The Book Business: Printing, Publishing, and Distribution

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Hello Readers,

Welcome back! Or, thank you for joining us if this is the first post you are seeing. Today we’re going to talk about the book distribution process. This is the fourth post in our multi-part series. The previous post was the The Book Business: Copyrights. While the last post was relatively short, this one ended up being quite lengthy. So get some tea or coffee and let’s dive in!

The Traditional Process

Here are the basic steps involved in the traditional publishing process:

  1. Write and edit a manuscript
  2. Find and sign with an agent
  3. Agent finds a publisher and gets the author a book deal
  4. Publisher kicks off more editing of your book
  5. Book gets printed and warehoused
  6. Book gets distributed to booksellers
  7. Book finally goes on sale!
woman wearing brown shirt carrying black leather bag on front of library books

All-in-all, it’s a pretty lengthy process. It’ll take at least a year, if not more, to get from book deal to having your book on shelves in a bookstore.

This is assuming, of course, you can find an agent and the agent can find a buyer. The real advantage of this process is that you, the author, won’t have to handle all of the work. Interior and cover design, editing, formatting, marketing and publicity, etc. – it’s shared by a team of people who are assigned to you – you don’t have to do it all yourself or find these people on your own.

The Indie Process

And here are the basic steps involved in the indie publishing process:

  1. Write and edit a manuscript
  2. Purchase and assign it an ISBN
  3. Upload to publishing website
  4. Format interior and design cover
  5. Approve proof
  6. Order copies
  7. Self-promote the hell out of it
Let’s talk about printing.

Are you familiar with the difference between Print-on-Demand and Offset Printing? In short, Offset Printing is how big-name publishers print their books: hundreds or thousands at a time, for a very low cost per unit. It’s basically the opposite of Print-on-Demand. Offset Printing can produce a higher quality product, which becomes especially important for image-heavy books like children’s books and photo books. 

Consider a photo book. You know exactly how it should feel when you pick it up. It should be heavy with thick paper and vibrant, saturated colors. Every page will have a glossy sheen to it, a 2D work of art for your coffee table.

I have a number of art books and one that I grabbed off the shelf for this discussion is a digital painting how-to book from ImagineFX. It’s a softcover, full color book, square format, 10.5″ x 10.5″, containing approximately 210 pages. The retail value of this book is $24.95.

I don’t mean to pick on Lulu but I priced out a similar book through their online calculator. I went through this exercise with a few of our books on multiple services to see what would work best for us and it was always like this. Everywhere.

In order to distribute the book through Lulu, the list price of that book would be a minimum of $86.48.

Wait, what?

Why would the retail list price of that sample book need to be $86.48? Well, this represents the print cost of the book plus distribution fees and it factors in the wholesale discount which is addressed later in this post. If you want to read about it from the source, check out this blog post from Lulu on pricing your book.

Let me use an example of something closer to home. Our book I Pooped And it Was Amazing is a hardcover, fully illustrated adult humor book. The details of this book are as follows:

  • Trim: 11 x 8.5
  • Pages: 48
  • Retail Price: $24.99

I’ve priced this out at Lulu, Bookbaby, Blurb, and IngramSpark in the past. IngramSpark and Lulu were the best priced with Lulu coming in at about $20 to print while IngramSpark comes in at about $11. There are some minor differences between the options at these services. For example, Lulu prints on an #80 paper while IngramSpark is using a #70 paper. 

It should be immediately obvious, though, that we can’t compete in pricing when we compare our small 48 page book to 210 page book. They have 4-5 times the number of pages and, yet, our retail list prices are about the same. (Yes, I know, different trim size and we have a hardcover. But, even if it were the same, we couldn’t compete.)

What about offset printing?
green and black industrial machine

When I looked into leveraging Offset Printing services for these books, I found one company with an online quote calculator that could print our book for about $5 per unit. But here’s the catch: They were printed in China (whereas Ingram prints are handled as close to the buyer as possible), the minimum purchase was 250 books, and shipping was very expensive (as I’m sure you can imagine).

Even at $5 per unit, we would be looking at an upfront cost of $1250 (plus shipping) and then we’d have to make a choice:

  • Do we try to negotiate with bookstores to get our books in storefronts and split the proceeds?
  • Do we pay for a warehousing and distribution service, increasing our costs?
  • Or do we try to sell our books directly and limit our potential customers?

It became immediately apparent that the only way forward for us, initially, is to leverage print-on-demand services. These services create comparable quality books, albeit with higher per unit costs, but it reduces our initial capital requirements. For our company size and initial offerings, it’s also the only way to distribute our books in any meaningful way.

