Distribution is possibly the most misunderstood term in publishing, and one which is particularly misunderstood by self publishers, especially those who choose print on demand. Certain of the less scrupulous companies play on this by advertising that books published by them will be distributed by such and such companies and available through up to 10,000 retail outlets. This is a myth that the wise self publisher will see through. Education and self responsibility are as always the key.

Most print on demand providers offer distribution in the UK through Bertrams and Gardners and in the US through Ingrams and Baker and Taylor. What this means in practical terms is that the publisher has accounts with each of these distributors to supply their books to the retail trade – it does not mean that the books will be on the shelves, but simply listed on a database to which retailers have access. The aforementioned retailers, who also have accounts with these distributors, can then order the books.

This is well and good, but what the majority of self publishers do not realise is that unlike the major publishers, who bring out hundreds or even thousands of books each year, self publishers books do not have access to sales reps that hawk the books around the stores, neither will they in the majority of cases, be warehoused, but sold as what are termed “special orders”, i.e. books are supplied by the publisher to the distributor on an ad hoc basis as and when required rather than being kept in stock. This is largely because such books tend to sell in very small numbers, but also because print on demand companies in the main cannot accommodate the risk of returns, not to mention, stretch to the extra discount that would be required.

The true definition of distribution is not that the book is simply listed on a database, but that that it is offered alongside other titles on a seasonal list of titles prepared by the distributor to be presented to retailers about six months prior to publication. Because of the short lead times (it takes an average of three months for a typical print on demand book to go through the various processes of publication) for most print on demand books, this is impossible, not withstanding the reasons already mentioned above.

The distributor will of course require a discount for providing such services (they are after all in business to make money, just like you are). Such discounts are not negotiable and are typically between 40 and 60 percent depending upon the level of service requested.

It is crucial that the self publisher understands and gets to grips with the supply chain if they are to have any level of success at all and there is no excuse for ignorance – it is definitely not bliss. Ignore this advice at your peril.