The purpose of this post is to define the terms aggregation and distribution. I also want to introduce you to the tools and services I recommend most. Read carefully and get on the right publishing path that reaches a wide network of online ebook retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Indie authors can upload ebooks to sell at each online ebook retailer directly, but we might instead choose to distribute them to many using an ebook aggregator. Likewise, we can sell our print book to online print book retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores directly or use a distribution service.
Yeah boy, that is a lot of geeky publishing terms! So let’s wind it down and go through it in slo mo…
The difference between distribution and aggregation
When you understand the difference between the terms aggregation and distribution you’ll be equipped to make good decisions about where to spend your publishing dollars.
An ebook aggregator distributes and sells your book to a wide range of online retailers. Aggregators collect a percentage of sales (about 15%) to provide you with wide distribution plus centralized accounting and payment services. Smashwords and IngramSpark are my two favorite ebook aggregators.
A book distributor sells your print book (POD/print-on-demand, in most cases) to the online booksellers and even brick-and-mortar bookstores. IngramSpark is currently the only reliable distribution channel that indie authors can use to reach brick-and-mortar stores. Even though Amazon CreateSpace books are listed in the database that bookstores see, they generally do not like to order books from Amazon. My favorite way to distribute print books is by using a combination CreateSpace and IngramSpark. (More on that a little further down the page.)
Even though book aggregation is different from distribution, most people just call it all distribution, especially when the company does both. Smashwords provides ebook aggregation only, but IngramSpark provides both print and ebook distribution. Get it?
Where books are distributed and aggregated
Your customer doesn’t care if it’s called aggregation or distribution, they just find your ebook in the store they like to shop in. That store is called an online retailer. Once the customer buys your book, they’ll get it in the mail (if they order the print version), or download the ebook to their ebook reading device in Kindle format (if they bought it from Amazon) or EPUB format (if they bought it in any other store).
An online ebook retailer is an online store that sells ebooks in EPUB or Kindle format to your customers. The major online ebook retailers are Amazon (which enjoys the majority of the market), Kobo (with its wide international reach), Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple, and Google Play. There are many, many others. You could rather tediously sign up for each of their publishing programs, type in your automatic payment information, and upload your ebook to each of these stores separately. But many authors find that using an ebook aggregator or two to reach all the retailers is much more efficient. I like a combination of Amazon KDP and Smashwords. More on why, a bit later.
An ebook reading device is any device or app that can read the ebooks purchased from an online retailer. iPad owners have been trained to download the EPUB version and Kindle owners know they need a Kindle (KF8, mobi, or azw) file. You can read Amazon Kindle books on your iPhone using a Kindle app that you download from the app store. However, you can’t read an ebook in EPUB format on your Kindle ebook reader, because it’s a dedicated, one-purpose device that only reads Kindle files. Today, most people read ebooks on a multi-purpose tablet computer using an app.
The definition of a bookstore is changing. A bookstore is both a brick-and-mortar building and an online book retailer. On the one hand, you’ve got what’s called “pure-play” retailers that focus only on selling books, like B&N. On the other hand, there are retailers that sell books along with other products, like Amazon. Amazon sells about a third of printed books in the US and is now opening brick-and-mortar retail bookstores, too. Books-A-Million, or BAM!, is the second-largest brick-and-mortar book retailer in the US after B&N. They also sell books online and, in 2016, announced their BAM!Publish product for authors, powered by FastPencil.
Direct selling from your own website or at events or even from the trunk of your car is another way to distribute. There are a lot of tools that will help you sell books on your own website by embedding a widget. Check out Gumroad, Leanpub, and Patreon to get familiar with the kinds of things you can do.
My go-to list for the independent author
Here’s a summary of the companies I most often recommend to authors who have professionally produced a book and need distribution to the ebook and print book retailers.
Smashwords is an ebook aggregator that provides ebook distribution everywhere except Amazon Kindle. They offer lots of perks and features, including library distribution, pre-orders, and marketing tools like author self-interviews, gifting, and discount coupons. Format your book according to their style guide or make it easy on yourself by using a Book Design Template in Word or InDesign for between $37 and $77), and submit it to their Premium Catalog.
Smashwords also allows you to upload an EPUB file, via Smashwords Direct, created with InDesign or a tool such as PressBooks, Draft, Scrivener (for Mac and Windows), or any ebook formatting service. (Sign up for my indie author newsletter and get a free list and description of these tools and more.)
If you can’t manage to format your Word file according to the Smashwords Style Guide, or you don’t want to buy a Book Design Template, you can hire someone to do it for you. A list is available from Smashwords at “Mark’s List.”
IngramSpark is a both a print book distribution service ebook aggregator. It is owned by Ingram (the largest book distribution company in the world), so they have very wide reach. Most of the other aggregators “hook in” to Ingram’s distribution service, so you don’t have to use IngramSpark to get Ingram distribution. However, IngramSpark is the only service that offers both ebook and print book distribution in a single dashboard. (Note that IngramSpark replaces Ingram’s Lightning Source publishing service so, unless you’re a legacy user of Lightning Source, you’ll sign up with IngramSpark.)
