Book Distribution: The only question or a non-question

This post arose out of a conversation Jenn and I have been having for a week or so. Book distribution has for a long time been seen as THE real hurdle for independent self-publishing writers. Here, Jenn and I give our different takes on the issue.


While I recognize it’s all about the readers, when you’re trying to sell a book, it’s all about the bookstores.. It’s a cycle that no one is going to break, and it’s still a very significant component of getting your name out there for the recognition that will eventually translate to sales.
[The error of that argument is that it ignores Amazon. Amazon is not a bookstore, and it is the increasingly dominant player in the making or breaking of a writer’s work. This direct reader-to-Amazon relationship will only continue to grow as e-books grow in popularity—conditional upon, of course, the deflation of prices of the devices on which to read an e-book.]
So as much as I would like to paint the debate with broad strokes (who, me?), there is more nuance to it. Let’s focus, first, on the bookstores—the kind with a door and walls and stacks and stacks of books. The kind with posters in the window, and prominent displays of new bestsellers. (Wait, how are they bestsellers before they even get to the store? Has anyone delved into those “rankings?” Should we be questioning the *bestseller list* of books stacked in front of the door and at the cashier desk so high you can’t find any other books you would like to read? I digress.)  These joints are ground zero for cultivating fans and selling books, no doubt about it. I want my books on those shelves. I want a Local Author section. I want an Independent Author section. I want to be appearing at readings and doing readings at every opportunity to meet people who come in there and browse. Because when I go into a bookstore I usually come out with way more than I intended, so if my cheapo buying habits are anything like other readers’, my books ought to sell alright, combined with my other marketing efforts.
So about those marketing efforts. Targeting bookstores to carry the books isn’t easy, as I wrote about recently. They are reticent to stock a book from an author who walk in from the street. They’re scaredy-cats. They’re risk averse. Whatever they are, it’s not working from where I’m sitting and I can’t keep sending shills into stores asking for my books—I don’t know anyone in Nebraska.
Hold on a second: When I used to run my record label, I rarely went straight to record stores to stock my releases. I went to DISTRIBUTORS, or, because I was in a lucky niche area, the distributors usually came to me because word on the street was that I was about to release so-and-so’s new record. BLAMMO! That’s it! That’s my missing piece! Book Distributors, here I come!
Oh, wait, there are none. Fuck.
There are marginal, niche distributors, ok, fine, I’ll give you that. But I don’t write arcane veterinary medical technology texts for academic institutions in St. Kitts, so they don’t apply.
When you mention book distribution, everyone’s default response is, “Publishers do that.” Yeah, well, I am my own publisher, but I don’t have the strongarm ability to insist that stores carry my releases. This means that unless I can convince bookstores on my own, and there are at least 1500 independent bookstores in the US to carry my work, I won’t have adequate distribution.
IDEA: Can’t we do it together? Can’t we form a book distribution collective that will serve as THE MOTHERFUCKING GO-TO CATALOG FOR INDEPENDENTLY WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED BOOKS?
We should be heading balls-out into these stores and insisting they consider carrying our books. Isn’t there strength in numbers? What becomes problematic is the administration of such an entity. Another problem is the issue of filtering out shitty stuff—but that’s not just a distribution entity problem, it’s an overall publishing problem across the board in both indie and mainstream publishing.
Anyway, there it is. Book distribution.


Book distribution is the great white elephant in the room of self-publishing. It’s the big non-question.

I don’t ahve an ISBN for Songs from the Other Side of the Wall. The initial reason for that was financial. I couldn’t afford the £110 for a block of 10 from Nielsen. And it bothered me. Immensely. No ISBN, no Amazon, no orders from bookstores, no logistical potential.

It was only when I was making up the first copies of SKIN BOOK I actually realised what a non-issue distribution is for an author like me. Not for every self-publishing author of course. But for authors like me.

Why did SKIN BOOK make me think like that? Well, it’s not really a book. It’s a lanyard. It’s a thing. It has artistic content but it’s – well it’s not really a book. An ISBN would be inappropriate for it. Which got me thinking – maybe the whole ISBN/distribution thing is inappropriate.

Why? Well, what’s my business model as a writer? Simple. I want to connect directly with readers – I want people to come into contact with my work, fall in love with it, become fans, and then buy my physical products. Five years down the line I would like to be selling a few thousand copies of each boko each year.

My readership will build and grow through direct contact at readings; through reviews in theplaces they like to hang out; and through serendipitous discovery of my e-books. Once that initial contact has been made, I hope the content will capturtheir attention. Once their attention’s grabbed, they know enough about me and my products to know exactly how to get hold of the physical stuff they want.

