Part 1, Expanded Distribution – Behind the Scenes
It’s an interesting time to be an independent publisher or self-publisher. For many years, the only way to get a book published was to work with a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers were the only ones who had access to printing at a reasonable cost and distribution at a large enough scale to make selling books worthwhile. Some smaller publishers did attempt to break into the market with more or less success – mostly less. Most small publishers either went bankrupt or got bought out by the “trad pubs”.
Until the internet.
Suddenly, anyone could distribute. With the advent of e-books, you didn’t need a warehouse full of paper copies anymore. Each person had a huge potential reach. Small ‘print on demand’ companies sprang up, allowing individuals and indie publishers to order books as needed, rather than with a huge outlay of capital every time. Over the course of a few years, self-publishers and small companies suddenly had power and choices that they’d never had before.
The traditional publishers – large and often smug – didn’t even try to catch up at first, treating everything as a fad. They left the door wide open for an entirely new kind of distributor to come in and take over: Amazon. Amazon, by strategically buying the best print-on-demand companies and making itself easy and flexible to use, became the first stop for anyone who didn’t want to or couldn’t publish through a traditional publisher. What had been a patchwork of ebook and print-on-demand distribution channels were absorbed into a single entity with a free, fairly easy-to-use interface and a wide reach.
These days, if a self-published author or an independent press wants to publish with any kind of reach, IngramSpark and Amazon are their only real options – Ingram for reaching bookstores, and Amazon for its sheer ubiquity and ability to get books in the hands of individual customers.
Independent bookstores used to have multiple avenues for purchasing titles wholesale, but over time those options have disappeared; now only Ingram remains. From Ingram’s online catalog, booksellers can order titles at a significant discount of 55% off the cover price, which then gives those bookstore owners the leeway to make some money. IngramSpark also has an ebook division which is used by Barnes & Noble and other non-Amazon e-book distributors.
Amazon doesn’t want you to have two options. They’re trying to get us to make our books Amazon-exclusive.
Not for free, of course: they want us to make a devil’s deal with them. It’s a deal designed to keep themselves on top and kill independent bookstores, all the while guaranteeing themselves a steady stream of content produced by writers who have locked themselves into Amazon’s system. And Ingram isn’t even trying to stop them.
Why? Because Amazon is evil and Ingram is stupid.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be discussing examples of this evil and stupidity. Some will be broad in scope; others, like today’s topic, will be quite narrow. Just a simple, innocent-looking tick box in the Amazon setup process. Today, let’s talk about Amazon’s ‘Expanded Distribution’ program.
When publishing a paper book through Amazon, one of the ‘pricing options’ you’re offered is an innocent-looking little box called “Expanded Distribution”. (It’s important to note that this ONLY applies to paper books. Ebooks have their own special limitations, which I’ll discuss in a future article.) The hover text sounds pretty good! “Large book distributors can make your title available to other online retailers, libraries, universities, and booksellers (beyond Amazon).” This is followed by the bland and uninformative, “Enrollment is subject to eligibility requirements.”
Who wouldn’t want their book distributed as widely as possible, even at a discounted royalty rate? You might be tempted to click this box, even just to see what happens. Don’t do it! It’s a trap! (Insert ‘it’s a trap.gif’ here.)
Part of Amazon’s evil is that they make it really easy for you to lock yourself into their system, and really hard for you to get out of it. Let’s say that you want to sell your book both through Amazon and also through independent bookstores. The only distributor that works with bookstores anymore is Ingram, and to get your book on Ingram, you have to either be one of the big, traditional publishers or use IngramSpark.
Except, if you click Expanded Distribution when you list your title on Amazon, you can’t use IngramSpark.
I have no idea how Amazon forced Ingram to accept this deal, whether it was by bullying through lawsuits, backdoor bribery, or simply Ingram being oblivious and giving away the milk AND cow for free. If you try to list a title on IngramSpark even just a few hours after it’s been published on Amazon with Expanded Distribution checked, you’ll get an error that the “ISBN is already in use.” Here’s where Ingram’s stupidity really comes in.
With very few caveats, IngramSpark should make it as easy as possible to list with them. Small and self-publishers obviously aren’t going away, we’re a huge and growing market. Yet for a long time, the IngramSpark site felt like a kludge, an afterthought thrown together for those ‘small-fry’ indies, while Ingram still considered its bread-and-butter clients to be the traditional publishers. There have recently been some attempts to improve their system, but they still have some major issues. One of those issues is the way IngramSpark handles Expanded Distribution.
Ingram obviously has a way to automatically find out whether that ‘Expanded Distribution’ box has been checked on Amazon’s site. But it doesn’t have any way to see if it’s been UNchecked. If you accidentally, casually, experimentally, or even deliberately check that innocuous little box, Ingram will not TELL you why they can’t accept your title. They’ll give you the abstruse error “ISBN already in use” and leave you to figure it out for yourself. You’ll have to go through their customer service chat function even to get an answer of why listing your book isn’t working, and possibly through a couple of people before you find someone who understands what’s going on and why IngramSpark won’t accept your title.
However, this customer service agent won’t be empowered to fix the situation directly. Instead, they’ll email you a contract, which you must print out, sign, scan, and email back. The contract states that you are no longer exclusive with Amazon. Make sure to sign on paper, because if there’s a problem with your digital signature, Ingram certainly won’t proactively contact you and the frontline customer service agents won’t know what’s going on, either. They’ll just repeat that it can take up to eight weeks to process the contract.
Incidentally, you can accelerate the process after sending in the signed contract by calling Amazon’s KDP customer service and finding a friendly agent who is, 1. willing to confirm that your book is no longer in Expanded Distribution and 2. willing to send an email to this effect to IngramSpark. Not all agents are willing to do this, but most seem to be fairly friendly and accommodating. (Please, always be polite when dealing with customer service of either company. They’re just doing their jobs, and often aren’t empowered to do very much.) If you don’t do this, expect it to take weeks for Ingram to update their system.
Why does it take so long? Once they receive the contract, in fact, Ingram not only has to process it, they have to contact Amazon and wait for Amazon to confirm that you’re no longer part of the Expanded Distribution program. As you can imagine, Amazon is in no rush to do this. They don’t want you distributing through independent bookstores. Which is, of course, the entire point of the Expanded Distribution trap: it cuts independent publishers and bookstores off from each other, rewarding publishers that agree to be exclusive to Amazon while simultaneously starving bookstores of their content.
Like I said, Amazon is evil.
Stay tuned for the next part in the series.
I felt like I was reading Kafka— what a nightmare!
Amazon is just the worst and they present themselves with such an insidious shine. I relied on them a bit too heavily during the pandemic and it’s been tough to pull out after my brain’s been wired to normalize the rate of product turnaround— but it’s not normal! Healthy systems don’t work that way.