Self-Publishing 101 — Step 4: Ebook Distribution

This article is part 5 of 5 in the series Self-Publishing 101

Self-publishing 101: How to Self-Publish a Book or Ebook

Are ebooks a passing fad?

There was once a time when self-publishing meant vanity publishing. Instead of a traditional publishing house paying you to publish your book, vanity publishing meant you were paying to have your book printed.

Much of the stigma attached to self-publishing comes from this era. Part of the stigma grew from the fact that vanity-published books were not vetted by the gatekeepers at a publishing house—whether large or small—and therefore did not benefit from editing, professional cover design, typesetting, and marketing.

The advent of desktop publishing began to change all that, but the real paradigm shift came with the creation of ebooks.

Ebooks are not new. The concept dates back to at least the 1930’s, and there was work done in the 1960’s to begin building hypertext documents. Even television shows in the late 60’s, namely Star Trek, predicted the rise of a tablet-like device on which people could read and write. The beginnings of Project Gutenberg date back to the early 70’s, and the first commercially available device that could read an electronic book was the Sony Data Discman in 1992.

But it’s only in recent years that the promise of ebooks has come to true fruition, and the rise has been rapid. E-ink technology made serious advances in the late 90’s which led to the Sony Librie in 2004, the Sony Reader in 2006, and finally the Amazon Kindle in 2007 (which was so popular that the original Kindle sold out in the first five hours).

Unless you’ve not been paying attention at all, you’ve seen the recent glut of devices capable of reading ebooks. Besides personal computers themselves, you’ve had the additions of Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Kobo, the Apple iPad, numerous Android tablets, the Kindle Fire, and other lesser-known devices too numerous to list here. Let’s also not forget that almost any smartphone can read ebooks as well.

Not sure that ebooks are worth your time? Listen to this. In July 2010, Amazon—who was already the world’s largest book retailer—reported that they sold more ebooks than hardcovers during the second quarter of the year. By January 2011, ebook sales at Amazon had even surpassed paperback sales. Now keep in mind that this was only at Amazon. Overall, paperback sales in the United States still outpace ebooks.

But for how long?

Where Should I Distribute?

The Publisher You Can’t Ignore

Here’s where the second, and possibly largest, aspect of self-publishing’s stigma begins to be erased. Back in the vanity print publishing days, most self-published authors could only print up a bunch of their books in bulk, buy them from their printer, then schlep them across the country at their own expense and try to sell them from the trunk of their car.

Amazon almost single-handedly changed that equation when they allowed self-published authors to create, upload, and sell their books via the Kindle ecosystem. This gave self-publishers something they’d never had before.


I’m setting Amazon aside in its own category because it’s by far the biggest player in the ebook world—at least it is currently. Ignore their platform at your peril. There are many successful self-published authors who have distributed exclusively through Amazon’s KDP Select program and have made five, six, or seven figures doing so. I’m not suggesting you will as well, and neither am I suggesting you go the Amazon-only route. What I am suggesting is that you inform yourself and understand the pros and cons as best you can.

The Basics of Publishing on Amazon

I’ll address Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing more in depth in a later post, but here are the basics you need to get you started. To publish on Amazon Kindle, you need to open up an account here at Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. (I’m skipping ahead a bit and assuming you’ve already prepared your document for upload, or have converted it to Kindle (mobi) format, or have hired someone to do so. If you don’t know how to go about doing any of these things, I’ll also cover those items in a future post.)

Once you’ve uploaded your book to Amazon, it soon becomes available for sale on—available for anyone who owns a Kindle-compatible device to purchase and read. Remember, this isn’t only Kindle devices, but also iPads, iPods, iPhones, Android tablets and phones, and personal computers as well. Literally millions of people have the ability to read your book almost instantly. And did I mention Amazon’s distribution is almost worldwide?

When you have an account with Kindle Direct Publishing, you will also have access to Amazon’s KDP Select program. There’s been much talk about the program’s changes of late, but I still think the advantages are worth giving serious consideration. In short, the KDP Select program lets you earn a commission from borrows of your book (through Amazon Prime), and allows you to promote your book as a free download five days each quarter. I did this with my debut novel and have been pleased with the results.