Of course I want my books stocked. But why do I want an ISBN for that? I want them stocked by shops that believe in me, and what I’ve got to sell, by places I’ve done readings, places my readers go. And not 1000s of shops – I’m talking 5000 units in 5 years’ time – whay do I need tens of thousands of outlets to be able to get hold of my book? I spent long enough in business to know those figures are kooky. I expect to write 6 or 7 books in that 5 year period. And I expect organic growth through word of mouth and direct engagement with readers. I expect to build a relationship with places that will sell lots of copies because my book is part of their vibe – maybe 20-30 copies each, eventually, plus my signings – add in direct web sales, and a target of 5000 copies, and that’s not a whole lot of outlets – and it’s EVENTUALLY.

The point is, given that’s my business model, I don’t see how traditional distribution questions figure.

So the answer’s simple. Either I try and fit the old question back into my model. Or I forget about it, and get on with what I’m doing.

Is distribution what’s holding you back as a self-publisher? Are you frightened of it? Why is that? Is it because you’ve been told it’s the big hurdle? I suggest you start from zero with your business plan. Look at where you want to be in terms of sales in 5 years’ time; and figure out the best way to get there. That’s what I’ve spent the last few weeks doing. And you know how many times I despaired because I couldn’t get my books distributed? Not once.

The point about being an independent self-publisher is that you go direct to your reader. You have the freedom to bring your words to them in new and exciting ways. And you have the freedom to take time with your progress. You can afford to sell a hundred copies of your first book; 200 of your second. AND you have the knowledge you can always get the sales back in back catalogue later.

As indie self-publishers, we’re the one group that DOESN’T have a distribution problem

~ by yearzerowriters on January 30, 2010.

43 Responses to “Book Distribution: The only question or a non-question”

  1. Great stuff. I’m with Jenn.

  2. Oh, and Jenn, if you want to explore putting together that Indie catalogue, track me down. My background is journalism/magazine publishing, though I’ve got two books out now. I’d be jazzed to talk about a project like that.

  3. Thanks, Jo Lynne! It’d be awesome to chat about this kind of thing – I hope it didn’t come across that Jenn & I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We’re not – just exploring different avenues, and just both a bit gobby.

    My concern with the “strength in numbers” that Jenn talks about is that it leads us back to the question of identity that indies always come back to. I think a go-to catalogue of indie books is great. The idea that stores should be stocking them because they’re in the catalogue is not so great. I’m in Year Zero marketing wise because I want my book to be identified with other Year Zero Writers’ books. That’s how I want my book to be seen – if there’s a catalogue that’ll let us put all our books together, great – but we really need to consider branding – “indie” is NOT a brand. It’s a process. I love that people are going with that process. I have no way of knowing whether I love their books or what they stand for.

  4. I don’t know about the US but here in the UK the big wholesalers like Bertram’s describe themselves as distributors – they produce catalogues, receive orders and deliver books to shops. If you have an ISBN you can be listed. Unlike Dan, I went for a Lulu ISBN and I’ve never regretted it; the only downside is having a stupid name like Lulu listed in the catalogues as “publisher”. Within 2 weeks I was on Amazon, and the other online retailers like Barnes and Noble, and my book was listed in Bertram’s catalogue, so any high street bookseller could order it.

    Now here’s the problem for me: why should a bookshop or potential reader order an unknown book? It’s not been reviewed – though someone has just reviewed it on, and that may make a difference. But despite being available on Amazon for 5 months, my book has sold far fewer copies than Songs, which is not on Amazon. (Not helped by Amazon UK getting my price wrong for months and over charging by £20!) So I’m not sure that distribution is so important, though it’s possible that Songs would’ve sold truckloads by now if it had been on Amazon.

    To me, it’s promotion that seems fundamental – and that’s something we are doing collectively, and which is slowly building up a head of steam. Create demand and the merchants will be knocking on our door? I’d like to see Sunday newspapers and literary magazines review self-published books – it’s almost like there is an agreement in the UK to restrict book reviews to major publishers.

    • I DID go for a Lulu ISBN through “published by you” originally – things may have turned out very different, but of course they pulle dthe Published by You UK package a couple of days later!

      You’ve very succinctly outlined a point I was getting at – getting people to hear about you is key – and distribution potential won’t actually do that. What does taht is contact with readers and reviews.

      Songs “may” have sold a shedload on Amazon. And 6 months ago I would have thought that was great, but I think I’m much happier now with seeing it in the context of where I am in 5 years’ time. Which means slowly building a following – but ensuring it’s a loyal one.

      I absolutely agree with your last two sentences – that was part of many of our 10 for 10 posts. I think high profile events like our Brick Lane gig, and a slow drip of serious, intelligent engagement are the way to open the door to the mainstream media. Maybe we can be the ones who make them take self-publishing seriously? We’re not a millionmiles away from people being prepared to review our books.

      • Very true. And I think if you’ve got some good sales already behind you or an award or something, it’s just stupid for a reviewer NOT to review your work. Or at least not to consider it. I understand there are a LOT of books and it’s not always: “Oh that book is self-published.” Many trad-published books don’t get reviewed also.

  5. Right, Larry, it’s your 2nd para that I’m talking about. My last post, “Is the DIY Scaring Them Away?” on highlighted the difficulties in the book distribution issue DESPITE being included in wholesale catalogues. Our main one is Ingram’s. And my answer is yes, I’m in there–but why should bookstores choose mine over others to carry?

    The burden is on us — whether we have a mainstream publishing contract or publish independently — to market BOTH to bookstores AND to readers. That’s the issue.

  6. And, Dan is much more hopeful and holistic than I!

    • Not hopeful and holistic at all, Jenn. It’s based on the following (rather jaded points all!)
      1. I worry about impatience. I think many great writers fail because they expect too much too soon. Combine this with
      2. Many successful small businesses fail through over-reach. They expand too quickly just because what they’re doing works.
      Together these give
      3. When I hear a clamour for fast expansion I really worry. I think it’s bad business. And to me all-encompassing distribution is over-expansion.
      4. Given the units shifted, and what we’re aiming at with sales, a model that seeks to shift those units through thousands of outlets – I don’t get it. Imagine for a moment you knoew nothing about books. Imagine you were selling something else, something that had a retail tag of $10 to give a $3 return. And someone said to you – hey, you want to shift 5,000 of these babies? I’ve got a really great idea. why don’t we make them available in 10,000 different outlets. You’d actually think they were bonkers.

      5. This model assumes that bookshops are the places where people will buy our books. I really DO think indie stores have a key role to play – and I’m happy to grow sales through a few of them – IF we work together. By concentrating on, even in the long run, 20-50 stores, we build real partnerships of mutual value.

      6. Point of sale, yes, but why bookstores? It sees to me that’s “in the box” thinking. If you’d never heard of bookstores, and you were wondering where tosell books like ours, would you nivent bookstores as the answer?

      7. If you DO want to go distribution to indie stores – ca I suggest two models from my business days (sorry, Jenn, they’re both UK) – the Euronics group of electrical retailers, and Bond Retail Marketing from the flooring industry. Loose cooperatives of high class independents who use collective distribution and buying power, retaining the best of independence whilst having streamlined distribution costs. I’m not against it – but for me the Year Zero brand is worth building – by putting my stuff in with other indpendent works, I’d be throwing away a lot of what I’ve tried to build and want to continue to build over the coming years. Working with other groups is great. Homogeneity sucks. It’s a lot of what we’re trying to get away from. Homogeneity as “indie” is still homogeneity.

      • Oh, totally agree with this! This mirrors to some extent where I was going about acting like small business and stop trying to act like the big guys. Part of it isn’t “entirely” the fault of indie authors, because the book business is run like business on acid anyway. Most other businesses look at the business practices of the book business and get this look: 0.o

        Because I’ve had experience in running other types of small business before I’m able to apply things I learned there to this and just ignore most of the stupid stuff.

        But I totally agree that if you’re going to try to work with indie booksellers you need to focus on just a few stores to build up a rapport and relationship with. That will benefit both you and them in the long term.

        And when picking those stores, don’t just randomly pick stores. Look at the demographics of those living in the area. Is your type of book popular there? Do your readers go there?

        For example, if you’re selling science-fiction, you want to try to cultivate relationships in bookstores not only that cater to sci-fi books but how about bookstores in places where big sci-fi/fantasy conventions like DragonCon happen?

        It only takes 5,000 sales for a book to be considered “successful.” With a targeted plan instead of trying to do “everything” that’s not an unreachable goal for a good book. Get to 5k THEN worry about higher. And look into the ways you can reasonably get to 5k.

  7. I don’t really have strong feelings either way on this. I was never starry eyed to dream about entering a large chain bookshop and seeing my debut novel on the shelves between Nabakov & Niffennegger. I agree with Larry that it’s pointless to be stocked in a bookshop, one spine among a myraid of spines, with no way of a potential reader/browser whom I have never met being directed to it. Jen – bestsellers are exactly that beofre they are even out, because of publisher’s payola buying prominent space in the store and the promotion to get pre-sales that push them up the charts. Waterstones in Notting Hill Gate does have a local authors section, but since it is one of the most expensive residential areas of London, only established authors can afford to live there and qualify as ‘local’. Not first timers. I will try my local store in the suburb of Harrow, once I have tried to source a review in the local newspaper. Can’t see the point of me doing a signing in store, if no one has ever heard of me and my friends already own a copy from Amazon.

    All I’ll say in reference to Dan’s model are two things: firstly Dan, if you hit your 5000 target, are you going to be mailing them out in padded envelopes and sorting out the P&P? That seems implicit in your model, unless you continue to reap the 24p royalty on e-book or whatever the figure is. How many “Skin Books” are you producing? Imagine multiplying that by 10 and the work involved… A wonderful sign of success undoubtedly, but the labour intensiveness involved on your part. Secondly, you don’t necessarily need your book in print to build up a readership. There have been several web successes such as “The Book With No Name” and those fictionalised works by sex workers.

    Like I say, I don’t really have strong feelings either way.


  8. A further point – and one that’s only an idea, because I’ve realised that maybe 4 years in luxury independent retail might actually be some use, which is something I hadn’t clocked before. The obvious way for books to appear in stores is a point of sale unit. It’s only a model that works if you use a very few retailers – but they wouldn’t all have to be book retailers. We’ve talked about vending machines as well. It’s worth thinking about.

    Marc – I agtree, 5,000 is a lot to be mailing out personally. I would imagine I’d sell them in thirds – one third through retail; one third through live appearances; one third online. Of course IF I were selling 5,000 each of 5 or 6 books I’d be doing it full time.

    • I was about to disagree with you, Dan, when you talked about building your readership over time (in the long run, as Keynes said, we’ll all be dead), but the lesson of the first couple of months, for me, is that there IS a slow build up of what you have called a ‘head of steam’. Experts tell you to commence all book publicity ahead of publication, like the mainstream publishers, but that wouldn’t have worked for us back in September. It’s only now that we’ve got our existing group together that we can mount the 13 Shadows Tour. So the question for me isn’t just how to market Glimpses, but how to promote Year Zero, because the 2 things hang together. And the policy of engagement has begun to open doors, as you say.

      What we’re doing is not what many Authonomites would recognise as self-publishing, in the sense of an individualistic enterprise – ‘Blog Your Way to a Million Sales’ etc. As a collective, drawing on the multiple talents, skills and knowledge of the group, we probably have greater intellectual and artistic resources than many small presses. And, like a small press, we are beginning to develop a unique identity or brand image. Brick Lane will announce our arrival.

      • Yes, by slow build up, I don’t mean forever! I DO mean more than a year. That’s the way to make it sustainable. I had a very big kick in the teeth back last April when I tried to launch a flash mob when Aggie had just started. One person showed up.

        The other point we have to bear in mind is that continual production of the highest qulaity content has to be maintanied. A model where readership outstrips production of content is essentially the same as over-leveraged banks. I want my readership to grow with me. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find 50,000 people all want my next offering.
        Agree, though, that it feels like going on tour could open up a whole new level of attention. Very excitnig!

    • Also, if 5k is in say a year’s time, I know it wouldn’t work out “exactly” like this, but on average that’s about 14 sales a day. Even if you sold every single one through mail order, how long does it REALLY take to shove 14 books into envelopes, address them and mail them? I mean really? It sure doesn’t take up your whole day.

  9. It’s a non-issue, IMHO. Brick & mortar chains were never likely to stock indie books, and since they only have around 36% of bookselling mkt share, it doesn’t matter. I blogged about this over a year ago:

    It’s not so hard to get an indie book stocked by a local, indie bookseller, but it’s hardly worth the trouble since it’s cheaper and easier to drive sales online. Even if you have a signing and 50 people attend and they ALL buy your book—and that’s a HUGELY successful event by any measure—once the event is over, so are the sales driven by that event. Online mktg & promo efforts have a much longer shelf life. Also, online is about the only channel where book sales are growing.

    From a piece on Galleycat yesterday:
    “At Digital Book World this morning, Mike Shatzkin quizzed his panel of publishing thinkers about the Amazon (AMZN) hold over the industry. “Amazon has 80 or 90 percent of the book buying [market] online and 80 or 90 percent of the ebooks [market]. Those are the only parts of the business that are growing. Every other part of the business is shrinking …”

    Apparently, no one at the event disagreed with Shatzkin. A 1/14/10 article from includes the following:

    “Borders is shuttering 182 of its smaller Waldenbooks outlets, while leaving 130 of them open. And Barnes & Noble is similarly closing down all but 50 of its B. Dalton stores. The move leaves the town of Laredo, TX as the nation’s largest town without a bookstore. In an NPR piece on the closures, Clive Warner with Citria Publishing sounds a dire note:

    DAVIES: The Liverpool native runs a small science fiction publishing house. He says the forecast is grim for many brick-and-mortar bookstores.

    Mr. WARNER: Oh, they’re finished. Everything’s going online.”

    Yet another signpost of doom comes in the form of the news that the last brick-and-mortar bookseller in Laredo, Texas has closed, per this CNN piece from 1/22/10. Laredo literally has no brick-and-mortar booksellers at all anymore, not even a single independent. Laredo, TX is a major city, by the way. Its current population stands at a quarter of a million according to that CNN piece.

    If a population that size cannot support a single brick-and-mortar bookstore, there are only two possible reasons. One, Laredans don’t buy books. Two, Laredans are content to buy their books online. In a population of a quarter million, I think the second reason is more likely.

    I think all the hue and cry over brick & mortar distribution is needless. Ten years from now we’ll all wonder what the fuss was about.

  10. My viewpoint? There’s this big thing called the Internet, Welcome to it. The bottom line is, there are a TON of outlets for you to get your book (both print and E) in online sales channels. Judging from Amazon’s success alone it’s obvious the market is out there.

    The problem “little guys” often make in business, and indie authors would most definitely be in here, is that they try to play the game like the big guys. They don’t use their assets like their flexibility and ability to cultivate followers, they want the big impersonal sales tactics of larger corporations.

    Seeing an author’s book at a front table of Barnes and Noble is absolutely and completely impersonal. It makes the author appear “untouchable.” When readers and authors interact more personally in places like the Internet, then you begin to build up a core army of real fans that will help you get your work out there just by their sheer excitement about your work.

    I can tell you if I feel like I know an author personally I’m more likely to tell more people about his or her work than if they are some faceless book on the front table of B&N.

    I think distribution is a non-issue but not for the reasons Dan said. But because the Internet is BIG. If you think you’re going to run out of people to market to on the Internet, you’re insane. You’re never going to run out of potential customers. And if you did, by that point you’d have a strong enough sales track record that ANY bookstore would stock you. Everybody wants a sure thing.

    Prove yourself to be a sure thing and doors will open. So I think that indies shouldn’t worry so much about Distribution. If you’re going with a company like Lightning Source, all the built-in distribution channels you can get your ebook and POD print book into is plenty to get you out there. You just have to start being visible on the Internet and have something to say. The rest will happen organically.

    • Thanks, Zoe – quality of book first – YES. From a business point of view I think the key thing you say is stopn trying to act like the big guys – acting small is being embraced in the business world as a whole. It’s the thing we’ve got on our side. It seems we’re trying to throw away one of our big strengths!

      • Totally! We have many assets we just have to embrace them instead of being ashamed of them. When indies start doing that,and when they stop seeing indie as an “unfortunate means to an end” we’re going to see some indie authors start doing some really cool things. Within ten years being an indie author will be just as cool as being an indie musician but we have to embrace it and believe in ourselves first or no one else will.

  11. Oh and write a good book. Nothing drives sales like word of mouth.

  12. Thanks for coming by April – it’s nice to know I’m not the only one (Mike Cane aside :)) who thinks it’s a non-issue. I’d go further, though – I think the web has to be part of a package (genre dependent, I confess). I want to look at where my readers go, and connect with them there – sometimes that’s online; sometimes it’s at music venues, alternative shops and, yes, sometimes at indie bookstores – though never at the larger chains,or Amazn – which leaves me at a loss why I’d want to spend time “getting my foot in the door”.

    I DO have problems with Shatzkin. There are two massive methodological flaws in his point. The first is that it’s utterly lacking segmentation. I want to know what the market’s doing for bokos like mine. A bigger one is that it looks only at the available models and asks which is growing. anmd whcih is shrinking. For anyone genuinely interested in reaching their readers, that kind of approach is so blinkered and painted into a corner it’s virtually useless. It’s liek saying more people think the world’s flat than triangular. I want to explore the best way to connect with my readers. I don’t want to say “Do I connect in manner x, y, or z” – that’s just poor thinking.

    Tha sounds like a rant. In a way it is – I am frequently amazed at the lack of creativity demonstrated by writers in their approach to anything other than what’s between the covers (and most of that’s pretty hidebound). But I absolutely agree with the thrust of what you’re saying – distribution to bokostores is not something to worry about!

  13. Segmentation is an excellent point, and one that I’ve struggled with ALL DAY LONG. I spent the afternoon driving up and down the Jersey Shore opining whether one outlet is better for me to pitch my book to than another. I chose Jay & Silent Bob’s Comic shop to drop a promo copy of 29 Jobs at; but not at a fancy foo foo books cafe joint with $4 coffees…just not my market.

    Maybe because it’s my first book; and only the past six months or so I’ve skated on to the thin ice of independent publishing that I feel like in order to feel legitimated (oh my god, she’s going there…!), I need to see my book on a shelf of a bookstore. Kind of a rationalization for this endeavor, I guess. Hey, I’m being honest.

    I had a conversation with the owner of Words! in Asbury Park, a new venture in the form of an indie bookshop that also offers self-publishing services and events. We both remarked on how rare it is for authors to be out there knocking on doors like I have been and how incredibly difficult it is to get people to come to readings–especially when it’s 12 degrees outside and snowing.

    Then I realized when I returned to the warmth of my car that I have had access to many interested readers here, online, on our internets, and that my book is available on a virtual bookshelf.

    Our challenge then is just have to somehow connect the dots between what makes someone us writers interacts with online *actually buy the book* and stay interested in a meaningful relationship that translates as a loyalty to our work.

    I have to say: as a reader, myself, I come across a shitload of awful crappy writing written by the nicest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t spend a cent of my scarce money on their garbage. So I’m a dick, ok, but still, they’re nice people and I’ll keep in touch with them. And there’s huge segments of genres I find totally unreadable–no one’s fault, but I have a very narrow point of interest in fiction. And so many may feel the same way about me and my work. Huh.

    Hey, it’s only been 2 weeks I’m out in print. There’s a long future to go: novel to be released this spring and starting work on my next piece shortly. It’s fun. See you there.

    • The only way is to get them reading as much of it as possible, so they can see it’s not part of the (yes, HUGE) pile of truly awful self-published work. We need to show people we’re more than interesting people to hang out with – we write great stuff – and that means removing barriers to being read. Free ebooks is one thing. Perhaps we should serialise our longer books on site as well.

      • I think podcasting is a good idea for this. You can do podcasts of your work free for your audience forever and never dilute a main sales format. Like too much free E I think is a bad idea simply because that may become the primary delivery method for books and you want to be able to monetize it. But audio is never going to be primary, but with a podcast you can build up a following. Not only that, but you can use our instant culture to your benefit. As people listen to the podcast if they get hooked on your book, they’ll go buy it just to find out what happens instead of waiting the weeks for the episodes to air.

        It television show series came out on DVD the full season at the same time they were airing, people would all rush out and buy the DVDs to find out what happens NOW.

      • yes, podcasts are a very good idea. Serialised podcasts with the occasional mix of live performance.

  14. Why would any small publisher or self-publisher want to be with Bertrams? The deals are not at all advantageous. If you have an ISBN and want to be distributed, hunt around, there are ways in to small independent wholesalers that won’t bury you in the middle of a vast catalogue and forget that you’re there. Small and nimble, and little baby steps, make a long-lasting enterprise.

    There are advantages to being on Amazon (although AbeBooks is a better bet) in that there is a scheme to share percentage of sales, so you do get two bites of the cherry (funding to plough into the next book!).

    ISBN is an investment, and I paid for an enchanced listing which should score some more attention.

    I know folk in diiarts would like to open the door to the mainstream, and I would be delighted if our efforts did that for them; however, for myself, the mainstream does not appeal at all. I like the sense of the subversive that comes from diy, when the time comes to produce my own solo efforts, I plan to self-pub, not through Lulu, but a short run print.

    • Hi SJ – you know, for a while I though AbeBooks was a company set up to promote Marc :p

      “Small and nimble, and little baby steps, make a long-lasting enterprise.” Absolutely. Sustainability is key

  15. As we know, there are disadvantages as well as advantages to using Lulu, and Lulu use Bertram’s – I don’t know if they go through anyone else in the UK. But being listed in every wholesaler’s catalogue won’t translate into sales without demand, and, as others have said, high street sales are a small and declining percentage of the whole.

  16. As an indie published poet my books have fantastic distribution. OK not on shelves necessarily but any bookstore can get hold of my books – and I am slowly building relationships with stores to stock my books – it takes time – but I’m in this for the long haul and I can take that time.

    Maybe it’s because it’s poetry though – fantastic distribution isn’t yet translating into fantastic sales.

    At the moment type Valentine Poetry Kindle into Google and I rule the first page and probably continue into a few more.

    My paperbacks are available from Tesco online and just about anywhere else any mainstream book is available.

    That’s because my publisher uses Lightning Source as a printer and so we go through the Ingrams distribution network. We are carried by Bertrams and all the usual suspects and as I intend to have at least seven books out there by the end of this year, the profit margins though small are good enough – our business model is about little and often and it takes time for that to seed and flower.

    Type Michele Brenton into Google and prepare to be deluged by places to buy my books. Typing Alternative Poetry Books – and if you get the same result I do – I AM the front page of Google.

    I’m going to see what happens for Valentine’s – I’ve put a lot of thought into my two ebooks – instead of keeping the alternative theme within each ebook – I’m offering each book as an alternative to the other – one is romantic and schmaltzy (Banana’s Love Poems) and the other is funny and mean(Banana’s Mean & Funny Valentine Poems). I like to keep my Yin and Yang balanced 🙂

    I’m hoping that in a few months I’ll be able to start doing some sort of ‘real’ publicity and PR in the ‘real’ world rather than just on the interweb – but it is still early days yet – not even six months since I was first published – so I have to try and not get too impatient.

    Apparently Rome wasn’t built in a day. It seems to be doing quite well on the slowly slowly approach – so I’ll take a leaf out of its book.

  17. I am in ONE bookstore though here’s a link to my blog post with a picture of my first front window display when my first book came out 🙂

  18. 2010 is the year of the Relentless March of the Banana 🙂 And if that isn’t a title in the writing, I don’t know what is!

  19. Dan, you write a good argument but sometimes you side step things. Jenn has put up a good post about the problems of distribution, which you counter by saying “my particular book is different, so I don’t need distribution through bricks and mortar” as though that solves the problem that Jenn has raised. Bypassing bricks and mortar pretty much ensures most books will sink without trace. E-books are still around 3% of the market (higher for romance) and being on Amazon really means nothing if you can’t find a way to drive significant traffic there. A book in a store, like it or not, adds the weight of a third party endorsement – that the buyer, or the owner has got confidence in your book. Also don’t discount the sheer tactile effect of books. once someone has picked up a physical book, they have a connection to it, which in itself can prompt purchase.

    One day you might produce a book that won’t be a small one-off and in that case, if you’re not in bookstores, you’re outside the major channel.

    • Part of the reason I appear to sidestep Jenn’s argument is because I am aware that we are not at opposing ends of the spectrum, but rather coming from two different angles.

      I DO think bricks and mortar independents will continue – and I want to have a good relationship with them. My first book, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is a relatiely regular kind of book, one that would sell through indie stores.

      BUT – and this is where I DO take issue with Jenn, and think I tackled her head on – as slightly offbeat contemporary fiction authors we can make a happy living on 5000 books per title per year as soon as we hit around 5 or 6 titles. Jenn has said there are 1500 indie bookstores in the US alone. To me the idea that it’s desirable to be stocked in each is off the wall. The pioint I was trying to make is that if we were coming at this a priori, without our preconceptions of the way books work (albeit these are hugely valuable) there’s no way we’d say “I’m going to sell 2000 books online, 1000 from live events; and I want to sell 2000 from physical outlets. How to do that? I know, I’ll sell 1.33 copies from each of 1500 stores.” We’d pick specialist retailers and work in partnership with them, 50 selling 20 copies each; maybe 20 selling 50 even.

      My point, and Larry and Banana have both alluded to it, is that wide distribution is useful only for catching passing browsers – for off chance buys. I don’t like that model. I’d rather fans bought my books, and I spent my time getting people to become fans. Once they ARE fans, they will find where to go to buy the physical thing.

      OK, it’s a model that comes from my days in the luxury flooring trade, but I think it’s a very sound one – and just because books have always been done differently, doesn’t mean they always will be. I think we will see increasing specialisation in bookstores as they struggle to find a niche to help them survive. And so the two models will converge.

  20. Well, as always, you have a reasoned answer. I disagree with you about the ‘off chance’ buyers – that’s only a fraction of the distribution reality. Bookstores are a place where people determinedly head to, so by the time they have walked in the door, they have self-selected themselves as potential customers.

    I suppose this all depends on whether your blogs are about self publishing in general or about you in particular. If you are only discussing distribution and so on in the context of your own books, then fair play. If you are trying to open up the argument about how publishing can be opened up, then distribution and bookstores has to be something that isn’t brushed off. It’s a major issue.

    Going back to Year Zero, one thing you might like to consider is targetting specific bookstores. There are book stores that have built up large followings in their own right and having your books in one of these stores could be worth far more than having books in many stores.

    • Absolutely agree on targetting specific bookstores. We are building relationships with a number here in the UK, and Jenn is doing the same in NYC. I think your reasoning behind it is spot on.

      I AM talking in general about self-publishing – but that needs to be taken in the context of my wider thoughts about self-publishing, found at

      which are that it only suits niche fiction and not “mainstream” books. Maybe I should say “best suits” because as soon as I say “only” there will be counter-examples. As a business model, though, self-publishing large potential audience books is a whole different proposition from self-publishing niche books. It’s a great debate to have – but not one I’m qualified on.

    • So people don’t determinedly head to Come on. I’m sorry but I think brick and mortar bookstores are fairly irrelevant to an indie’s business model. There are plenty of book buyers online and plenty of vetting systems in place, including freebies to entice new readers. The chances that someone will buy my book just because one copy is facing spine out in a bookstore is MUCH lower than that they will buy my book online.

      You also don’t need ANYTHING in the offline world to drive readers to your book in the online world. I’ve sold close to 3,500 copies of a novella on Amazon Kindle now as a total indie with only independent free marketing efforts so far.

      Brick and mortar bookstores are a waste of my time and energy. They put me on the wrong side of the 80/20 rule.

      Would I always rule out bookstores? I dunno, maybe, maybe not. I think their returns system is asinine and consignment is pretty much the same thing just phrased and practiced a little differently, so it’s pretty much a waste of time for me personally and not something I’m interested in.

      Is this going to horribly limit my sales by sticking to online?

      Just try and stop me. 😛

      Also, you talk about ebooks being only 3% of the market right now, but that’s rather short-sighted. I absolutely believe within 10 years ebooks will become the primary delivery method. What is smart right now is to get yourself in these channels and moved up the ranks so that when more readers come, you are positioned well for success and you have the visibility you need. The dumbest thing IMO that an indie can do right now is act like ebooks don’t matter, that’s the line of the trad published author who’s getting such a low royalty off E that they’re clinging to the life raft of “E won’t take over” just like the big 6 are.

      Also, let’s not forget that as an indie, you could get rich off of 3% market share, because niche marketing is where it’s at for the small guy. I’m not saying you will, I’m just saying there are PLENTY of readers to reach. You can’t be everything to everyone. Actually I believe that’s a song by Everclear. They were right.

  21. Targetting where you go bookshop-wise is very important. Establishing a tangible presence helps your web sales, which is why I love the notion of Year Zero “on Tour”, it gives something to the fans, it encourages new people to engage (even by accident) and it removes barriers.

    • It also means (and this is possibly the one key lesson to carry over from my flooring days) that the bookshops get something in return form you. If you essentially handpick a few bookshops as “exclusive dealerships” (being very careful of the legals, of course, in terms of anti-competitive practice [one of the things we used to do in flooring if people wouldn’t give us dealership prices is threaten to slap them with anti-competitive raps – we got the prices, but of course that’s a long way from getting the full dealership package – though we usually managed to convince them through results once we were selling on equal terms]), and commit to giving x numbers of readings, and demonstrate x amount of web traffic that will be directed to their store, you will be bringing something to the table for them as well as they for you. It’s about relationships at the end of the day, and about win win.
      Now we’ve just got to figure what we offer 🙂

  22. I was unfair to Lulu in suggesting they only distribute through Bertram’s. I’ve checked, and Glimpses seems to be available in most catalogues and online sites, including Amazon, AbeBooks, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository. I’m quite pleased with this aspect of Lulu’s service, but I think Jenn’s point was that being in catalogues is not enough, there’s nothing to persuade bookstores to order a relatively unknown book. Traditionally, publishers advertised in the trade press and employed representatives to tour the bookstores, to publicise new titles and do deals. A lot of these reps have been made redundant in the present economic climate, but most mainstream publishers still pour money into promotion (unless they publish academic journals, in which case they make a fortune without doing any work whatsoever). A self-publisher could tour the country with a stack of books in the boot (trunk) of their car, to offer indie booksellers on sale-or-return, but this is a massive investment of time and money – time which could be spent writing. And yes, I know a lot of publishers are pushing their authors into self-marketing, but in doing so they are signing their own death warrants. Because why do all that work and bother signing up to a publisher? For a critique of this practice, and a defence of the role of traditional publishers, see

    It is possible to be selective, however, and concentrate our scarce resources on key indie bookstores, the places where our young, urban, and ‘alternative’ readers tend to go. This is what we are beginning to do, as Dan explained. At present, we have to forego the rest. Since almost all of my sales have been online so far (nearly 900, including Smashwords downloads, but excluding Barnes and Noble), I’m not sure that I’m losing that much?

  23. […] a debate with fellow Indie author, self-publishing zealot and Year Zero Writer, Jenn Topper, on the issue of distribution. Ever since, it’s been something that’s gnawed away at […]

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