Book Distribution: What are your options?

Your book is written, edited, and formatted. You’ve purchased ISBNs and barcodes. You have a stellar cover and a pretty spiffy author photo, too. You’re moments away from uploading to Amazon, popping some bubbly, and announcing your book release . . . but have you really thought through the supply chain connections necessary for a successful book launch?

Marketing on your blog, through social media, and spamming your email list is a no brainer. But, how do you get your book in bookstores? There’s no getting around the need to connect with retailers. Therefore, it’s incumbent on you to figure out what kind of distribution system you want.


Most self-published authors spin their wheels marketing directly to readers. Direct-to-consumer fulfillment allows indie authors to sell books directly to consumers through their author website. This is seen as a way to maximize royalties by cutting out the distribution chain and its associated fees.

$15.00             Retail cost of book
-$0.90              4.5% credit card processing fee
-$2.50              Shipping
$11.60             Royalties

-$4.00              Cost of Printing
$7.60               Profit per Book

While it is important to connect with readers in order to build an audience, few people are going to stumble across the website of an unknown author and want to buy their debut book. Consequently, many indie authors and publishers are recommended to sell books on consignment through their local bookstores. Consignment simply means the store will stock copies of the book for a period of time. When that time period elapses, the author is paid for any items that sold and the unsold stock is returned to the author.

The bookstore must purchase the books at a discount in order to be profitable themselves. This means that royalties per book declines, but it increases the likelihood that someone will find (and purchase) the book. The main advantage of offering books on consignment is that the arrangement is well established in the book trade.

$15.00             Retail cost of book
-$6.00              40% Discount to Bookstore
$9.00               Royalties

-$4.00              Cost of Printing
$5.00               Profit per Book

As exciting as it seems to see your book on the shelf at your local bookstore, there are a number of downfalls to consider, including:

  • The initial investment needed to print books in bulk.
  • Customizing distribution for each bookseller and contract.
  • Lacking pre-existing connections to expand your reach to other booksellers.
  • Having to do all the marketing and promotion yourself.

Self-distribution only works if you have a good connection to your local indie bookstore, who may be more open to self-published titles.  However, it does little to expand your readership.


Print-on-Demand (POD) is relatively new printing technology that has become widely used among self-published authors and small presses. With a POD service, books are printed and shipped when they are ordered. This is an economic breakthrough in the publishing industry because it allows sales to fund printing cost, prints only the exact quantities needed, and eliminates the necessity of storing a large quantity of books.

Many POD services, like Amazon and Lulu, also offer books for sale on their platforms, increasing the author’s reach while still enabling them to purchase copies for their own self-distribution. While it can be a heady rush for a debut author to see their book listed on or in Kindle stores (it’s where authors get the majority of sales), it’s unlikely to get the book in font of people who buy books for a living. Consequently, it’s important for indie authors and publishers to choose their POD service carefully.


Those wanting to get their book in front of as many readers as possible, need to market directly to schools, libraries, and booksellers. These folks are not interested in purchasing individual copies on Amazon. They have their own supply chains and in order to reach them, your book needs to be in their existing system.

Many retailers refuse to buy books directly from indie authors and publishers. Rather than buy from hundreds of individual authors and publishers, the prefer ordering from a few trusted sources. Chain bookstores require distribution through a wholesaler as a precondition for stocking titles. Wholesalers sell to bookstores, libraries, and schools, in addition to a number of other retail outlets such as big box stores, grocery stores, gift shops, museums, and wholesale clubs.

Wholesalers make their money on volume, so they won’t stock a book unless it’s in high demand. Because wholesalers are unwilling to stock titles that may never sell, some wholesalers now offer POD services. This arrangement grants indie authors and publishers access to wholesalers, enabling them to guarantee the physical copies will be available when needed without having to pay for an entire print run.

Using wholesalers as the middleman between the publisher and the bookstore is beneficial for both parties. Wholesalers stock books from thousands of publishers, enabling bookstores to place a single order for multiple titles from variety of publishers. Because a large percentage of the books a retail outlet stocks never sell, returning unsold copies occurs in one transaction as well. Wholesalers also often offer free shipping, a huge cost savings to bookstores. On the flip side, small publishers often have difficulty getting paid for books sold directly to bookstores. By contracting with a wholesaler, the author/publisher no longer needs to handle sales, giving them more time for marketing, promotion, and, of course, writing.

By entering into an agreement with a wholesaler, you are giving them permission to list your book in their catalogues and sell directly to retailers. These are typically non-exclusive agreements. You can work with multiple warehouses, thereby increasing the distribution of your book. Once an agreement is in place, the warehouse begins accepting orders, billing customers, and shipping books on behalf of the publisher.

Depending on wholesaler, catalogs are sent to participating bookstores either monthly or quarterly. The catalogues are not pretty or illustrated with eye-catching covers. It’s just a list containing title, author, and ISBN. Some wholesalers offer promotional opportunities for an added fee. This might include an enhanced catalog listing or placement in a special genre specific catalog.

Wholesalers do not engage in marketing and will not pitch your book to prospective customers. They simply fulfill orders, so book promotion still falls to the author/publisher. They also require a larger discount than retail outlets, resulting in smaller royalties per book.  The main benefit in contracting with a wholesaler is that bookstores are more willing to take a chance on a book in their existing supply chain, increasing the likelihood of the book appearing in more stores.

