Writing a book is quite an endeavor, but once you've got it edited, and you're ready to put it into the world, how do you actually do that? Authors today have a huge range of options and opportunities across ebook, print books and audiobooks. This is the Alliance of Independent Authors ultimate guide to book distribution.
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Definitions
Before we start, let's clarify what we actually mean when we say distribution:
Distribution refers to the process and logistics of making your book available to the consumer.
What is a Distributor?
A distributor, in its most general sense, is any company that provides products to retailers or libraries instead of directly to consumers. Distributors handle the logistics of shipping and delivery, manage billing on the author’s behalf, and in some cases act as the sole vendor from which retailers can obtain your book.
Many companies act as both publishers and distributors, producing books as well as making them available to various retail venues. However, the majority of these distributors are actually wholesalers, passive suppliers who only respond to book orders, as opposed to active distributors who have a sales team dedicated to placing books with retailers.
What is a Wholesaler?
Although the term “distributor” is used to refer to both types of service, understanding the distinction between a passive wholesaler and an active, sales-oriented distributor is crucial. A wholsalers work for the book buyers–bookstores and other businesses. A distributor works for the publisher, in our case the author.
What is an Aggregator?
An aggregator is a service that provides books to multiple distributors, giving authors access to potentially thousands of retailers from a single point of entry. It’s a great way to widen your books’ availability without incurring the overhead of dealing directly with a multitude of services.
Aggregators are most common in ebook distribution, as the electronic format is particularly well suited to this kind of arrangement. Authors upload their ebook file (or a manuscript to be converted), and then select the networks and retailers they wish to distribute their book to.
Aggregators may charge a flat fee or a share of royalties (typically 10% of the sales price) for this service.
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Choosing Your Ebook Distributors
In choosing your ebook distribution strategy, you will first need to consider which venues offer advantages for signing up directly, and whether those benefits outweigh the convenience of using an aggregator.
Signing up directly for Amazon’s KDP is relatively easy, grants you full and immediate control over your books, and gives you access to powerful marketing tools such as the Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) advertising platform and KDP Select’s Countdown Deals for ebooks. Because KDP is so tightly integrated with Amazon’s retail operations, there is little benefit to using an aggregator or outside distributor to reach Amazon shoppers.
If you are comfortable with managing multiple accounts and navigating the online interfaces of the major retailers, you may also wish to sign up directly with Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iTunes (which requires you to use a Mac). Direct access to these sellers maximizes control over your ebooks and provides slightly higher royalties.
For the countless remaining retailers, the centralized management of aggregators is a blessing to any indie author, and well worth the small cut of the royalties charged by these services.
Avoid ebook distribution services that try to lock you into exclusive contracts. Most ebook aggregators do not require exclusive agreements, and there is great benefit in being able to leverage the strengths and scope of multiple aggregators. If you do use multiple aggregators, you may need to compare their distribution channels to avoid overlaps.
Ebook aggregators ALLi recommends are Partner Members): Draft2Digital, PublishDrive and StreetLib.
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Choosing Your Print Distributors
Print Book Distribution for Authors: Online Retailers
Distribution to online retailers is a reasonably straightforward proposition if you’re using print-on-demand production. Most of your sales will come from online retailers, and the two largest print-on-demand companies serving that market are Amazon's KDP Print and IngramSpark.
You can order books from either service at cost for your own use, which allows you to maintain a personal stock for book signings, consignments, or direct-to-consumer website sales.
Print Book Distribution for Authors: Using KDPP and IngramSpark Together
Neither KDP Print nor IngramSpark requires an exclusive agreement, and as we discussed earlier, there are strong advantages to using both of these companies together for distribution. To do so, you must opt out of Amazon’s Expanded Distribution program, and use Amazon to serve only its own customers. IngramSpark can then be used to serve its huge network of distributors to reach wholesalers, bookstores and libraries.
Distribution of Print Books to Physical Stores
Although distributing your book to online sellers is fairly simple, distributing your print book to physical bookstores presents additional complications.
First, there’s the matter of persuading these retailers to carry your book. Employing a service that boasts of “tens of thousands” of retailers and libraries in their distribution network will not ensure that your book is carried by those retailers and libraries; it only ensures that should they wish to distribute your book, they can.
They will only stock books they are confident of selling/loaning. All books on their shelves need to earn their place their, either in terms of profit margin for the retailer or loan frequency for the library. It takes time to build up your authorial presence, and sales, so unless you have a blockbuster debut, finding retailers to carry your book can be a significant challenge.