It should be noted, that we continue to research printing and distribution options looking for the perfect choice for our company. Using Ingram for print-on-demand and distribution to some markets may always be the right answer for us but we’re staying open to printing and selling direct as well.

During this process, we had to ask ourselves a bunch of questions, available to read below in an FAQ format. Hopefully, this will make it easier for you to find what matters most to your work.

The great question and answer section.
I saw advice on the internet that an author should distribute books with one service to everywhere except Amazon and then do Amazon directly with KDP. Should I do that?

Ultimately, we decided against doing this in favor of ensuring that the quality of our books are the same no matter where you buy them. If you buy a book from us in person, that’s the same book you would get if you ordered it from a bookstore. From a different project Kate worked on unrelated to Vulgar Scullery Maid, we discovered that books printed by different publishers (in that case, Amazon and a small local printer) were of very different qualities. For VSM, we decided consistency was a top priority.

Should I distribute with multiple services?

Maybe. We are distributing books as follows:

  • Print books are distributed via IngramSpark only.
  • Ebooks were distributed via Draft2Digital (to everywhere except Amazon) and Amazon KDP (Amazon only)

There is an argument here that we should just distribute our eBooks through IngramSpark alongside our print editions. The way their service works is that you pay $49 to distribute your print book. You can opt to distribute an ebook at the same time as part of that cost.

For our initial set of books, we didn’t do this primarily because creating an ebook was a secondary priority. So, when we added ebooks to the mix, we went a slightly different route to avoid paying another distribution fee. We will likely re-evaluate this in future book distribution diving deeper into royalty sharing and what would produce the best outcome for us.

Should I “go wide” with distribution or focus on specific services?

To “go wide” simply means to distribute to all available services. Some would argue that you shouldn’t do this because distribution doesn’t guarantee that your books are going to be seen. Focusing on a single service would afford you more time to market that service. These same people tend to argue that using Amazon is your best option given its status in our retail lives.

We generally disagree with this approach. No matter how you choose to distribute your books, you’re going to be taking on advertising and marketing on your own. You will have to invest time and money in order to reach your target audience and convince them to buy copies of your book. When you reach that potential buyer, do you want to lose them because they couldn’t get a copy of your book at their preferred online store?

One exception of note, here, is ebook distribution. It might make sense to initially distribute your ebook exclusively on Amazon in order to take advantage of their KDP Select program. In exchange for a 90 day exclusivity period, your book gets some perks. After that period, you should distribute everywhere.

Should I distribute with one service and use a separate printing service for my author copies that I sell locally?

We decided against this for the same reason as the first question posted above.

If we sell a book in person, we want it to be the same quality as the book you would buy online. These books represent our company image. They represent us. And we believe in consistency and want to be proud of the work that’s being sold. Therefore, we opted against using a different printer for our author copies.

Should a time come that we switch printing methods, we will also be changing distribution methods. Again, consistency is very important to us.

What about small business loans and using that to pay for offset printing?

This might be an option down the road but, today, it just leads to the next headache: actual distribution. It wouldn’t be terrible to have 250 copies of a book but to be responsible for negotiating and handling distribution of those books as a two-person team? No thanks.

Plus any loan will have service fees and interest which will inflate the cost of our books.

If I’m only going to use one service, which one should I use?

After looking at multiple services, we went with IngramSpark.

Honestly, it was the only service that would allow us to distribute our books while also maintaining a cost point that we found reasonable. In large part, this has to do with wholesale discounting in the distribution process. The industry “standard” is to discount a book 55%. IngramSpark allows you to modify this and select smaller discounts.

What is this wholesale discount thing?

Here’s a chart detailing print pricing for “I Pooped And It Was Amazing”.

In this you can see that our US retail price is $24.99 but our publisher compensation is only $2.80. If it costs $11 to print this book and we’re going to make $2.80 from each sale – Where does the other $11.19 dollars go?

It goes to the bookstore. This is due to the 45% wholesale discount we allowed (Ingram recommends giving a 55% wholesale discount, by the way.)

When investigating distribution services, we found that IngramSpark was the only feasible option for us with hardcover, premium color books. Other services don’t allow any variance in the wholesale discount which resulted in having to set retail prices much higher than we wanted just so we could be in the black and not owe people for buying our book.

