Whether you’re a self-publisher or a large publishing house, you’re probably dealing with six to a dozen online retailers to sell your e-books. There are the big players like Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Borders; online bookstores like Diesel and Powell’s; and perhaps even specialty retailers like AllRomanceeBooks.com.

But several companies offer go-between services that simplify the process for publisher and retailer. Should you consider using these middleman services?

The barriers to market

Before you can make that decision, consider the hurdles these services help publishers surmount. The current system of uploading to individual retailers is particularly burdensome for self-publishers, who must:

  1. format their e-book to the specifications of each reseller (Mobipocket/Kindle for Amazon, EPUB for everyone else),
  2. edit the cover and interior of each e-book to reflect the unique ISBN number assigned to each reseller, and
  3. manually upload the files to each retailer.

Later — much later — you will get your royalty check on sales from each one of those different sites. And then, if you update your book, it can take a while to trickle through. So while version 1 is active on one retailer’s site, version 2 may be active on another.

Yeah. Track all that.

Middlemen ease the administrative burden

It’s no wonder the expanded distribution programs of self-publishing companies like CreateSpace are so popular, and why Smashwords has been such a smash hit with self-publishers.

Smashwords automatically converts your doc file into various formats and distributes it to all the retailers (except Amazon). You assign a single ISBN number to the Smashwords edition. If you update the book, the book description, or include a review, the company handles the trickle-down of information. You get one payment from Smashwords, and you make 85 percent of retail when sold through their store. When they distribute to Apple, Borders, and others, you make about 45 percent of retail. (To include Amazon you can just reformat your Smashwords doc file to fit Amazon’s KDP format, then upload it to the Amazon Kindle store directly.)

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Here’s another model. Independent Publishers Group created a division for small and self-publishers, Small Press United (SPU). If you are one of the 20 percent of self-published authors accepted into SPU, they will convert your print book to EPUB and Mobipocket/Kindle format for free, and distribute it to the online retailers as well as to brick-and-mortar bookstores. Typically, you make 35 to 40 percent of the retail price in exchange for the convenience of a total print and e-book distribution solution.

Combining print and digital

Then there’s the e-book warehousing solution dreamed up by Montreal-based Transcontinental Printing, an offset printing company who decided to expand their horizons by partnering with DeMarque, whose technology powers the e-book. They saw the e-book distribution mess and offered this solution: You upload your e-book to Transcontinental’s Digital Warehouse and fill out all the metadata: description, bio, ISBN number, etc. They then deliver it to Apple (and they are in the process of making deals with many other online bookstores worldwide), which displays it in its store as if it was their own. If someone buys your e-book, the retailer’s website is used as an interface to reach the file to download the e-book, but the online bookstore never actually housed the file — it lives securely on the Transcontinental digital warehouse server. Here’s how their Digital Warehouse works:

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Transcontinental, being the central transaction point, updates your sales report within seconds, credits your account, and adds the data to your stats. When you log into your account you can see all this. When you update your book, the changes are made in a single place. You get paid by the bookstore and — after the nominal 10 percent charged by Transcontinental, plus the online retailer’s fee — you, the publisher, get about 50 percent of the retail price. You can review all payments with the real-time reporting the service provides.

Transcontinental has only made a deal with Apple so far, but they are in negotiations with others, so watch them. Transcontinental — being a printing company — also offers their traditional offset printing services for more than 500 books, and a digital print short-run service for less than 500 books.

A simple solution

“Our goal is to simplify — to use only one uploaded file for all forms of the book, which retailers pull from the Digital Warehouse and one location for all transactions,” said Jacques Gregoire, senior vice president of Transcontinental’s Magazine, Book and Catalog Group. Though Transcontinental serves many large publishing companies, they are eager to work with self-publishers as well.

The distribution services provided by companies like Transcontinental, Smashwords, and SPU are providing a middleman model that is good for self-publishers and good for retailers, who are understandably having a difficult time keeping up with the rush to upload e-books. By the end of 2011 we may even see retailers insisting that self-publishers use central e-book distribution services, instead of dealing with them individually.

Carla King is an author, a publishing consultant, and founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website. Her newest book, The Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, was released in February 2011.