Second, there’s the matter of wholesale discounting. Physical bookstores expect a wholesale discount, ideally 55%, which enables them to sell the books for a profit at list prices. This is the industry standard for brick-and-mortar sales, and it will reduce your profits. You can opt to offer a lower discount – as little as 30% depending on the territory – but the lower your discount, the less attractive your book's proposition to the retailer. Note that the discount does not all end up on the bottom line of the bookstore – distributors and sometimes also wholesalers will take a cut in return for their part in the chain, which is only fair. Neither bookstores nor distributors are charities: they must operate on sustainable business models.
Finally, bookstores will expect the ability to return unsold books for a refund. This sale-or-return model has been part of the book ecosystem for decades, allowing and encouraging booksellers to take risks ordering new stock, although they will of course order only books they expect to sell, so as to avoid tying up shelf space with non-sellers. This aspect of the trade is unnerving for indie authors, as if they offer their books on sale-or-return, the sale is not necessarily final. It may even result in losses: depending on the agreement, the author can be liable for shipping costs to return unwanted books, as well as the cost of production. To avoid shipping costs, the author can specify that returned books be destroyed (in certain territories only), but either way, the books are not returned to the indie author for stock, so the author will still lose out.
However, it is not essential to offer sale-or-return on your books, nor is it essential to offer the maximum discount. Although that means bookstores will be less likely to stock your books speculatively, if a bookstore's customer places a order for your book, the bookstore will be happy to order it as a “firm sale”, even at a lesser discount.
Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that there are other ways of working with bookstores to mutual benefit besides getting your books stocked on their shelves eg consignment selling at events.
Making your book known to these retailers—and the readers they serve— and encouraging them to order it is the goal of the next stage of publishing: marketing and promotion.
For more information about working effectively with bookstores, read the AskAlli guidebook, How to Get Your Self-Published Book into Bookstores (ebook is free for members to download in the memberzone by logging in and navigate to Advice –> Guidebooks. Available for non-members to buy from our bookshop here.)
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Exclusive or Wide?
To ‘go wide’ is the self-publishing’s jargon for distributing your book via multiple platforms, such as Kobo, Apple Books etc, either directly or via an aggregator who will distribute from one dashboard to many distributors on your behalf.
ALLi's general recommendation is to reach more readers, including those beyond the Amazon customer base, by going wide – but in certain cases, when used strategically, exclusivity with a self-publishing platform like Amazon, or a trade publisher or other rights buyer, can make sense.
Reasons to Put a Book in KDP Select
Here are reasons to enroll your ebooks in KDP Select:
Earn Higher Royalties
Apart from earning sales revenue, you will be allocated a share of the KDP Select Global Fund when customers read your books from Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.
Access KDP's Exclusive Promotional Tools
Kindle Countdown Deals offer time-limited promotional discounting for your book while earning royalties, while Free Book Promotion where readers worldwide can get your book free for a limited number of days per quarter.
Reach a Multinational Audience
Help readers discover your books by making them available through Kindle Unlimited in the US, UK, German, Italy, Spain, France, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and India and the the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL in the US, UK Germany, France and Japan.
It's also true that for authors in certain genres with a large audience of voracious readers making the most of their KU subscription (think at least a book a day!), page-read income may outstrip outright sales of ebooks and persuade you to stick with Select.
Reasons to Go Wide
The first rule of reducing risk in investment is to diversify. Monopolies are never good, and you don’t want to be dependent on any single income stream for your bread and butter.
Indie authors rightly love Amazon, but once you have more than two books, it really does make sense to think about going wide. ALLi’s advice is to have your books as widely available as possible, in as many formats as possible.
In a post on exclusivity and Amazon, our distribution advisor Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, says:
“It can take years to build readership at a retailer. Authors who cycle their books in and out of KDP Select (Amazon’s exclusivity program) will have a more difficult time building readership at Amazon’s competitors.”
And then there’s the global growth of book-buying on other platforms. Amazon may be the biggest player in the US and the UK, but there are other retail stores and devices that dominate in other countries:
- In Germany, which many experts agree is the next big market for ebooks, Amazon has 40% of the market. Apple Books and Tolino (an ebook reader with associated stores run by a group of German publishers) have the rest.
- Sales in Canada come mostly from Kobo for most of our members
- Kobo and Apple Books have expanded into more than 70 countries.
ALLi's general recommendation is to go wide – but we recognise that for some authors and books, the Amazon exclusive approach may make more sense. ALLi's Enterprise Advisor Joanna Penn shares case studies of both exclusive and wide:
For anyone with one book and no platform, exclusivity seems to be the best way to get your book moving, at least in the initial period. I helped my dad self-publish his historical thriller, Nada, and put that in KDP Select. There was no point in going with the other platforms when the majority of his sales would be Amazon, and he had no intention of doing any ongoing marketing for the book. Free books allowed us to get the sales started and get some reviews.