Print costs + wholesale discounts are very high for hardcovers, especially premium color hardcovers, and that cost varies wildly with different services. The book that cost $11 to print with IngramSpark cost $20 to print through Lulu. The cost was even higher with Blurb and BookBaby.

For completeness and fairness, I also want to point out that distributing a single print book through IngramSpark costs $49 today. (And if you have multiple versions, say a hardcover and softcover, they would each have this cost.) However, with Ingram you retain 100% of your publisher compensation.

Lulu, on the other hand, does not charge you an upfront fee but employs royalty sharing. Over a longer period of time, royalty splits aren’t ideal. Sure, you can get to market for cheaper, but do you really want to share 20% of your profits indefinitely?

What should I set my wholesale discount at?

We set our discounts differently on every product. We tried to strike a balance between allowing for a discount and guaranteeing at least $1 in publisher compensation per book.

It’s hard to know where to set this, and it mostly depends on your goals and business plan. If you plan on going “door-to-door” and talking to local libraries and bookstores about stocking your book, they can buy directly from you and you can tailor that price. But if you’re expecting these businesses to search the Ingram database to find your book, then the most attractive books will be the ones with the biggest discount and friendliest return policy.

What’s that about book returns now?

When setting up distribution, in addition to setting a wholesale discount percentage, we also had to choose whether or not our books would be returnable. Although it may hurt our chances of a bookstore agreeing to stock our product, we had to consider this: If we allow our books to be returned then we become responsible for the printing cost of any returned books.

Consider this example: 

Bookstore A sees our collection of books and buys 100 copies of those books. Using the numbers above, the retailer is spending about $14 each for a total of $1400. Now, let’s say they put these books up for sale. After a few months, they still have 80 copies of our books and decide they don’t want to continue selling them. So they return them to IngramSpark who can then either a) destroy the books or b) ship them to us, the publisher.

For either of those options, we would be responsible for 80 books and their $11 print cost, $880, plus an additional shipping charge if we want those books shipped to us instead of destroyed.

Allowing returns, then, is a huge unknown risk for our business. Until we have capital in reserve to account for this type of risk, returns are not an option. Therefore, retailers are most likely not going to stock our book on their shelves.

*Retailer returns are not to be confused with consumer returns. If you purchase one of our books through any of the bookstores noted and it is not printed to the quality expected, you can absolutely return it for a new copy or credit at that store.*

What about distributing ebooks?

As it relates to ebooks, Draft2Digital was still the best choice in getting our ebooks to non-Amazon storefronts even though they use the royalty sharing model.

For what it’s worth, though, their model is superior to most because they’ll actually help you with formatting. We produced our own EPUBs for distribution but if you are not sure how to do this, you can upload a text document to this team and they’ll do the work for you. For an independent author, they can also handle distribution to Amazon, giving you a single place to manage your distribution. 

You can also schedule promotional pricing for your ebooks to temporarily drop the price of your books. In short, it gives you the most flexibility and they have a great support team. It’s 100% worth checking out.

Do traditional publishers leverage print-on-demand?

It seems logical that after an initial run of books or after a set period of time, a book would be transitioned to print-on-demand. This allows for the publisher to continue selling titles without maintaining a massive inventory. Ingram markets Lightning Source to publishers for this exact purpose.

Let’s take this opportunity to clarify some of the terms that might be getting used interchangeably:

  • Ingram Content Group is a conglomerate of services targeted towards authors and publishers.
  • IngramSpark is the self-publishing arm of Ingram Content Group
  • Lightning Source is the printing arm of Ingram Content Group used by IngramSpark and others. In fact, this is the same printer that you get if you leverage Barnes and Noble Press for your self-publishing.
  • Ingram ID is their advertising arm that will help you deliver ads to verified readers.

They offer more services than this but these are the services we’ve investigated so far. Another service was Aerio, which was a great digital storefront service, but it was shut down in January.

Wrapping Up

We’ve learned a lot through this process and made a bunch of mistakes. Initial designs on some books were done completely wrong, requiring wholly redoing layouts. We wasted an ISBN because of choices we made in the publishing process. We’ve had a ton of delays because of the multiple Bowker accounts. Because of our excitement and dive-right-in attitudes, practically nothing went smoothly at first.

So take it from us, do a little research up front. Actually, do a lot of research. Or just keep reading our blog, as we’ll discuss everything we learn along the way – the good AND the bad. 😉

Thanks so much for reading this week and stay tuned for our next post in the series where we will talk about the fun part: making money. Follow us here, on Facebook, or LinkedIn to make sure you get notified as these posts are released.


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