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Up the Publishing Wide Staircase: Go Direct or Use a Distributor?

In “Wide vs. Exclusive: Which is for You?” (IAM May 2021), we covered the pros and cons of publishing e-books as widely as possible. The alternative is publishing through programs requiring exclusivity, like Amazon’s KDP Select program.

When authors decide to publish their e-books wide, the next question is: “go direct” or use a distributor? It’s a classic case of control versus convenience, with a smattering of opportunity. 

Authors who “go direct” must upload files, fill out metadata, and manage promotions for each retailer separately. A distributor does the work of sending your files to each retailer and collecting your royalties, usually for some percentage of royalties. Many wide authors use a combination, publishing directly with some retailers and using distributors for others.

Direct

The advantages for going direct to each online retailer are promotion opportunities, metadata and categories, (i.e. not having least common denominator keywords and categories because the distributor has streamlined the data entry process), pre-order options, and receiving the full royalties.

At first glance, it might seem pointless to learn the ins and outs of each retailer. After all, you don’t know yet if your books will sell there. Consider this: the unique quirks of each retailer might be the hidden route to your ideal readers.

You can show the online bookstores you are serious about selling books with them by your thoughtful choices, polite questions, and consideration for their customers. (In a nutshell: “How can I help your customers find my book in your store?”) Remember, the retailer is the middleman between you and your readers; you want to build a strong relationship with the retailer yourself, to leverage the retailer’s relationship with their customers.

Retailer Promotion

Many distributors and online retailers entice authors by offering book promotion opportunities. These are the digital equivalent of having your book on special display in a bookstore. Authors talk about the power of the Amazon algorithm, but other retailers also have the ability to push book sales.

For example, uploading your books directly to Kobo makes sense for their promotion opportunities alone. Their “promotion tab” lists upcoming sales and eligibility requirements and allows you to pitch your books to the Kobo Writing Life team. The tab isn’t automatically added to your dashboard; you have to email them to request it.

Barnes & Noble (B&N) is another online retailer where promotion opportunities are available for eligible authors. B&N Press is now available for authors in the U.S., U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, and Belgium. They also have promotions options and unique categories called “themes” for certain genres that you won’t find in any of the other stores. That’s why, if you use a distributor, you’ll never see these themes or their promotion opportunities.

Managing Metadata

Publishing directly with Google Play Books makes sense for metadata and for scheduling price changes. Compared to Kobo Writing Life, Google Play Books takes a much more data-driven approach.

Google Play Books has no promotion tabs, but you can signal an upcoming promotion by using their coupon or price change scheduler. Instead of the familiar categories and keywords in Amazon’s Kindle publishing dashboard, Google Play Books has extensive international categories and uses the complete book description in its search engine. Updates are almost immediate.

When you’re setting things up, don’t confuse Google Play Books with Google Books, the online library of books, or with Google Play, a marketplace for apps.

Distributor

Some advantages to using a distributor include convenience in publishing, pricing, finding out about possible new markets, and reaching markets that don’t allow direct publishing. They may also provide help with formatting and marketing.

Retailer Promotion

Usually, direct authors have better access to promotion opportunities. Apple Books is one important exception: they allow authors to participate in all types of promotions no matter how the books arrive in their store. For example, Draft2Digital (D2D) distributes to Apple Books, but authors can be nominated for Apple Books promotion opportunities. Currently, D2D authors can fill out an online form to request promotion for new releases, permafree, and discounted titles. If you distribute books via D2D, you can email support@draft2digital.com, and ask to be added to their promotion opportunities list.

All distributors are not created equal

Just to mix things up, some retailers are also distributors, like Kobo, and Germany’s Tolino. Going direct to Kobo gets you into many other stores, including special access to the Overdrive library system with no deduction in royalties. You can email Kobo Writing Life (Writinglife@kobo.com) and request to be added to their notification list for Overdrive promotions.

There is no one distributor that covers all the retailers, and there is often overlap. If you choose more than one distributor, keep track of where you’ve opted in to each retailer. Duplicate records can cause problems with promotions and reviews.

Upload and hold

Once you’ve made your choices for Apple and Overdrive, don’t change them. Apple doesn’t “bring your reviews over,” so if your books move from a distributor to direct or vice versa, you will lose your existing reviews on Apple Books. Overdrive is a massive library system where you don’t want to mess up the data. No author wants to make librarians angry. 

While IngramSpark is a leader for print distribution, they are less strong for e-book distribution. If you start with them, it can be awkward and costly in terms of both time and momentum to delist if you change your mind later. If you want to use a distributor for your e-books, Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, or Kobo may be better options for you.

Reach and Reputation

New opportunities for publishing e-books are popping up every day. As your publishing capacity grows—i.e. your writing process isn’t swamped by administrative tasks—you can add more venues, formats, languages, and countries. Pace yourself.

When you start out, the online stores have a longer reach and are much better known to their customers than you are. You are building a business-to-business relationship with the retailer (https://www.darcypattison.com/publishing/ebook-distribution/), and your books benefit from their reach and reputation. 

Mentioning online retailers by name on social media posts and your website sends traffic to their store. It might not seem like much, until you remember how many indie authors there are in the world. If each one of us posts regularly about our books, the traffic to the stores adds up, building a positive relationship between the author and the retailer. It’s not so different from supporting your neighborhood bookstore, school, or library. This neighborhood just happens to be online.

Your books and author name become better known as you build your audience. Then you may publish in the most direct online model of all—selling from your website. That’s a topic for another article.

Laurel Decher

Resources

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As you make your publishing plan, these questions can help you evaluate each option:

What you want to know about each retailer/distributor?

1. Do they have a nimble, accurate system for prices, metadata, and updates? This helps you change your price in time for your special sale or catch an embarrassing error before it gets too far.

2. How long does it take them to pay you? Will their payment method mean extra fees for you? What bank requirements do they have?

3. What data do they offer about your books? How can you use it to improve your marketing?

4. Can you apply for retailer promotions? Are there additional steps needed to access these?

5. How safe is it? If you go where no author has gone before, limit your risk. Diversification can be a safeguard, but check the fine print.

6. How much work will it be for you? Retailers prefer links to their stores in your back matter. Will you need multiple files per book? Linking to your own website might be the best alternative. Or you can create links with a free tool like Books2Read. Both options add additional clicks for the reader, but linking to retailers on your website can be part of building your relationship with the retailer.

7. What are the requirements for pre-orders? Do they include preview file options so readers can see a portion of the book before the complete file is ready to upload?

8. Can you leave gracefully? Moving your books from a distributor to direct is work, but you can customize your distribution as you go—but watch out for those upload-and-hold situations. Will you lose your book reviews? If you change from PublishDrive for Google Play Books to direct for Google Play Books, you need to notify both parties. Otherwise your book-related data will be repeatedly overwritten by both.

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