What is a Book Distributor? Options for Distribution of Self-Published Books
Distribution, distributor, wholesaler, warehousing, and fulfillment! This article explains what you need to know when printing your book. Contains flowcharts showing the functions.
Self-Published Book Distribution vs Distributors

What is a Book Distributor? Options for Distribution of Self-Published Books

AuthorImprints considers the book distribution decision to be perhaps one of the most important for self-published authors. Why?

1. Books have low margins, and retailers, wholesalers, and distributors work on commission. This means they need to sell in volumes that many self-publishers don’t reach with just one or a handful of books.

2. Related to number one, most self-publishers (and many traditional publishers) use print-on-demand (POD), which reduces margins even further.

3. Most books are sold on Amazon—no surprise. And nearly all self-published books are sold there. If 80%+ of your sales are with one retailer, is it worth the effort to be in other stores? And as a practical matter, going back to number one, can you convince wholesalers and distributors that they can make money helping you sell to a small slice of the retail market?

print book distribution to booksellers POD
Most self-publishers use POD because it simplifies distribution of print books to retailers. This article explains distribution of print books when you print them in a traditional way, in bulk.

Distribution planning begins by considering the size of the publisher and the audience for the book

There are two primary factors that dictate the distribution options available to self-publishers.

  1. The first factor is the size of the publisher, meaning how many books it publishes each year and the number of copies it sells. When just starting out, a self-publishing imprint probably doesn’t have a lot of books and certainly has no sales history. This limits the options for distribution.
  2. The second factor is the type of reader you are trying to reach, usually referred to as the audience for the book. This is generally divided into three primary audiences, listed here by the type of book they usually purchase:
  • These are books for the general reading public. Books sold in your local bookstore are considered “trade books.”
  • These are textbooks, which are usually divided between K–12 grades and college.
  • Professional/Scholar. These books are aimed at adults working in specific careers. Basically, these are books you aren’t going to find in Barnes & Noble.
book distribution-self-publisher-audience-options-ingramspark

This article focuses on trade distribution of traditionally printed books for self-publishing authors and small multiauthor presses.

There are four roles involved in the distribution of print books

Before going into the options for self-publishers, we need to define the four roles of selling and distributing print books.

  1. Publisher—who publishes the book. This includes self-publishers.
  2. Retailer—who sells the book to the public via an online or brick-and-mortar store.
  3. Wholesaler—who gets the book to the retailer.
  4. Distributor—who gets the book to the wholesaler and/or retailers.

It’s important to note that some of these roles can overlap. For example, Amazon considers itself a retailer and wholesaler (and sometimes a distributor), when it comes to demanding payment for selling books. More on this below.

In the meantime, it’s the last two on this list—wholesaler and distributor—that need further definition.

What does a book wholesaler do?

There are literally millions of books that thousands of publishers (self- and otherwise) want retailers to sell. Consequently, most retailers refuse to work directly with publishers. They want to work with a single point of contact: a wholesaler.

A wholesaler acts as a consolidator of books for multiple or even thousands of publishers. Some specialize in specific categories of books, such as self-help, cooking, and technology books. They maintain an inventory and handle billing the retailer and making payments to the publisher.

These are non-exclusive agreements. A publisher may have more than one wholesaler.

Perhaps most important to understand is that a wholesaler provides no sales or marketing efforts. They get paid about 15% of the retail price for their services when books are sold. Examples:

  • IngramSpark is a wholesaler, and they are exclusively print-on-demand.
  • Sunbelt Publications is a publisher and wholesaler specializing in nonfiction books of interest in the Southwest region of the US.

What does a book distributor do?

Unlike a book wholesaler, a book distributor will actively sell your books. In return for this service, they require an exclusive agreement with the publisher. That means they sell books to Amazon and bookstores.

A book distributor will work with one or more wholesalers and be responsible for paying them. The services of a book distributor do not come cheap. If your publishing business is accepted by a distributor—yes, they pick you, not the other way around—you can expect them to keep 60 to 70% of a book’s retail price.

Those percentages are not fixed or standard; agreements are negotiated. This is just a general range. The numbers can vary because there can be so many variables in publishing.

Here’s how the pie gets divided up: retailers generally get around 40%, the wholesaler around 15%, and the distributor around 10%, plus or minus.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the publisher is left with 35%. Out of this, you need to pay for creating the book and printing it, and of course a royalty! You need a hit to make some money.

print book distribution to booksellers traditional printing

Book distributors vs. book distribution: what’s the difference?

Book distribution refers to the process of getting books from publishers to readers through various channels. As defined above, a book distributor is an entity that works for the publisher to do that in return for a sales commission—a slice of the revenue.

But self-publishers differ from multiauthor publishers in several important ways.

  1. Most self-publishers don’t have enough books, and sell enough books, to get the attention of a distributor.
  2. Most self-published books are sold online. And where exactly? Amazon, of course.

For these reasons it is exceptionally rare, and even unnecessary, for a self-publisher to spend time looking for a book distributor.

Instead, it’s better to focus on distribution, which generally means getting one’s book listed on Amazon and, ideally, in the Ingram wholesale ordering system.

Is it possible for self-publishers to negotiate broader distribution through a distributor? Absolutely, and it happens frequently—for those self-publishing authors whose books are already selling broadly.

  • For example, Simon & Schuster has its own distribution division that distributes books for other publishers, including high-volume self-publishers and hybrid publishers.
  • Another example is Ingram Content Group, the parent company of IngramSpark. They have two distributor options: Publishers Group West and Two Rivers. Also see our article about Ingram services for self-publishers.

Distribution options for self-publishers

Your options depend on how you print your book: in bulk (traditional printing) or individually (print-on-demand). Most self-publishers, certainly those new to publishing, use POD.

There are lots of printers that can print books on demand, so to speak. The more important question when choosing a POD printer is this: can they also offer your book for sale on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, BooksaMillion.com, and other online retailers, including internationally?

Marrying POD with retail distribution is what you want. A second consideration, if you are marketing your book to brick-and-mortar stores and libraries, is a way to control wholesale settings. Retailers won’t stock or sell your book unless you pay them a minimum sales commission and offer your book on a returnable basis.

Printing an inventory of books in bulk—regardless of the technology and printing presses used—complicates self-published print-book distribution further.

Sorting through all the options for self-published book distribution is one of our specialties. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of options organized by type of printing.

Feel free to explore these, and if you’d like to schedule a consultation with David Wogahn, please visit our consulting page for the two options. The shorter 30-minute consult is usually sufficient for this specific topic.

Print-on-demand with retail distribution*

(*but the ability to control wholesale settings may vary)

Distributing options for books printed in bulk

These are books printed in quantities larger than one, and often in the thousands. The processes can be offset or digital short run.

These are examples, and not an exhaustive list by any means*.

As noted above, Ingram Content Group has subsidiaries that distribute books printed in bulk.

*If you want to explore more ideas, check IBPA and Wikipedia, but know there is no definitive list, and lists can go out of date rather quickly.

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