For translations, in a new market, with little ability to do other forms of marketing, exclusivity is also a good idea. I’m using KDP Select for my Spanish and Italian books, and the free promo days have enabled us to get the algorithms moving and get some reviews.
For an established series that you are building over time, using more than one site is my personal choice. The compound effect will mean that over time, as I add books onto the platforms, and reach readers one by one, my sales will grow on other sites. I also like spreading my income streams so I am not dependent on one platform for my livelihood. That’s why the vast majority of my English language fiction and non-fiction is on all major platforms.
In summary, with multiple books, you can adopt multiple strategies – but as an indie, the choice is yours!
Print Book Distribution for Authors: Licensing Territorial Print and Subsidiary Rights
Trade publishers refer to authors who both self-publish and sell rights as “hybrid authors” but many authors who self-define as indie have trade-publishing contracts for some of their titles or formats. Such authors approach publishers with a very different mindset to the publish-me-please attitude that was inevitable when authors had no other outlets.
Now a publisher must prove their worth in any territories or formats they wish to license and the author will license only those rights where the publisher has a proven record and a clear publishing plan.
Licensing is the term to use, always, in discussions with rights buyers. They may speak of “granting” or “assigning” rights but as indie authors, it’s vital you keep control of as many of your rights as possible, which is why ALLi advocates authors don’t sell all their rights. Instead, have a selective rights licensing approach, rather than handing across all rights, exclusively, to one publisher.
We talk about “selling” our “book” to a publisher, but what we’re actually doing when we sign a publishing contract is licensing the right to publish in exchange for an advance, royalties and some publishing services (editorial, design etc). Selective rights licensing involves making sure that the license you are offering is exclusive to that rights buyer only for publication in a specific format (e.g. print only), within a specific territory (e.g. USA only) and for a specific term (e.g. five years).
- Exclusive (meaning only the licensee has permission to use the work)
- Non-exclusive (meaning more than one person may use the work at the same time)
The license limits what can be done with the rights, meaning you retain more control over the different licensable aspects to your intelligent property. A license may be limited to a particular use for example, (editorial, noncommercial, educational), or format (print, e-book, web), or duration, or territory.
Your book contains a number of rights, and each is a separate package, which may be separately licensed in exchange for compensation in the form of a flat fee or royalties (a percentage of sales revenue). Your watchword as a selective rights licenser is “non-exclusive”. Licensing all rights to one buyer, without due consideration, is an expensive mistake we’ve seen too many authors make.
- Limiting Format
- Limiting Term
- Limiting Territory
These three are your mantra as a rights seller: format, territory, term.
A rights license is not a transfer of ownership. Buyers will push to acquire world ebook rights, audiobook rights and print rights. You will hold hard to limit the format, territory and term. “Use it or lose it” is the proper attitude for authors to have toward publishing rights buyers. They must convince you that they have the means and the will to use the rights to any format and territory you include in the deal.
Keep the term as short as you can. They will be looking for it to be a long as possible again on the “you never know” principle, and it's not unusual for publishing contracts to include “for the term of copyright”. On the same principle, you'll be looking to limit to three years, ample time for a publisher to succeed in the home territory and license rights abroad or in other formats. Many contracts settle on five years.
Sell Your Book Rights at Home and Abroad
As a general rule of thumb, the savvy author attempts to negotiate each sub right individually, making separate decisions based on market size, reach of the publisher, and potential value of the right. The aim is to limit licenses to publishers who have the wherewithal, a strategy, and a plan to exploit those rights.
If a publisher wants to license rights from an independent author, it needs to offer terms that are better than those offered to a novice writer who brings no experience or existing readership to the table. It needs to be open to splitting ebook, print book and audio rights. And it needs to permit author input into marketing, metadata and other publication decisions.
The book is just one of the formats that can be generated from an idea or concept. Instead of thinking of the book as central, and the other properties, formats, assets as spin offs of the book, consider the book as just one realization of that idea, and intellectual property licensing opportunities magnify … perhaps even explode.
Rights Licensing for Indie Authors: The Guiding Principles
- Understand the contract
- Capitalize on as many rights as possible
- Limit the term, territory, and formats
- Do your research
- Strategize your sales efforts.
- Identify priority markets and key titles to sell.
For more information about selling rights, read the AskALLi guidebook, How Authors Sell Publishing Rights, available for members to download free when they log into the membership website and for non-members to buy here.
