Demystifying Book Distribution for Small to Mid-Sized Publishers

June 26, 2018
Ingram Staff
Demystifying Book Distribution for Small to Mid-Sized Publishers

Written by: Bailey Davis, Publisher Engagement Manager (@baileydavis26)
Not all publishers are the same, nor are the means for getting their books to market in the most efficient and cost effective ways. As with most businesses that require some type of order fulfillment, when it comes to getting your book products to market, you need to match with a distribution method that best fits your business model.

The two most common book distribution solutions for publishers are a full service or a wholesale distributor. However, there are some stark differences between these two options. When you choose the one that best fits your publishing business, you’ll see the difference not only in your bottom line, but also time, effort, and customer service.

A full service distributor is a service provider that offers a wide-range of services such as: warehousing, external sales representation, order fulfilment, and back end office functions, like paying royalties and collecting payments.

The services rendered by a full service distributor often vary depending on the relationship they have with each client. Each of those services usually comes with an associated cost, which can manifest as warehousing fees, fulfilment fees, or a percentage of sales. These associated costs represent a publisher’s potential value to the distributor.

Full service distributors look at publishers like an investment. They want to ensure any relationship they develop with a publisher will be a profitable one.

What does a full service distributor look for in a publisher?

  • 6 new titles a year—a good track record of new and successful content.
  • Revenue of $250,000/year over 2 years—a good track record of sales and stability.
  • Full trade discounts and returnable books. These necessary elements make books more attractive to bookstores, thus making the job of a distributor a tad easier.
  • Publishing infrastructure and a business plan. This encapsulates a lot of things from the build of your internal team to your publishing strategies. Basically, is your business setup for success.
  • Brand and audience. Do you already have a recognizable presence in the market? Are you consistently building and engaging your audience?

An excellent full distribution candidate should be able to check off on all those criteria.

For publishers who are just not there yet, there are other options.

Many publishers have found success maximizing their book sales with wholesale distribution. While full service distribution usually includes a wholesale element, wholesale distribution can be an effective standalone solution for extending the market reach of your books.


The biggest characteristic that sets a wholesale distributor apart from full-service is active title promotion. While wholesale is narrow in definition—strictly distribution—it is a less restrictive option that can meet the needs of most publishers ranging from the self-published author to mid-sized publishers.

Wholesale providers, like Ingram Content Group, use large retailer networks to cast a wide net that makes your books easily available all over the world.

What does a wholesale distributor look for in a publisher?

Typical requirements to maintain a direct relationship with a wholesale provider are less stringent than those of a full-service distributor.

At Ingram, we look for:

  • 1.10 products
  • 2.$25,000/year in sales

For some wholesalers like Lightning Source, IngramSpark, or CreateSpace, it is even easier than that. Simply setup an account and activate a title for distribution.

Once you decide on a distribution solution, to get the most out of full-service or wholesale, you’ll need to incorporate other tactics into your distribution strategy in order strengthen and support your position in the market.

If you want to get the most bang for your books out of a distribution relationship, there are three critical questions you need to consider. First and foremost, and this is just a general rule of business success, is establishing an identity.

  • Do you have a mission statement? What does that tell you about your audience?
  • What genres are you focusing on?
  • What demographics might be included in your readership?

Once you figure out who you are and who you want to reach, create a content aggregation plan. This plan should include:

  • A targeted strategy for finding brand appropriate content
  • A targeted strategy for engaging with potential authors

Create benchmarks for both of these to make sure you are meeting your defined distribution goals.

Next, you need to think about building your brand.

The quickest way to speak to your audience is via social media—it is cost effective and simple. However, with speed, you’ll have a harder time creating valued connections. Social media is on the edge of the engagement spectrum, but still something you need to be doing.

First, find out which social media platforms your audiences live on. Narrow it down to two or three channels with high-traffic and post engaging, dynamic content on a regular basis. And by dynamic we mean, don’t always talk about your books and business.

