How Does Print and Ebook Distribution Work?

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You’ve written a book (maybe even a few), designed a stellar cover, and self-published! You are a published author. Relish that feeling. Even though independent publishing platforms have opened the floodgates, you are still among a distinct few who call themselves authors. But have you taken advantage of our free global distribution network to get your book on retail sites all over the world?

Selling through retail channels may not be right for everyone. But if you’re an author and you’d like to sell your work to a wider audience, getting your work on retail sites is an important part of promoting. You’ll want to do a lot of other promotional activities as well, but if you plan to distribute your book, it’s good to have that in mind while you’re formatting and publishing.

Distribution channels have some specific formatting, design, and metadata requirements. Remember, just because Lulu can publish and print a book, that is no guarantee it will pass retailer distribution checks.

Thankfully, we’ve got a nice little checklist for you to use while formatting and publishing, so you can ensure the book is ready for the world as soon as you click the publish button. There is a range of important factors to consider, so give our full checklist a look over. Here’s a four-point list that highlights the most important pieces, the ones you absolutely want to review when you’re getting started, as skipping them at the beginning can make a lot more work down the road.

Print Distribution

For print, the top four things to do for distribution are:

1. Select a distribution eligible format – these are identifiable on our Create page by a Green Check Mark

Looking for Retail Eligible Books

2. Select Distribution on the Title Step – the tooltip on this step will remind you, but selecting distribution now is the only way to apply on ISBN on the next step

Choose to Sell everywhere when adding a title and author

3. Apply an ISBN – you can use a free Lulu ISBN for your project, or add one you’ve purchased. Once we have the ISBN information entered, we’ll generate a barcode file you can use to add the ISBN to your book cover file. Or you can use our Cover Wizard to add the barcode automatically

4. Finally, provide formatted, flattened, font embedded PDF files for both the interior and the cover

I’m going to reiterate that this is a preliminary checklist with four points I see often missed by our authors, causing undue hold ups to getting their work through our distribution process. Keep the above four points in mind, but review the complete list of requirements on our site and look particularly for any uncommon elements your book might include. This includes non-Latin characters, non-sequential page numbering, or blank pages, among others.

Ebook Distribution

I know a lot of our authors like to create ebooks for distribution too. So let’s look quickly at a few points to remember for an ebook you’ll be distributing:

1. Select distribution on the Title Step

ebook, creation, free ebook, self-publish

2. Apply an ISBN

self-publish, ISBN, Lulu

3. Match metadata on the title page, Title Step, and cover

4. Correctly format your .docx or .epub file with a functioning NCX

Ebooks are a great way to offer a lower cost, highly mobile and versatile version of your book for interested readers. And thanks to Lulu’s broad distribution plan, your ebook will be available from all major ebook retailers. The important details for an ebook are mostly the same as a print book, with a couple of important unique considerations. Metadata should match in all cases, but for an ebook it’s even more important because retailers look with a very critical eye at the metadata, and any mismatch can cause a rejection, leading to more time revising and resubmitting.

Again, those four points are some of the most obvious and crucial ones to be aware of but are far from the complete list of guidelines and requirements. To see the full list of ebook requirements, check out the list on our site.

What does Distribution even mean?

Okay, let’s say you’re publishing your novel, and you’ve got files prepared for both print and ebook conversion, you’ve followed the guidelines above, performed all the necessary formatting, and submitted your book for distribution. You’ve got some time to kill, as the book now has to be reviewed by retails prior to the listing going live on the retail site. Now what?

Or I suppose you could start your next manuscript. But before you do any of that, read on to understand a little better what exactly distribution means for you and your book.

First off, understand that you’ll always make the best revenue from sales direct through Lulu’s bookstore. We offer higher returns and our network ensures your book is printed to our standards. Retailers like Amazon, Ingram, or Barnes & Noble will list a Lulu book in distribution on their store site, but they’ll also take a more substantial cut of the profits.

When a retailer sells your book through one of their retail websites, they handle printing and fulfillment, then forward any royalties on to Lulu, so we can pay our authors. It’s important to understand that we don’t have control over this end of the process; we receive reports for revenue within 8 weeks of a sale and post the money in your account, but the details of the printing are all on the retailer’s end.


The biggest and most important retailers will be Amazon and Ingram. I’m going to guess you probably know a far bit about Amazon and less about Ingram. Amazon is pretty simple: you want your work available on their store because Amazon is the biggest retailer. Period. They’re huge. And because of their size, they’ll offer their Prime customers better shipping than most other retailers, further setting Amazon apart as a super-seller.

Amazon offers two critical benefits to authors: the support of their dedicated customers, and the search power of Amazon’s catalog. Let’s say you’ve got the word out about your book. Someone might remember meeting you at a convention or seeing you at a signing in the local bookstore. This potential reader thinks to themselves “maybe I’ll buy that book” so what do they do? Browse over to Amazon and search for it.

If they only wanted to connect with you, or learn more about you as an author, they might Google search for you. But if they simply want to locate and buy your book, there is a very good chance Amazon will be their first destination. For this reason alone it is important that your book is available on the Amazon store. You won’t realize the highest returns from Amazon, but you will get more exposure and potentially higher volume sales.

