The Distribution Barrier for Self-Publishers: Less of an Issue?

When I started at Writer’s Digest in 2001, my first assigned beat was the
self-publishing scene. I was given Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual
and The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing by Marilyn & Tom Ross, as
primers on the topic.

I edited the magazine’s column on self-publishing (discontinued), the
newsstand-only special issues on self-publishing (also discontinued),
and helped coordinate the judging for the Self-Published Book Awards
(still going strong).

Back then, one of the biggest hurdles for any self-published author was
securing bookstore distribution for a printed book
—a near impossibility
unless you could strike a deal with a wholesaler or distributor (also nearly impossible).

Much of the advice we gave in the magazine, and elsewhere, focused on how
you could distribute and sell your book directly to readers, or through
specialty sales channels. (Fortunately, 50% of books sold in this
country are through specialty and mass-merchant accounts. A few
examples of a specialty account: Michael’s craft store, salons, gift
shops.)

The indie scene is much different now for a few reasons:

(1) It is easier to take a risk on self-publishing your work
electronically since there is usually very little upfront investment.

(2) You can e-publish your work for a variety of channels
(including the free-to-use Amazon DTP program), without securing an ISBN, and without granting
exclusivity to any one channel or retailer.

(3) Avid readers are beginning to buy and even prefer books in
electronic format, whether through Kindle, Sony Reader, or mobile
devices.

That said, don’t take this as a sign that it’s easy to realize
overnight success through self-publishing options, whether
electronically based or not. I really love Christina Katz’s “back to
reality” advice, Good-bye, Cinderella: Self-Publishing Isn’t the Only or Always the Best Choice for Writers.

There are many viewpoints, and there are just as many changes taking place daily in the industry. Just take the latest
announcement today from Smashwords, Sony Reader, and AuthorSolutions.
People who use Smashwords or AuthorSolutions to publish their work can
have their e-book made available on the Sony
Reader.

I spoke to Smashwords founder Mark Coker yesterday about the news, and
it’s impressive to see what his service can now offer an indie author
(for free!):

  • Your e-book available for sale (or you can make it free to readers) in nine different formats,
    including HTML, JavaScript, Kindle (.mobi), Epub, PDF, RTF, LRF (for
    Sony), Palm Doc, and plain text (download or online view). This conversion process is totally automated, very fast (minutes), and based on
    a Word document that you submit to Smashwords.
  • Automatic distribution to people who use iPhones or Android-based phones.
  • Distribution to BarnesandNoble.com, including Fictionwise and their
    eReader app (distribution to B&N is contingent upon your files meeting format
    requirements, e.g., having a proper cover image and copyright page)
  • And, as of today, distribution to people using Sony Reader.

Mark says that he’s in talks with other major online retailers for even
more distribution opportunities. (I bet you can think of at least one
major book retailer not listed above.)

I see physical distribution becoming less of a meaningful barrier as authors can
distribute e-books in all the same places that traditional books are
sold.

It doesn’t equate to instant or even easy success, but authors who are
able to create demand for their work, and aren’t afraid of sweat-equity,
have the potential for success if happy readers (fans!) help spread the
good word.

Do you have an e-publishing experience to share? Or what questions does
this raise for people who are wondering if this path is worth the time
and energy?

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0 thoughts on “The Distribution Barrier for Self-Publishers: Less of an Issue?

  1. Elissa Malcohn

    A small-press publisher released the first book of my series, then went bust right around the time my second was to appear. A few months later I read Jeffrey A. Carver’s excellent how-to article, "Psst! Wanna Buy a Free Ebook?" for people who want to go the DIY route. (The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009).

    After getting my rights back, I re-released Deviations: Covenant as a free e-book from my website in March and released the sequel, Appetite, in May. Also in May, I registered my website with Google Analytics and gave permission for Manybooks.net to carry the books. Several other sites now list them as well. Hundreds of downloads followed, now more than 500 of Covenant from Manybooks.net alone.

    I have some publishing and award credentials, which have helped me promote the work through social media and other channels. Although I offer free downloads, I continue to sell shorter pieces — fiction and poetry both appear in the Oct./Nov. 2009 Asimov’s, for example. My current strategy involves working both ends of the "free" and "for sale" spectrum to build readership.

    In addition to retaining my rights to the series, I looked at distribution issues. For example, I don’t know if conditions have changed since February, when downloading works to Kindle overseas proved problematic (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/19/kindle-only-in-the-usa/). In contrast, Google tells me I’ve had visitors to my site (http://home.earthlink.net/~deviations/index.html) from all continents but Antarctica. I’ve also registered all six books of my series with the US Copyright Office (the final two are still being processed) and am doing what I can to protect the work. I treat this not as a money-making proposition but as an up-front investment in getting exposure. Heaven knows I’m still learning as I go along.

  2. Joel Friedlander

    Jane,

    Interesting post, and the most thoughtful I’ve seen on yesterday’s development. Certainly the Smashwords model has huge potential for all indie publishers because shelf space is so hard to get, and to hold onto. But,

    >>I see physical distribution becoming less of a meaningful barrier as authors can distribute e-books in all the same places that traditional books are sold.

    …to be really effective would have to include all the same places like brick and morter bookstores, don’t you think?

    Also curious about your subtext here. With self-publishing set to explode, why did WD take themselves out of the space? Care to speculate?

  3. Alan Baxter

    I’ve been with Smashwords since the early days and they are one classy outfit. They are going to be seen as one of the true pioneers of ebook publishing. My books are also available in print, in Kindle (though currently there’s a hitch with that which I’m promised will be fixed soon) and other ebook formats through places like DriveThru. But Smashwords offers the most formats, the most publisher control, absolute pricing control and ever more distribution opportunites.

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