The Path to Publishing, Part 2: Distribution


by Gideon Marcus

Welcome back to “The Path to Publishing,” a series detailing all that we’ve learned in the last two years of running a small press. If you missed installment one, where we discussed our disenchantment with the traditional publishing process and why we founded our own press, you can find it here.

There are a million directions we could go from that decision. Publishing is a multi-faceted business involving:

  • Creation of content (i.e. writing books)
  • Formatting of content for sale
  • Scheduling of releases
  • Distribution (getting your books in the hands of readers)
  • Sales mechanics (setting up the ability to get money from readers — overlaps with Distribution)
  • Marketing (getting readers to want to read your books)
  • Outreach (for reviews, to bookstores, to collaborators)
  • Accounting
  • Infrastructure (web presence, social media, business structure, etc. — overlaps with all of the above)

This may sound counterintuitive, but I’m going to start by talking about distribution. How you choose to distribute your books will have a strong influence on how you handle all the other facets including infrastructure and even the types of titles you’ll want to release. Plus, if you’re reading this, you probably have some idea how to create content (or, if you’re primarily an editor/manager type, where to get it). But don’t worry; there will be articles on all of these subjects, and probably multiples for some of the more involved ones.

So let’s talk distribution, the way a book gets from your completed, edited manuscript to a physical or electronic work in a reader’s hands.

(please note that this series is focused toward folks who live in the United States of America; the game is different in other parts of the world).

Electronic Books

The easiest and cheapest way to produce a book is electronically. There’s no paper involved. Delivery is instant. Logistics are dead simple. If you are planning to publish titles, either as a self-publisher or as a small press, you must have an avenue for e-books.

With e-books, you want as a wide distribution as possible. Readers go to lots of places to find books, so the more distributors you’re registered with, the more likely you are not to miss a sale. In order of importance, the distributors you want to list your book with are:

Your own site

No, I didn’t start with Amazon. They’re next.

The fact is, every single distribution site is going to take some kind of commission for listing your book with them. The only one that won’t is your own site. There, you only have to worry about processing fees (credit cards take a small percentage of every transaction) and the cost of your payment processor (we use e-junkie, which costs $4 a month).

In return, you get every penny of the cover price of your book.

In our experience, your own site is where you’ll get the majority of e-book sales from people you know personally. That first launch surge from your biggest fans will be a nice influx of uncut sales.

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing

Most self publishing authors begin and end with Amazon. It’s easily the biggest distributor of e-books, and they dominate google results when people look for your titles. Uploading a title is easy and you don’t have to worry about payment processing.

Normally, you’ll receive 70% of the ebook sales price for USA-based sales, and a smaller cut for overseas sales. If you don’t mind being an Amazon-only shop (using KDP-Select), they offer certain additional benefits (higher royalties for overseas sales, a chance to be part of their ‘lending program’, etc). If you genuinely have no interest in selling anywhere but on Amazon, go ahead and enroll your book in the program. Beware, though – if Amazon catches you selling through your own site or others, they may ban you. And it may be harder getting out of the program than it was getting in.

Remember that you keep 100% of the money from e-books you sell from your own site, and the commissions tend to be higher on non-Amazon sites. And as big as Amazon is, there are a lot of non-Amazon sites, and they are becoming more and more popular, especially as folks get tired of Bezos’ shady employment practices.

Needless to say, we chose not to enroll in the program.

Ingram Spark

The other big player in the e-book distribution world is also the biggest American player in the physical book distribution world. Thus, if you’re going anywhere besides Amazon, you’ll want an Ingram account. E-books uploaded to Ingram become autopopulated to a lot of other outlets, including Barnes and Noble and Kobo, the latter search engine being used by a lot of independent bookstores. For a little more, you can also get your titles populated to iBooks (and even to Amazon, but that is kind of redundant since you’ll want an Amazon account anyway).

Note: Ingram charges fees every time you want to modify your titles, and you will modify them a lot. Sometimes the cover is wrong. There are always typos. Those fees can be terrifying. However, we have always found promotion codes that waive the fees. I’m pretty sure Ingram just keeps the fees as a way to make a quick buck from suckers. The lack of ethicality bugs me, but now that we’ve got the workaround, it’s only a minor irritation.

Small Fry

There are lots of other places you can host a book with, such as DriveThruFiction, SmashWords, Draft2Digital, and StreetLib. The latter ones cater specifically to the self-publisher who doesn’t have a formatter and just wants to get a book out there. You can also sign up direct with Kobo and Barnes and Noble, but there’s no need if you go with Ingram.

