Two Paths to Success at Book Distribution for Self-Publishers

POSTED ON Aug 26, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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When I had a publishing company we spent several years building our mailing list, the kind you use for direct mail. It was a slow process because we got most of our names through classified ads by offering a free newsletter.

It seemed to me that a list of people interested in our books and related products would be one of the best ways to generate income for our company. We used the newsletter mailings and added a “Bookshop” which eventually grew to over 100 products.

Our list got to about 10,000 names, a pretty good size for the niche we were publishing in. One day I was talking to a friend who supplemented his income as a writer by buying and selling used and rare books. His method was to accumulate a couple of hundred books in his field and then put out a catalog to interested book buyers.

I asked him how big his list was, since I knew he was doing pretty well with his mailings. (By the way, this is exactly like conversations between bloggers today about the size of their subscription lists.)

“Oh, about 300,” he said.

“300? Seems like it ought to be bigger by now,” I said, smiling a little inside.

“Bigger? No, I’m trying to make it smaller, as small as possible. Why mail catalogs to people who aren’t going to buy books?” He was as puzzled at my approach as I was at his. He thought mailing to 10,000, 95% of whom wouldn’t buy anything, was a colossal waste.

It turned out that he would remove people from his catalog mailing if they didn’t order anything after receiving 2 or 3 catalogs. He considered them “dead wood” and kept pruning his list to make it more efficient. Essentially, it was just a list of buyers, not just people who were browsing. If you didn’t buy, you stopped getting the catalog

I was still deep in the advertising mindset, where, as David Ogilvy once said:

“We know only 10 percent of our advertising is working. We just don’t know which 10 percent it is.”

And coming from the direct mail business, mailings were evaluated on the basis of a 1- to 5-percent response rate, which would have horrified my bookselling friend.

Many Ways to Self-Publish

I was reminded of this completely opposite approach over the last few weeks. Each month our local publishing group brings in speakers who have something interesting to say to our group of active and involved indie authors and publishers.

In July we had Christy Pinheiro speak at our publishing group, and in August we had John T. Reed.

Both are active and successful self-publishers. Reed has been at it since the 1970S, and Pinheiro less than 10 years. Both make excellent profits from their publishing companies, and are supported largely by their self-published books. (And each has written a book on self-publishing, by the way.)

But their approaches to how they distribute their books are opposites.

Reed sells his own books on his own website and wouldn’t consider using a wholesaler, a distributor, or even a retailer. He sells no books to Amazon,, Ingram, Baker and Taylor, or anyone else. You want a Reed book? You go to his website and buy it from him.

He arrived at this method after twenty years of being distributed to the book trade, and selling his books through retailers nationwide.

Pinheiro publishes through CreateSpace, the Amazon subsidiary that produces digital books for print on demand distribution. Her books are on Amazon and every other e-retailer she can reach. You want a Pinheiro book? You can get them online whenever you want.

She arrived at her method precisely because the other publishers in her niche refused to distribute online. Seeing the opportunity, she went where the others wouldn’t go.

Each of these self-publishers is making a six-figure income from self-publishing, but they have opposite approaches to how they sell their books. It’s a fundamental difference in their approach to distribution.

The takeaway from this is that there’s no right or wrong way to publish a book. There are many ways to make self-publishing profitable, and it really is worth experimenting to find the way that works best for your style of publishing and for your specific books and the people for whom you publish.

Here are two more takeaways we can glean from Pinheiro and Reed:

  1. They are both avid marketers, promoting their books actively to the people most likely to be interested buyers. In Reed’s case, real estate investors. In Pinheiro’s case, people preparing for specific tax exams.
  2. They have both published multiple books in their niche. This is the most powerful way to increase the opportunities for profits in self-publishing. It’s the second most important factor in self-publishers success, in my opinion, second only to the quality of the books that you produce.

Takeaway: When you become your own publisher, you get to call the shots. It may take a while to figure out the best way to distribute your books, the perfect price for your audience, and the best way to market to your niche. Publishers who take actions, try different things, who are not afraid of the risk of new approaches, are the ones most likely to succeed, no matter which path they end up on.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by j kohen,

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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