The Complete Guide to Ebook Distribution
[Last updated: 10/26/2018]
At Reedsy, our goal has always been to help authors through every stage of the publishing process, from the actual writing down to the marketing and promotion. However, if there's one thing our marketplace can't do, it's the actual publishing of the book. By that, I mean pressing the button that puts your book up for sale on Amazon — and other retailers.
Ebook distribution is a complex, ever-evolving topic. For example, a major ebook publishing platform, Pronoun, shut down not long after this post was written. To make authors’ lives easier, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about ebook publishing platforms in this guide.
Now, there are two ways to read this post. If you want to know everything, go from top to bottom and absorb all the information. If you’re just looking for simple, clear-cut instructions on how to get your books onto the major ebook stores in the best way possible, then head straight to our optimized distribution setup infographic.
- What you need before you publish: formats, ISBNs & more
- Amazon exclusivity vs “going wide”
- Ebook publishing platforms and retailers
- Infographic: Reedsy’s recommended ebook distribution setup
- Comparative table of royalties by publishing platform and retailer
- Gearing up for your launch: setting up pre-orders, metadata, and pricing
What you need before you publish: formats, ISBNs & more
Before you can get your book up on different ebook stores, you'll need a couple of things: your properly formatted ebook files and a professional cover design.
Ebook formats: do you need both an EPUB and a .mobi?
There are two main formats that are used by ebook distributors, retailers, and e-reading devices: EPUB and .mobi. The main difference between them is simple: .mobi is Amazon’s proprietary format (and only used by them), while EPUB is used by everyone else.
You might have heard that you need both formats to publish your book, but that’s not technically true: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform will accept your EPUB if it’s well-formatted, and convert it automatically into a .mobi.
To learn more about the technical differences between both formats, read this.
How can you turn your manuscript into an EPUB?
We mentioned in our introduction that Reedsy can help with almost everything in your publishing journey. Well, ebook conversion is one of those things. We developed a free writing and formatting tool — which we affectionately dubbed “Reedsy Book Editor” — that you can use to produce a beautiful, flawlessly formatted EPUB file.
Do you need an ISBN to self-publish?
Most e-retailers (e.g. Amazon) don’t require your ebook to have an existing ISBN, and most ebook publishing platforms (e.g. Draft2Digital) will provide one for free anyway. Some platforms like PublishDrive don’t offer a free ISBN, but will instead assign to your book another kind of unique identification number which will be accepted by the different stores they publish to.
So, all in all, you don’t need an ISBN for ebook publication. Are there benefits to getting one? Yes: if you purchase your own ISBN and register it to your publishing company, your book will show up on retailers as being published by you (rather than by the publishing platform you used).
If you do purchase your own ISBNs, here’s the one rule you need to know: each format of your book needs to have its own ISBN. This means, in theory, that your .mobi on Amazon should have a different ISBN from your EPUB on the other stores. If you publish a print book as well, then your paperback and hardback will need different ISBNs as well.
A professional cover design
On top of your EPUB or .mobi, the other file you’ll need to upload is your book cover file. It’s important to check each retailer/distributor to see exactly what dimensions they require for covers. For example, Draft2Digital recommends a JPEG with dimensions of 1600 × 2400 pixels (a 1.5 ratio), whereas Amazon currently recommends dimensions of 2,560 × 1,600 pixels (a 1.6 ratio). Knowing your dimensions ahead of time can save you and your cover designer time and ensure that your entire design appears as you intended.
We have written extensively on this blog about the importance of hiring a professional cover artist to design your cover. If you want to find out to work with a world-class designer without breaking the bank, read this.
Now that you have all the files you need to publish your ebook, it’s time to make one of the biggest decisions in your author career: are you going to publish exclusively on Amazon, or “go wide”?
Amazon exclusivity vs “going wide”
Surely, if I want to maximize my sales, I should make my ebook available to as many retailers as possible, right? That’s true, but here’s the trick: Amazon will offer you a lot of promotional advantages to entice you to publish your book exclusively on their stores. And depending on your book, genre, and marketing strategy, these benefits can far outweigh the drawbacks of not selling on iBooks or Kobo.
The case for Amazon exclusivity
Whether you choose to be exclusive or not, your first ebook distribution step will be to upload your book to Amazon through Kindle Direct Publishing. This is when you’ll be presented with an option: enrolling in KDP Select.
KDP Select is the name of Amazon’s exclusivity program. In exchange for not listing your book anywhere else (that includes direct sales or giveaways through your website, by the way) for a minimum period of 90 days, you’ll get access to:
- Kindle Countdown Deals: for a period of 7 days every 90 days, you can discount your book. This “countdown deal” will be promoted to Amazon customers, and you’ll earn the 70% royalty — even on sales below $2.99.