A brutal truth many businesses need to realize—your audience doesn’t care about you as much as you think they do, especially on social media. To improve perceptions change things up like posting:

  • Inspirational quotes
  • Writing prompts
  • Polls to readers
  • General genre news
  • Something visual

Sharing opinions and feedback on social media is an incredibly popular online pastime. The key to effective social media content is providing something your audience finds valuable and asks them to join the conversation, and at the same time helps establish your brand as a thought leader.

A strong social media presence will also give an added boost to your authors own social platform. Look at which posts are the most successful for you and apply that same approach to helping your authors.

A strong business plan and social media marketing strategy will have a hard time getting off the ground without proper support from your distributor. Make sure you choose a partner that can provide access to the right tools and services you need to do all the things you want to do.

Now you get to be the judge! When you’re looking for a distribution partner, they should be able to check off these key items:

  • Access to the wholesale market
  • Multiple channels in your market(s) of choice
  • Growing retail partnerships
  • Consolidated solutions
  • Multiple formats options
  • Marketing solutions

Above all else—global access.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, there’s no reason you should be limiting yourself to a domestic market. Readers all over the world deserve access to your books. Make sure you’re working with a provider that can get you into global markets.

With these three critical questions answered . . .

Who are you as a company?

What are you doing to market and promote your content?

What should you look for in a distributor?

. . . You should be well on your way to a strong distribution strategy that will result in more sales. If you want to stop there, that’s fine, but there is more you can/should be doing. Ready for a bonus round?

A healthy distribution strategy is always evolving with market demand to make sure you snag every opportunity. This includes utilizing some “old school” time-tested methods to building a publishing business.

Much of this work can be done before your book is even available to the general public. This is called a pre-sales strategy and involves things like ARCs, galleys, and tipsheets.

ARCs and Galleys

ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) and Galleys are copies of your books sent to retailers well in advance of the release date for their consideration.


This printed sheet can be given in place of an ARC.

Tipsheets include the book’s artwork, a brief description, reviews, comparative titles, and pricing information as well as where the book can be purchased.


Why Pre-Sales is Important

When was the last time you went to a movie that you didn’t know about because of a trailer? Bought an album that you didn’t know about before it was released? Bought a book that you hadn’t heard about through some form of media?

Probably never.

A sound pre-sales strategy is one of the best ways to increase your chances of a successful book launch for a couple of reasons:

  • Retailers buy stock six months in advance. If your book isn’t available six months ahead of time, a traditional retail buyer probably won’t consider it. If you can’t do six months, shoot for three.
  • As evident, all major entertainment media utilize this method—movies, plays, music, TV shows, everyone.

A pre-sales strategy however won’t work if it isn’t backed by a marketing plan designed to drive each element during the pre-sales window.

Create a timeline for launching and delivering social media marketing, along with ARCS/Galleys and tipsheets.

For example, have a scary book? Release your book around Halloween but start the promotion three-six months in advance. A self-help title? Set your on-sale date around New Years but be sure to start promotion and presales well in advance so the title is available for the retail buying season.

To round out your pre-sales strategy you’ll need to land on a feasible price.

If you want to make your books available for purchase in physical stores, your price needs to incentivize the store with trade discounts and book return options (remember, this was one of the things full-service distributors care about, it’s important).

Stores won’t make a profit if your book is too expensive for them to buy. And if they can’t return unsold books to make room in their inventory, that represents a total loss in not just sales, but inventory investment.

We covered a lot of information here— understanding the difference between wholesale and full-service distribution, strategies to help boost distribution, and an introduction to pre-sales. When combined with a distribution solution that fits with your business, and executed properly, all of these elements can help maximize your market reach and book sales potential.

Choose the right publishing partners, tools, and services to match your publishing model and you’ll begin to see more opportunities emerge and build greater confidence into your business.

Demystifying Book Distribution for Small to Mid-Sized Publishers
Ingram Staff

Ingram Staff

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