One of the most important parts of self-publishing your book is planning and understanding how you’ll sell that book. If you’ve done your homework, you’ve likely seen the term ‘distribution’ in a variety of forms. If you’re wondering what distributing your book really means, you’re in the right place!
What Is Book Distribution?
Distribution, often called ‘wholesale distribution,’ basically just means making your book available to wholesalers. Ingram, for example, is one of the most well-known content distributors in the world and helps make books available for purchase to upwards of 40,000 stores, schools, and libraries. To simplify this, you can think of distribution as a catalog service; booksellers select the books they will sell from this catalog.
Benefits Of Distribution
The most important benefit is availability. No matter what you think about Amazon, it does benefit you to have your book available on their network. If your goal is to sell books, you have to get your book where the readers are. And for some, that absolutely means Amazon.
And it’s pretty simple to make your book available for retail distribution. So there’s really no reason not to do so.
Problems With Distribution
There are two major issues with retail distribution. The first is that you are limited to the requirements ALL retailers impose. That generally means meeting Amazon’s standards, since almost all retailers use them as a benchmark. If your book uses some unique formatting or uncommon elements, there might be some restrictions to deal with.
The second and more glaring problem you’ll run into is the retailer mark-up. You’ll see this called a wholesale price as well. Basically, these retailers are going to mark up your base price (with Lulu, this is the print cost) by a factor of two. Here’s an example using our pricing calculator. The book is a Paperback US Trade, 200 pages using Standard Black & White ink.
As you can see here, the distribution fee is $9.29 for USD, driving the price of the book up substantially. I’ll touch on some options you have to work around this later on.
First, let’s look at how you prepare your publication for retail distribution and what the retailers require.
Select A Goal: Where You Sell
The first step is to identify your goal for the book. We mark this right after you select the Product set you’ll be using with our Select A Goal step.
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.
To help you make the process easier, Lulu offers specific instructions for Print and Ebook distribution.
Distribution for print starts with formatting your book to fit the sizes our retail partners accept. We’ll help guide you through adding your metadata and uploading your file. The most important thing to remember is that metadata MUST match in all locations, including what you add to Lulu and what is in your print files.
Book Creation Guide
Our free guide to creating your book PDF files and preparing your work for publishing and printing with Lulu.
Publishing for distribution means the requirements our retail partners provide. The list is pretty long, though many of the requirements are common sense for publishing. Here’s our complete list of distribution requirements for print:
To help make it easier for you to create your book for Global Distribution, we offer a free guide to the specific options (like binding, size, paper, and ink) you can select for books sold through Global Distribution. You can also review the details about distribution exclusions in our Help Center.
The final step is a required ‘proof’ copy of your book. Our retail partners require that you review and approve your book before we can send it to them for review. I’ve had authors approach me at events and push back on this idea that force everyone to buy a copy of their book. But I can’t disagree more strongly. If you don’t actually see the physical proof of the printed book, there’s just no way to know that what you’ve created will print exactly right.
Basically, always proof your book! It’s a small expense and it’s well worth it!
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 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.
Of the requirements unique to ebooks, the need for a searchable table of contents (called the NCX file) is the most vital. Our Ebook Creation Guide goes into details about creating a table of contents using text styles. It’s surprisingly easy, but it can’t be overlooked!
Ebook Creation Guide
Free information about creating and publishing your ebook using Lulu.
Ebook Distribution Review Fee
As part of the review process, Lulu charges a one-time fee the first time you submit an ebook to our Global Distribution service. The distribution review process helps ensure your ebook is accepted quickly by retailers.
This fee does not apply to revisions of a published ebook. For all newly published ebooks, the distribution fee must be paid prior to completing the Global Distribution submission process.
What does Distribution even mean?
We’ve covered how to prepare your book for distribution and some of the pros and cons associate with distribution. But we haven’t gotten into the real nuts and bolts of what distribution is and how it works.
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 revenue you’d earn on to Lulu, so we can pay you. 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 fair bit about Amazon and less about Ingram.
Amazon is pretty simple: you want your work available in 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.
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.
Ingram is the world’s largest and most far-reaching book distribution service. And when you opt into Lulu’s distribution service, 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, schools, and libraries.
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.
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.
Distribution: What You Have To Know
- Amazon covers all of its markets, as does Barnes & Noble. Distributing to these retails directly will get your book into their online bookstores.
- 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.
- Sales through a distributor will result in lower revenues per sale.
What Distribution Is And Isn’t
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.
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:
- 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
Alternatives To Distribution
When you sell your book using a service, be it Lulu, Ingram, or Amazon, you’re putting a retailer between yourself and your reader.
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).
The returns on these sales will be lower, and the value will be in exposure more than revenue.
So what if you want to earn more or connect directly to your readers? Lulu offers two great alternatives to using a distribution service; our Shopify ecommerce app and our Open Print API. The Shopify app uses our print network to sell books through your own Shopify store. And our API lets you build our print-on-demand into your own website. Both options are set up so that you can retain 100% of your profits and your readers come to you directly to buy their books.
Selling Like A Pro
Don’t limit yourself. I say this so often I’m tired of hearing myself repeat it. But it’s true; there’s nothing preventing you from taking advantage of a variety of retail and distribution options. You can and should sell your book on Amazon so searchers can find it. But you should also use Lulu to point readers to so you earn more revenue from those sales. It isn’t and never has been an either/or scenario.
Publishing smarter means knowing what options you have and how to capitalize on those options.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.