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Choosing Your Audiobook Distributors
If you're not distributing audiobooks, the time is now. Audiobooks are booming and showing double digit growth year on year, and that growth is showing no signs of slowing down. Nielsen Books and Consumer Survey and Audiobook Consumer Survey reports growth in listening is up. Podcasts and audiobooks are about 28% in total – up from 21% in 2017, so listens to podcast are growing, and taking small incremental gains from music listening and radio. In addition, audiobook reading time accounts for 34% of reading time spent listening in 2020, 27% ebooks, 39% print books.
And yet, the audio market is still comparatively young when you look at the other book formats. That means there's a ravenous audience and plenty of room for you to put your products on their plate. Of course, another reason for creating audiobooks is that they are another income stream.
Distributing audiobooks is a relatively simple affair once you have all of the files narrated, edited and mastered. Much in the same vein as distributing ebooks, you load your files to the distributor platform and they push the metadata out and create your sales page.
Again, like ebooks, there are two main options for distribution. Exclusive to ACX—Amazon's audiobook arm—this means you can only sell your books on their platform and nowhere else. You do see an increase in royalty for this exclusivity, 40% if you're the sole holder of the rights. If you're non-exclusive then you receive a 25% royalty. Read more here.
The other option is to go wide and use a platform like libro.fm, Soundwise, Findaway Voices and Authors Direct. ALLi recommends going wide and using one of those platforms to ensure you maintain as much control and are able to reach as wide of an audience as possible.
For those of you with your own website, going wide provides you with another option for distribution. Bookfunnel (a platform that will delivery books direct to your readers digital reading device) has just launched the beta roll out of their audiobook delivery mechanism. So for those of you wanting to sell audiobooks direct from your websites, it's about to get significantly easier.
For more information on how to publish audiobooks, read our article here.
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: Choosing Your Library Distributors
One other service that deserves a special mention is low-tech and has been around a long time: libraries. Unlike bookstores, the people who work at libraries know books inside out. Many of them treat authors like rock stars. And they talk to readers all day long.
They are arguably the most important influencers in the book ecosystem. And they do an amazing job for the reading and writing community.
ALLi has a short guide to getting books into libraries. Here our focus is the many services now stepping up to provide a link between your publishing platform and the ebook library infrastructure—mostly in the US, where there are thousands of libraries with the facility to loan ebooks.
Libraries are keen to offer self-published books, but with over 600,000 indie titles published every year in the US alone, librarians don’t have the time or resources to filter the good from the bad.
Librarians also face tight budgetary constraints. Traditionally, mainstream publishers have sold print copies to libraries at a high markup (often five to ten times the price paid by consumers). After the book is checked out 20 or 30 times, it may need to be replaced.
Absurdly, this print model has been carried over into the digital age, with Digital Rights Management installed in the ebooks purchased by libraries, which both limits the number of individual checkouts and requires a “copy” to be repurchased after an overall number of loans or a preset period.
Library Book Distribution for Authors: The Most Popular Platforms
In addition to wholesalers who make books available for purchase, there are a few distributors that specialize in connecting independent authors to the growing library ebook system. The most notable of these are SELF-e, OverDrive, and Bibliotheca.
It’s important to remember that library ebook loans are part of an emergent sector. There is no perfect system for this evolving venue, so authors will need to evaluate each to determine which most closely aligns with their needs and philosophy.
OverDrive is the world’s largest library ebook platform. It offers a procurement and checkout system for over 40,000 public libraries and schools around the world. OverDrive was acquired in 2015 by Rakuten, which also owns Kobo.
Ebooks are supplied via a publishing platform such as Smashwords, PublishDrive, or Draft2Digital to library databases, where librarians decide which titles to acquire.
The curation process varies depending on the platform. Matador uses NetGalley to connect with librarians; Smashwords titles are curated for quality and library requirements, and the titles that pass are then made available to librarians.
Authors are compensated, and can set custom library prices through their ebook distributor’s dashboard. They then earn 45% of that amount for each title sold to a library.
• Authors can set price and get paid for library sales
• Global (but US-skewed)
• User-friendly app, Libby, offers book searching and sampling
• No support for titles priced at $1.99 or lower
• Some platforms curate based on previous visibility and retail success
• Favors assisted publishing platforms
Bibliotheca’s digital lending platform is called cloudLibrary, and it is utilized by more than 30,000 libraries worldwide.
Ebooks are supplied through distributors and publishing platforms. There is minimal curation, mostly for technical aspects.
Authors are paid through one of two models. The “standard” library model mimics physical books: libraries purchase a single copy, which can be loaned out to only one patron at a time. Authors typically receive three times the list price, but as a one-time transaction, much like a retail sale.
