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Distribution 101
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2014
Written by
Brooke Warner
February 2014

Proceed with caution: we’re about to wonk out on publishing.

Distribution is probably one of the least understood areas of book publishing. For starters, distribution, like a lot of words in book publishing, is used to describe a process. But as we all know, not all processes function the same. The rise of self-publishing is responsible, in large part, for the confusion, because as more and more self-published authors publish, distributors are springing up to meet the demand. After all, all books have to get to their customers—but the effectiveness of the systems built to make that happen vary a lot.

And so, just as in publishing, the way to distinguish between what’s what is to think of distributors in terms of traditional distributors and everyone else. In some ways I hate to draw these lines, because in the publishing arena I’m calling for more nuance (ie, there’s a difference between DIY self-publishing, partnership publishing, copublishing, etc). But where distribution is concerned, I haven’t yet figured out if there is a middle ground. (Maybe someone who knows will enlighten me in the comments.)

So what is book distribution?

Very specifically, book distribution is the process by which books get from a warehouse and into a customer’s hand. It just so happens that this process is riddled with complexity. Which I had to figure out the hard way.

When She Writes Press first started, we signed with a distribution company. At that point I wasn’t distinguishing between traditional and everyone else. So I just figured they were a distribution company and our books would make it where they were supposed to go and that would be it.

Not so.

What we signed onto, and what the vast majority of self-publishers have, was a relationship with Ingram Wholesale. Now, Ingram Wholesale is great, but they are not a distributor. They fulfill books. What I discovered is that a lot of these so-called distribution companies are calling themselves distributors, but what they should be calling themselves is fulfillment companies, because all they’re doing is fulfilling orders. And that’s a lot different than what traditional distributors do.

Here’s what traditional distributors do for their client publishers:

1. Presell your book into major and small accounts. They have a sales force that has relationships with book buyers. Those reps go out on monthly sales calls and individually sell titles to buyers. It’s competitive, yes, but there’s face time with buyers.

2. Collate, organize, and output metadata. All traditional distribution companies have major platforms in place to collect data and then release it via daily feeds out to retail channels like Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Indiebound, etc.

3. Maintain relationships with major accounts. Again, there is access here to Amazon, B&N, and other retail outlets where you might otherwise find it impossible to reach an actual human.

4. Streamlined processes. This is way bigger than it sounds. The point here is that if your book is warehoused by a traditional publisher, there is a steady, stable pipeline from their warehouse to wholesalers and retail partners. They’re shipping massive quantities of books every day. There will never be a delay in your order, and your book will never show up as being out of print—unless it really is. For anyone who’s self-published and wondered why their book is showing up as low stock or temporarily unavailable on Amazon or any other retailer's website, it’s because this pipeline has to be well oiled. My observation is that only traditional distributors have the right oil.

5. Have access to special sales accounts and libraries. There are certain markets that are simply impenetrable by self-published authors—and these markets are among them. You cannot get your book into airport bookstores, Costco or Target, or libraries without traditional distribution. Part of the reason is because these buyers want certain guarantees—on pricing, on returns (though library sales are non-returnable). They don’t want to gamble and they have relationships in place with traditional distributors. You could say that it’s a case of wanting to deal with a known quantity.

The reason I’ve been wanting to write this post is because I feel like She Writes Press got sold a bill of goods when we signed with the first distribution company we went with. As I said, what they were really doing was fulfilling our books—and that’s it. We had major issues with our metadata. Major issues with our books showing up as low inventory, unavailable, or temporarily out of stock.

In October, we signed with a traditional distributor, IPS, which I’ve written about. And it’s been a game-changer. And an eye-opener. It’s been a major learning curve—and A LOT of work—to keep up with everything IPS needs, but when we signed with them, all of a sudden the walls came down.

My new suggestion for self-published authors is to use CreateSpace and IngramSpark directly. At least this way you have a direct relationship with Amazon and Ingram. And you can in fact upload your book to both platforms. The trick is to upload to Ingram first. As it turns out, Ingram will block you from using an already-published ISBN, while CreateSpace will not. Being a client author of Amazon’s and Ingram’s is much better than having a “distributor” in between you and them. You might as well just cut out the middleman. And finally, CreateSpace and IngramSpark now offer what they call “extended distribution” options, which, though they offer you the author next to nothing on trade sales (seriously under 50 cents per book for a $16.95 price point), at least means they can get your book into trade markets.

