Ebooks are a boon to smaller publishers, especially those who want to reach a global audience of readers. One of the main reasons for this is the emergence of several high-quality, low cost digital distributors who aim their services at the global market and provide easy online access for publishers.
We’ll take a look at four distribution services that open up the global market to self-publishers and small presses:
- Kindle Direct Publishing
Each of these companies combines its distribution service with ebook conversion (in a couple of cases, you can’t use the distribution services separately). Some also offer fee-based publishing services including design, editing, and marketing.
In this section, we’ll focus only on their distribution services. The ebook conversion services are covered separately in the production module.
All of these companies deal with international publishers. They each have particular strengths and allow you to nominate which outlets they deliver to, so you might find that a combination of distributors suits you best.
Smashwords (smashwords.com) provides two tiers of distribution: standard and premium. Its premium service can get your ebook into most of the major outlets.
Smashwords provides free ebook conversion as part of its service, but if you already have a professionally-converted EPUB file, you can use the Smashwords Direct service for distribution-only.
If you’re a publisher or agent with a list that includes titles from several authors, you can use Smashwords’ Publisher Pages. These group your titles so that they can be displayed together, and handles collective management, reporting, and payments.
Click to view more about Smashwords' distribution service
Smashwords’ two tiers of distribution are:
1. Standard Catalog
Every ebook that’s uploaded to Smashwords and meets its basic terms of service is available for sale through its Standard Catalog. Each ebook gets its own page on the smashwords.com website, which you can link to from your own website, blog, or Facebook page. It will manage all of the downloading and billing, making it very simple to start selling ebooks. The Smashwords’ Standard Catalog also appears inside the popular e-reading apps Stanza and Aldiko so that users can buy from within the e-reading app.
2. Premium Catalog
This is where you need to be if you want to reach major ebooksellers such as Apple’s iBookstore or Kobo. Entry into the Premium Catalog isn’t based on Smashwords’ judgement of your ebook’s editorial merit or sales potential, or on payment of a fee. It’s based on your ebook meeting the quality standards for production and metadata that are required by the major ebookstores.
You’ll find a detailed list on the Smashwords site, but they include proper formatting, no spelling mistakes or typos, a cover image, copyright page, a functioning table of contents, an ISBN identification number (required by some ebooksellers, more on this later), and complete and accurate metadata. Smashwords claims that about 80% of its titles go into the Premium Catalog.
What it costs
Smashwords charges no fees but earns its income exclusively from commission on sales of ebooks through its catalogues. Its conversion service is free and joining its Standard and Premium catalogues is free.
For sales through its Standard Catalog, Smashwords charges a 15% commission after deducting credit card charges so you receive close to 85% of the list price. For sales through its Premium Catalog, you’ll generally receive about 60% of the list price. Smashwords charges a commission of 10% of the list price, but you will also pay the ebookseller’s margin, which is typically 30%.
You can nominate the outlets to which your ebook is distributed from a growing list of key ebookstores internationally. A notable absence is Amazon. However, this is less of an issue than it might seem. Given Amazon’s dominance in many markets and the excellent online tools it provides to self-publishers, it’s a very good (and common) strategy to deal directly with Amazon and use Smashwords to reach the remainder of the market.
You grant non-exclusive distribution rights to Smashwords so you’re free to sell your ebook through other channels but make sure you don’t assign two distributors to the same online store.
Note that, while you can sell your ebooks through other channels, to do this you’ll need to produce a new edition: the version that Smashwords creates for free can only be sold via Smashwords. Smashwords also insists that ebooks sold through its catalogues are DRM-free.
Lulu (lulu.com) was one of the original self-publishing websites so its roots are in printed books and it provides distribution support for both printed and digital books. It’s primarily aimed at authors to whom it sells a full range of production and marketing services.
As we noted in the section on production, one service that’s useful to publishers is its Adobe DRM option, allowing you to sell directly with DRM protection.
Click to view more about Lulu's distribution service
The ebook-distribution service is managed from an online control panel and reaches an expanding range of key outlets that support the EPUB ebook format.
Lulu offers a special distribution service to publishers with 25 or more titles.
