What Does Distribution Really Mean for Self-Publishers?

by | Jul 6, 2010

Do you know “new media” marketer Chris Brogan? Chris is an incredibly bright guy and a long-time blogger who blogged a book that went on to become a New York Times bestseller. I was listening to an audio that Chris did for the Third Tribe community and I was struck by something he said about Starbucks.

Chris was talking about how Starbucks realized through listening to their customers that people wanted something hot and nutritious in the morning, something besides croissants and scones. Since they already had cups and water and spoons, it was a short leap to selling oatmeal, which perfectly satisfied their customers’ need.

But the comment that caught me was when Chris said that Starbucks could do this because they already had distribution—the thousands of retail stores with the cups, spoons and water just waiting for the oatmeal to arrive.

Distribution—It’s Bigger Than You Think

As long as I’ve been involved in publishing I’ve heard people complain about the book distribution system. And as long as I’ve been in self-publishing, I’ve heard that the one thing self-publishers can’t compete on is distribution—they just don’t have it.

The book distribution system certainly seems like it’s stuck in an earlier era. It has made the book retailing business into a consignment shop, where nothing is owned by the stores. Instead, they are like manufacturers’ outlets for a dozen big companies. If a particular book doesn’t sell this season, just send it back to the factory and get new ones in more modern themes or colors.

And even though thousands of knowledgeable and dedicated book people work in these retail stores, the system itself rules. The waves of books go out, and sometimes waves of returns come back.

Despite all that, traditional publishers have an insurmountable advantage in the reach of their distribution that few self-publishers even understand.

Self-Publisher’s Distribution: Oh Really?

A self-publisher these days, having read one too many websites, thinks that having their book printed at Lightning Source grants them “distribution.” You can go to different author-services companies and buy “distribution packages” which amount to about the same thing: a listing in the Ingram catalog.

According to this, distribution is equal to a catalog listing. It is simply made available for purchase.

But this is really closer to the definition of a wholesaler, not a true distributor. Even small-press distributors attempt to sell the books of their publishers. A large, traditional publisher doesn’t just have a listing in a catalog. They have a dedicated sales force. They might use commissioned sales reps, or their own sales reps, or a combination of the two to cover different regions.

These reps develop long-term relations with important booksellers over the years. Each season the reps hand carry the big books of the year to present to book buyers across their territory.

The publisher supports the retailers with cooperative advertising, and national advertising for its big books. Authors of some celebrity are made available for bookseller events and in store promotions. Marketing coordinates with Promotion and Sales to try to maximize the book’s potential.

What the big publisher is able to do is both push books into the thousands of retailers where book buyers will find them, and pull the buyers into the store with coordinated advertising and promotion. They use the bookstores in a similar way that Starbucks uses its own stores.

But the reason the big publisher can sell so many books is this distribution apparatus.

It’s Only Just Begun

This distribution system makes it difficult for most self-publishers, and dooms a good many of them. You can make it work to your advantage if you have a book with steady sales. In other words, you will probably need to go out and create the demand for the book, before any distributor will take you on.

If you have a book with steady but modest sales, you may have to build up your publishing company until you have a line of closely related books, each of which sells, before a distributor will agree to take you on. Even then, you will only have a part of the whole coordinated distribution-marketing-advertising-promotion system being used by big publishers.

So when you look at what distribution really is, you have to conclude that self-publishers can only get a piece of it. It can be enough to make you profitable, if you learn how to use it to your advantage.

Game Not Over

This great asymmetry between the power of the large publisher and the limited ability of the self-publisher, may be changing very soon. The rise of the ebook will change everything. It may just wipe distribution away completely, replacing it with an entirely new model for digital distribution. The playing field is likely to be considerably flatter than it is now, don’t you think?

Takeaway: Self-publishers can only acquire a part of the book distribution system used by big publishers. Their efforts are better spent on special sales and selling online.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. thomas

    I have my tennis book out there now and want to make more sells, i was thinking about traveling the US and just giving free clinics to sell it, whats your take.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good idea, thomas, just make sure you alert stores in the area before you get there so they can order and stock the book.