- Kindle Free Promotions: for a period of 5 days every 90 days, you can set your book as free on the Kindle store. This free promotion will grant your book quite a bit of visibility on the free store.
- Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library: KDP Select books are automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL), two subscription services that are extremely popular among Amazon customers. KU/KOLL authors are paid a percentage of the KDP Select Global Fund based on the number of pages of their books read by KU/KOLL subscribers every month.
On top of these benefits, a KDP Select ebook will also earn you 70% royalty for sales to customers in Japan, India, Brazil and Mexico (35% otherwise).
The case for “going wide”
Amazon controls around 80% of the ebook market in the US and UK, but their market share is much lower in other countries. In Canada, for example, Kobo alone controls over 25% of the ebook market. In Germany, Tolino has the same market share as Amazon.
Not being exclusive to Amazon — what we call “going wide” — gives you a chance to reach these other readers. Also, building a meaningful presence on smaller retailers can sometimes be easier than competing on Amazon (even with KDP Select’s perks).
Joanna Penn, an NYT best-selling thriller indie author, makes a good case for going wide in this podcast interview.
Our recommendation: research, make a choice, and stick to it
The Amazon exclusivity debate ultimately boils down to a matter of access to Kindle Unlimited. In certain genres, a vast majority of the Amazon readership has a KU subscription and is basically only reachable through KU. It’s also worth noting that KU “reads” contribute to overall rankings on the paid store. That means that (in KU-heavy genres) top category spots are trusted by KU books, making it really hard for non-exclusive books to get any visibility.
So if you’re hesitating about going exclusively to Amazon, ask yourself this question: “what percentage of the top 100 books in my target Amazon categories are in KU?” If that percentage is high, then you’re probably better off enrolling in KDP Select.
Whatever your choice is, you need to stick to it. It takes a “wide” author years to build a solid readership on a given retailer, so rolling your books in and out of KDP Select isn’t an option. If you go the wide route, go all in and take a long-term approach.
Finally, be aware that "KU vs wide" isn't just a distribution choice, it's a marketing one as well. Success on KU will require an entirely different marketing approach. You can read more about these approaches on David Gaughran's "A Tale of Two Marketing Systems" post.
Ebook publishing platforms and retailers
Once you have your files and have made up your mind on Amazon exclusivity, it’s time to… actually publish your book. In practical terms, this means uploading your ebook file to the major e-retailers, namely:
- Amazon (Kindle)
- Apple (iBooks)
- Barnes & Noble
- Google Play
To reach these different stores, you have two options: either “go direct,” or use an “aggregator.”
Going direct to the major retailers
Each major store, except Google Play, can be reached directly through its own proprietary ebook publishing platform.
|Store||Publishing platform||User friendliness||Comments|
|Amazon Kindle Store||Kindle Direct Publishing||⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐||Opt out of KDP Select unless you want to be exclusive.|
|Apple Books||iTunes Producer / Books Author||⭐ ⭐||Only available on Mac OS.|
|Kobo||Kobo Writing Life||⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐||Also reaches Kobo's distribution network, including Overdrive, with the highest royalty.|
|Barnes & Noble||Nook Press||⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐|
While dealing directly with all these stores will grant you the highest royalties, it means you need to upload your book files and metadata individually using each of their publishing platforms.
More importantly, it means that every change you want to make afterward (discounting your book, changing the blurb, etc.) needs to be made, again, through all platforms.
Finally, it means you’ll get sales reporting from four different places, and at different times, making it hard to keep an eye on what’s going on.
That’s where aggregators come in.
Using an aggregator
Aggregators let you distribute your book to a large number of stores at once: they aggregate retailers and consolidate your metadata and sales reports across all retailers in one place.
In exchange, they’ll generally take a cut on your sales (around 10% of your list price) which means they only make money if you make money.
Draft2Digital is the main aggregator we recommend at Reedsy. Favored by most successful indie authors (who aren’t exclusive to Amazon), they have been praised for their interface, stellar customer support, and additional free tools and resources.
Their “automated back matter” tool is particularly handy for series authors: every time you publish a new ebook through Draft2Digital, they automatically add it to the “Also by this author” section of your other books’ backmatter on every store, with the relevant store link.
Their "universal book links" are also a nice touch: they allow any author to generate a unique link to each of their books, which then redirects the reader automatically to their preferred retailer. More about these links here.
D2D distributes to all the major ebook stores and library distributors, except Google Play and Bibliotheca. Payments are sent monthly via Paypal, Payoneer, direct deposit or check.
Smashwords was the first aggregator, and market leader until Draft2Digital took over. While their distribution outlets and royalties are similar to Draft2Digital’s, their website design, interface and conversion tools offer a less enjoyable user experience. Read more about the difference between Smashwords and D2D here.
