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An Annoyed Librarian's Rebuttal

A public librarian explains why some titles don’t make the cut

By Linda May | Mar 01, 2019 - Originally Published in Publishers Weekly March 4, 2019


As the director of a small public library, I read the “Frustrated Patron” Soapbox—in which an author described his attempts to get his local libraries to order his book—in Publishers Weekly’s February 18 issue with a mixture of disbelief and irritation. As someone who ran marketing departments for reference, academic, and adult nonfiction publishers for over 30 years, my eyes rolled to the back of my head. This broadside epitomized the attitude of almost every academic monograph author I have ever met.

Public libraries serve their communities. That means that they always try to provide resources—both print and electronic—that residents of their towns want and need to enrich their lives. In addition to serving as gateways to the largest collections of e-books they can manage, libraries try to keep as many print books on their shelves as possible to meet demand. That last word is important: libraries respond to demand.

We librarians track circulation and interlibrary loan statistics to monitor trends and see what our patrons are calling for most. We read reviews and revisit what we already own to keep up with the best of what is out there, as well as to continue popular series and provide balance to the collection. We do all of this with no personal bias and only from a motive of service.

Just like bookstores, public libraries need to stock the latest bestsellers in fiction and nonfiction; reference books in gardening, cooking, crafts, and history; biographies; autobiographies; graphic novels; YA literature and children’s titles; and on and on. In addition, as much as possible, we try to always have the classics on hand, as well as the titles supporting the curriculum of the local schools. We curate our collections so that even as we acquire new titles from the huge number of books published each year, we retain older books that are of value to our patrons. We do all of this while constrained by budgets that have at best remained flat for years or in too many cases have been cut.

Libraries act as community centers offering makerspaces, educational programs, instruction, computer centers, speakers, and author signings. They subscribe to electronic databases as well as print periodicals. Librarians answer thousands of reference questions of all types each year.

So when an author who wrote a book titled Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914–1918 and priced at $107 drops in and tries to sell us his book, we may be courteous (librarians are always courteous), but we will have little interest.

The minute the author’s publisher put that title on his book, it was doomed to sales of no more than 150 copies to college libraries with a special interest in that very narrow topic. The publisher backed up that decision by pricing it at over $75, putting it out of reach of all but the biggest, most research-centric public libraries. Face it: this book—regardless of how well written it might be—is an academic monograph.

Further evidence of this can be found in the fact that it wasn’t reviewed by PW, Booklist, Library Journal, or any of the other review magazines serving bookstores and public libraries. It would be a waste for the publisher to even mail review copies to any publications save for academic journals and Choice, which serve college libraries.

For years, my marketing colleagues and I tried to beat this thought into the heads of academics who believed that they had created masterpieces that should be available everywhere and land them interviews on morning talk shows. Now that I am on the other side of the fence, in a public library, I have only confirmed the belief I held as a marketer: no way.

The author of Behind the Front, Craig Gibson, brings up the fact that he is a taxpayer and voter. Instead, he should be satisfied that his manuscript was published in the first place, by a company as distinguished as Cambridge University Press. He should be grateful that the publisher sent enough review copies out for it to get the reviews it got from Choice and the other fine academic review journals. And he should be happy that it is available in paperback for college classes and as an e-book for any interested scholars or researchers.

Maybe Gibson should give his local library a copy of his book. And keep paying those taxes so that it can keep meeting the needs of him and his fellow citizens in the many ways it is already.

Linda May, a former publishing executive, is director of the Alexander Hamilton Memorial Free Library in Waynesboro, Pa.

Aggregators Comparison Chart and FAQs

by | Feb 9, 2019

This article will cover the following items:

  • Should I make My eBook Available in other stores?
  • Who to choose?
  • What to look for
  • Why?

eBook distribution options in 2019 have expanded greatly the past two years. There are scores of online eBook retailers around the world and eBook aggregators abound to help self-publishers easily make their book available for sale.

Highlights of market developments in this 2019 round-up post include:

  • At least 3 services now claim to distribute your eBook to more than 150 online retailers.
  • One company, PublishDrive, offers a choice of fee or commission-based payment.
  • IngramSpark greatly scaled back their eBook distribution network.
  • Bookbaby has integrated KDP Select management into their publishing portal.
  • At least 3 companies in our directory of eBook distributors also offer some form of audiobook distribution.

