10/28/2014 08:07 pm ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

The Future of Book Distribution

As a representative of the hybrid publishing arena, I attend a lot of conferences and sit on a lot of panels. In the Q&A portion of these events, the question of distribution always comes up. I wrote a post called "Distribution 101" in February about distribution in which I laid out the what's what of distribution. If you don't understand what distribution is, you might want to start there.

If you do understand distribution, this is a more advanced post to explain why, when it comes to print, there's distribution, and then there's distribution.

Ingram seriously complicates the distribution conversation for authors because it has two parts to its business -- Ingram Wholesale and Ingram Publisher Services. If you have published through Lightning Source, or more recently through IngramSpark, then you are, by default, entering into a very basic distribution relationship with Ingram. CreateSpace actually also uses Ingram Wholesale as their "extended distribution" solution, because Ingram has a better reach into more channels than Amazon does. (CreateSpace is great at getting books on Amazon, but not nearly as effective as Ingram is at getting books anywhere else).

If you are distributed through Ingram (you're in their catalog and you have a relationship with Ingram Wholesale in that they carry your book), you can technically say that you have distribution, but it's not traditional distribution (which you can read about here). This basic level of distribution is a pain point for self-published authors, and it will continue to be until either a hybrid distribution company comes onto the scene, or until we see traditional distribution tear apart at the seams. (Either of these scenarios is entirely plausible.)

What you get at this basic level of distribution is very little. You are in the Ingram database, so bookstores can order your book. But it's also obvious to them at first glance that your book is print-on-demand because the database they're ordering from shows inventory and stock. If you know what you're doing and you've listed your book at a 50-55 percent discount and set it to be "returnable," then bookstores may well order it, but many authors have not been advised to do so, or don't know any better, and without these two parameters, bookstores will not order your book. Even if you have set these parameters, they still might not order your book because they don't trust that the books will be returnable, and you are considered a "risk," an unknown entity. Or they'll see that your book comes from a "secondary warehouse," an alert to them that they will have to pay a hefty shipping fee to return the books, even if they can.

Some of you may succeed in creating relationships with your local bookstore. They might take your book on consignment, either because you're doing an event, promising to bring in lots of readers/buyers, or because you're local, and you're driving traffic to the store. This is fantastic, but it's typically limited to your neighborhood. Trying to get your book out in a larger capacity and through broader channels, you'll soon discover, is nearly impossible as a self-published author.

It's important to note that the main benefit of traditional distribution, truly, is with print books. Where ebooks are concerned, you can have a direct relationship with e-tailers, like Amazon, Kobo, Nook, and iTunes. I think that authors who are drinking the Amazon Kool-Aid are successfully publishing and selling ebooks, and they're happy as clams with their results, not relying much on print, and therefore not relying much on reviews, or sales reps, or points of sale, or bookscan numbers. Genre authors, for instance, love Amazon more than anyone -- because their books don't rely on traditional industry standards. They don't really need traditional distribution, because their readers are mostly online anyway, and they've often built up a bit of a fanbase by the time they break out. But it's notable that even Hugh Howey signed with Simon & Schuster to publish his print books, while retaining digital rights, due to how exponentially more effective traditional publishers (and publishers who have traditional distribution) are at getting print books out to retail outlets nationwide.

The authors we publish at She Writes Press are mostly novelists and memoirists, though not exclusively. They care about reviews, library sales, awards, and having their books available and easily accessible to bookstores. Not every author cares about these things, of course, but not having access to these things just creates more pain points for self-published authors. It's possible (and probable) that hybrid publishing will continue to grow in popularity as savvy authors realize that they need more effective distribution in order to be successful. And I welcome more hybrid options -- I really do.

And yet there's also a question as to how big traditional distribution companies can or will grow, and who they'll take on, and how this part of the business will expand and react to questions of quality. Right now the industry is divided between self-published authors and traditionally published authors. The in-between space is just a tiny fraction of published authors. We are fighting hard for legitimacy, which is a lot about fighting hard to have the same rights as traditionally published authors. Eventually, all self-published authors will be fighting for these rights, and the first barrier they'll need to break down will be distribution. It's probable that this will force distributors to make decisions about what qualifies publishers, or even individual publisher-authors, for distribution. The rise of self-publishing has created a glut of books, some fantastic and others sorely lacking.

The growing pains the industry faces truly have only just begun. Perhaps since review outlets are refusing to judge books based on merit (instead creating separate self-publishing review sections or barring self-published authors from submitting altogether), it will fall to the distribution side to create a solution that further levels the playing field, or possibly that forces authors to publish quality works in order to qualify for distribution. I don't know how exactly this will all play out, but let this be a challenge to authors everywhere both to insist on better distribution for their books, but also to demand of themselves that only work worthy of better distribution be published.