$15.00             Retail cost of book
-$8.25              55% Wholesale Discount
$6.75               Royalties

-$4.00              Cost of Printing
$2.75               Profit per Book

The Major Book Wholesalers

Ingram. Ingram Book Company dominates the wholesale business supplying books for Amazon, Barns & Noble, Indie Bound, Powell’s, and others. They also sell to libraries and schools. With over 25,000 US based bookseller accounts, Ingram is the largest book wholesaler in the United States. In addition to print books, they wholesale audiobooks, ebooks, and tie-in merchandise. However, they do not work with publishers who have fewer than 10 titles in print, unless you publish through Lightning Source or IngramSpark. Any book available through Ingram’s book printing division is automatically listed in their database and wholesale catalogue.

Baker & Taylor. Baker & Taylor is has been in business almost 200 years and offers a wide range of digital media and physical products. With more than 36,000 customers in over 120 countries, Baker & Taylor is by far the largest library wholesaler, accounting for close to half of all book sales to libraries. They also fulfill orders for and supply bookstores, schools, and other retail accounts all over the world. In 2016 Baker and Taylor was acquired by Follett, the largest wholesaler of textbooks in the world. They sell educational material from K–12 all the way to the university level. They also sell middle grade and YA fiction books of interest to school librarians. In order to get listed in their catalogue you’ll need a good marketing plan and ability to show interest from schools and libraries.

Of course, there is no guarantee that bookstores, schools, and libraries will order your book, but partnering with well-known wholesalers makes it possible. Understand that wholesalers are merely passive suppliers, dependent on publishers and authors to drive sales. Indie authors and publishers still have to make sure bookstores know their book is available and is something their customers will love.

The easiest way to do this is to grow your readership. Having a customer walk into the store and request the book is a sure sign the item is in demand. Also, focus on getting trade journal reviews pre-publication. Bookstore buyers read reviews and a glowing review might lead to an order with your wholesaler.


Book distributors are companies that pitch and sell books directly to wholesalers, bookstores, libraries, and other retailers. While the Big 5 can afford to maintain their own warehouses and sales teams, most small and medium sized publishers turn to distributors. Full-service distributors connect indie publishers with many of the services traditional publishing houses offer their authors. This includes: fulfillment, sales representation, warehousing, and much more. A good distributor allows indie publishers to operate competitively with major houses.

Unlike wholesalers who are passive suppliers, distributors provide marketing services, sales teams, and works to reach submarkets and retail outlets other than bookstores. The principle differences between contracting with a wholesaler and hiring a distributer is exclusivity and a sales force. Distributors are exclusive, once you’ve signed the contract you can’t work anyone else. On the publisher level, distributors manage contracts with warehouses, bills customers, and ships orders. The principle advantage comes in having a dedicated sales force who actively pitches your books to retail buyers.

Presently, over 90% of book sales now happen at just a handful of accounts: Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. This means the sales teams offered by distributors are less important than they once were. Because of their exclusivity, some distributors prohibit indie authors and publishers from selling books directly through KDP and participating in KDP Select. Since Kindle is the nation’s largest ebook retailer that can really affect overall sales, especially when considering the distribution fee.

As compensation, trade distributors take a percentage of the net sales. This means they are never losing money on a sale, though you may be. Net sales are what wholesalers, chain bookstores, and online outlets pay the distributor. Actual distribution fees vary wildly, from 10% to 30%. The larger the publisher’s sales, the lower the fee. Distributors also charge other kinds of fees: storage, warehouse fees, cataloging fees, etc.

$15.00             Retail Book Price
-$8.25              55% Wholesale Discount
$ 6.75              Net Sales

-$2.03              30% Distribution Fee
$ 4.72              Royalties

-$4.00              Printing Cost
$ 0.72              Profit per Book

According to Jane Friedman, it is unwise to shop for a distributor until an author has three titles selling consistently and at least one book that has sold over 5,000 copies. Some indie authors and publishers may find that smaller distributors and those with a specialty book focus are more welcoming of small clients. An ideal match is a distributor that specializes in your particular genre. This helps ensure they have the appropriate connections and marketing experience necessary to sell your kind of book.

 Major Book Distributors

Ingram.  In addition to being a wholesaler, Ingram is also one of the largest distributors in the world. They own a family of large trade distributors including: Consortium, Publishers Group West, Two Rivers, and Ingram Publisher Services. Working with Ingram can streamline your sales and fulfillment process, especially if you already have a relationship with them for wholesaling and POD services.

Independent Publishers Group. In 1971, Independent Publishers Group (IPG) invented the concept of a trade distributor for independent presses. As a trade distributor, IPG brought credibility to indie publishers. In 1987, IPG was bought by Chicago Review Press. Today they employ approximately 150 commissioned sales reps, with the most boots on the ground of any distributor.

Other large trade distributors include: Diamond Book Distributors, Hachette, National Book Network, and Penguin Random House Publisher Services. Smaller trade distributors include: Midpoint Trade Books, SCB, and National Book Network. Lists of distributors can be found at the Independent Book Publishers Association website and the Nonfiction Authors Association website.

Distribution is not a substitute for building an audience.  Distributors can help increase sales, but you still need a solid marketing plan. That includes producing ARCs and galleys in order to acquire reviews, hosting and attending author events, purchasing covers that appeal to your audience, and building your brand.

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