  2. Don Horne

    As always, this is another meaningful thread of discussion. You will be proud of me. My latest book was picked up by a distributor who purchased a few and put it into a college book store. I thought, “Man this is it! I am going to really show Joel something.” The sales were sparse to say the least. I did not make sales on a desired level until the personal touch was used, i.e. signings, author groups, speeches on self publishing, conversations with people in restaurants who were already reading a book (I have no pride any more. I sell books to anybody!), etc.
    I went and set up a table at a “Literary Cafe” in the Civic Center here in Desoto, Texas, Friday evening March 23, 2012. It was a room full of self published authors, and a beautiful experience. The lack of distribution keeps some great books out of the hands of a lot of avid readers. Most people can read faster than I write.
    The one fact I allude to in my standup presentations on self publishing is selling 1000 books yourself nets you as much as maybe 10000 would through a distributor. The odds of a new author selling 10k books are long. There is a radio show in Dallas on 100.7 FM on Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm, Joy and Company, which has self published authors ONLY every week. I will give a 30 minute visit either this Saturday or next, and I will tell you how, or if, it helps sales. I will get more exposure for sure, and that is a good thing.
    The market is there. People are reading more than ever. From the cruise I went on to the local Starbucks, people are reading more than ever! Two distributors I sent enquiries are already in Chapter 11. They need us as much as we need them. Best of the day to you!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Well, Don, it seems like you’ve really gone head first into the self-publishing trenches. And you’ve also discovered that distribution, by itself, does not solve all the problems. The other end of the equation is creating interest and curiousity among readers who will go check out the book. It’s all that “personal touch” stuff that really makes a difference. I look forward to hearing more, thanks Don.

      • Don Horne

        Without receiving a bunch of “flames”, I think having an interesting, high quality product is the starting place. I have received dozens of orders from people which read the book second hand and want to pass it on. They kept their copy, but want to give them for gifts. One lady ordered 16 to give as gifts. No offense, I am flattered, Mam, but receiving a book authored by Don Horne would make me rethink our friendship…..at least give me someone like Vince Flynn! LOL

        • Steve Lee

          Hi all. Well, reading all the comments on self-publishing is very informative. I started a publishing company and I’m finding out how tough it is being an independant. I want to handle the distribution myself so I need to market very wisely. The advise so far has been useful. Thanks. Any advise on marketing graphic novels? thanks.

  3. Elizabeth Lush

    I am new to this industry, but am interested in learning more. I work with a firm that can help assist in distribution of ebooks at a much lower percentage than the industry standard. We do not have a typical set up. We are not involved with marketing or helping get to mass distributors. We simply provide a means to mass distribute books to an audience you already have or that a marketing team would help create.

    Just to give an example: I am working on a deal with an author right now in the financial industry who can produce about 10,000 sales a month. He has the audience already with a marketing team to help. We just provided the means for him to get those books and audio recordings to his 10,000 customers the most cost effective way.

    Not sure how or if we can help others, but would love to learn and try.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Could you provide more information on what firm it is or a link to a site where people can find out more?

  4. Susan Daffron

    Hi Joel,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on distribution. The article is great and the comments are interesting as well. I actually avoided self-publishing for a long time *because* of the distribution limitations. It didn’t seem worth it when I was going to have to give away up to 75% of the money just to get my book “out there.” Or take the approach you and Mark mentioned and contact retailers individually. I know myself well enough to know I’d never do that. (More power to you for doing it!)

    Once online book buying became the norm and I found out about Lightning Source, everything changed. I could apply everything I already knew about online marketing to my books. From the outset, I knew that none of my books would be in bookstores. And I didn’t care one little bit.

    I’ve always agreed with Dan Poynter’s basic premise that bookstores are a terrible place to sell books.

    Now with the rise of ebooks, that’s becoming even more true. We’ve got one of our books in Smashwords and in Kindle format and it’s selling. So we really need to get the rest of them into those new e-distribution networks. Working on it ;-)

  5. Suzanna Stinnett

    Thanks for another insightful post, Joel, and I hope you do get Mark Coker in for a guest post. You can see on my blog the post I wrote about why I focus on Amazon and Kindle. Amazon is in effect a distributor – I’m talking about ebooks – and that is going to trickle into print books in some as-yet-unseen way. The route for writers now, especially with new content they own outright, gets clearer every day. Many authors are finding financial success now on Kindle. One huge reason is that Kindle users are readers – not so true on the web in general. Another huge reason is that Kindle users expect to pay for content – not at all true on the web. These two things push any modern writer to become a self publisher, move forward with focused attention on the quality of their products (reviews will kill them otherwise), and enter what I call a new world for writers.
    Thanks for keeping the conversation,

  6. John Sundman


    I write books whose primary audience is computer geeks who read fiction.