We haven’t really bothered with the small fry — they aren’t worth the time for us in part because we’re so much more oriented toward physical books. But if you’re going primarily/exclusively e-book, then widening your potential audience by maximizing distribution can work for you. Especially if you don’t want to go Amazon exclusive.

Physical Books

With all of the advantages of e-books, why would anyone in our modern day read a physical book, much less produce one?

Turns out that, given a chance, the majority of folks prefer to read physical copies of books. E-books are convenient, and they don’t take up space, but physical books are easier on the eyes and to navigate. Plus, physical books have that book smell. There’s a reason that independent bookstores have been on the rise for a decade now (though COVID has definitely put a crimp in their success).

If you live in the United States, there are basically three ways to get books into the hands of readers.

Your own production

This is the analog to your own website. You find a printer to produce a run of books — 250, 500, 1000, 10,000. Then you contract with a physical distributor to get those books into bookstores. They’ll warehouse the books for you, too. This is the way all publishers did things until the 2000s.

We don’t do this.

Don’t get me wrong. We might do this some day. There’s a certain sales volume you have to reach to make it worthwhile, to get the economy of scale of printing that maximizes return on each copy sold. Call it 500 copies of an individual title per week. We’re not quite there yet.

There are downsides: you lose a lot of flexibility with this model, and you run the risk of ending up with hundreds or thousands of books in your inventory that don’t sell.

Moreover, putting your distribution in the hands of a distributor is necessarily going to lose you sales. No one can sell books as well as you, and a distributor doesn’t just sell your books — they sell everyone else’s books, too.

On the other hand, being represented by a “real” distributor can open certain doors for you. More on that later. So in the end, it’s a decision worth considering when you get big enough, but I definitely wouldn’t start out this way.

Amazon

Createspace

Amazon’s Createspace allows you to produce printed copies of books “on demand.” It means they get listed on Amazon’s website, folks can order them, and Amazon will print a bespoke copy and ship it to the reader. They’ll even give you an ISBN (book identification number), although this number will list the publisher as “Independent Publisher” and will only work with Amazon. Still, pretty cool!

Amazon offers an “Expanded Distribution Option” that supposedly allows retail stores and libraries to order your books, effectively making Amazon your distributor. If you have any interest in selling to bookstores, you do not want to choose this option. Expanded Distribution locks you into Amazon just like the KDP Select e-book option does. And no independent bookseller actually wants to work with Amazon. Plus, if you select the Expanded Distribution Option, it’s hard to extricate yourself.

Just don’t do it.

What you can use Amazon for is ordering larger numbers of “Author Copies.” These are books Amazon will produce for you at much lower than the cover price, though still higher than if you got a dedicated print company to make them for you.

For example, we can get copies of our $14.99 Rediscovery for around $5 apiece. We will often buy a box of twenty copies or so to hand-sell at shows. The profit margin is quite nice.

Some bookstores that don’t work with a distributor (there aren’t many, but they do exist, particularly stores focused on used titles), and you can ship these Author Copies to such stores directly. Generally, we’ll accept payment from the bookstores via PayPal at 40% off the cover price. So for Rediscovery, it means we buy the book for $5, sell it for $9 (making $4) and the bookstore then sells the title for $15, making $6.

Essentially, we, facilitated by Amazon, are our own distributor. The profit margins are good, better than we could get with a conventional distributor (see below), but it’s cumbersome. So we only do it for a handful of the stores we work with, and only for orders of a certain minimum number of books.

Ingram Spark

This is the biggie. If you want to get your book into bookstores, you have to get an Ingram Spark account, period. Ingram Spark bought Lightning Source, a print on demand publisher, which means they’re the only one-stop publisher/distributor in the U.S. They are also the one distributor virtually every bookstore will have access to.

Quick detour. Do you even want to sell to bookstores?

Maybe you don’t. Maybe you are satisfied with e-book sales and don’t want the hassle. Maybe you want your print books available, but listing them with Amazon is good enough for you. All I can do is tell you why we sell to bookstores.

There are around 1200 independent bookstores in the United States that sell new books. When we started Journey Press, we did not expect to get a lot of bookstore sales. After all, we were a brand new publishing house competing with the big companies. Who would want to take a chance on us?

Then we announced the impending release of Rediscovery, and a nice fellow at Horizon Books expressed his desire to stock the book. Our first instinct was to (as described above) ship him some Author’s Copies on a commission basis.

We quickly realized that this was not scalable to other stores in any practical sense. Most stores don’t do commission basis sales, it smacks of amateurism, and it’s a pain to micromanage your distribution.

On the other hand, virtually all of those 1200 independent bookstores have an account with Ingram and often have the purchasing portal (“i-page”) open on their computer. If your titles are available via Ingram, you are available to these stores.

