The Value of Book Distribution Is Often Misunderstood by Authors

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

28 thoughts on “The Value of Book Distribution Is Often Misunderstood by Authors”

  1. “Some people conflate book distribution with having a sales and marketing team.”

    And some people confuse promotion with marketing.
    They are not tbe same thing.

    As in:
    https://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-marketing-and-vs-promotion/#:~:text=Difference%20Between%20Marketing%20and%20Promotion%201%20Marketing%20consists,strategies%20like%20advertisement%20and%20publicity.%20More%20items…%20

    TLDR:

    • Marketing consists of many activities and promotion is just a part of marketing.

    • Marketing can exist without the help of promotion, but promotion cannot exist independently.

    • Promotion is all about creating a positive public awareness about the product, and it involves strategies like advertisement and publicity.

    • Marketing starts from identifying consumer needs and continues from production and selling, to finally providing after sale service to customers.

    • Advancement of a product or service is at the focus of promotion while identification and satisfaction of customer needs is at the focus of marketing.

    Identifying consumer needs is also known as Market research. Successful companies do it. Publishing doesn’t.

    An even shorter way of distinguishing marketing from promotion is that promotion is convincing people to buy what you have (good, bad or indiferent) whereas marketing is about giving people what they want/need. In books, Amazon lives off market research and tbeir near infinite virtual shelf space while B&M bookstores are stuck with what they shelve.

    And with tbe actual distribution of the finished product being increasingly “democratized”, the rest of Marketing is getting to be increasingly important. For authors targetting genre that mostly boils down to understanding readers’ expectations of tbat particular genre and meeting them. The demand exists and reaching the customer is doable, yet surprisingly, this still trips up a large portion of authors both Indie and tradpub.

    It doesn’t get more basic than that.

    • Good points as usual, F, but some people also include promotion as a part of marketing along with advertising, brand-building, etc.

      • Yes.
        As the linked piece points out, marketing includes promotion but promotion alone isn’t marketing.

        Tradpub’s idea of marketing is really just promotion of what tbey already decided to ship with no consideration of how receptive the consumer market might be. Calling it marketing is puffery, making it look like tbey do more than they really do: list upcoming releases and tally up their preorders. For a lucky few they do a bit of front table payola and, if Daunt is serious about running B&N like Waterstones, they lose that option at B&N.

        All tbeir distribution amounts to is printing, warehousing (unless its POD), and shipment (which Amazon handles on their share of the market). In fact, for midlist titles that go POD from day one, distribution is uploading a file to the POD service.

        Amazon isn’t exactly wrong to demand big discounts (compared to B&M and especially the standalones) considering all the distribution aspects they take on.

  2. I don’t disagree with her hybrid publisher comments and many of those are the predatory/vanity types. I have recently worked as a ghostwriter with two hybrids that paint a different picture. Both were upfront with the author that they could do many of these services themselves. They also were honest about the author needing to do most of the marketing. Essentially, they offered to manage the publishing for a fee. Authors, especially speakers, love how they can email the publisher to ship x copies to a certain hotel by a certain date, and then the publisher handles any shipment of unsold copies back to the distribution warehouse. It’s not cheap, but a nice service for those that can afford it.

    • Glad to hear about honest people and organizations in publishing and elsewhere in the business world, D., and I also agree that some people are willing to pay money for good services that can make a book happen quickly without the individual spending a lot of valuable time in the process. In these cases, the books are sometimes part of the marketing support for speaking, classes and other services rather than the principal business of the author/entrepreneur.

      • That’s right. One of them even tells potential clients it’s an expensive business card. These two also have fantastic and thorough editing. Most vanity presses only provide a light pass.

  3. There is a notion among many that the author is the most important factor in the book business. I have always disagreed, contending that there is no business without the publisher, distributor and retailer functions.

        • It’s more than fine. It’s THE WAY. At least for me. When I started doing Indie Self-Pub I never saw myself just producing a manuscript. I wanted to do it all and couldn’t before. Now I can.

          • OK. I accept your analysis and will alter my statement to recognize it.

            There is a notion among many that the author’s manuscript is the most important factor in the book business. I have always disagreed, contending that there is no business without the publisher, distributor and retailer functions.

    • Functions?
      For print, yes. Mostly.

      The digital world though collapses all those into one: click upload.
      And I’m not talking just Amazon.
      There is a lot more to publishing than books at B&N and it’s a new century out there. Pretty soon getting stories to Musk City on Mars won’t involve print, ever.

      Received wisdom comes with expiration dates.

        • Actually, as long as Bezos doesn’t fire the “industry experts” wasting his money, Artemis will go the way of Constellation and Musk will get to mars before Blue Origin stops sueing.
          Latest word is Blue Origin just added 600 new employees to replace the engineers quitting in disgust. All lawyers.

          https://observer.com/2021/08/blue-origin-lost-engineers-spacex-firefly-moon-lander-contract-nasa-fight/

          A recent report had Bezos asking the Blue Origin CEO to develop a reusable upper stage to have a prayer of competing with STARSHIP. The answer was that maybe by 2030. When Bezos pointed out SpaceX will have theirs flying by next year the CEO replied, “the way Musk does things won’t work for us”.

          Bezos didn’t fire him.

          BO keeps trying to do to SPACEX and NASA what AWS did to DOD and MS over the JEDI contract: sue, sue, and keep suing until the feds cancelled the whole project in disgust.

          Problem is, SpaceX is going to build tbe orbital and mars versions of STARSHIP on their own dime. Killing the lunar Starship won’t change that. All indications are Musk thinks the Moon is still too close to the mudball to effectively defend from the coming Chinese global empire. 😉

          • Bezos is quickly losing most of his street cred with techies and futurists.
            Gotta remember Musk is a genuine techie (a physicist turned engineer) and Bezos is a financial analyst being taken for a ride. 20 years at a Billion a year and all he has to show for it is a 15 minute joyride. By contrast SpaceX is sending four civilans on a 3 day orbital excursion in a couple of weeks as part of an effort to raise BIG money for St. Jude’s Children’s hospital.

            It’s called INSPIRATION 4 and Netflix is recording everything for a “near real time” documentary.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspiration4
            (Check the stories of the crew. They will be livestreaming and talking to St Jude’s kids.)

            Think of it as dueling visions: one is looking to drag the species kicking and screaming to a multiplanetary civilization and tbe other is suing to make the givernment give them $6B for a hunk of junk as they are “entitled” to get. I know which world I want to live in but we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes the bad guys win.

            So far the blue guys have made NASA pause the lander effort twice for a minimum 6 month delay. More lawsuits will follow until or unless Congres bribes them to: “Go ‘way, kid. Stop botherin’ me,” as Foghorn Leghorn woud say.

            They might even succeed in killing Artemis altogether.

          • Bezos is looking pretty silly now. He hasn’t performed, and is trying to overcome that with lawsuits. NASA just announced a delay in the program due to his legal moves.

            Let’s hope Musk continues to roll right over his promises with real accomplishments. Musk is real competition, playing on the same field, with the same resources, and doing it better. Good for him.

            • Musk is truly popcorn worthy every single day.
              (His AI humanoid robot pitch at Tesla this last week was a brilliant recruitment ploy. The thing is about a decade away but when those bots start picking fruit and cleaning house things are going to get verry interrestink. 🙂 )

              Look at the robot specs:

              https://www.teslaoracle.com/2021/08/20/tesla-robot-overshadows-tesla-ai-day-full-self-driving-dojo-everything/#:~:text=Tesla%20Robot%20specs%20%20%20Height%20%20,lbs%20%2868.0%20kg%29%20%201%20more%20rows%20

              No robot rebellion coming from those guys. Two slow and weak. Just enough speed and strength to do light drudge work. It screames “underclass substitute”. (Just make sure they are fully AZIMOVian.) Hmm, I wonder if the real world Susan Calvin is working at Tesla. 😉

              A few things to keep in mind about the real “Tony Stark”:

              His biggest gift is recruitment and inspiration. His pronouncements are always aspirational not literal. He always overpromises but he also delivers…eventually.

              He operates on “Elon Time” which is always off by 30-50%.

              He is a master of sleight of hand: “We’re going to Mars to buikd a million person city in 30 years. Don’t bother yout pretty little heads with the fact we’re going to kill the business model of every company and country in the space business in 5 years.”

              All his projects are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Tesla, Boring, SpaceX, Starlink, Neuralink, even AD ASTRA, his educational project, and yes the lightweight slow AI robot (OPTIMUS Sub-prime). A serious martian (or lunar) colony (not a reasearch station) will live underground (hence advanced, fast, cheap tunneling systems), it’ll need solar cell tech, battery tech, vertical farming tech (his brother’s own project), and it will need highly educated techies to survive and, conversely, will not be able to afford an underclass of manual laborers. Hence, AI Robots.

              Yes, he is serious about Mars.
              (Or the moon. His Timetable would better fit Luna City than Lowell Town. Sleight of hand.)

              Above all, pay attention to what he does, not what he says. He has Aspergers, after all. 🙂

              And a lot of what he does is to raise the cash to bootstrap his big project. Project, not dream. He is actually doing it. Just not the old fashioned way. His most telling quite remains: “The best part of a system is no part”. Apply that to societies and you end up with “the best underclass is no underclass”.

              Definitely worth studying, as story fodder if nothing else.

              • Musk’s activities keep reminding me of Mariesa’s from Michael Flynn’s Firestar trilogy. I feel like I have deja vu.

                (Also it is criminal that book doesn’t have an e-edition.)

                • Me, I see him as a real life version of Heinlein’s D.D. Harriman: half genius visionary, half huckster.

                  Flynn. Firestar Trilogy.
                  (Rings a faint bell.)
                  I’ll have to look around.

                  Some books not available as digital in the US are available in the UK. And some popping up on Amazon.

                  In tbis case Kindle only has the Fourth volume: FALLING STARS, but not the rest of the series. Only used print editions as high as $30+.

                  Odd but not shocking considering it’s published by Tor. Explains why I haven’t read it.
                  I have read (and loved) FALLEN ANGELS, which is much older and readily available because itsvunder BAEN. “Great” distribution job by TOR, huh?

                  Very apropriate to bring it up in this thread. Good one.

                  I’ll keep looking although I’m pretty sure the whole series can be found on USENET or a torrent somewhere if I had the time and inclination. It isn’t hard.

        • And end.
          That’s also where retail begins.
          The value add of tradpub has been withering for over two decades.
          Again: received wisdom has expiration dates. And tradpub has already seen quite a bit of their traditions fade away. More go away regularly.

          Try this: when was the last real bandwagon book to make an impact like, say, FIFTY SHADES? Just how good is their marketing and distribution today compared to even a decade ago?

          We’re into the third decade of the 21st century: everything of the 20th is suspect, if not dead and gone.

  4. And as I commented on the OP:

    ”…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.”

    To which I said: “Amazon does actually do a form of marketing for titles that is hard to beat: they send out millions—billions?—of ‘you might be interested in…’ emails each day showcasing books. It’s all about their algorithms and the author’s metadata and how well they line up.”

    To which she replied: “If one considers algorithms or automations to be a sales force, then sure!”

    To which I say: Yes.

    • There’s the somewhat more targeted “People who bought this book also bought” algorithm. Plus what is essentially a free “New Releases” newsletter when they follow you as an author (with the added bonus that it is also sent to the Kindle Alerts).

      Marketing departments (at intelligent companies, which obviously leaves out tradpub) do an enormous amount of number crunching, in order to reach the consumers that are most likely to buy. Amazon has far more numbers to crunch than anyone else (not just in the book sales business). Whether their algorithms are better than, say, PepsiCo, I don’t know – but they are being continually refined by a well funded analysis department.

      (Not perfect, of course. I’m still being told about later books in a series that I abandoned on KU quite a while ago, when it went completely out of its mind – as in massive amounts of exercise combined with massive consumption of sugar and other carbohydrates will make you superhuman and immortal…)

      • Yeah, “Also Boughts” are powerful because you’re at the point of purchase, but I’m looking at (another) email I just got from store-news@amazon.com, and not only is the subject “Book recommendations for Harald Johnson” but the text title is “Books you may like…” and then covers, titles, blurbs, etc. with “Learn More” btns. AND also another section: “Based on your reading…” with more and then another with “Recommended books for you…” And the books are all within my interests.

        Pretty darn targeted, I’d say.

        • Not just targetted: interactive.
          Instant gratification.
          Short-circuits the buy-no buy internal debate. Impulse buys are the best sales. 😀

          • Bad, cruel hoary old joke:
            “Q:How do you teach an old physicist new tricks?
            ” A:You don’t. You take’em out back, shoot’em, and hire a new one. ”

            Paradigm lag is real and not just in the tech world.

            Try looking up the “World leading” tech companies of the 70’s and 90’s. See where they are. What they are. Few companies in any business are capable of reinventing themselves constantly and it is usually by over-reliance on received wisdom.

            Take a step back to survey the landscape.

            These are not grandpappy’s days.
            For one thing, there were *some* semicompetent politicians in those days.

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