eBook distribution options in 2017 continue to multiply which is good considering the market is still dominated by Amazon, and news reports claiming eBooks are in decline. (Don’t believe them.) There are lots of online book retailers, and eBook aggregators abound to help self-publishers easily make their book available for sale.
This 2017 eBook distribution round-up tells you what you need to know to navigate these sometimes-tricky waters:
- Definitions of key terms
- An explanation of aggregator vs. direct distribution
- A decision guide
- A comparison chart of established eBook aggregators
- And finally, frequently asked questions
Keep in mind that this round-up is meant to help self-publishers, especially self-publishers of eBooks. Traditional publishers (those with several authors), and self-publishers with lots of print titles have other options. The market for digital media distribution gets more sophisticated every year so there are service providers serving different market niches.
If after reading this you are still confused about what to do, drop your question in the comments box.
Unlike the Byzantine world of print book distribution, eBook distribution is an outgrowth of the modern digital media distribution put in place to handle music, apps and other types of digital products that came before modern (non-PDF) eBooks.
What is eBook distribution?
eBook distribution is the process of making an eBook available for download from an online retailer. Distribution can be made directly to an online retailer (assuming they have a self-service portal), or via an eBook aggregator, or some combination.
What is an eBook aggregator?
An eBook aggregator receives an eBook, and distributes that file to more than one online retailer (e.g. Amazon, Apple, B&N). They make money by charging fees, or keeping a percentage of sales. Services and capabilities vary, as do the online stores each eBook aggregator will service. eBook aggregators typically specialize in markets, such as self-publishers (authors) vs. traditional publishers.
What is direct eBook distribution?
Direct eBook distribution is when a publisher or self-publisher submits their eBook directly to a store for sale online. Examples of stores are Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble.
What is the best eBook distribution method?
The first big decision you’ll face when planning eBook distribution is whether to use direct distribution or an eBook aggregator. The table and video below illustrate the 5 considerations used to evaluate these 2 methods: cost, convenience, royalty payments, book metadata, and ease of making changes.
|Consideration||When Using an Aggregator||When Using Direct Distribution|
|Cost||Fee and/or percent of sales.||Free|
|Convenience||One account to learn and manage.||Must learn and manage each account.|
|Payment||Delays. Stores pay aggregator, aggregator pays you||No delays.|
|Metadata*||“One size fits all”; no ability to customize for each store, or take advantage of marketing features offered by a store.||Customize for each store.|
|Changes||Delays. Aggregator tells store, store makes change. Possible charges or limits.||No delays, no costs, no limits.|
How to decide the best way to distribute your eBook
It’s not as hard as it seems. Begin with this bottom line consideration: which store or stores sell the most eBooks?
Think of it this way, if 100% of sales were with one store it wouldn’t matter how many other stores there are, right? Following this logic, you want to go direct with the store(s) that sell the most books and use aggregators for the others. It simply isn’t worth your time to chase (currently) measly sales from stores that won’t provide a return on your investment.
Here’s a plan that applies to virtually all one-book authors, and perhaps many multi-book authors.
- Go direct with Amazon. I can’t think of a situation where an author would use an aggregator to reach the Kindle store. You get full control, and they sell most of the eBooks.
- Are you comfortable using online tools and websites, and interested in maximum control? Go direct with B&N and Kobo.
- Same criteria as number 2, and do you have a Mac? Go direct with Apple. (The software Apple supplies for uploading your EPUB file only runs on a Mac. Once uploaded, you can access reports and make metadata changes using a web browser.)
These four stores control approximately 90% of the US eBook market, likely higher.
The next question to ask yourself is: would you rather pay a flat fee, or give up a percentage of sales in the form of a commission. Note that this percentage is in addition to the selling percentage that each store takes before paying you your royalty.
This one is tricky. If you sell a lot of eBooks, the percent of sales can exceed a flat rate arrangement. On the other hand, paying a flat rate and then selling 5 eBooks is a pretty expensive proposition.
Like Dirty Harry said: “…you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’”
Choosing an aggregator
Once you make that decision it’s easier to cull the list down to a few aggregators.
I suggest visiting each website and signing up for an account. Get a feel for how they work, read their policies, look at the features important to you.
- For example, if you write more “edgy” books, Smashwords has a thriving online store that competes with the best of them. They also have terrific selling tools.
- IngramSpark is an interesting choice because they distribute eBooks to more than 60 stores, many of them serving international markets.
The Bottom Line
Go direct where possible, add one aggregator for the balance. You can always change things around later as you get more comfortable managing your accounts. (Be sure to read my FAQ about using an ISBN provided by an aggregator.)
Comparison of eBook Distributors
There are many factors to consider when evaluating distribution, including how easy the service is to use. And some features and capabilities change from year-to-year. Rather than try to classify every difference, I’ve zeroed in on the core features and then link you to that service for more details.