What it costs
Lulu’s pricing model is a little more complicated than Smashwords’ and it’s difficult to find clear pricing information on their offering. Lulu sets a minimum charge (typically about US$1.25) and sets a minimum selling price, currently US$1.49. It charges a commission in the range of 10 to 20% of income received. If you opt to have DRM added, there’s a US$0.25 DRM fee for each ebook sold.
Lulu’s distribution service is non-exclusive so you can sell through other distributors or directly from your website without paying a commission to Lulu. Unlike Smashwords, Lulu lets you own and sell the EPUB file elsewhere that’s created using its free conversion service.
Lulu will optionally apply digital-rights management to your ebook using the widely-supported Adobe DRM. Your ebook will get its own page on the Lulu.com site, which you can link to from your website, blog, or Facebook Page, and it will handle the billing and delivery of the ebook file.
Lulu only distributes in EPUB format and, at this time, its list of outlets is the most limited.
BookBaby (bookbaby.com) takes the opposite approach to Smashwords and Lulu: It charges fees for both ebook conversion and ebook distribution, but lets you keep 100% of the income from sales.
And of the three services, it’s the only one that will (currently) distribute your ebook to Amazon’s Kindle store.
Click to view more about Book Baby's distribution service
What it costs
BookBaby charges US$99 to distribute an ebook to key ebook retailers. After 12 months, it charges an annual fee of US$19 for each ebook distributed.
BookBaby collects sales data and payments on your behalf from each outlet it distributes to and pays you 100% of the money collected. You track this through your BookBaby online control panel.
You don’t have to use BookBaby’s conversion service to get into its distribution network. However, it’s a good service that is widely-used, and you own the files it produces so you can use them elsewhere.
BookBaby’s distribution includes Amazon, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes and Noble Nook, Kobo, Baker and Taylor, Gardners (UK), Copia, and the Sony Reader store, and several others, giving good international coverage. You can nominate the outlets you want BookBaby to sell to.
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
KDP is Amazon’s self-publishing portal. While it’s designed around an ebook conversion service, you don’t have to use this. You can simply use KDP to upload Kindle (or EPUB) ebooks that you’ve converted elsewhere.
Click to view more about Amazon's distribution service
What it costs
Amazon’s standard commission for sales through KDP is 65% of the list price, ie the publisher receives 35%. However, it also offers a 70% royalty option (publisher receives 70%) subject to special terms. Among them:
- Its list price must be between US$2.99 and US$9.99 and at least 20% less than any print edition
- It only applies to sales made in certain territories, primarily in North America and parts of Europe (including the US and UK)
- A delivery fee is charged based on file size
- Amazon insists on price-matching — it will drop the selling price of your ebook (and your royalty) if it finds your ebooks being sold more cheaply elsewhere
KDP provides excellent tools for publishers to directly access its ebookstore and manage their titles’ display, sales and marketing activity on the Kindle website. In fact, these sales tools surpass anything currently offered by other ebooksellers and distributors.
You can set separate retail prices in local currencies for several major markets — the rest are priced in the default US dollar list price. Amazon also offers the fastest time-to-market, typically 2-3 days instead of the 2-3 weeks that is more customary.
Other ebook distributors
Here are some other distributors targeted at the self-publisher and small press market.
- Draft2Digital. (https://draft2digital.com). This recent entrant offers a service similar to Smashwords, including a free, automated conversion service, but adds Amazon to its roster of ebooksellers.
- PigeonLab. (http://www.pigeonlab.net) Offers distribution only (does not do ebook conversion) to Amazon, Kobo, Apple (including iBooks Author) and Barnes and Noble. Provides a central control panel for you to manage all of your titles and track sales and royalties. Charges a one-off fee of US$99 per title plus 10% of net receipts.
- EbookPartnership. (http://www.ebookpartnership.com) UK-based ebook conversion and distribution service. Distributes to a wide range of US, Uk and international sites. Charges an annual fee per title (approximately US$40) and distributes 100% of royalties. Self-publishers with fewer than 5 titles pay a first-year fee of US$99 per title.
Find out more about this topic on our Digital Publishing 101 useful resources site.
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