From Jane Friedman:
During my career in publishing, several factors have led to self-publishing becoming a viable and profitable path for authors. These include:
- The growth of ebook sales, which in some ways replaces the mass-market paperback
- The rise of online retail: the majority of books are now sold online regardless of format—and we all know where, at least in the US
- The advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology and distribution
This last one has been of tremendous benefit to traditional publishers and authors alike. It means that no one has to take a financial risk on a print run when demand is uncertain. Nor does anyone need to worry about warehousing and inventory management. Rather, the book is printed only when an order is placed, then it’s immediately dispatched to the customer.
As of 2021, most readers cannot tell if the paperback they’re holding in their hands is print-on-demand or from a traditional offset printer. Even hardcover print-on-demand is seeing an increase in sales and acceptance by consumers. Yes, print-on-demand carries carries a higher unit cost (and thus lower profits), and it has some design and production limitations. But for the average self-publishing author, this makes publishing more accessible and affordable than it has ever been. (The same is true for small presses, of course.)
As more and more books get purchased online, it doesn’t matter if your books are available on a physical bookstore shelf or not. You don’t need a bricks-and-mortar presence for your book to be discovered and purchased. All you need is a product page at the major online retailers. Readers won’t know how the book is printed or that it’s only printed when they order it, or they may prefer a digital edition.
Print distribution using POD can be set up quickly by anyone, at no or little cost, using Amazon and Ingram. Amazon KDP is the portal that self-publishing authors use to upload their book for sale in both print and ebook formats. Ingram is the biggest book distributor in the world, and authors can access its distribution network through IngramSpark. Cost is minimal, about $50 for initial setup and $25 per year after that. Ingram sells to anyone and everyone who buys books, including your independent bookstore, libraries, chains; it also has a global distribution network that reaches just about any country you can expect to sell in. Your book is available to be ordered at thousands of retailers once it’s active in Ingram’s system.
So quality distribution is not hard. It can be obtained by anyone by simply signing up and uploading printer-ready book files or ebook files.
So why do people talk about the need for “distribution” so much if distribution is essentially free for all?
Some people conflate book distribution with having a sales and marketing team.
There are two types of distributors in traditional book publishing. One type of distributor actually sells the book into retailers, in significant quantities. Sales reps pitch specific accounts or buyers. They try to secure orders for hundreds or thousands of books prior to the publication date. This makes a lot of sense in a traditional publishing model where there’s a print run and you’re trying to generate as much interest and demand as possible in the lead up to publication, to get as many books on shelves as possible. The print run might even be adjusted based on how much accounts order.
The other type of distributor simply ships books when they’re ordered. They take care of warehousing and fulfillment. They are not selling and marketing books, but they are also taking a smaller cut of sales than the type of sales-responsible distributor discussed above.
Ingram is a bit of a confusing character in all this because it handles both types of distribution. But for the purposes of self-publishing authors, it really only serves the latter role: it makes books available to be ordered. Your book is included in its database of thousands upon thousands of titles. But they’re not actively going out and selling or marketing titles to accounts, any more than Amazon has a sales force that sells your ebook or POD book.
If you’re investing in a print run, then distribution is in fact a major challenge
Imagine spending thousands of dollars to pay an offset printer to ship you 1,000 print copies of your book. The books have arrived at your front door on a pallet. Now what? How will you get these books into retailers’ hands? Where will you store them? Who will ship them? This is a big problem and it used to be that authors relied on Amazon Advantage to solve it. But Amazon Advantage is now closed to new accounts.
It is exceedingly difficult to distribute print books as an author when you do a print run. You really need to be working with a service company of some kind, or a hybrid publisher, or someone who can warehouse the books and fulfill orders for you over the long term, who has a relationship with Ingram, Amazon, and so on. There is no realistic way for a single-title author to work directly with either of those companies unless you’re using their print-on-demand services.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman
There are a relatively small group of blogs and websites that almost always have information that PG thinks is quite worthwhile. Jane Friedman’s blog is one of that group. She sometimes has guest bloggers from time to time who also usually do a good job as well, but Jane is very consistently quite good.
Much recommended by PG: Jane Friedman