Ingram is a little different

Ingram is the world’s largest and most far-reaching book distribution service. And when you opt into Lulu’s GlobalReach agreement for your book, Ingram’s catalog and a network of connected retailers is a big part of that service. By making your book available through Ingram’s network, your book can reach thousands of retailers connected to Ingram.

It is important to note the subtle difference here. When we send your book to Amazon for listing, this is akin to true distribution. Your book is being made available for purchase at a bookstore. Ingram will not guarantee that your book is listed in any specific bookstore. Rather, they make the book available for order by any bookstore connected to their network. The Ingram side of distribution is closer to wholesale than distribution.

This need not be a bad thing. It is, after all, just the way book distribution works. All the major publishers work under this same system. Though of course, they have monolithic marketing and advertising system in place and funding to support their push to get a book in front of readers. As a self-published author, all aspects of marketing fall on your shoulders, making the Ingram side of distribution slightly less potent.

That is not to say there is any reason not to enter into global distribution. It is simply important to understand exactly what this means for you. Here are the three points to be fully aware of regarding distribution:

  1. Amazon covers all of its markets, as does Barnes & Noble. Distributing to these retails directly will get your book into their online bookstores.
  2. Ingram lists your book in their catalog, allowing bookstores to order the book, but not ensuring any direct listing for individual bookstores or in-store printed copies.
  3. Sales through a distributor will result in lower revenues per sale.

This brings us full circle to the initial question: what does distribution mean?

For a self-published author, distribution means your book is listed with retailers and available for print on demand sales. It does not mean those retailers will support you with any additional marketing efforts, nor does it mean your book will appear in bookstores or any other non-digital locations.

Distribution does mean that your book is out there though, and it broadens your ability to market by getting you on Amazon, as well as providing the bookstore options only Ingram can offer. Negotiating with the bookstore to actually purchase and shelf a few copies of your book is still left to the author, but without Ingram’s catalog, the process is made even more challenging.

Just submitting your book to a distribution channel is not a guarantee of sales. Distribution enables sales, you have to do the actual selling.

Distribution is another piece in the big and complex self-publishing puzzle. You’ll absolutely want your book in distribution, but how much emphasis you place on selling through distribution channels depends largely on your marketing plan. If you plan to spend most of your energy working with booksellers to get physical copies on their shelves, distribution will be central. If you plan to sell most copies by hand or through your own author website, distribution will be far less important.

In conclusion, here’s a rundown of book distribution for you:

Distribution is…

  • a means to offer your book to a broader audience
  • a path to in store representation (with some luck and additional work from the author)
  • a way to capture readers using dedicated retail services (most often Amazon)

Distribution is NOT…

  • a promise or guarantee from any retailer your book will sell
  • a marketing platform – distribution is just a piece of your marketing strategy
  • how you will sell most of your books

I want to reiterate that last point. Unless you are wildly successful, distribution will be a small trickle of your sales. The majority of Lulu authors see their best sales through Lulu’s Bookstore directly, or through self-purchases, sold by hand by the author. This does not mean you should avoid distribution, and if you have a well-established group of followers out there, distribution will serve you well in the long run as readers find you through retail sites (again, largely Amazon). But the returns on these sales will be lower, and the value will be in exposure more than revenue.

Which brings me to the last thing on distribution I’ll say. Think of it more as exposure than as a means to sell books. Yes, of course, it’s both. But the most value you’ll find from distribution will continue to be exposure. From the casual browser who finds you on Amazon to the bookstore swayed into stocking your book thanks to the Ingram catalog, distribution will be an important piece of your marketing strategy because it allows for so many other pieces.

As a self-published author, the key to distribution will be in designing and publishing your book(s) with the standards and rules in mind (such as ISBN and page number rules, matching metadata, and fitting the sizing requirements for your format). Finding the most success for your book will depend on a multitude of factors, the distribution network you’re part of is just a piece of that puzzle.

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14 thoughts on “How Does Print and Ebook Distribution Work?”

  1. Mi hanno parlato molto bene del vostro sito ma vome vedo non si parla ITALIANO si parla in inglese spagnolo francese ma italiano no . forse gli ITALIANI non vi stanno a genio . Cordiali Saluti

  2. Dear Lulu,
    I wish someone would first have a quick proof reading my already edited before we make it available for others to read it and get the authors message. In that way I can be sure of no rejection of this vital books.Can lulu help advice on this reguest please…

  3. Hi Daniel,
    Because Lulu offers free to use software for self-publishing, we cannot provide complimentary proof reading or editing. The content remains completely under your control, including proofing and editing.
    I would suggest employing our services team for editing if you’re interested in having a professional look over your content and ensure it is thoroughly proofed:

  4. No website…looking at a blog. How do people order my book through Lulu? It seems difficult, even I can’t get to the bookstore directly and I have an account.

  5. Hi there, I have a question, can a buyer return a book to amazon or any other global distribution online store and cause you to go negative on the sale’s?

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