Self-publishing ebooks: Why maximizing distribution matters

New technologies and startups have made it easier than ever to self-publish ebooks. But they don’t make it any easier to make a living writing. The most important thing you can do as a self-published author, however, is to make sure your ebook is available through as many retail channels as possible. (FYI, ebook sales accounted for 20% of book sales in 2011, up from 10% in 2010. Good sign!)

Think about it. If your ebook is not available, then no one can buy it. So the best way to help boost your sales is to make sure your ebook is available for purchase. If you’re self-publishing an ebook, you’re an entrepreneur, and that means you should to put in as much effort as possible (yes, this means using your valuable time), to sell your product.

But first, a breakdown of the differences between self-publishing and traditionally publishing.

Going the traditional route means writing the book, finding an agent, then selling to a publisher. Once a publisher acquires a book, they give you an advance, and then they edit, design, proofread, market, print, and convert the book (to make an ebook). This process takes one year to 18 months. And, unfortunately, not all publishers have the resources to spend much on marketing anymore, which means many authors (especially new authors) have to self-market.

Below is a very simplified image of the process of traditional publishing.

If you self-publish, you can theoretically get your book out in a week. You also receive on average 70% of royalties, compared to 12-15%, and you have a say in your cover and marketing materials. However, in order to succeed, you need to be an entrepreneur. Aside from producing the best quality product possible (meaning you hired an editor, cover designer, and copy-reader), you need to market effectively. And you need to decide where to distribute your ebook.

eBook Distribution Channels

There are multiple distribution channels for ebooks: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google, Sony, and more. Below is a rough breakdown of their market share in the U.S. (note: these are estimates based on recent reports and news articles from PewInternetUSA Today, Reuters, New York Times, and Publisher’s Weekly, so numbers may not add up perfectly).

  • Amazon: 62%
  • Barnes & Noble: 22%
  • Apple: 10%
  • Kobo: 1%
  • Sony: 2%
  • Google and others: ~3%

Amazon and Barnes & Noble

It’s obvious that Amazon and Barnes & Noble are important distributors, but while conducting research for my new start up, Write or Read, I’ve come across several writers who are skeptical of using other channels. The most common excuses are they believe it takes too much time to upload to multiple channels and they believe it costs too much money. As a self-publisher, it takes me maybe 10 minutes to upload my ebooks to each site. And because I code my own ebooks (though recently I’ve experimented with Press Books, which is free), it costs me nothing to upload to multiple channels.


Even if you don’t code your own ebooks, you can use services like Smashwords (which is free too). Smashwords will provide you with an ISBN and give you high royalties (60% for ebooks sold on major retailers and 85% for ebooks sold on their website) that they pay quarterly. All you have to do is upload your Word doc, and they convert to epub for you. Yes, their royalty rate is slightly lower than if you uploaded to channels directly (Amazon pays 70%, your ebook is priced at $2.99 or higher, otherwise they pay only 35%, and Barnes & Noble pays 65%), but they make it very easy and convenient (and time-saving) to  upload to a large number of channels. Plus, they give you a free ISBN, which could otherwise cost $125 from Bowker. Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t give you ISBNs; they use their own system. But having an ISBN is one more piece of metadata that can help boost discoverability, plus you can register your ISBN on sites like Bowker and enter even more detailed metadata. Lastly, Smashwords pays royalties quarterly, which is slightly less often than Amazon’s 60 days. On the other hand, you don’t miss out on potential sales when you distribute through more than one or two channels.

UPDATE: On Aug. 8, 2012, Smashwords announced a new deal with libraries. Basically, through Smashwords you have the opportunity to distribute your ebooks through certain libraries. This increases exposure and is an alternative to Lightning Source or Overdrive.

Here’s why it’s important to distribute through multiple channels.


One commenter on MobileRead said that selling ebooks on Apple is still important because Apple has a large “gadget-installed base. If their user base only buys an ibook or two a year, that’s still going to be a decent business.”

Sony and Kobo

Although Sony and Kobo do not have significant market share in the U.S., they are still important international distribution channels. In Canada, Kobo has 50% of the market and Sony has 18%. In France Kobo has 50% of the market share, and in Japan Sony is the leader, with Kobo poised to soon take over. With Rakuten acquiring Kobo, the company is also in a position to help indie bookstores, especially now that Google is backing out.

UPDATE: Kobo recently launched Kobo Writing Life, which uses a slick interface and allows you to self-publish easily through them. One of the best benefits of this is you can convert your .mobi or Word doc to EPUB for free, and then download a copy. This makes it even easier to further distribute your ebook.


Google recently struck a deal in France, where they will sell digital versions of out-of-print books. This will slow the growth of Amazon Kindles in France, which opens up the market to other eretailers.

But there are other benefits to selling ebooks on Google. Below are some good reasons to use Google play for books, according to Quora.