PublishDrive is the newest aggregator on the block. On top distribution to all the major stores (including Google Play, which you can’t reach directly, nor through Draft2Digital or Smashwords), they specialize in international distribution and have many additional stores in Eastern Europe. They have opened up new foreign markets that weren’t previously available to indie authors.
PublishDrive is the only aggregator who doesn’t offer free ISBNs as part of their distribution offer. Instead, they developed PUI (PublishDrive’s Unique Identifier) which is globally accepted in stores and libraries they distribute to.
Streetlib is another “international distributor” with a particularly strong presence in Western and Southern Europe, and Latin America. They also distribute to all the major e-retailers (including Google Play). While they've been around for over 10 years, they've been making a foray into the UK and American markets more recently.
XinXii is a German distributor, despite what their Chinese name might suggest. While their user interface is far from optimal, they can open up new foreign distribution channels. That said, XinXii is known to be slow in updating and removing titles, as well as in their customer support.
Note: in addition to legitimate aggregators, there are a number of services which claim to offer authors complete distribution but are actually scams targeted at naive authors. To find out more about how to avoid these companies, check out this post.
So, which aggregator should you choose? The answer is: probably more than one. Which brings us to… our recommended distribution setup.
Infographic: Reedsy’s recommended ebook distribution setup
If you’re going to go “wide,” you’ll want your book to be in as many stores as possible. You’ll also want to maximize your royalties on each store while keeping the setup manageable for when you need to update or apply discounts to the book. This is what our optimized setup will help you achieve.
Comparative table of royalties by publishing platform and retailer
By combining Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, and Streetlib, you can reach hundreds of ebook stores all over the world.
As there is plenty of overlap between their distribution offerings, one can quickly get lost and end up with duplicate titles on a retailer. To avoid putting you into this thorny situation, we spent several hours combing through every aggregator’s distribution network to compile the ultimate ebook distribution spreadsheet.
It lists every retailer, library distributor, and subscription service you can reach through Draft2Digital, Smashwords, PublishDrive, Streetlib, and XinXii, along with the royalties you can expect from each outlet. We've highlighted our recommended distribution setup in grey.
- Kindle and Barnes & Noble: royalties depend on the book's pricing and territory. These figures are for books priced between $2.99 and $9.99 on the US store.
- Kobo: they also distribute to a great number of local retailers. In this spreadsheet, I suppose authors are sending their ebook to Kobo, and am therefore not listing any of the retailers they distribute to. Royalties are for the Kobo store, not for Kobo's distribution network.
- Overdrive (Global): List prices on libraries are generally 1.5-2x above your eBook list price. You can go "direct" to Overdrive via Kobo Writing Life. Both companies are owned by Rakuten.
- Tolino (Germany): Like Kobo, Tolino has a big distribution network. I'm not listing any of the retailers covered by Tolino in this spreadsheet.
- Perlego (EMEA): a similar system to Kindle Unlimited
- CNPeReading (China): Ebook gets priced 4x higher on this library. Publisher receives 240% (60% × 4) of regular list price.
- Libreka (Germany): Similarly to Kobo and Tolino, I'm not listing any of the retailers covered by Libreka.
- Nubleer (Lat Am): Similar system to Kindle Unlimited
Spreadsheet last updated on 23/11/2017. Link to google sheet here.
Note: Some of the outlets you reach via these aggregators are other aggregators themselves. Kobo, for example, is both a retailer and an aggregator as they’ll make your ebook also available on a number of partner stores in the world. To avoid confusion and duplicates, we haven’t listed any of Kobo’s, Tolino’s, and Libreka’s partner stores on the spreadsheet.
A note on royalty calculation
If you’re curious about why the list price royalties vary ever so slightly on the major retailers between Draft2Digital/XinXii and Smashwords/PublishDrive/Streetlib, it’s because they have a different business model:
- Draft2Digital and XinXii take a 15% cut on your royalties after the retailer (e.g. Apple) takes its cut;
- PublishDrive, Streetlib and Smashwords take a 10% cut on your list price, i.e. before the retailer takes its cut.
For example, on a $10 ebook:
Gearing up for your launch: setting up pre-orders, metadata, and pricing
Your primary goal when having your product in stores is to get it in front of as many customers as possible (and to get them to buy it). Online stores are basically search engines these days, with Amazon being the world’s third largest, after Google and YouTube.
As an author, you need to set your book up in such a way that readers can easily find it when searching for their next read. And to do that, you need to have a reasonable understanding of metadata, the pre-ordering process, and pricing strategy.
Metadata: categories and keywords
When uploading your ebook to any of the publishing platforms above, you’ll be asked to select “categories” and “keywords” for your book. These will basically tell the store where to feature your book, and which readers to show it to. On the Kindle Store, which is 100% algorithm-driven (i.e. there is no human curation), they are absolutely vital.
If you haven’t done your research on categories and keyword yet, or don’t know how Amazon’s algorithms work, we highly recommend you enroll in our free course on the subject.
We also recommend you read through David Gaughran’s book Let's Get Digital.
Keywords and categories aren’t just important to the Kindle Store, though. If you’re going wide, make sure you optimize your ebook’s presence on each of the major stores. To do so, we recommend you go through this video by Nick Stephenson on how readers find books on the iBooks, B&N, and Kobo store.
Setting up pre-orders
Pre-orders are a simple yet effective way to gain visibility in a store before you launch your book. You just need to have your title and metadata ready and you can make your book available for pre-order on Amazon (through KDP) and the other major retailers (through D2D). Usually, the pre-order term will be up to a year in advance of your publication date, although on Barnes & Noble it’s 90 days.
This allows you to get sales before you publish your book, and can be particularly helpful in non-Amazon stores. iBooks, for example, attributes all pre-orders as sales on launch day. So if you have a big audience that pre-ordered your book there, you’ll get a huge sales spike on publication day that'll propel your ebook up the ranks. On Amazon, pre-orders are counted as a sale on the day of the order (which is why some ebooks can show in the “bestseller lists,” even though they’re not even available).
To give you an idea of how powerful pre-orders can be, here’s some 2017 data from Draft2Digital (see presentation below):
- Only 16.4% of books uploaded to D2D are set up as pre-orders;
- Authors doing pre-orders account for 40.7% of D2D’s revenue.
Of course, pre-orders need to be promoted consistently to build a platform before launch. Here is a pre-order strategy that allowed indie author Cheryl Bradshaw to hit the USA Today bestseller list for five years in a row.
How to price your ebook
Ebook pricing is a thorny issue, which entirely depends on the goals you want your ebook to serve. We’ll cover most of what you need to know below, but we encourage you to do your own research through PublishDrive’s extensive ebook pricing strategy guide.
Ebook pricing on Amazon
While Amazon lets you control how much you sell your ebook for, it will offer different royalty rates depending on the price. In the US, ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99 earn you 70% of list price, while books between $0.99 and $2.99, or above $9.99, earn you 35% only.
These pricing ranges will vary depending on each Amazon store/country.
How to make your ebook free on Amazon
Amazon doesn’t let you price your book at $0.00 when uploaded through KDP (or through an aggregator for that matter). However, if you’re “wide,” you can use the “price matching trick,” which consists of setting your book free on other stores (via D2D for example) and then alerting Amazon through their “tell us about a lower price” feature on the book’s page.
If you’re in KDP Select, you won’t be able to use this trick — instead, you can use their “free promotion” feature to set your book free for 5 days every 90 days.
Discounts and price promotions
Running a “price promotion” (i.e. temporarily discounting your book) is one of the best ways to gain visibility on an ebook retailer. Depending on whether you’re in KDP Select, there are two ways to discount your book:
- KDP Select: run a Kindle Countdown deal;
- Wide: manually change your retail price on KDP and on all the aggregators you’re using.
Note that it can take some aggregators and retailers up to 48 hours to register your change in pricing.
In terms of how you can get people to notice your price promotion, well, we have a free Reedsy Learning course on the subject. Sign up to it here:
Different countries have different reading habits, different currencies, and a different pricing sensitivity when it comes to buying ebooks. Australia, for example, is known for its high ebook prices. This is why you should always price your book differently for each country.
To do so, KDP lets you customize your price for each of their stores (.com, .co.uk, .fr, .es, .it, .in, etc.), while both Draft2Digital and PublishDrive offer a handy “territorial pricing” feature.
Now, setting these territorial prices will require you to do some research on what prices work best where. To help you with this, Draft2Digital have made some of their valuable data available to us in this Novelists, Inc. 2017 presentation.
The ebook publishing landscape is an ever-changing one, and can be hard to navigate even for the most seasoned indie authors. We hope this post helped shed some light on the numerous distribution channels and opportunities available to authors, and how to make the most of them. We promise we'll do our best to update both our recommendations and the huge spreadsheet of aggregators and retailers on a regular basis.
Acknowledgements: we'd like to give our thanks to Dan Wood at Draft2Digital, Zsofia Macho at PublishDrive and Anne-Catherine de Fombelle at Streetlib for their help on our research. Special thanks as well to indie author Rohan Quine whose distribution setup inspired us to write this post in the first place, and to Janell Robisch for her feedback.
If you have any questions or comments about our recommended setup, or if you just want to have a virtual fireside chat with us about ebook distribution (who doesn't love that topic?!), please drop us a line in the comments below!