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Ebook distribution for self-publishers

You want to make it very easy for people to find and buy your ebook. The more distributors you use, the more places your ebook will be, and the easier it will be for them to find it. Here are some examples of distribution platforms you can use.

For international distribution, it’s really easy for you to set up your own distribution accounts. We reckon the two key ones are:

Both are essentially free. Ingram takes some paperwork and a couple of weeks to set up. Amazon is quicker and all online, but only once you have a US tax ID, which can take several weeks to get. (You need an ITIN, Individual Tax Identification Number from the IRS; start at irs.gov. Anyone can apply for one, here’s a useful post on how.) In Amazon’s case, read the terms very carefully, especially regarding your earnings!

If you really want to sell on Apple iBooks, LibreDigital Marketplaces offers distribution to Apple iBooks for small publishers.

Here are some notes on various ebook-distribution options:

Scribd: Known as the “YouTube of books”, you can upload PDFs to Scribd for people to see for free. You can make parts of the book visible to the public (e.g. free excerpts), and embed a Scribd book viewer on your own website. If you have a US bank account and address, you can sell your ebook in PDF or epub format. (In South Africa, you can work through a local intermediary with a US presence, such as BOOKSA’s Little White Bakkie.)

Issuu: Similar to Scribd, but prettier. Aimed more at the magazine market. Only for free content (e.g. excerpts): you can’t sell here yet.

Wattpad: Aimed at authors and self-publishers sharing their work for free. Fine for excerpts, for example. It’s main advantage is its usability on mobile phones, and large following among younger people. You can upload plain text, MS Word or epub files (up to 2MB, big enough for a large novel).

Exact Editions: Intended mainly for magazines, Exact Editions has a lovely, clean interface for showing and selling access to design-heavy publications, provided to Exact Editions as PDFs. It also has a great iPhone app called Exactly. Probably the easiest way to get your high-quality, carefully designed content for sale for the iPhone, given that you can use PDFs.

Smashwords: Intended mainly for self and small-scale publishers, Smashwords has one main advantage: upload a Word file, and Smashwords automatically converts into several other formats, and gets your ebook listed with various key retailers, including iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Shortcovers and Sony, and the built-in catalogues of key mobile ereader apps (like Stanza and Aldiko). Smashwords also has an affiliate programme that boosts the sales network. This is perhaps the easiest and most comprehensive free distribution service available. Smashwords is entirely DRM-free.

Bookglutton: Bookglutton is for reading and sharing and selling epub books online. The big thing about Bookglutton is that is allows you to comment on a particular passage in a book, and read others’ comments: it makes reading online a social thing.

Lightning Source (aka Ingram Digital): If you want a free way to sell through many retailers and restrict your books with DRM, Lightning Source is an excellent option. (Plus, if you want print-on-demand distribution, Lightning Source’s true claim to fame, you can manage that through the same interface.) Lightning Source is part of Ingram, a major international book and ebook distributor. Retailers working with Lightning Source (they pay a setup fee to carry the Lightning Source catalogue) automatically sell all the ebooks stored with Lightning Source on their own sites. Lightning Source provides industry-standard Adobe DRM to restrict copying and printing.

Overdrive: Similar to Lightning Source in operation, Overdrive is an aggregator that makes your ebooks available to a large number of retailers. Overdrive provides the same DRM restrictions as Lightning Source. Overdrive prefers to work with larger publishers.

Self-publishing services: Services like Lulu, Fastpencil, Crink (South African) and many more offer distribution services. They won't cover all the bases, but they'll get you started.

A data-asset-management-system (DAMS): Large companies pay for complex, powerful systems for managing their ebooks, and each one has different requirements. Most of these include automated output to various formats, and can even send those formats straight to distributors and retailers for you. Examples are LibreDigital, North Plains’ Telescope Publishing Platform, and codeMantra’s Collection Point, or Publishing Technology’s iPublishCentral and pub2web. DAMS like this range from, say, R30 000 a year to millions a year. They are difficult to research in advance. For details you need to have a conversation with a sales consultant that usually includes an excruciating process of trying to extract prices from someone who first wants to know how deep your pockets are. For big businesses, this process is a necessary evil. For small publishers, DAMS are overkill.

Your own website and server: This gives you maximum control, but can be the most expensive option to set up, if you incur software-development and design costs. For small publishers not using DRM, direct sales on your own site can be the most profitable sales. The easiest way to sell ebooks (without DRM) from your own site is to use a service that handles payments and downloads for you, like:

  • E-Junkie: E-Junkie is a downloads service. For a small monthly subscription, it’s an easy way to sell any digital (and therefore downloadable) file without having to set up your own website or downloads server, and keep the full retail-price revenue for yourself. However, you do need to use a major payment-processing service like PayPal or Google Checkout to actually receive your money, and most of these are not available to South Africans. (PayPal is available to South Africans with a personal cheque account with First National Bank.)
  • Payloadz: Payloadz is very similar to E-Junkie. Not as slick an interface, but the free entry-level pricing makes it a nice way to get going.

We recommend this post on Self-Publishing Review for lots of useful advice and tips from experience.

last updated 19 October 2010
This information is more than two years old, and may no longer be accurate.