  • Reach – Google can display book results in its search results pages to drive traffic to their bookstore making more people aware of eBook options
  • Breadth – Google has a huge number of titles available to browse and purchase
  • Credibility – Amazon and B&N also have this, but many smaller retailers don’t have a trusted brand with consumers that will make them feel good about making a purchase
  • Choice – You can choose to buy an eBook on Google from a number of different vendors; they aren’t locked into promoting a particular retailer
  • Previews – Because of all the scanning work they have done to digitize books and their agreements with publishers, they can offer up content to preview, which aids in decision making


With the rise of ebooks and ereading (one-fifth of Americans have read an ebook, according to Pew), startups keep popping up, trying to take advantage of new trends and blaze new trails of ebook consumption and reading. These include subscription sites such as Safari Books Online (the only not new one), Artists Network24symbols,, Claro, Vleeo, and of course, Write or Read. Other sites are rethinking the way authors and publishers get paid, such as ValoBox and TotalBoox. Lastly, there are some sites that allow you to simply promote and sell your content, presumably to different or more targeted audiences compared to the bigger channels. Examples include Project Gutenberg, FeedbooksGanxy, Central Book House, and Bilbary. It’s worth looking in to these new services. At the very least, they will help increase discoverability of your ebook and push sales indirectly. Having your ebook out there will help build your platform and let more people know who you are and what you have written. I see no downside.

One final argument in favor of maximizing distribution

Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, wrote a book called “The Secrets to EBook Publishing Success.” You can read the whole ebook for free on Smashwords, but I felt this particular passage was relevant to this blog post:

Ebooks Democratize Distribution for Indie Authors

Today, every indie author has simple and free access to global distribution. Indie authors often enjoy better ebook distribution than traditionally-published authors. Why? Because many publishers still license ebook rights by territory the same as they’ve always licensed print rights. Indie authors distribute worldwide.

The global market is important to the future of English-language books. At Smashwords, as of this writing, we distribute to 32 Apple iBookstores. Almost half of our sales through Apple are from outside the United States. Most of these countries are two to six years behind the U.S. in terms of ebook adoption. This means they’re now just entering the same exponential growth phases of their markets that the U.S. market enjoyed in the last three years. In the U.S., ebooks as a percentage of book sales increased from about 1% in 2008 to 3% in 2009 to 8% in 2010 to 20% in 2011.

Within the next few years, the market outside the U.S. for your books will become much larger than the U.S. market. The growth in sales of English-language books isn’t restricted to English-language countries like Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Every day, we’re selling English-language titles into Scandinavia, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy and other countries.

If indie authors now have the ability to get their books listed at every ebook store, why then are some authors so quick to surrender their worldwide distribution in favor of territorial distribution and retailer exclusivity?


10 Replies to “Self-publishing ebooks: Why maximizing distribution matters”

  1. Hello Sabrina,

    Your excellent post explained just what I needed to know about publishing my WIP e-books, Behind These Mountains, Vols. 1,2 & 3, which are about three fourths e-formatted following Smashwords Style Guide. Until I read your article I was undecided about where to e-publish them. I will promote your fine article on Montana Scribbler,, my website — its goal is informing writers.

    Since 1st edtions of my books are out-of-print, the class action settlement with Google included rights to publish them digitally. Since I opted in during the legal proceedings, my understanding is that gave me options. And although I didn’t believe Google would ever do anything with my books, now I’m not so sure. So, I published them online where everyone can read them free. I hope the revised 3rd Edition will be available as e-books by the end of this year — God willing, and with help from knowledgeable people like you to guide me.

    Thank you. I’m honored to point writers to your fine website, Sabrina Ricci.

    Mona Leeson Vanek

  2. “… unfortunately, not all publishers have the resources to spend much on marketing anymore…”

    Actually cost-cutting by corporate consolidation is what, quite deliberately, began the mandate that ‘authors promote themselves.’ Almost all publishers jumped on that author-destroying bandwagon immediately.

    We’re not even a decade into this new mandate, can’t we PLEASE try to have some insight as to cause and effect.

  3. I could not disagree more about shot-gunning an ebook to every little corner of the world. That is very naive about the way contracts with private publishers work where the big online retailers are concerned. Amazon, B&N, KoboBooks all respect the price the author sets; they do not change it UNLESS another vendor is offering a lower price. Then they change the price on your text to match… or by contract right, they lower it even more.

    Google Books is notorious for this. I have personally seen one ebook I listed there have its price dropped in under 4 hours. It is as yet indeterminate whether Apple / iTunes / iBookstore will use this tactic. Within 2 hours of GB dropping that price, Amazon and B&N followed suit in cascading price war. In addition, royalty rates paid by vendors are often based on the price point; when a price goes below a price point, the royalty rate drops as well according to what is in the contract. Needless to say, Google Books went bye-bye from our authorized vendors.

    So here’s the catch… exactly where and when do YOU know that your books price has dropped with a certain vendor? More importantly, have any of your major vendors seen it happen and dropped their price even lower? Do you even know what your rights are with individual vendors, or are you assuming the contract you have with your aggregator applies to them? Really now, get serious.

    Very badly done article… misleading in a way that could damage personal business efforts. It is time to get savvy if you want to sell your work directly. Start learning how things really work in the nitty-gritty… and you won’t find that herein.

    1. I see what you’re saying, but I still disagree. Sure, in certain cases, such as when a book is selling really well at a higher price point, then it’s probably best for the author to stick to agency pricing (Amazon, B&N, Kobo). But most self-published authors only sell about 500 copies, and in those cases, I believe it’s beneficial to have a book easily accessible and through as many channels as possible (including Google, even with the wholesale model). I don’t think Apple will use the wholesale model, though only time will tell for sure. However, from what I understand the DoJ case against the 5 publishers and Apple will only affect the agency model for those 5 publishers.

      Not sure what there is to get serious about. I see nothing wrong with experimenting…

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