In the multiple loan model, also known as the “cost-per-checkout” or “pay-per-use” model, libraries can loan ebooks from their collection to multiple patrons simultaneously, and the library pays one tenth of the list price per loan.
• Authors can choose from standard or multiple loan models
• Authors can set prices and receive ongoing revenue from loans
• Global (but US-skewed)
• cloudLibrary offers user-friendly features like parental passwords, multi-device sync, and support for ten languages
• Access through publishing platforms only, which may take a percentage of each sale
At the author level, SELF-e is built around the permafree marketing concept, which values long-term author exposure over short-term income.
Ebooks are vetted by Library Journal, the national publication for the library community. If accepted, they are displayed to librarians via BiblioBoard’s loan and acquisition system, which, it’s claimed, is used by around 2,700 libraries and reaches 30 million patrons. SELF-e is effectively a partnership between BiblioBoard and Library Journal.
SELF-e is focused on discovery, and authors are not compensated. According to Library Journal’s Patron Profiles report, “over 50 percent of all library users go on to purchase ebooks by an author they were introduced to in a library. In the past, ALLi has criticised SELF-e's business model, which charges libraries to acquire titles but offers no royalty to authors and raised questions over the past relationship between SELF-e’s parent company, Library Journal, and the controversial vanity press Author Solutions.
And ALLi also raised concerns over SELF-e’s connection to Library Journal’s “2015 Self-published Ebook Awards,” urging changes to some ambiguous terms and conditions, especially around “irrevocable” rights and other atypical language.
SELF-e operates on two tiers. The author submits their book, via the Library Journal system. If selected, it’s made available to loan via “Library Journal SELF-e Select,” which is offered to US libraries nationwide.
If the book isn’t selected, then it’s deferred to the “Statewide Indie Anthology,” and made available via the local library system on a state-by-state basis.
• Not restricted to US authors
• Quick and easy submission
• Greater potential for selection due to two-tier system
• No author payment
• Ethical concerns over connection to Author Solutions
• No dedicated app
It’s important for authors to recognize that these three services are not like for like. They offer different options depending on territory, career priorities, and marketing strategy.
Authors must have a clear sense of what they hope to achieve from their book’s availability in a library system and choose accordingly.
SELF-e, for example, is not a sales solution with paid revenue. It’s a curated discovery channel and if, as an author, you have an issue with offering free content to a broader readership—perhaps out of concerns over sales cannibalization—then SELF-e is not for you.
But, aside from concerns over relationships with businesses like Author Solutions, it is a potential path for independent authors to gain access to an area traditionally ring-fenced by the big publishers.
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.
Whatever the methods of curation, libraries will be more prepared to take a risk on self-published titles over traditional, because the pricing tends to be lower, but only if the book looks professional and credible.
Although we are obviously sensitive to moral issues around author payment and business ethics, the current routes for access to libraries are more about visibility than bank balance. At the moment, there isn’t a huge amount of money in the library market, so smart authors should select a solution they’re comfortable with and use it as part of a longer-term strategy of increasing their profile.
Regardless of which approach an author chooses, libraries remain an avenue for broader exposure that shouldn’t be ignored, especially if library users go on to purchase ebooks by an author they were introduced to in a library.
“Library patrons do purchase books,” says Smashwords’ Mark Coker. “That’s because libraries are engines of discovery.”
Indie Author's Guide to Book Distribution: ISBNs
The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is an essential tool in the publishing business. A unique product identifier of a specific edition of a book in a single format, it provides a key to a book’s metadata. Books published in multiple editions and formats need a separate ISBN for each one. Major changes to a book in any format require a new ISBN.
Searchable online, ISBNs help all parties in the supply chain to find, order, distribute and sell books, and to analyse sales and author earnings. Because the ISBN is entirely numeric, it is universally understood in any language.
All ISBNs are managed by the International ISBN Agency, which appoints just one official agency per country or territory as the unique ISBN supplier. In some countries ISBNs are supplied free of charge, and in others they must be paid for. In territories where a charge is made, ISBNs may be bought singly or in batches, usually with a significant economy of scale.
The owner of a book’s ISBN is its official publisher, therefore indie authors must buy their own ISBNs if they wish to go on record as the publisher of their books.
Owning and using ISBNs correctly will help indie authors reach more readers both online, beyond Amazon’s customer base, and offline, including physical bookstores and libraries. It will also enable their books to be included in industry surveys.
To find out all you need to know about ISBNs, download your copy of the AskALLi Short Guide to ISBNs: