2021 Decision Guide for Evaluating eBook Distribution Options

ABOUT THIS ARTICLE
Comprehensive guide to eBook distribution • Direct distribution or use a distributor? • Comparison chart of 11 distributors • The 5 key considerations • Which is better: Commission or Fee?
2021 Guide to eBook Distribution

2021 Decision Guide for Evaluating eBook Distribution Options

Introduction

Ebook distribution and publishing services help self-publishing authors get their eBooks into multiple online retail stores via a single platform.

Unlike the Byzantine world of print book distribution, eBook distribution has been an outgrowth of the already-established distribution structure for digital music, apps, and other types of digital products that came before modern (non-PDF) eBooks.

This article serves as a guide to help you navigate the world of leading eBook distributors, sometimes called aggregators. Topics include:

  • Definitions of key terms
  • An explanation (including video) of eBook distributor vs. direct distribution
  • A decision guide
  • A comparison chart of 11 established eBook distributors
  • 10 frequently asked questions

Keep in mind that this roundup is meant to help self-publishers, especially self-publishers of eBooks. Larger publishers and self-publishers with lots of print titles have other options. The market for digital media distribution gets more sophisticated every year, and some providers serve market niches.

A second point is that this article is focused on English-language eBook distribution, and specifically those eBook distributors that can get your eBook into two or more of the “big five” eBook retailers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, and Kobo.

The claim that an eBook distributor can place your eBook in 150 stores is essentially marketing spin for authors whose books are not already selling at high volumes in a majority of these stores. But there are many other considerations  that are more important than the number of stores carrying your eBook.

Contents

  1. Definitions
  2. What is the best eBook distribution method?
  3. LinkedIn Learning video explanation
  4. How to decide the best way to distribute your eBook
  5. Comparison of eBook distributors
  6. Frequently Asked Questions
  7. Your mileage may vary: 7 caveats to forecasting sales
  8. Two additional resources

Definitions

What is eBook distribution?

Ebook distribution is the process of making an eBook available for download from an online retailer. Distribution can be made directly to an online retailer (assuming they have a self-service portal), or via an eBook distributor/aggregator, or a combination of the two.

What is an eBook aggregator, and what is an eBook distributor?

An eBook aggregator sends an eBook file to more than one online retailer (e.g., Amazon, Apple, B&N). They make money by charging fee for such placement or by keeping a percentage of sales.

Today, the terms aggregator and distributor are used interchangeably in the self-publishing community. The phrase eBook aggregator is perhaps more precise and was in use prior to the advent of self-publishing eBooks.

However, for our purposes in this article, we'll use the term eBook distributor.

Services and capabilities vary, as do the online stores each eBook distributor will service. Ebook distributors typically specialize in markets, such as self-publishers (authors) or multi-author traditional publishers.

What is direct eBook distribution?

Direct eBook distribution is when a publisher or self-publisher submits their eBook directly to a store for sale online. Examples of stores are Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble (links in the second table below).

What is the best eBook distribution method?

This depends on five considerations:

  1. Cost
  2. Convenience
  3. Royalty payments
  4. Book metadata* management
  5. Ease of making changes

This table and the video that follows illustrate the five considerations used to evaluate going direct-to-retailer vs. using an eBook distributor.

ConsiderationUsing DistributorsGoing Direct
CostFee and/or percent of salesFree
ConvenienceOne account to learn and manageMust learn and manage each account
PaymentDelayed: stores pay distributor, distributor pays youNot delayed.
Metadata*“One size fits all”; no ability to customize for each store or take advantage of marketing features offered by a storeCustomizable for each store
ChangesDelayed: distributor tells store, store makes change; possible charges or limitsNot delayed, no costs, no limits

*Metadata: information that describes your book, such as title, price, ISBN, description, categories, etc.

LinkedIn Learning video explanation

How to decide the best way to distribute your eBook

It’s not as hard as it seems. Begin with this bottom-line consideration: Which store or stores sell the most eBooks?

Think of it this way: If all sales came from a single store, it wouldn’t matter how many other stores are selling your book, right? Following this logic, you want to go direct with the store(s) that sells the most books and use distributors for the others.

Keep in mind that every store—regardless of the number of books it sells—requires setup, management, and accounting. It simply isn’t worth your time to chase (currently) measly sales from stores that won’t provide a return on your investment.

Caveat: It's certainly possible this could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you never put a book in another store besides Amazon, how do you know for sure that all your potential readers will buy only from Amazon? Certainly, some eBook buyers never shop Amazon!

But in my ten-plus years of working with more than 300 self-published eBooks, I've never seen one book achieve more than ten percent of its sales outside the Kindle store. Even for a few breakout eBooks, sales rarely exceed five percent of their sales outside the Kindle store.*

Popular and prolific authors do see more balanced sales across retailers, but Kindle still dominates, and these success stories are isolated.

*In a one-year period, I sold 3,332 copies of my four books and only 39 were sold outside of Amazon. That's just 1.2 percent of sales (see all numbers in my case study report).

An eBook distribution plan for virtually all one-book authors and many “few-book” authors

This is what I recommend for authors who do not enroll their eBooks in Amazon's KDP Select, the 90-day exclusive program (read our guide here).

  1. Go direct with Amazon. I can’t think of a situation where an author would use a distributor to reach the Kindle store. Going direct means you get full control and maximum available royalties, and besides, they sell most of the eBooks.
  2. Use an eBook distributor to make your eBook available to other stores and even to libraries.
  3. If you see that a number of sales begin to come from a specific store, such as Apple, B&N, Google, or Kobo, create a direct account with that store.* If you've chosen an eBook distributor that charges a commission, you will no longer be paying them this fee.

*Together with Amazon, these five retailers sell virtually all eBooks in the US and likely the same in Australia, Canada, and the UK. (B&N is US-only.)

How to pay? Fee or commission?

If you do decide to use an eBook distributor, the next question to ask yourself is this: Would you rather pay a flat fee, or give up a percentage of sales in the form of a commission?

What you pay the eBook distributor is in addition to the sales commission that each retailer takes before paying your distributor, who then pays you.

This one is tricky. If you sell a lot of eBooks, the percent of sales can exceed a flat rate arrangement and eat into profits. On the other hand, paying a flat-rate and then selling five eBooks, for example, is a money-losing proposition.

For most authors—and I include myself in this group—I nearly always recommend eBook distributors that charge a commission.

Choosing an eBook distributor

I suggest visiting each distributor's website to get a feel for how they work, their fees, and the stores they support. Read their policies and look at the features that are important to you.

  • For example, if you write more “edgy” books, Smashwords has a thriving online store that competes with the best of them. They also have terrific sales tools.
  • Others have extensive reach to international retailers.
  • A few offer additional services such as eBook conversion.
  • Some offer marketing tools and programs.

The bottom line

If you are just starting out, keep it simple. Go direct with Amazon KDP, and add one distributor to reach additional stores. You can always change things around later as you get more comfortable managing your accounts, or if sales warrant direct distribution.

One last thing. Using an eBook distributor nearly always requires the use of an ISBN. Scroll down and read the FAQ about using an ISBN provided by a distributor.

Comparison of eBook distributors

As noted earlier, there are five considerations for evaluating distribution:

  1. Cost
  2. Convenience
  3. Royalty payments
  4. Metadata management
  5. Ease of making changes

Features and capabilities change from year to year. Rather than try to classify every difference, this table notes important differences and links to the service for more details.

There are always trade-offs. Just don’t forget that most sales will be on Amazon. Make sure you scroll down to read my 7 caveats to forecasting eBook sales.

Ebook distributors vs. publishing services companies

A final note about this table.

Many publishing services companies offer eBook distribution. However, with the exception of BookBaby, it is not their core service, and in fact they may require you to buy other services such as eBook conversion, print book design and distribution, or book marketing. Examples of these companies include Blurb, eBooks2go, FastPencil, Lulu, and Outskirts Press.

Is eBook distribution with these companies a “throw in” or loss leader? This can be good or bad, depending on your requirements and preferences. There is no free lunch!

Instructions for using the table

  • BYO for ISBNs means you can Bring Your Own ISBN.
  • The major eBook sellers named at the top of the table link to their self-service publishing portal.

DistributorAmazonAppleB&NKoboGoogleOther distributionPaymentISBN
BookbabyNoted hereRequires paying for conversion$39
Draft2DigitalNoted hereCommissionFree or BYO
EbookItNoted hereCommissionFree or BYO
eBookPartnershipNoted hereFeeFree or BYO
Feiyr.comNoted hereActivation fee + commissionFree or BYO
IngramSparkNoted hereFeeBYO; Free or buy at discount (US-only)
PublishDriveNoted hereFeeBYO*
PublishGreenNoted hereFeeFree or BYO
SmashwordsNoted hereCommissionFree or BYO
StreetlibNoted hereCommissionFree or BYO
XinXiiNoted hereCommissionBYO or fee

*PublishDrive can provide their own serial number which they call an “ISBN,” only it isn't an ISBN.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

The requirement for an ISBN is up to the store or distribution service you are using. The major stores with self-service portals do not require an ISBN. Most of the distributors in the above list do require an ISBN because it serves as sort of a SKU—stock keeping unit—to track sales and do reporting. If you already own an ISBN, my advice is to use it. As always, owning your ISBN allows you to control your brand.

No. Read the distributor's fine print and you’ll see you cannot “take it with you” if you leave, nor may you use it if you wish to supplement distribution with another distributor. For this reason, I strongly advise buying ISBNs (MyIdentifiers.com) if you plan to use a distributor, and certainly if you are publishing more than one book.

Self-publishers will find they have far more options for eBook distribution than they do for print. That’s because there is a near zero cost to deliver and maintain an inventory of eBooks.

In my experience, it is up to each individual store as to whether they will sell your eBook. For example, IngramSpark used to claim support for 63 stores—points of distribution—but our clients' books were never listed for sale by all 63 stores. Now we see they have reduced their distribution to around 20 stores. Others that claim to put your book in 150 stores (eBookPartnership, Feiyr, StreetLib) may be hard-pressed to prove this is the case.

Read their rules. If they gave you a free ISBN, you will most likely not be able to continue to use it. There may also be waiting periods.

This would require you to remove your eBook from the other stores. It may also require you to establish your own KDP account if you were using an aggregator for Amazon distribution. Again, read the rules before you sign-up. Click here to learn more about KDP Select.

There is simple answer. My general rule is to treat each of these independently whenever possible, but that’s because I value control over convenience. The only really serious offering in this regard is IngramSpark, and when I use them for eBook distribution, I always exclude Amazon and Apple from their eBook distribution.

Easy: EPUB (as of 2021, Amazon no longer allows Mobi files for reflowable eBooks). None of these distributors will distribute your PDF.

If you sell a lot of eBooks, paying up front will be less expensive in the long run.

Read the terms of service for each company. In the early days of eBooks, there was a rush to publish public domain eBooks. Stores have since implemented limits or special requirements.

The major eBook retailers—Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google, Kobo)—have self-service portals that are free for self-publishers to use. You make the most money when you “go direct” with these stores because there is no third-party (distributor) to pay.

Your mileage may vary: 7 caveats to forecasting sales

  1. Regular readers of eBooks tend to be loyal to one store.
  2. Store sales rankings are most influenced by sales and reviews. Stores may help by showing your eBook to shoppers, but they won’t keep showing them a book that isn’t selling.
  3. Authors with books that appeal to audiences in other countries should make sure their book is also in the Apple, Google, and Kobo stores. (These three companies have more country-specific stores than Amazon.)
  4. In my experience, the fewer the books an author has released, the more their sales will be concentrated on Amazon.
  5. Unless an author has a broad platform of readers, they will do better by concentrating on a single store.
  6. Chicken and egg: If you don’t sell in numerous stores, you won’t increase your reach to new readers. At the same time, distribution is not the same as marketing. Sales outside Amazon happen when you focus on marketing programs that target the readers shopping in those stores.
  7. The above caveats may not hold true if you sell eBooks directly to readers from your website. Your success selling directly to readers is a function of your online marketing resources (website traffic, size of email mailing list, social media connections).

Two additional resources

Price plays a significant role in book marketing. And when you sell online, it's easy (and recommended) to use book pricing as a marketing strategy.

Read our two articles on this topic:

Part 1: Guide to Amazon Fees and Royalties for Kindle eBooks and KDP Print

Part 2: How Much to Charge When Pricing a Self-Published Book to Sell on Amazon

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