An Argument in Favor of Using a Distributor to Publish Books to Retailers

It seems that lately the same question has been popping up: should authors use a distributor (like Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital) OR should they upload directly to as many retailers as they can. Today, I’m going to give my two cents on the issue. I think using a distributor is the best long-term strategy.

one way leading to many
ID 81599191 © Arkadi Bojaršinov | Dreamstime.com

For the record, I do go direct to Amazon and Google Play. For one, I was with Amazon before I was with Smashwords. So I already had an account there. Also, Amazon and Smashwords don’t have the best relationship, which means you pretty much have to publish on Amazon if you’re with Smashwords. As for Google Play, Smashwords doesn’t have an agreement to distribute to them.  So no, I’m 100% with a distributor. There are situations where you need to go direct. For my pen name, I’m using Draft 2 Digital (D2D), and I do use it to distribute everywhere, except Google Play since D2D doesn’t have an agreement with them, either.

I say all of the above for this reason: I’m not against the idea of uploading directly to each and every retailer out there. I just think it makes a lot more sense to use a distributor because it helps to simplify your life. Below, I’m going to explain why I’ve come to this conclusion.

1. The more books you have, the harder it is to juggle the updates you might want to make.

I currently have 80 books up on Smashwords. A couple of those are pre-orders. I have been going through and systematically updating interior files and covers to make them more modern. Back in 2009-2012, you could get away with substandard ebook covers and poor formatting. I think part of this was due to the fact that indie publishing was still new. We didn’t have the services there are available today for the indie author. Most of us starting out had to figure out how to do this stuff on our own. And, because of that, things weren’t as professional looking as is the norm today.

Since I have 80 books, it would be a nightmare to have to go to B&N, Kobo, and iBooks and upload new files and covers to keep things up-to-date. I already have to do this at Amazon. Fortunately, I just got into Google Play this year, so everything will already be polished up. Using Smashwords to send out these improvements to as many retailers as I can is a huge time saver. I made a post on how to format books that will get you approved for premium distribution in Smashwords.

So if you’re looking to simplify your life so you can have more time to write, I highly recommend using as distributor.

And this brings me to an argument I often hear: “You make more money per sale if you distribute to each place yourself. Smashwords and D2D will take a percentage of the royalty.” To which, I answer…

2. Your best money-making opportunity is in writing the next book.

I don’t earn any more sales on a book because I change a cover or update my interior formatting. I might get a small boost in a cover change, but it’s not lasting. Likewise, any ads I run are short-term boosts as well. Social media probably helps to a point, but nothing beats a new book. The only thing I’ve been able to do over the long-term that has kept me afloat in this ever-changing publishing landscape is to consistently get new books out. That means my time is best spent writing the next book.

Someone might say, “You can hire an author assistant to manage the multiple retailers for you.” But how is that going to save me money? I thought the whole point of uploading directly to B&N, Kobo, and iBooks is that you get to make more money per book sold. If I’m paying someone to handle individual retailers for me, I’m not making more money per book. I’m probably going to break even or even lose money. So from a financial standpoint, it’s worth paying Smashwords or D2D a portion of my royalties to handle that aspect of publishing for me.

For authors who are making a ton of money, I can see using an assistant to upload directly to each retailer. I, however, don’t make the kind of money that would make hiring an assistant worth it.

And at this point, someone is probably thinking, “Well, I don’t have 80 books. I only have a couple. So what’s the harm in managing those on individual retailers?”

And this makes me ask…

3. What are your long-term goals?

If you write slowly or don’t plan to publish many books, then I agree uploading to each retailer and maintaining the books on them is fine. The less books you have, the easier it is to manage them.

The opposite argument, however, is also true. The more books you have, the harder it is to manage them all. There are only so many hours in the day. I have uploaded books directly to B&N and Kobo. (I’ve always used Smashwords for the other retailers.) Yes, Kobo is very user-friendly and easy. B&N isn’t too bad, either. But taking the time to make changes to each and every version that’s on a different retailer is time-consuming. Since I didn’t ever put all of my books on B&N or Kobo directly, I even forgot which books were direct and which were through Smashwords. It was hard to juggle new writing projects while trying to keep updates on all of the retailers.  My stress level went significantly down once I let Smashwords handle all B&N and Kobo books for me.

If you don’t plan on having a lot of books out AND you have the time to handle things on each retailer, then it makes sense to do that. If, however, your goal is to end up with a big backlist, then you might want to think about what a pain it would be to manage price changes, book description changes, cover changes, and interior file changes on all of those retailers. Sometimes authors go back and update an entire series. (I’ve done this.) That alone takes out a large chunk of your time. I gave up and delisted all of my books on B&N and Kobo. Then I went to Smashwords and let them distribute to B&N and Kobo for me. I made the mistake of not thinking longterm with my backlist.

Another possible argument is this: “If you go direct to a retailer, you can take advantage of special promotions a distributor won’t give you.”

My answer…

4. Sometimes distributors offer special promotions, too.

Yes, you can take advantage of special promotional opportunities if you go direct to places like Kobo and iBooks. I won’t argue this because it’s a valid point. However, Smashwords has offered me and other authors special promotional opportunities, and these opportunities have included Kobo and iBooks.

How do we land these deals with Smashwords? I think a large part of it has to do with a track record of staying wide (meaning no KU) and having all of your books (or at least most of them) with Smashwords. I think part of it also has to do with running pre-orders and using the marketing ideas Mark Coker talks about in his podcast and in his book. I think there are a cumulation of different things authors probably need to do to get Smashwords’ attention.

I’m not familiar with D2D and how they work, so I can’t say how they run things. I’ve only been with them since late last year with my pen name. But I’ve been with Smashwords since 2009.

Now, do these promotions means tons of money? Not necessarily. I’ve seen small boosts, but it hasn’t been anything to skyrocket my sales longterm. But I have yet to hear of an author whose sales skyrocketed for the longterm because they ran a special promotion directly on Kobo or iBooks. Even with Amazon ads, authors are told they need to keep running them. I think this is just the nature of the business. Ads and special promotions are good for short-term boosts, but you can’t run one ad or promotion and expect results forever and ever.

I truly believe the best way to keep making money longterm is to write more books. Even if you had a breakout year, if you’re not writing more books, eventually, sales will go down. This is the nature of publishing. There is not a single book ever written that has been #1 forever. Some books will rise higher in the tide than others and continue selling, but you can’t keep a book at #1 indefinitely. There will be another book to take its place.

New stuff is going to be more attractive than older stuff. That doesn’t mean the backlist isn’t important. It is. Let’s say you have 10 books that haven’t moved much in terms of sales. Then suddenly you put out Book 11, and for some reason, this is the one that takes off. Those fans of Book 11 are going to look for your other books. The problem is that no author can predict which book is going to sell better than another. If I knew which of my books would sell better, I’d only write those. But I don’t. So I write and publish and hope something sticks.

Keeping things realistic.

I know this is hard to accept in the age when we’re surrounded by success stories of authors making $50K a month in KU, but the truth is, most authors aren’t banking in that kind of money. I don’t. Even at my peak, I never did, but then I never went into KU. I stayed wide the entire time. I have earned a living, and for that I’m grateful. Money doesn’t always go up. Sometimes it goes down. Sometimes it goes back up. This whole business is a rollercoaster ride. There are so many variables involved in this whole thing that it’s impossible to point to one or two strategies and say that’s the magic formula.

At the end of the day, the best question is, “How do you want to spend your time?” As I pointed out above, I can see situations where going to each retailer makes sense, but there are also times when it doesn’t. Only you can decide the best course for your business.