The rise of online book retailers means that self-publishers have better access to customers than ever. But many authors still want to be on bookstore shelves. The good news is that you don’t really need traditional distribution to get into bookstores.

The Databases

With your ISBN and bar code from Bowker in hand (read my previous post that told you how to get control of your own ISBN), it’s time to register your title and your contact information in their Books In Print and Global Books In Print databases. Registering with BowkerLink is the first step to enabling the industry to discover your book, and it’s free.

Ingram is the largest book wholesaler and distributor in the world and if your book is not listed in their ipage ordering system, it’s simply invisible to booksellers. You must have 10 titles a year to be accepted into their program, but this article shows you three ways to get in through the back door.:

  1. Create a relationship with a traditional distributor whose titles are listed with Ingram, and send them an inventory of offset-print books.
  2. Print your book on-demand with the Ingram-owned company Lightning Source, and you’re automatically in.
  3. Use a self-publishing services company to list your book with Ingram.

No matter whom you distribute with, a 55 percent discount is standard. (You can offer less, but expect few takers.) When calculating your profit margin, factor in printing, shipping, postage, returns and start-up costs like editing and design — all the costs of doing business. Don’t forget ongoing costs like marketing and publicity, giveaways, promotion and accounting. Direct sales is certainly more lucrative than traditional distribution and you give that up when you sign an exclusive distribution deal. So why bother?

Traditional Print Book Distribution

In traditional distribution you (the publisher) prints a large number of books with an offset printer. The books are sent to a distributor who wants to sell mass quantities of your book to wholesalers and retailers.

Unfortunately, your book isn’t really sold until it’s bought by a consumer, so when — not if — your books are returned (a sad fact about the industry), the distributor then returns them to you.

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The well-respected Independent Publishers Group has a new branch called Small Press United (SPU) and, if you’re one of the fewer than 20 percent accepted into their program, they will present your book to resellers next to offerings from the mainstream press. Also consider Publishers Group West (PGW) and Baker & Taylor (B&T), the most important distributor to the library market.

Big distribution companies have not been eager to work with self-publishers, but that’s changing. Still, it’s easiest to get in through membership in the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) or the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN). Both are worthwhile organizations for self-publishers thanks to their seminars, advice, discounts, and community.

But don’t rule out a smaller distributor who specializes in your niche or genre, especially if you need help with design, editing, e-book conversion, and other tasks in order to publish your book. They may be more dedicated and more effective in providing you with personalized service over the years. As with the self-publishing services companies, you pay these distributors; but since they must maintain a good reputation with booksellers, they carefully vet their authors. Check out IPBA’s Distributor/Wholesaler Directory and this list of Top Independent Book Distributors to start.

The downside? You relinquish the opportunity to sell your print book and your e-book direct to the consumer. Measure that benefit against the potential benefits of having hired a sales force, paired with your ongoing promotion efforts, to make your decision to go this route.

POD Distribution With Lightning Source

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The newer print-on-demand distribution model works like this: If a brick-and-mortar bookstore customer asks for your book, the bookseller finds it in the ipage Ingram database and places an order. Lightning Source prints it and sends it to the store, where the customer picks it up.

These days, customers are more likely to order from an online reseller, which cuts out the middle step. In this model, the customer orders a book from the online reseller, who sends the request to Lightning Source, who mails the book directly to the customer on the reseller’s behalf.

Along with many other advantages, there are fewer returns because booksellers don’t have to order several and wait to see if they sell. You don’t have to worry about returns with print-on-demand.

POD Distribution With a Self-Publishing Firm

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Even the most basic, do-it-yourself self-publishing services companies — think Lulu, CreateSpace and Wordclay — offer services that includes an Ingram database listing for your book in your publishing company name. But since booksellers are definitely not flocking to what they consider the vanity presses in order to stock their shelves, make sure the publishing house name on the spine is your own. (See my previous article, The Pitfalls of Using Self-Publishing Book Packages.) They may — invisibly to you and the customer — use Lightning Source or another POD subcontractor to print and send it, which is fine, but realize you’re paying a little more for this service.

A Middle Path

Before you seek out traditional distribution, you might ask yourself if you really need it. Many authors are more easily served by direct sales and POD distribution of print and e-books. Think of these options, for example:

  1. Using your website for direct sales via an online store.
  2. Back-of-room sales at personal appearances.
  3. Consignment deals with local booksellers and retailers in your niche.
  4. Using Lightning Source for both printed books and PDF-formatted e-books sold to stores and online retailers in U.S., Canada and Europe.
  5. Using Smashwords and Scribd for e-book sales in many formats for many e-readers (See my previous article for details on How to Pair Scribd and Smashwords for an Ideal E-book Strategy.)
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You may be one of the many authors who missed the news that you can get into the Ingram database by printing on-demand with Lightning Source, or the newer news that self-publishing services companies now include this in their packages, too. (Yes, do keep looking for even newer news in this quickly evolving industry.) But do not miss the fact that you are responsible for the marketing and promotion that will create a buzz and sell your book.

The defining fact about traditional distributors is that they vet their work, whereas POD services companies will print and distribute almost anything. A traditional distributor will have opinions. Their reputation is on the line and they want to work with like-minded independent publishers dedicated to success. You should consider them a partner. Until then, an on-demand distribution solution should suffice.

Carla King is a publishing and social media strategist and co-author of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp Workbook, which grew out of experiences leading workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and on her website.

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