Just FYI here, Wikipedia's page on distribution is wrong in its listing and understanding of distributors. I checked it out and saw immediately that their list includes fulfillment companies and presses that have distribution arms. The Big Five—Random/Penguin, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster—have their own distribution, and often take on smaller publisher clients. Among the rest of the list, only the following qualify as traditional distributors (though I cannot speak to the comic book market, since comic book distribution operates differently from other book distribution):

Independent Publishers Group (IPG)

Ingram Publisher Services (IPS)

Perseus Distribution (owns Publishers Group West and Consortium)

Small Press Distribution

The University of Chicago Press

(I’d love to know what others belong on this list, if any.)

I’m still learning about distribution even though I worked for two companies over fourteen years that were both distributed by Publishers Group West while I worked there. (Seal still is; North Atlantic Books is now distributed by Random House.) As an editor, all I experienced of the distribution side was our three-times-a-year sales conference where I was responsible for pitching titles to the reps. Now that I’m a publisher I see firsthand how this massive machine works—and it’s impressive. Traditional distribution is a force to be reckoned with. And while all kinds of lines are being blurred out there on the publishing frontier, this is one place where traditions are firmly in place. Traditional is better—and self-published authors are going to continue to struggle until a distribution partner comes along that can specifically cater to their needs. CreateSpace’s and IngramSparks’s extended distribution is a start, but it’s not a solution.

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  • Lisa Thomson

    Hi Brooke, thanks for this informative article. Distribution is a real b***h. Sorry but as an Indie author, it's next to impossible to get distribution for physical books. As for Ingram and CreateSpace are those strictly for e-books? Even getting an e-book on several platforms (which I did) still leaves the author struggling to get the sales and get the book noticed. This is a muddle I have not found a solution to but your tips and article sure help. I'm a Canadian so the physical distribution is a different company but works in much the same way. The big distributors want zero to do with an Indie author even with an Agent. Very frustrating.

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    Thank you, Brooke. You laid this out quite nicely. Doesn't mean it's totally sunk in, but it's on it's way.

  • This is so timely & useful. Thank you for posting! I'm an author reviewing a contract I'm about to sign with a small indie press, and I just asked them about distribution, which I only did at the suggestion of my agent (who's receiving nothing for her advice, because there's just no real money with this press, but I want to sign with them anyway because I think they do good work & I REALLY want to see my 2nd novel in print and my agent could not sell it to any "traditional" publisher, so I just started submitting it on my own.) My agent offered to look at the contract & informed me that it was draconian, and seemed more like a "partnership" than a publishing deal. But for me, a partnership is okay. I'm reading your book "Greenlight Your Book" and it has opened my mind to what's possible. I also think that having my second novel in print will help me get my third one out more easily. But distribution had never even entered my lexicon until today. And then your post arrives in my inbox. Sorry to have gone on so long. But I'm stressed! Thanks again! This is so important. (And the indie press hasn't answered my question about their distribution setup.)

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thanks, that helps.

  • Patricia, thanks for reading. These are the divisions of Ingram:

    Ingram Publisher Services is traditional distribution. They take a commission in exchange for actively selling their publisher-clients' books to retailers.

    Ingram Wholesale is fulfillment to bookstores and other retailers. They sell everything from Big 5 publishers' books to self-published books. They even fulfill to Amazon customers. There is no sales team involved in this.

    Lightning Source is Ingram's earlier iteration of their POD program, now only available to people with legacy accounts. While some self-publishers use this service, so do traditional publishers, who use Ingram for their POD programs.

    IngramSpark is now the self-publishing arm of Ingram, which is a simpler and pared-down version of Lightning Source, not used by traditional publishers, but just for self-published authors who want to use Ingram's services.

    I hope that helps.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Brooke, still so confused when it comes to distribution. What is the difference between all of the Ingrams I see? There's IngramSpark, Ingram wholesalers, Ingram Publishing Services. Am I missing any?

    I recently transferred titles from CreateSpace to IngramSpark. Because I had my own ISBN numbers (not a createspace one) I was able to do this at no cost. You just need to fill out the necessary paperwork.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hi Celine, you probably just didn't see it up there, but PGW (Publishers Group West) is owned by Perseus. Perseus bought PGW when they bought Avalon (and also Seal, where I used to work). It was a major deal—and now all one big happy family. :)

    Thanks, Sylvia!

  • Sylvia Sarno

    Very helpful article. Thank you!

  • Celine Keating

    Brooke, hugely helpful in understand this whole arena. My first novel was with a small press that used Ingram, but it was not Ingram Publishers Services, and it made a world of difference. As you say, they did the fulfillment but not much else. Just in terms of wrapping my head around all of this, I'm curious why Publishers Group West isn't on your list is not among the five?

