eBook distribution options in 2019 have expanded greatly the past two years. There are scores of online eBook retailers around the world and eBook aggregators abound to help self-publishers easily make their book available for sale.
Highlights of market developments in this 2019 round-up post include:
- At least 3 services now claim to distribute your eBook to more than 150 online retailers.
- One company, PublishDrive, offers a choice of fee or commission-based payment.
- IngramSpark greatly scaled back their eBook distribution network.
- Bookbaby has integrated KDP Select management into their publishing portal.
- At least 3 companies in our directory of eBook distributors also offer some form of audiobook distribution.
In other words, despite Amazon’s continued domination of the market for eBooks there is no shortage of third-party services intent on competing. In fact, I see the next battleground as audiobook distribution since the EU forced Amazon and Apple to dissolve their partnership.
This 2019 eBook distribution round-up of aggregators tells you what you need to know to navigate these sometimes-tricky waters:
- Definitions of key terms
- An explanation of aggregator vs. direct distribution
- A decision guide
- A comparison chart of 11 established eBook aggregators
- And finally, frequently asked questions
Keep in mind that this round-up 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 so there are service providers serving different market niches.
If after reading this you are still confused about what to do, drop your question in the comments box.
Unlike the Byzantine world of print book distribution, eBook distribution is an outgrowth of the modern digital media distribution put in place to handle music, apps and other types of digital products that came before modern (non-PDF) eBooks.
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 aggregator, or some combination.
What is an eBook aggregator?
An eBook aggregator receives an eBook, and distributes that file to more than one online retailer (e.g. Amazon, Apple, B&N). They make money by charging fees, or keeping a percentage of sales. Services and capabilities vary, as do the online stores each eBook aggregator will service. eBook aggregators typically specialize in markets, such as self-publishers (authors) vs. 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:
- Royalty payments
- Book metadata* management
- Ease of making changes
This table and the video that follows illustrates the 5 considerations used to evaluate going direct vs. using an eBook aggregator.
*Metadata: information that describes your book such as title, price, ISBN, description, categories, etc.
|Consideration||Using Aggregators||Going Direct|
|Cost||Fee and/or percent of sales.||Free|
|Convenience||One account to learn and manage.||Must learn and manage each account.|
|Payment||Delays. Stores pay aggregator, aggregator pays you||No delays.|
|Metadata*||“One size fits all”; no ability to customize for each store, or take advantage of marketing features offered by a store.||Customize for each store.|
|Changes||Delays. Aggregator tells store, store makes change. Possible charges or limits.||No delays, no costs, no limits.|
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 100% of sales were with one store it wouldn’t matter how many other stores there are, right? Following this logic, you want to go direct with the store(s) that sell the most books and use aggregators for the others. It simply isn’t worth your time to chase (currently) measly sales from stores that won’t provide a return on your investment.
You also make more money since aggregators charge a fee or take a percentage of your sales as payment.
Here’s a plan that applies to virtually all one-book authors, and perhaps many multi-book authors.
- Go direct with Amazon. I can’t think of a situation where an author would use an aggregator to reach the Kindle store. You get full control, maximum available royalties, and besides, they sell most of the eBooks.
- Are you comfortable using online tools and websites, and interested in maximum control? Also go direct with B&N and Kobo.
- Same criteria as number 2, and do you have a Mac? Go direct with Apple. (The software Apple supplies for uploading your EPUB file only runs on a Mac. Once uploaded, you can access reports and make metadata changes using a web browser.)
These four stores control approximately 90% of the US eBook market, likely higher.
How to pay? Fee or commission?
The next question to ask yourself is: would you rather pay a flat fee, or give up a percentage of sales in the form of a commission? Note that this percentage is in addition to the sales commission that each store takes before paying your aggregator, 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 eats into profits. On the other hand, paying a flat rate and then selling 5 eBooks can be an expensive proposition.
One school of thought is that a distributor that works on commision is incentivized to help you sell books (they make more money). But this makes no sense! Aggregators simply automate the process of distributing your eBook to a store. Distribution isn’t the same as marketing.
Complicating your plans, some on my list below charge a fee and charge a commission.
The good news is that there is one company that leaves it up to you, PublishDrive. They offer you a choice of paying a fee or a commission. And best of all, allow you to switch between the two options anytime as your sales go up or down.
Choosing an aggregator
I suggest visiting each website to get a feel for how they work, their fees and the stores they support. Read their policies and look at the features 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 also offer services.
The Bottom Line
Go direct where possible, add one aggregator for the balance. You can always change things around later as you get more comfortable managing your accounts. Btw, be sure to read my FAQ about using an ISBN provided by an aggregator.
Comparison of eBook Distributors
As noted earlier, there are 5 considerations when evaluating distribution: cost, convenience, royalty payments, ease of updating metadata, and how easy the service is to use. And some features and capabilities change from year-to-year. Rather than try to classify every difference, I’ve zeroed in on the core features and then link you to that service for more details.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to cost + convenience vs. control + reach (who they distribute to). There are trade-offs. Just don’t forget that most sales will be on Amazon, and to a lesser extent Apple and B&N. See below for my caveats about potential 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 a core service and in fact they may require you (or hound 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.
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! (These companies are not profiled below.)
Instructions for using the table
- Click the green dot with the + sign for more details about each aggregator.
- 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.
FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need an ISBN to distribute an eBook?
Can I use the aggregator’s ISBN if I leave or change aggregators?
How does print book distribution differ from eBook distribution?
Why is my book not showing in every store claimed by the aggregator?
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 my client’s books were never “stocked” 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.
What happens if I decide to change aggregators?
What happens if I want to join KDP Select?
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. Update: Bookbaby says you can use their service to manage your KDP Select account.
Should I choose a company that handles both eBook and print book distribution?
There is no quick or 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.
Which eBook file (Mobi, EPUB, PDF) do I use with each store?
Is it better to pay upfront, or a percent of sales?
Can I distribute a public domain book?
How do I distribute eBooks for free?
The major eBook retailers—Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing/KDP), Apple (iBookstore), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google (Play), Kobo (Writing Life)—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 (aggregator) to pay.
Your mileage may vary: 8 caveats to forecasting sales
- Regular readers of eBooks tend to be loyal to one store.
- Promotions and metadata changes can help with short-term boosts, but store sales rankings are most influenced by sales and reviews.
- A store can help by sending shoppers to your book, but they won’t keep showing them a book that isn’t selling.
- Authors with books that appeal to audiences in other countries should make sure their book is also in the Apple and Kobo stores. (These two companies have more country-specific stores than Amazon.)
- In my experience, the fewer the books an author has, the more their sales will be concentrated on Amazon.
- Unless an author has a broad platform of readers, they will do better by concentrating on a single store. At least until sales become self-sustaining or they begin store-specific marketing programs.
- 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.
- The above caveats may not hold true if you sell eBooks from your website (direct to readers). Your success selling direct to readers is a function of your website’s traffic, your mailing list, and your social media reach.
What aggregators have you tried? Have you had success you can share? What’s more important, convenience or control? Drop your comments in the box below.