Ultimately, I think comes down to cost + convenience vs. control + reach (who they distribute to). There are trade-offs. Just don’t forget that most sales will be on Amazon, and to a lesser extent Apple and B&N. See below for my caveats about potential sales.
A final note about this table. Many publishing services companies offer eBook distribution. However, with the exception of Bookbaby it is not a core service and in fact they may require you (or hound you!) to buy other services such as eBook conversion, print book design and distribution, or book marketing. E.g.: Blurb, eBooks2go, Fastpencil, Lulu, Outskirts.
Is eBook distribution with these companies a “throw in” or loss leader? This can be good or bad depending on your requirements and preferences. There is no free lunch!
|Bookbaby||Bookbaby (BookShop), Google, Overdrive,Copia, Gardners Books, Baker & Taylor, eSentral, Scribd, Ciando, hoopla, Playster||Requires paying for conversion||$29|
|Draft2Digital||Inktera, Scribd, 24Symbols, Tolino||Commission||Free|
|EbookIt||Ingram + Google, B&, Scribd, EbookIt store||Fee + commission||Free|
|IngramSpark||n/a||Currently 63 additional stores but no distribution to Google Play. You can exclude Amazon and Apple but there are caveats.||Fee||BYO|
|PublishGreen||eBooks.com; uses wholesaler to distribute eBooks to 25 other stores.||Fee|
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need an ISBN to distribute an eBook?
The requirement for an ISBN is up to the store or aggregator service you are using. The major stores with self-service portals do not require an ISBN. All the aggregators in the above list do require an ISBN because it serves as sort of a SKU—stock keeping unit—to track sales and do reporting. If you already own an ISBN, my advice is to use it. As always, owning your ISBN allows you to control your brand.
Can I use the aggregator’s ISBN if I leave or change aggregators?
No. Read the aggregator’s fine print and you’ll see you cannot “take it with you” if you leave, or use it if you wish to supplement distribution with another aggregator. For this reason, I strongly advise buying ISBNs (MyIdentifiers.com) if you plan to use an aggregator, and certainly if you are publishing more than one book.
How does print book distribution differ from eBook distribution?
Self-publishers will find they have far more options for eBook distribution than they do for print. That’s because there is a near zero cost to deliver and maintain an inventory and there is a modern and robust digital distribution infrastructure in place to serve other media such as music and apps.
Why is my book not showing in every store claimed by the aggregator?
It is up to each individual store as to whether they will sell your eBook. For example, I know from experience that while IngramSpark claims 63 stores—points of distribution—your eBook won’t automatically be “stocked” by all 63 stores. That isn’t the case will all aggregators but it pays to keep this in mind when deciding.
What happens if I decide to change aggregators?
Read their rules. If they gave you a free ISBN, you will most likely not (legally) be able to continue to use it. There may also be waiting periods.
What happens if I want to join KDP Select?
This would require you to remove your eBook from the other stores. It may also require you to establish your own KDP account if you were using an aggregator for Amazon distribution. Again, read the rules before you sign-up.
Should I choose a company that handles both eBook and print book distribution?
There is no quick or simple answer. My general rule is to treat each of these independently whenever possible, but that’s because I value control over convenience. The only really serious offering in this regard is IngramSpark, and when I use them for eBook distribution, I nearly always exclude Amazon and Apple from their distribution.
Which eBook file (Mobi, EPUB, PDF) do I use with each store?
Easy: Mobi for Amazon (KDP), and EPUB for everyone else. None of these aggregators will distribute your PDF to be sold in their partner stores.
Is it better to pay upfront, or a percent of sales?
If you sell a lot of eBooks, paying up front will be less expensive in the long run.
Can I distribute a public domain book?
Read the terms of service for each company. In the early days of eBooks there was a rush to publish public domain eBooks but stores have since implemented limits on this.
How do I distribute eBooks for free?
The major eBook retailers—Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing/KDP), Apple (iBookstore), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google (Play), Kobo (Writing Life)—have self-service portals that are free for self-publishers to use.
Your mileage may vary: 9 caveats to forecasting sales
- Regular readers of eBooks tend to be loyal to one store.
- If you market to readers that frequent a store, you will sell more books there.
- Promotions and metadata changes can help with short-term boosts, but store sales rankings are most influenced by sales and reviews.
- A store can help by sending shoppers to your book, but they won’t keep showing them a book that isn’t selling.
- Books that appeal to audiences in other countries should make sure their book is also in the Apple and Kobo stores.
- In my experience, the fewer the books an author has, the more their sales will be concentrated on Amazon.
- Unless an author has a broad platform of readers, they will do better by concentrating on a single store. At least until sales become self-sustaining.
- Chicken and egg: If you don’t sell in numerous stores, you won’t increase your reach to new readers. If you concentrate sales on one store, you will sell more books, at least in the early stages.
- The above caveats may not hold true if you sell eBooks from your website (direct to readers). Your success doing this is a function of your website’s traffic.
What aggregators have you tried? Have you had success you can share? What’s more important, convenience or control? Drop your comments in the box below.