Here’s what your title looks like to a bookseller on i-page:

And here’s the thing. If you sell your books to bookstores, and they sell their copies, chances are they will order more books. That’s how it works, right? If you have something that sells, you want to keep selling it. Once you’ve got a bookstore as a customer, you now have somewhat guaranteed repeat sales.

So then the question becomes “Can you get bookstores to buy your books?”

That’s worth a whole other article, and I promise you’ll get it, but suffice it to say, there are currently 500 bookstores that carry our titles. If all of these bookstores sell just one book a week, that’s more than 2000 sales a month. For a Random House or a Penguin, that’s not much. For a small press or an individual, that’s pretty darned good.

Note: 80% of our book sales are to bookstores.

All right, back to Ingram. Working with Ingram for physical sales is pretty much the same as with e-books. You upload your title, and it becomes available. Moreover, it autopopulates to Bookshop.org, which is pretty much the anti-Amazon. Every sale made through Bookshop supports independent bookstores who are part of their network. Also, individual bookstores have their own Bookshop digital storefronts.

Bookshop came about just in time for the pandemic, and it saved the bacon of many a bookstore during the period they couldn’t have their doors open. We like them.

Ingram also produces author copies at roughly the same price and quality as Amazon. We tend to buy from Amazon because it’s slightly more convenient, but you could conceivably have a completely non-Amazon strategy, if your inclinations are to do so.

To Bowker or not to Bowker

Ingram, like Amazon, will give you an ISBN number for your physical book. Like Amazon, the ISBN will only work for Ingram, so if you list on both, you’ll be juggling two different ISBNs for the same book: the Amazon version and the Ingram version. And as with Amazon, when someone looks you up, the publisher name will be listed as “Independent Publisher.” Any bookstore will look at that, read it as “self-published,” and their eyes will glaze over. Good luck getting them to carry you.

The solution is to buy your own ISBNs. Now, Bowker literally has the monopoly on ISBNs, and as a result, they are really pricey when purchased one at a time: $125 a pop! But you can also get 1000 of them for $1500, which is only $1.50 apiece. It’s a system that definitely favors big publishers and shuts out small ones.

We bought a whole bunch – not 1000, but more than 10. It’s worth it for booksellers to see “Journey Press” when they look up our books, and we had the investment capital to do it going in. If you can’t afford to outlay that kind of cash for your first book, one possibility would be to find other authors and go in on purchasing a batch of ISBNs together, or look for a small publisher who’s purchased a batch of numbers and see if you can buy one from them directly. The only catch is that the ISBN will list whoever owns the account as the publisher and imprint. That can get complicated if a group can’t decide what to call themselves, or if there’s a falling out in such a group, or if the small publisher whose name you’re using goes under. Amazon and Ingram are potentially less hassle – but the number won’t really be ‘yours’.

Yet another decision for you to make.

An imperfect solution

If you go with Ingram Spark, know that they aren’t going to print and store your books. Like Amazon, it’s print on demand. This can cost you some bookstore sales. Every bookstore has a “primary warehouse” from which they order their Ingram titles, usually in a batch once every few days. If a book is not available in their primary, they can order from a seconday warehouse, but unless they buy 15 titles at a time (doesn’t have to all be the same book), they get hit with shipping fees. Bigger stores don’t think twice about ordering from secondaries. Smaller ones do.

Ingram Spark only produces print on demand books from a couple of their facilities, mainly the one in Tennessee. That means that, for the majority of bookstores, your titles will only be available from secondary warehouses.

Worse yet, that i-page snapshot I showed you? These numbers are lies. If you go print on demand, there are no books at the warehouses. Ingram just puts numbers in the report to give booksellers a false sense of security that if they order books, they’ll get them.

You will lose sales at some bookstores if your books aren’t available at their primary warehouse. You’ll also have a slightly tougher time making sales if a bookseller knows your titles are print on demand — there is a stigma of cheapness attached to them, even though the quality is just fine. In my experience, however, the breakage is pretty minor, say 10-20% of stores you call will turn you down for being print on demand.

It’s still worth it to go this route rather than printing your own run and getting a dedicated distributor, particularly early on. Again, the flexibility can’t be beat, and you don’t have to sink thousands of dollars into producing stock.

Final thoughts

There’s sure a lot to chew over, isn’t there? Don’t be intimidated by your wealth of options. You don’t have to pursue them all, and certainly not all at once. Even if you do, it’s not so bad. Building a website is easy, signing up with Amazon and Ingram are easier still.

Just please, please, please don’t click on “Amazon Expanded Distribution.” You have been warned…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: