The Hard Truth About Distribution for Self-Published Authors

Distribution has always been one of the more complex aspects of book publishing, and print-on-demand platforms have caused increasing confusion and hype around this process. It’s the number one question prospective self-publishers have: How can I get my book into bookstores? To be clear: When print-on-demand platforms offer “free global distribution to retailers,” this means that your book will be listed in the Ingram catalog, from which booksellers purchase orders. Regardless of whether you print on an offset press or print-on-demand, “available for distribution” and “on a shelf in a bookstore” are two entirely separate states. Basically, just because bookstores can order your book doesn’t mean they will.

The mysterious alchemy by which books get ordered from the catalog and shelved in stores is the nut self-publishers haven’t been able to effectively crack. Why? Several good reasons:

  1. The sales process involves in-person pitches to bookstores’ buyers by publishers’ sales reps. This is time consuming and expensive and relies on networks of reps with regional and local relationships with booksellers. Because they work on commission, reps have little desire to peddle a book by an unheard-of indie author with no marketing to back up their sell-through plan. Hear in detail how this works from S&S’s Christine Foye.

  2. The economics don’t work out for booksellers. Standard trade discount is 55% off list price. But when you throw a POD platform into the mix, the pie gets sliced further, so booksellers get closer to 40% or even as low as 25%—which is a much less attractive purchase for them, if even feasible with their slim margins.

  3. Bookstores buy everything on a returnable basis from traditional publishers. Until recently, that wasn’t even possible with POD books. Now it is: if you elect to make your POD book returnable, you will be mailed back returned copies of your books (how sad an experience is that?!), and to add insult to injury, you are responsible for the cost to ship the books back. Plus, it’s a catch-22: mark your book as nonreturnable and there’s little to no chance a bookstore buys it—but mark it as returnable, find out how sad and expensive that is, change your mind, and learn that you still are forced to accept and pay for returns for a full six months, according to the fine print in your contract (!!!). (PSA: Please do not make your POD books returnable in the hopes that bookstores will buy them.)

The outlook is bleak for self-publishers who seek retail distribution. But is “how do I get my book into bookstores” even the right question to be asking as a self-publisher?

I would argue that trying to make your self-publishing business model behave exactly like traditional publishing is not the right approach. There are ways in which self-publishers will never be able to effectively compete with traditional publishers (retail distribution being a big one), but there are also ways in which traditional publishers are struggling to compete with self-publishers. The latest Author Earnings report numbers give some compelling examples of where indie authors are in the lead:

  • Print books represent 39% of book units sold, while ebooks command 61% of copies sold.[i]

  • As of 2012, online retailers, not brick-and-mortar stores, were responsible for nearly half of print book sales, a percentage that is steadily growing.[ii]

  • Brick-and-mortar bookstores account for less than 20% of print books sold (the remaining percentage, after e-commerce sites and chain/independent bookstores, is made up of book clubs, supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and mass merchandisers that there’s no way indie authors could distribute to).[iii]

  • In two short years, the market share of paid unit sales between indie and Big 5 ebooks has more than inverted. The Big 5 now account for less than a quarter of ebook purchases on Amazon, while indies are closing in on 45%.[iv]

  • 39% of the 195,000 ebooks comprising Amazon’s bestsellers as of January 2014 were by indie or single-author publishers. [v]

  • During the same snapshot, 56 of Amazon’s overall top 100 bestselling ebooks—more than half—were self-published indie titles (priced at full/competitive retail, not bargain giveaway pricing). [vi]

  • Indie books now account for more than 42% of all ebook purchases each day on[vii]

At the Digital Book World Conference in New York a couple of months ago, it was clear that the Big 5 are struggling to maintain their domination in the face of the biggest book retailer on earth—Amazon—which doesn’t play the traditional distribution game.

So instead of the question “how can I get my book into bookstores?” I encourage prospective self-publishers to ask instead: “where does my reader like to buy books?” and “in what format does she prefer to read?” and “how can I use my position as a self-publisher as an advantage to sell copies of my book online?”

While some aspects of traditional publishing are important to pursue as a self-publisher (high quality editorial and design, most importantly), don’t let bookstore aspirations blind you to the opportunities you have to find your readers through other, equally if not more successful, distribution channels.


[i] Author Earnings’ Print Vs. Digital Report

[ii] DBW blog, March 2013

[iii] DBW blog, March 2013

[iv] Author Earnings’ February 2016 Report

[v] Author Earnings’ February 2016 Report

[vi] Author Earnings’ February 2016 Report

[vii] Author Earnings’ February 2016 Report