In other words, despite Amazon’s continued domination of the market for eBooks there is no shortage of third-party services intent on competing. In fact, I see the next battleground as audiobook distribution since the EU forced Amazon and Apple to dissolve their partnership.

This 2019 eBook distribution round-up of aggregators tells you what you need to know to navigate these sometimes-tricky waters:

  • Definitions of key terms
  • An explanation of aggregator vs. direct distribution
  • A decision guide
  • A comparison chart of 11 established eBook aggregators
  • And finally, frequently asked questions

Keep in mind that this round-up is meant to help self-publishers, especially self-publishers of eBooks. Larger publishers and self-publishers with lots of print titles have other options. The market for digital media distribution gets more sophisticated every year so there are service providers serving different market niches.

If after reading this you are still confused about what to do, drop your question in the comments box.


Unlike the Byzantine world of print book distribution, eBook distribution is an outgrowth of the modern digital media distribution put in place to handle music, apps and other types of digital products that came before modern (non-PDF) eBooks.

What is eBook distribution?

eBook distribution is the process of making an eBook available for download from an online retailer. Distribution can be made directly to an online retailer (assuming they have a self-service portal), or via an eBook aggregator, or some combination.

What is an eBook aggregator?

An eBook aggregator receives an eBook, and distributes that file to more than one online retailer (e.g. Amazon, Apple, B&N). They make money by charging fees, or keeping a percentage of sales. Services and capabilities vary, as do the online stores each eBook aggregator will service. eBook aggregators typically specialize in markets, such as self-publishers (authors) vs. traditional publishers.

What is direct eBook distribution?

Direct eBook distribution is when a publisher or self-publisher submits their eBook directly to a store for sale online. Examples of stores are Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble (links in the second table below).

What is the best eBook distribution method?

This depends on five considerations:

  1. Cost
  2. Convenience
  3. Royalty payments
  4. Book metadata* management
  5. Ease of making changes

This table and the video that follows illustrates the 5 considerations used to evaluate going direct vs. using an eBook aggregator.

*Metadata: information that describes your book such as title, price, ISBN, description, categories, etc.
Consideration Using Aggregators Going Direct
Cost Fee and/or percent of sales. Free
Convenience One account to learn and manage. Must learn and manage each account.
Payment Delays. Stores pay aggregator, aggregator pays you No delays.
Metadata* “One size fits all”; no ability to customize for each store, or take advantage of marketing features offered by a store. Customize for each store.
Changes Delays. Aggregator tells store, store makes change. Possible charges or limits. No delays, no costs, no limits.
Showing 1 to 5 of 5 entries


How to decide the best way to distribute your eBook

It’s not as hard as it seems. Begin with this bottom line consideration: which store or stores sell the most eBooks?

Think of it this way: if 100% of sales were with one store it wouldn’t matter how many other stores there are, right? Following this logic, you want to go direct with the store(s) that sell the most books and use aggregators for the others. It simply isn’t worth your time to chase (currently) measly sales from stores that won’t provide a return on your investment.

You also make more money since aggregators charge a fee or take a percentage of your sales as payment.

Here’s a plan that applies to virtually all one-book authors, and perhaps many multi-book authors.

  1. Go direct with Amazon. I can’t think of a situation where an author would use an aggregator to reach the Kindle store. You get full control, maximum available royalties, and besides, they sell most of the eBooks.
  2. Are you comfortable using online tools and websites, and interested in maximum control? Also go direct with B&N and Kobo.
  3. Same criteria as number 2, and do you have a Mac? Go direct with Apple. (The software Apple supplies for uploading your EPUB file only runs on a Mac. Once uploaded, you can access reports and make metadata changes using a web browser.)

These four stores control approximately 90% of the US eBook market, likely higher.

How to pay? Fee or commission?

The next question to ask yourself is: would you rather pay a flat fee, or give up a percentage of sales in the form of a commission? Note that this percentage is in addition to the sales commission that each store takes before paying your aggregator, who then pays you.

This one is tricky. If you sell a lot of eBooks, the percent of sales can exceed a flat rate arrangement and eats into profits. On the other hand, paying a flat rate and then selling 5 eBooks can be an expensive proposition.

One school of thought is that a distributor that works on commision is incentivized to help you sell books (they make more money). But this makes no sense! Aggregators simply automate the process of distributing your eBook to a store. Distribution isn’t the same as marketing.

