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I’m sure you’ve heard of them or seen their aggressive advertising campaigns. AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford Press…the list goes on. Are they publishing scams, or legitimate services offering good book distribution for their author clients?

While many misunderstood these kinds of companies are publishers, the best and proper way to characterize them is in fact as publishing services. They are institutions that sell a variety of products to authors, not readers, and so their primary market is people just like you—folks who want to publish a book. They are not at all in the business of selling books, as a publisher is.

Why does this matter? Before you enter an agreement with any party, it’s important to be clear about what that party is and what it will, will not, can, and cannot do for you. Especially when you’re about to shell out your hard-earned cash.

I want you to be clear.

So, here’s the second part in a series of posts to help you get really, really clear once and for all on the differences so you can choose how to get your book to market in the way that’s best for you without falling for publishing scams. (Don’t miss the first part of this series, which provides an analysis explaining why publishing services are not publishers, despite the fact that they tend to market themselves as such.)

Problem #2: Their Book Distribution is Limited

The thing is, you can create this amazing book, but what good is that if you can’t get it into the hands of the people who want to read it? That’s where book distribution comes in. The simplest explanation is that “book distribution” is a term generally related to a publisher’s method for getting books from the printer to places that sell books to readers. Publishing services generally include at least some level of book distribution.

The more complicated version is that this route can be quite different for large, established publishers and smaller independent publishers, including self-publishers. The “distribution” your publishing service promises you may not do as much for you as you think. To avoid publishing scams, you need to understand a little more about book distribution.

How Books Get Into Stores

I’ll assume you already know that at any given time, only a fraction of books available for purchase are found at even the largest brick and mortar bookstores. Which means that someone is deciding which books are stocked and which aren’t. These people are often called “buyers” and they are typically responsible for a region or subset of bookstores.

Sales representatives from book distributors or “wholesalers” are meeting with these bookstore buyers to pitch them books from their latest catalog. Some of the largest wholesalers include Ingram and Baker & Taylor, but there are also smaller distributors such as Greenleaf. They have an investment in these sales because they get a piece of the action.

And whose books are in these catalogs? Mostly bigger, established publishers who have accounts with the distributors. These companies publish enough books to make it worth the sales reps’ time to pitch each season’s list to bookstore buyers. It doesn’t hurt that they’re working with known brands, either.

You can read more about this in my post, “3 Things Every Author Should Know About Bookstores.

Your publishing service may promise you that your book will be distributed to retail outlets and bookstores, but they likely won’t ever even make it into these catalogs.

Why Publishing Services Can’t Reach All Outlets

The demarcation line often seems to be the size of a publisher’s annual title list. If you publish ten or more books by authors other than yourself each year, you are typically welcomed into these same catalogs and channels as the big guys. If you don’t meet this criteria, you don’t get to play in the same sandbox, and your books begin their life at a disadvantage.

But, you might think, if I publish with a company like CreateSpace, aren’t they big enough to get my books listed in those catalogs?

Perhaps size-wise, yes. But as I explained in the first post of this series,publishing services aren’t publishers. Book distributors often won’t carry books published through these services, especially if you use one of their ISBNs instead of your own (effectively making them the publisher of record, not you—yes, I did say they aren’t publishers…it’s a bit confusing).

Sometimes the distributors will list the books but in a separate catalog, which means bookstores and other retailers can easily ignore them. So that promise about your book becoming available at bookstores? It really just means that if someone goes into a store and specifically orders your book, if it is listed in one of these ancillary catalogs, the bookstore can get it for the customer. But that doesn’t mean it will be shelved regularly.

If wholesalers thought they could sell these books, they wouldn’t take the time to separate them from established publishers’ titles, and they might even put energy into actively pitching them to buyers. But they know they can’t sell these books, because the big chains and retail outlets typically won’t stock them. A few reasons why not:

  • shelf space is limited, and most self-published books don’t have the marketing budgets behind them to get enough national exposure for the level of sales the chains need
  • bookstores need a 40-55% discount so they have a good profit margin, and publishing services generally don’t allow for that in their price-per-copy models
  • bookstores also require the ability to return unsold books at almost any time, and again, most publishing services don’t allow for that

You can read more about here, “3 Things Every Author Should Know About Bookstores.

Does it Really Matter?

Let’s circle back a moment to my earlier statement: If you don’t meet this criteria, you don’t get to play in the same sandbox, and your books begin their life at a disadvantage.

But how big a disadvantage, really?

Some statistics cited claim that half of all books sold today are sold online. So do you really care if your book is shelved at Barnes & Noble? Is that really where you’re going to focus on driving readers to buy your book? For most self-publishers, I think the answer is “No.” Most indie book sales happen online and in “back of room” sales at live events. If your marketing is focused online, then your distribution needs to focus on online booksellers. If your plan relies on live events like speaking engagements and workshops, you’ll need hard copies to sell and a way to sell ebooks on the spot.

Either way, no bookstore or other retail outlet is truly necessary.

Publishing services cannot get your book distributed as widely as a publisher would, but to make up for this, many now offer add-ons to their packages that allow you to offer deeper discounts or accept returns, theoretically enabling you to get your book stocked in brick and mortar stores. The question is, do you think you can sell enough books through those channels to justify the cost of the add-ons?

Additionally, are you willing to put the time and energy into pitching the book yourself to those channels? Because even if you meet all their criteria, you still don’t have sales reps pitching your book to buyers the way an established publisher does. It falls on you to submit your book for consideration through programs like Barnes & Noble’s or do a campaign targeting gift shops, for example.

If having your book into these retail channels is important to you, then you should not be using a publishing service at all. You should be setting up shop as a publisher and using a printer and distribution partner. Publishing services just don’t “get it done” in this arena. Publishing scams will try to convince you otherwise.

You might also consider whether a regional focus would be more worth your time and energy. Independent bookstores are much more welcoming to local authors, especially if you can show that you’re marketing actively in the area and if you’re willing to do a signing or other event at the store.

The point is, don’t get so hung up on getting into bookstores that you fall for a publishing service’s promise. They simply cannot deliver.


Have you worked with one of these companies? Did you have a good or bad experience? I’d love to hear from you, just comment below!

Adopted from http://thewritersally.com/articles/understanding-book-distribution-how-to-avoid-publishing-scams-pt-2/