Amazon KDP and CreateSpace are two separate online services and neither aggregators nor distributors. They simply get your book into the Amazon store. KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is Amazon’s tool to get your ebook into the Amazon store and CreateSpace gets your paperback book into the Amazon store. They have separate dashboards and payment systems.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is not an aggregator, it is Amazon’s tool for self-publishers to upload ebooks in Kindle format for sale in the Amazon store.
IngramSpark and Pronoun distribute your Kindle formatted book to Amazon but Smashwords and Draft2Digital do not. No problem. Either use Pronoun to reach Amazon or edit your Smashwords doc file (replace “Smashwords Edition” with “Kindle Edition”) and upload it to KDP.
Amazon CreateSpace is an online POD book creation tool and their free Expanded Distribution program claims to make your book available to online retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. That’s kind of a stretch because CreateSpace does not offer the discounts and returns program that brick-and-mortar bookstores insist upon. Self-publishers must use IngramSpark for that job. (Do remember that you must actually market to the booksellers.)
Therefore (and this is a big therefore!), I advise that you opt-out of Amazon CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution program (which is free but don’t be tempted) and instead use IngramSpark to distribute your PDF-formatted print-on-demand book everywhere else. That way your book will always show “in stock” in the Amazon store and you get Ingram’s great distribution everywhere else.
Pronoun is an online ebook creation and distribution platforms purchased in 2016 by Macmillian. It’s becoming popular because it makes formatting easy and they distribute to the “Big 5” online retailers (Amazon, Apple iBooks, B&N, GooglePlay, Kobo: you choose which) and takes 0% of sales. It offers the best royalties on Amazon Kindle ebook sales with 70% for books priced below $9.99 and 65% for books priced above $9.99. Pronoun also lets you make your book free on Amazon and other retailers. This is important because before now, you could only make your book free on Amazon by signing up for their exclusive KDP program.
Gumroad makes it easy for you to sell your book directly from their store or on your own website using one of their WordPress widgets. Just upload your digital files and customers pay for and automatically download your books while you sleep. Got autographed books or other physical objects to sell? You get an order form so you can fulfill it yourself.
My best recommendation for most authors
Ebook only or ebook first
Many young authors writing genre fiction are happy with ebook only or ebook first. If this fits your profile you will probably use:
- Pronoun to format and distribute to the five major ebook retailers (Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Kobo, GooglePlay. Pronoun does not take any additional royalty so you get the same profits as if you had uploaded to each store individually. Amazon also allows Pronoun authors to offer their book for free without joining their exclusive KDP Select.
- Amazon KDP to sell the Kindle version in the Amazon store plus either Pronoun or Draft2Digital (iBooks, B&N, Kobo, Inktera, Scribd, Tolino, 24 Symbols) to sell elsewhere. Both of these companies allow you to opt out of distribution to any store.
Authors who want complete ebook and print book distribution will be attracted to this scenario:
- Use IngramSpark for everything, or…
- Enjoy a direct relationship with Amazon by uploading your books to Amazon CreateSpace for print and KDP for Kindle. Use IngramSpark to handle the rest of the ebook and print book distribution, or…
- Use Amazon KDP and Amazon Createspace, plus IngramSpark for print and Smashwords for ebook distribution.
To any of the three options above:
- If you chose 1 or 2, above, upload your book to the Smashwords Standard Catalog to take advantage of their store and features like coupon codes.
- Add Gumroad for direct book sales and autographed books via their sales widget on your WordPress website.
- Use Pronoun’s book tracker to be notified when anything important happens with your book on Amazon, such as a changed sales ranking or custom recommendations to change your book category based on trends.
Important! Buy your own ISBNs
You can obtain ISBNs and bar codes from all of these services but I always very strongly recommend that you buy your own from Bowker MyIdentifiers in order to retain full control of your book. (This link is for authors in the US, so if you’re not in the US search for the ISBN agency in your country.)
To be even clearer on this, owning your own ISBNs and having direct access to MyIdentifiers makes a huge difference in your business as an independent author. Authors who are publishers, aka author-entrepreneurs, should always retain full control and this is the only way to do it.
You’ll need one ISBN each for:
- and so on (such as the multimedia edition)
List the ISBNs for each edition on your copyright page for all versions of your book.
Buy a pack of 10 or even 100. Don’t bother to buy a barcode for print versions. You can get one free using IngramSpark’s book cover template generator.
A note about book formatting
I recommend Book Design Templates for those of you who work with Word and InDesign. But Scrivener (for Mac and Windows) is my favorite organization and writing tool. Scrivener exports your manuscript to ebook formats automagically, however, the PDF for print isn’t very good. I also like PressBooks, which does a great job of PDF for print and ebook formats. Use LeanPub to beta publish, test your market, and make some money, too. If you use Pronoun for ebook distribution, you can upload your docx or EPUB or use their online tool to format your book.
There you have it: A short-and-sweet introduction to book aggregation and distribution. There are many other aggregators and distributors, but these are the ones I most highly recommend.
What do you think? Would you change any of my definitions? Do you have direct experience with any of these companies? I’d love to hear about it. Would you recommend another company besides the ones I mentioned? Please let me know in the comments below. I’d really appreciate it!
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