Do-It-Yourself distribution

This section looks at situations where distributors aren’t the best, or only, option to use. It highlights a few alternative D-I-Y (‘do it yourself‘) strategies for publishers who want to extend distribution beyond the major outlets, or retain more control.

6 reasons why you might want to do it yourself

After reviewing the list of things a distributor does, you might be thinking it’s money well-spent and you’re happy to leave them to it. But there are still reasons why you might want to tackle distribution yourself, either entirely or in conjunction with an ebook distributor.

Here are 6 cases where some direct distribution might make sense.

Sleeves#1. Your list is large. Large publishers will want to form direct sales relationships with ebooksellers, especially the major ones. However, for many publishers like this, it will still make sense to use a distributor to handle the logistics of digital distribution.

#2. You need to plug the gaps. No distribution service reaches all ebooksellers and some important booksellers might be missed, either in niches or in specific country markets.

#3. You need to reach beyond booksellers. If you’re publishing in a niche, you might want to extend your reach beyond booksellers.

#4. You want to ‘own the customer’. When you sell through major ebooksellers, you don’t know who bought your book. Building a customer list might be important if you want to communicate with them and sell them other products later.

#5. You’re selling to the education market. Schools or universities have special requirements. There are educational and library distributors, and there is also the potential to open direct sales channels to teachers or academics, institutions, and national or local buying groups.

#6. You want to sell from your own website. You can sell directly from your website. You can also set up a so-called affiliate marketing program where you pay a commission to other websites such as bloggers who link to your site and send you buyers.

Dealing directly with ebooksellers: The D-I-Y process and its challenges

Getting ebooks to ebooksellers directly requires time, patience, persistence and a degree of technical expertise. Here are some of the technical and business issues you will encounter and how you deal with them.

Automated self-service options for smaller lists

Most major ebooksellers offer online facilities that allow small publishers to upload ebook files and metadata directly. Some extend this by providing marketing and sales tracking tools.

Amazon has the most-developed self-service system but others including Google Play Books, Barnes and Noble (via its Nook Press service), and Apple iBookstore (via iTunes Connect, iTunes Producer and iBooks Author) also offer self-service accounts for small presses and self-publishers. Kobo has an automated service called Writing Life. Note that not all services are open to all countries yet.

Human contacts

For other sites, and for larger accounts, you must contact them directly.

Among the major ebookseller sites, some, like Kobo, freely advertise their contact details and welcome small publishers and non-US publishers, though responses can be slow and erratic so patience is needed. For others, contact by small publishers or publishers from many international markets is almost impossible. But check outlets regularly as things change frequently.

Beyond the major ebooksellers, you’ll need to make contact directly with the sites. You’re likely to find deficiencies in both their human and technical resources in regard to selling ebooks.

DAD (Digital Asset Distribution) service for larger lists

If your list is large, you’ll probably have to invest in a Digital Asset Distribution (DAD) service. As we saw in the section on Distribution for Large Publishers, several vendors will supply DAD on an ‘unbundled’ basis, taking care of the technical aspects of distribution while the publisher looks after sales.

It requires a moderate level of technical capability from the retail website to access ebooks that are held in a DAD system. So it’s not likely to work if your target market is dominated by small websites such as bloggers or independent bookstore sites.


Each ebookseller will require the same sort of information that an ebook distributor requires. The difference is that a distributor takes your information once then personalizes it for each ebookseller. But the do-it-yourself approach means you’ll have to do this, with slight variations, for every site you deal with.

Security and trust

Large ebooksellers invest heavily in building robust systems to hold publishers’ ebooks securely and account for sales accurately. They’re usually worth the effort of dealing with as well, unless you have a very specialized list or need to capture details of all the customers who buy your titles.

Once you move to your local bookseller or to bloggers for instance, things will get more risky as well as time-consuming to service. Getting paid will create further challenges, especially if you deal with lots of small outlets, each with small sales, and operate in several currencies.

Digital Rights Management

DRM is probably the single biggest barrier to setting up direct sales channels, so if it’s essential to your publishing program, you’ll face a major hurdle. Very few small retailers or non-bookseller sites such as bloggers are equipped to add DRM to ebooks.

And readers find it difficult to buy and use DRM-encrypted ebooks that don’t come from the ebookstores of their device suppliers like Amazon, Apple and Kobo. One way around this problem is to use affiliate marketing.

Affiliate marketing: An alternative distribution method

If you plan to target outlets that don’t normally sell ebooks, or where you’re likely to see a lot of outlets generating small numbers of sales, an affiliate marketing service might be a better option.

Affiliate marketers are paid a commission for sending a buyer, via a tagged link, to the site where the transaction and/or download takes place. All the technical and financial ‘heavy lifting’ is done by experts.

There are two ways to do this:

  • Major ebooksellers affiliate programs. You can encourage partners to sell your ebooks through the affiliate programs of major ebooksellers like Amazon, Google or Kobo. This is simple. Its disadvantages are that you’ll earn less from these sales, and you won’t get access to the list of customers who bought your ebooks.
  • Your own affiliate program. You can set up your own affiliate marketing program.

Affiliate marketing can be a good alternative to traditional digital distribution if your market is very fragmented. It’s especially valuable if you want to deal with websites that aren’t set up to sell ebooks and is more likely to suit non-fiction than fiction.

Setting up your own programme

Setting up your own affiliate marketing system to expand distribution means that you’ll ‘own the customer’ — you’ll have the contact details for the ebook buyer. This is important if you want to stay in touch and sell other products or services to them.

The easiest way to set up an affiliate marketing programme is to use one of the online affiliate marketing services who will take care of most of the logistics and technical aspects of setting up an affiliate programme.

Depending on the service, this can include:

  • A shopping cart to process ebook sales
  • Ebook hosting and downloading
  • Affiliate sales tracking
  • Marketing support for affiliates

If you operate your own ebookstore, affiliate marketing service vendors can provide the marketing and tracking capabilities.

If you don’t have your own ebookstore, they can provide the whole ‘back-end’ including payment and downloads.

For some publishers, an affiliate marketing service might also offer a simple way to add (DRM-free) ebook sales to their own website, as well as letting them expand distribution beyond their own site.

Here are some companies that are useful for selling digital goods like ebooks:



Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.


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