An Aggregation/ Distribution Primer

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December 2014
by Carla King

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Independent publishers, including self-publishers, have a lot of choices to make about uploading books. You can upload your e-books to each online e-book retailer directly, but you might instead choose to distribute using an e-book aggregator such as Smashwords, IngramSpark, BookBaby, or Vook. Likewise, you can upload your print books to sell in the Amazon store via CreateSpace, but you might choose to sell them through other online print book retailers and through brick-and-mortar bookstores via a distribution service such as IngramSpark.

Making good decisions about where to spend your publishing dollars gets easier when you understand the difference between aggregation and distribution and when you familiarize yourself with the major players in each space. What follows defines those terms as they’re used in publishing and tells you which tools and services I recommend.

The Two Terms

An e-book aggregator distributes and sells e-books to a wide range of online retailers, including Amazon (which has most of the market), Kobo (with its wide international reach), Barnes & Noble, and Apple. There are many, many others.

Aggregators pay you at specified intervals and collect a percentage of revenue as their fee. Many publishers feel that the small percentage (on average, 15%), is a fair trade for centralized accounting and for eliminating the tedious process of signing up for each publishing program separately— entering your book data and your automatic payment information and uploading your e-books again and again to get wide distribution.

A book distributor sells print books (often POD/print-ondemand editions) to online retailers and to brick-and-mortar bookstores (even though Amazon CreateSpace books are listed in the ipage database that bookstores see, they generally will not order books from Amazon, for obvious reasons). Distributors also pay at intervals and collect a percentage fee.

Some aggregators and some distributors offer other services, which may include e-book formatting.

My Five Favorites

The aggregators and distributors I recommend most often are:

Smashwords

A wonderful e-book aggregator, Smashwords provides e-book distribution just about everywhere except via Amazon Kindle. It offers lots of perks and features, including library distribution, pre-orders, author “self ” interviews, gifting, and discount coupons. You can format your book according to its style guide (maybe using one of Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates in Word for under $60 (see www.bookdesigntemplates.com), and submit it to the Smashwords Premium Catalog via its “Meatgrinder.”

Smashwords also allows you to upload an EPUB file, via Smashwords Direct. So if you’ve created an EPUB with a tool such as PressBooks, Draft, Scrivener (for Mac and Windows), Folium Book Studio, or with any e-book formatting service, you can use that. But to get full Smashwords book aggregation you must use Word and the Meatgrinder technology.

Those who can’t manage to format their Word files according to the Smashwords Style Guide, or who don’t want to buy a book template, can hire someone to do the work. A list is available from Smashwords. Just search for “Smashwords Mark’s List.”

The maximum file size for Smashwords is 10MB, so it’s not a viable option for books with a lot of images. If you have a big e-book, look to one of the following aggregators, instead.

IngramSpark

IngramSpark has a very wide reach. Since most other aggregators hook in to Ingram’s distribution service, you don’t have to use Spark to get Ingram distribution. However, Spark is the only service that offers both e-book and print book distribution in a single dashboard.

Centralizing your activities is a great reason to use IngramSpark, though it doesn’t offer book creation tools, yet. I’d be surprised if they didn’t have them soon; in the meantime, you can use Joel Friedlander’s Book Design Templates or another tool or service to create your print and e-books.

BookBaby and Vook

These aggregators don’t just distribute e-books to online retailers; they can create e-books for you—including Fixed Format EPUBs for complex and image-heavy books. And both of them charge very reasonable fees.

BookBaby does a great job of creating print books, too, but it does not distribute them. Instead you get a PDF that you can upload to IngramSpark and Amazon CreateSpace, or you can order a short run directly from BookBaby.

Vook was founded as a video-e-book company (hence the “V” in Vook) but it has long produced plain text, trade e-books as well as fixed-layout EPUBs with complex formatting and lots of images and multimedia. This past summer Vook changed its business model to digital-only (sending authors to CreateSpace for POD), and it instituted an application process for its formatting and aggregation services.

Vook spends a lot of time with each publisher on design, format, and marketing. Not quite self-publishing service and not quite small press, it has placed itself smack between the two. The roughly 30 percent that it takes for its work is well worth it, in my opinion, for the many authors who don’t want to go it alone.

Blurb

This company has emerged as the leader for high-quality, full-color books. Its BookWright tool creates print and fixed-format EPUBs concurrently, which is kind of a miracle. It distributes to both Amazon and the Ingram network, and it offers offset printing with storage and fulfillment.

All these vendors except IngramSpark have their own storefronts where you can sell your book and receive an 85 percent royalty.

The Amazon Options

It’s important to note that Amazon KDP and Amazon CreateSpace are two separate online book retailers with separate dashboards and payment systems.

KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) is a tool that lets self-publishers upload e-books in Kindle format (MOBI) for sale in Amazon’s Kindle store. All the aggregators mentioned above aggregate to KDP, except Smashwords. But once you’ve formatted a book for Smashwords, all you have to do is make certain changes in the front matter and upload the file to KDP yourself.

CreateSpace is an online print-on-demand (POD) book creation tool coupled with an optional free Expanded Distribution program that Amazon claims will make a book available to online retailers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. That’s kind of a stretch, because CreateSpace does not offer the discounts and returns that brick-and-mortar bookstores insist upon.

Therefore (and this is a big therefore), I advise opting out of the Amazon CreateSpace Expanded Distribution program (which is free, but don’t be tempted) and using IngramSpark to distribute your PDF-formatted print-on-demand books everywhere else. That way the books will always be “in stock” at Amazon and you will get Ingram’s great distribution elsewhere, including to brick-and-mortar stores.

Preferred Possibilities

More options are available, in so many combinations that they can make your head spin. You may find reasons to combine services and end up with something that looks like this:

  • IngramSpark for all POD except Amazon
  • CreateSpace for POD distribution to Amazon.com (unfortunately, if you don’t use CreateSpace, Amazon may list your book may as out of stock).
  • an e-book aggregator such as Smashwords, BookBaby, or Vook for reaching the online e-book retailers.

With full-color books, you will want to use Blurb or IngramSpark for distribution of offset, POD, or short-run editions.

What’s my best recommendation? Of course, it depends. But most small and self-publishers figure to be happy with one of the services I’ve mentioned for creating and distributing e books, provided that Amazon is excluded from the print book distribution agreement so that the publishers can opt out of its Expanded Distribution program and handle uploading to CreateSpace themselves.


ISBN Advice

Although you can obtain ISBNs and bar codes fromall the services I’ve mentioned, I strongly recommend that you buy your own from Bowker at MyIdentifiers. com in order to retain control of your book.

Owning your own ISBNs and having direct access to MyIdentifiers.com will make a huge difference in your business. Self-publishing packages offered on the site include special discounts on e-book formatting and distribution. This is a good deal. Most selfpublishers need only the lower cost “Prime” package for just under $400.


Carla King, who has been a self-published author since 1995, founded http://SelfPubBootCamp.com in 2010 to provide books, workshops, and coaching for the indie author journey. Since then, she reports, she has helped thousands of authors with every aspect of publishing, including editing and design, websites, blogs, social media setup, and distribution.

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