  • Linda Covella

    Brooke, thank you for replying to my question!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Linda, Baker & Taylor, like Ingram Wholesale, is a wholesaler, not a distributor. Meaning they're the middleman between the distributor and the customer. You're welcome!

  • Linda Covella

    Thank you for this information, Brooke! Do you (or anyone else) know anything about Baker and Taylor, how they fit into this? I thought they were also a "traditional" distributor. Thanks!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Elizabeth, our relationship with Ingram is brand new, so I really don't have info on that just yet. We signed with them in October and this season—the spring 14 season—is the first list of books that they are preselling for us. So I think the next six months of sales is going to be very telling. I promise to share specifics as we move through this. Thanks!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    If any of you want to join me for a lot more on this topic and more industry-specific learning, I'm doing a class that includes an hour on distribution. Just as an FYI—in March.

  • Tasha Cotter

    These posts are so helpful and SO informative. Thank you!

  • Elizabeth G. Marro

    This may take us a bit off topic but I am new to SW and very interested in exploring opportunities both in the community and with SW Press. Brooke, do you have any data to share about how books published through SWPress have fared in the market place to date and how you think your arrangement with the new distributor will impact their sales and/or those of future titles? Is there a way to connect with your authors through the SW Community to find out more about their experience with SWPress as a publishing partner? Thanks for any direction you can provide. 

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Great article. Brooke! I will keep it in my folder to refer to again and again. :0)  I may end up using the resources you have listed. :0)

  • Martin Fass

    For what this might  be worth to others, here's what I just wrote to

    "Basically, two questions.  This is based on our having a picture book, "Froggy Family's First Frolic," that my spouse, Margot Fass, wrote and illustrated.  The book was then professionally designed and printed here in Rochester, and available since September from the Amazon Marketplace.

    Via local marketing and personal appearances, the book has had modest sales by us directly in the Rochester area.  At her website called, Margot also offers additional products related to the picture book.
    We DO NOT want funds to subsidize "publishing" or "distribution."  We want no involvement with such companies which require our own financial investment.  What we still hope to do, and perhaps with the services of a reputable agent, is to establish a way to make the book widely available so that schools, libraries, nature museums can purchase it, and so it will be on shelves for the interested public from independent book stores.  This is strictly a hardcover and softcover book, 8.5 inches tall and 11 inches wide.  No electronic versions.
    (Our concern is far more with having the book available widely, than with earning money.  This is connected to our fundamental goal, supporting actions to save and preserve life on the planet--with a focus on the lives of frogs.)
    Finally here, to our first question.  What percentage of the book projects you list are able to achieve their funding goals?
    Second question.  Do you see the possibility to fund our project for, say, fifteen thousand dollars (our expenses to date have been seven thousand for the design and printing to date of several hundred books, and our actual sales, including via Amazon, have been modest) in order to work further on reaching our objectives...or do you have other suggestions on how you can assist us?
    In short, we have no confidence to provide ten or fifteen thousand dollars for the cost of a subsidizing company, which then would print some books, but do nothing more and leave all the marketing and public relations work for us to do on our own.  That would be merely to gamble away the funds via such a company, which assumes none of the risk, and has little or no motivation to serve us.  
    Thank you for your consideration.
    Martin Fass
    527 Linden Street
    Rochester, NY 14620
    If anyone is interested, I'd be glad to share their response.
  • Jennifer L Myers

    Thank you Brooke! I read a little bit more on the SWP FAQ section too, so that helps.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Jennifer, the cost is not that different and depends on the book. You generally save anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per book if you do a print run—but you need to print upwards of 500 to 1000 books to make that difference. Our books are typically about $4/book for POD titles.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thanks, Brooke, another very informative post!

  • Great article!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

  • Jennifer L Myers

    Hi again Brooke. Just wondering, how much on average is the printing cost per book for print-on-demand and short print runs? I'm trying to get an idea to budget for another Pubslush campaign. Thank you Brooke!

  • Elizabeth G. Marro

    Brooke, this was so helpful. I've bookmarked it and plan to keep it on hand for ongoing reference. And I appreciated the additional insights from C.M. Thank you both.

  • Martin Fass

    Well, we are working at it...the options, that is...and hoping to find the way to make the book widely available.  We are far less concerned with making money, than with having things established so that libraries and schools and nature museums will be able to buy it if they want it, and to have it available through real independent bookshops.