order to prevent copying, printing, and sharing your ebook content. Luckily for you, DRM will be provided by your ebook vendors, no matter what company or file format you use. If you don’t want this type of encryption, that’s fine, too. Here’s a good article about why you might want to forgo DRM.
With ebooks, a distributor is sometimes called an aggregator. Publisher-vendors such as BookBaby and Smashwords will act as aggregators and distribute your ebook to lots of other retailers for a fee. Once again, this is when you should carefully read the Distribution section of any online publisher-vendor’s website.
If you’ve decided to go with full service book distribution, you’ll probably find that they will act as your ebook aggregator.
Ebook vendors are not nearly as fussy as full-service book distributors and will take almost any book that doesn’t contain illegal or pornographic material. You can simply send your file to them for inclusion on their site, but do read the fine print before you hand them exclusive rights to anything.
Of course you’re thinking about your profit as a publisher. We cannot tell you which model to use for your circumstances, but when you’re making your decision, keep these factors in mind:
- The amount of money you would receive from your distributor or online retailer for each book. In some cases that amount is just pennies, so be sure to price your book well by juggling costs with readers’ price expectations. This is a very complex calculation, one that all publishers contend with.
- How difficult it would be to do without any kind of distribution. You could perhaps sell only at personal appearances or through your own website. Consider physical book storage (print-on-demand wouldn’t work, so you’d need to print in bulk), shipping costs, time, and the need to monitor your site constantly and not stray far from your book cache.
- Protecting your ebook content with encryption.
Balancing all your requirements, figuring your potential profit, and finding a practical solution for your book and your publishing company is a complex task, but certainly a vital one. You can try a couple of different approaches at first, but don’t get stuck in a timed agreement or sign away any of your ownership rights. Once you find the best book distribution method for you, stick with it.
We wish you the best of success in distributing your book in the best possible way for you.
Read more: How to price your book » Juggle all the factors to find the best one for your book.
And more: Our book sales, three years in » Avoid some of our mistakes and learn from our successes.
And still more: POD book publishing » How to get the best of both worlds.
Book Design Made Simple. You can do it yourself.