    My first novel, Acts of the Apostles, came out in late 1999, and it wasn’t too hard for me to get bookstores that catered to my audience to carry my book. These stores included Computer Literacy in San Jose and Santa Clara, Stacey’s in Palo Alto and San Francisco, Softpro –2 stores in Massachusetts and 2 in Colorado– and Quantum Books, near MIT. Clerks at these stores became fans of my books and acted as a dedicated sales force. My books were given window displays and counter placement (gratis) and written up in store newsletters. I sold a nice number of books through these stores. I gave the standard discounts, but I still made money. I remember waking up one night to the sound of my fax machine (remember those?) printing out a purchase order from Computer Literacy for a hundred copies of Acts. That was my first order from them, before I had contacted the store; I have no idea how they found out about me, but clearly they had confidence that my title was right for them — and it was; they reordered a few months later.

    I’m sure you can guess the punchline: none of these stores are still in existence.

    I did have a distributor for a while, and they made my books available to Indy bookstores. But nothing much came of that.

    I long ago gave up trying to sell books through bookstores. I do get the occasional request for a “special order” from an indy store, but those are more and more rare (as are, incidentally, special orders from Borders and Barnes & Noble).

    I don’t feel that there is any good distribution solution for self-publishers, and I agree entirely with your advice. I sell paper copies of my books in person at geek events, through my website, and on Amazon, period.

    Electronic distribution is changing everything very rapidly. For years I just gave away electronic versions to help spur sales of the paper books. Then I made ebooks available for sale and stopped promoting the free versions (which are still all over the net, but oh well). Now I’ve practically come around to the mirror position — giving away paper books to spur sales of the ebooks. That’s not literally true, but things are definitely changing. (I’ll be blogging about this soon.)

    Thanks for another engaging post.


    • Joel Friedlander


      When I had my own publishing company, started after I self-published a book, I couldn’t get decent distribution until I had a list of about 8 books, and had to travel across the country to pitch my program and plans for the future to the distributor.

      But my troubles didn’t end there, and anyone who’s tried to deal with little independent bookstores all over the country knows just how time-consuming it is.

      Selling online is a much better prospect for self-publishers, even those who build up a healthy list of books. And the merging of books with e-distribution in the form of downloadable ebooks, will revolutionize bookselling to the point that it may make many types of print books obsolete.

      Something to look forward to?

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, John.

  7. T. Reed

    Besides personally hating reading books on a screen, the E-book might be a playing field leveler but it is also a profit cruncher and a piracy invitation. The danger of the internet is that there is a new generation (and plenty of others) that think now that everything is on the internet it should be free. Everything becomes devalued. You see people having price wars with Ebooks till they are like 3 bucks. I’m glad it saves trees, (although kindles and Ipads are not without their environmental price) but it might just leave self distributors right back where they started, earning only pennies on the dollar for all their efforts. The only real way to overcome that is to have a really excellent coordinated marketing strategy, publicity team/operation to generate enough buzz to bring high viral capacity…oh yeah, and a stellar book people want to read. If your team can sell 100,000 Ebooks at $3.50 a head (that’s quite a feat BTW!) and you can keep your marketing/promotion costs at 100K(if you had 100k to risk/float around) you’d be having a pretty good year walkin with about 175K after taxes. Marketing , marketing, marketing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      T. thanks for your input. I think some of the pricing confusion with ebooks is due to many books being available in both formats, and to the early experiments in trying to get people to adopt ebooks, many of which were given away free.

      And while I totally agree with your conclusion (“marketing, marketing, marketing”) I think that as the ebook field matures, pricing models will also evolve that allow writers to write and publishers to publish and both to make a profit from the ebook. We’ll see.

  8. Joel Friedlander

    Peter Beren, publishing consultant, sent me this reaction, reprinted here with his permission:

    The only way that self-publishers can get distribution the way independent publishers have, is to aggregate their titles in loose associations with common (more or less) focus, common (more or less) look and feel, and ISBNs. They need to organize, on that basis they can approach a true distributor like PGW.

  9. Mark Coker

    Hi Joel, great overview of the distribution challenge self-pubbed authors face for physical books. As you hint, ebook distribution will turn the tables upside down by fully democratizing distribution. This is certainly what we’re building at Smashwords as we expand our distribution to an ever-growing number of ebook retailers and mobile platforms.

    The consumer shift from purchasing books in physical locations to purchasing books online will further democratize distribution, both for print books and ebooks.

