Rights to distribute ebooks

In the print world, a bookshop or library doesn’t have to sign a contract in order to sell or lend books. They simply buy them and do as they please from there. Things are different in the digital world, as we’ll see in this section.

Distribution agreements

Anyone who plans to distribute ebooks will need permission from the copyright holder or their authorized agent. That permission will probably come in the form of a fairly involved contract.

HandshakeThe challenges associated with acquiring these rights is one of the main reasons that you can’t typically buy ebooks from your local bookshop, or borrow many popular ebooks from your local library.

Some ebook distributors sell ebooks at wholesale rates and others retail them. A handful do both.

You’ll often hear the term ‘aggregator‘ applied to both types since a key part of their function is to acquire rights from a large number of publishers, then to sell them to the public or to ebook retailers.

One specialist type of aggregator is the library distributor who acquires the specific rights to  supply ebooks to libraries for lending. Many publishers and authors are reluctant to grant these rights. Library distributors negotiate the special terms required of libraries, and provide the technology platform to lend ebooks under these agreed terms.

Typical terms of a distribution agreement

If you are dealing with a wholesaler or a retailer, the ebook distribution agreement will typically grant the following rights and cover terms related to the following matters:

  • Right to distribute or sell, usually provided non-exclusively
  • Territories (worldwide, countries, or regions) for which you are granting those rights
  • Digital Rights Management – whether you require DRM to be applied
  • Supply of metadata (more on this later) and rights to use it
  • Withdrawal of ebooks from sale by either party
  • Ownership and suitability of the content. This may include evidence of clearances of rights for the use of third-party content, such as illustrations within ebooks
  • Pricing, discounts, and payments
  • Special rights such as lending
  • Reporting of sales and royalties
  • Term of agreement and what happens on termination

We’ll look at distribution agreements in more detail in the section on Distribution.


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


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