One very notable restriction with participation in the KDP Select program is that while you are enrolled, the content of your ebook cannot be available in electronic format anywhere else.

The Other Distribution Players

While Amazon may be the biggest name in ebook self-publishing, they’re not the only players. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the other options you should give serious consideration.

  • PubIt by Barnes & Noble – To publish directly to the Nook, you can upload your book to B&N via their PubIt program. In many ways it works similarly to Amazon’s KDP offering, but it has much smaller distribution. Keep an eye on the news about Barnes & Noble and the Nook, however. There are signs that both could be on their last legs. Nook ebooks are in the ePub format.
  • Kobo Writing Life – The Kobo is a device you may or may not have heard of. It’s not tied to any particular bookseller, though you may have seen the device sold in some stores (such as Borders before they went bankrupt). Kobo lets you upload and sell your book through their ecosystem, an ecosystem which has apps available for just about any device. Kobo ebooks are in the ePub format.
  • Apple’s iBookstore – As with nearly all things Apple, the iBookstore looks to be one of the ebook retailers that has continued to grow in the face of Amazon’s dominance and appears will still do well for the foreseeable future. The main problem with getting your book into the iBookstore is how difficult Apple makes the endeavor. You pretty much have two options. The first option is to use their iBooks Author software to create your ePub book, purchase an ISBN for your book through Bowker (which costs over $100), then publish your book only after you’ve filled out their application and been approved to sell your content. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m an Apple fanboy from 1984, but for a company that prides themselves in simplicity, their publishing model is far too complex. The second option is to distribute your book to the iBookstore through an authorized aggregator like Lulu or Smashwords. I explain Smashwords below. Apple iBooks are in the ePub format.

The Utility Knife of Distributors

There’s another option to consider, and it’s called Smashwords. When I first started self-publishing, I was a big fan of Smashwords, but I’m not so much anymore, mainly because I’ve decided to go exclusively with Amazon’s KDP Select program with my own novels. But I may reconsider in the future.

The real advantage to Smashwords is that it’s the easiest way to widely distribute your ebook to several distributors at once—including Apple’s iBookstore. You can simultaneously distribute your book not only to Apple, but also Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, and several others—all through Smashwords. They’ll even supply the ISBN for free, but be aware that your publisher will be listed as Smashwords if you obtain your ISBN through them.

Until recently, Smashwords required you to upload a Word doc version of your manuscript which their Meatgrinder software then converted into all the various formats—HTML, mobi (Kindle), ePub, PDF, RTF, LRF (Sony), PDB (Palm), and plain text. You had no real control over how the final product turned out. This recently changed for the better when Smashwords began accepting uploads of ePub manuscripts, which gives you much more control of the final product.

Do your homework, and then decide if Smashwords is right for you.

The Almost-Print Option of Distribution

There’s one final distribution option I’d like to discuss, and that’s PDF. PDFs are a pretty much a universal format into which you can have your book converted. PDFs can be as simple as text on the page, or they can be elegant documents full of color, interesting fonts, and unique layouts.

But where do you sell PDFs? There are many options. You can sell through a third party website like E-Junkie or Scribd, or you can sell them through a website of your own. If you use WordPress for your website, there are premium plugins that allow you to sell digital content easily from your website.

Summary of Distribution Options

When you consider distribution of your ebook, you obviously have many options. Here’s a quick recap.

  • Amazon (mobi format)
  • Barnes & Noble (ePub format)
  • Kobo (ePub format)
  • Apple iBookstore (ePub format)
  • Smashwords (multiple formats)
  • PDF (then distributed via a third-party or directly through your own website)

P.S. Hire a Professional Before You Distribute

You may be feeling overwhelmed with all the options available. What’s listed above is really only scratching the surface, though I’ve mentioned the major outlets. Do your research and take it one step at a time.

My advice? Once you’ve figured out where you want to distribute your book, hire a professional to help convert your manuscript to the proper formats, especially if you’d like to have an elegantly-designed PDF.

In the next post, we’ll discuss print book distribution. Yes, despite what you may have heard, print isn’t dead—yet.