    As with a physical book, the author/publisher of the digital book should strive to get their book placed on as many digital shelves as possible.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mark, thanks for that. And yes, you and Smashwords have been in the vanguard of creating the virtual bookshelves that will be increasingly important as the publishing industry continues to evolve new ways of bringing product to the sales point.

      I love the democratizing effect of these changes, the “flattening” that I referred to in the article. But the onus this places on the authors is substantial. They are now not only responsible for the content creation and the building of a suitable “platform” but now have to figure out the ways to make their work discoverable as well. This is the new reality in book selling and if it doesn’t happen sooner, it is going to happen later. Thanks for stopping by!

      • Mark Coker


        I see two primary components to discoverability. There’s the passive piece (get it out there so it’s discoverable and purchasable) and the proactive piece (how to make it more inherently discoverable via author-generated SEO and marketing).

        For the passive piece, the “making your work discoverable” is easier now than ever before, and it starts with retail distribution. Once you get widespread retail distribution, the retailers do a great job of aggregating large book buying audiences, and then making the books discoverable and available not only to their captive audiences, but also to search engines.

        The active piece involves SEO, linkbuilding, and marketing (to build the links that feed SEO).

        One important decision the self published author needs to make is how much of the traditional publishing function they want to assume on their own, and how much to outsource to others. There’s no one-size-fits-all, because it depends on the preferences and passions of the author.

        Some indie authors feel a need to build their own distribution network by establishing direct relationships with each retailer, and some retailers allow this. This forces the author to get much more involved in the business of publishing, including book production, metadata maintenance, and backoffice accounting duties with each retailer. Yet there will always be important retail outlets that cannot be reached by the individual author unless they go through a distributor.

        Some authors choose to outsource the entire distribution responsibility to the distributor so the author can spend more of their time being an author and writing their next work.

        And then some authors do a hybrid of the two options above.

        After the author has the foundation for discoverability completed, then the next piece of the publishing puzzle involves demand creation, which starts with awareness-building (so people know your work is out there) and perception-building (generating a desire among readers to sample and purchase your work). Fun stuff.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Mark, this is really valuable stuff. If I had your email address, I’d ask you to expand on this crucial information and write a guest post for TheBookDesigner. What do you think?

  10. neil levin

    Just because you can take control of some of the fundamental components of publishing a book, does not make you a publisher. Distribution, and all that it entails, is THE big difference between self-publishers and ‘traditional’ publishers.

    So much a of a book’s future is determined by its provenance. One of the key foundations for a book is its being published by an established publisher or distributed by one of recognized distributors. You mention the long term relationship these suppliers have with their retailers but you didn’t mention what that experience creates. Publishers and distributors have gained a respect for the way the book store or retailer must function.

    Good sales reps save buyers time – their most precious commodity. A good rep is already familiar with how the buyer needs to do her job. He knows what it takes to get on a promotion table, when the title should be pitched, and what to put on the buy sheet – among many many other details. Even more important is the rep’s knowledge of a store’s title mix and their own list of titles. Publisher’s and distributor’s reps will save the buyers’ time by becoming filters of a massive amount of information. They separate the wheat from the chaff. In that sales call the rep pitches according to the priority, i.e. potential of a title. Just like the amount of space a title takes up in a catalog, the amount of time a rep takes to pitch a title and the order in which they are presented add to its credibility. While authors may not want to hear this every list that is presented to a buyer has been classified by management or the rep according to each title’s sales potential. All these details become essential in getting a bigger buy on a title.

    Without the credibility of being with a publisher or distributor all of the other ingredients necessary for success – author experience, cover, price, marketing, advertising, followers, etc., etc. – become even MORE important.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, thanks so much for the excellent amplification Neil, all of which argues persuasively for the self-publisher to look elsewhere for “distribution” to the people who are likely to be interested in their work. In effect, many authors whether they realize it or not are becoming internet marketers in order to get the attention their books deserve.

  11. Tom Evans

    What an insightful blog – so if self-publishing is now here to stay, and growing in market share, does it mean that bookshops & the distribution systems needs to change or disappear.

    & this is in a world full of iPads, Kindles and their clones

    • Joel Friedlander

      Tom, I think you have it exactly right. Also factor in the rapidly declining number of bookstores, and the picture isn’t pretty. This is one of the chief reasons I recommend almost all self-publishers these days concentrate on special sales and on selling online. Also the reason I’ve been writing recently about blogging, keywords and all the other stuff authors are going to need to know during this transition period before some new system is in place. Thanks for your thoughts.



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