Complicating your plans, some on my list below charge a fee and charge a commission.

The good news is that there is one company that leaves it up to you, PublishDrive. They offer you a choice of paying a fee or a commission. And best of all, allow you to switch between the two options anytime as your sales go up or down.

Choosing an aggregator

I suggest visiting each website to get a feel for how they work, their fees and the stores they support. Read their policies and look at the features important to you.

  • For example, if you write more “edgy” books, Smashwords has a thriving online store that competes with the best of them. They also have terrific sales tools.
  • Others have extensive reach to international retailers.
  • A few also offer services.

The Bottom Line

Go direct where possible, add one aggregator for the balance. You can always change things around later as you get more comfortable managing your accounts. Btw, be sure to read my FAQ about using an ISBN provided by an aggregator.

Comparison of eBook Distributors

As noted earlier, there are 5 considerations when evaluating distribution: cost, convenience, royalty payments, ease of updating metadata, and how easy the service is to use. And some features and capabilities change from year-to-year. Rather than try to classify every difference, I’ve zeroed in on the core features and then link you to that service for more details.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to cost + convenience vs. control + reach (who they distribute to). There are trade-offs. Just don’t forget that most sales will be on Amazon, and to a lesser extent Apple and B&N. See below for my caveats about potential sales.

eBook distributors vs. publishing services companies

A final note about this table. Many publishing services companies offer eBook distribution. However, with the exception of Bookbaby it is not a core service and in fact they may require you (or hound you!) to buy other services such as eBook conversion, print book design and distribution, or book marketing. Examples of these companies include Blurb, eBooks2go, Fastpencil, Lulu, and Outskirts.

Is eBook distribution with these companies a “throw in” or loss leader? This can be good or bad depending on your requirements and preferences. There is no free lunch! (These companies are not profiled below.)

Instructions for using the table

  • Click the green dot with the + sign for more details about each aggregator.
  • BYO for ISBNs means you can Bring Your Own ISBN.
  • The major eBook sellers named at the top of the table link to their self-service publishing portal.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need an ISBN to distribute an eBook?
The requirement for an ISBN is up to the store or aggregator service you are using. The major stores with self-service portals do not require an ISBN. All the aggregators in the above list do require an ISBN because it serves as sort of a SKU—stock keeping unit—to track sales and do reporting. If you already own an ISBN, my advice is to use it. As always, owning your ISBN allows you to control your brand.
Can I use the aggregator’s ISBN if I leave or change aggregators?
No. Read the aggregator’s fine print and you’ll see you cannot “take it with you” if you leave, or use it if you wish to supplement distribution with another aggregator. For this reason, I strongly advise buying ISBNs ( if you plan to use an aggregator, and certainly if you are publishing more than one book.
How does print book distribution differ from eBook distribution?
Self-publishers will find they have far more options for eBook distribution than they do for print. That’s because there is a near zero cost to deliver and maintain an inventory and there is a modern and robust digital distribution infrastructure in place to serve other media such as music and apps.
Why is my book not showing in every store claimed by the aggregator?

In my experience it is up to each individual store as to whether they will sell your eBook. For example, IngramSpark used to claim support for 63 stores—points of distribution—but my client’s books were never “stocked” by all 63 stores. Now we see they have reduced their distribution to around 20 stores. Others that claim to put your book in 150 stores (eBookPartnership, Feiyr, Streetlib) may be hard pressed to prove this is the case.

What happens if I decide to change aggregators?
Read their rules. If they gave you a free ISBN, you will most likely not (legally) be able to continue to use it. There may also be waiting periods.
What happens if I want to join KDP Select?

This would require you to remove your eBook from the other stores. It may also require you to establish your own KDP account if you were using an aggregator for Amazon distribution. Again, read the rules before you sign-up. Update: Bookbaby says you can use their service to manage your KDP Select account.

Should I choose a company that handles both eBook and print book distribution?

There is no quick or simple answer. My general rule is to treat each of these independently whenever possible, but that’s because I value control over convenience. The only really serious offering in this regard is IngramSpark, and when I use them for eBook distribution, I always exclude Amazon and Apple from their eBook distribution.

Which eBook file (Mobi, EPUB, PDF) do I use with each store?
Easy: Mobi for Amazon (KDP), and EPUB for everyone else. None of these aggregators will distribute your PDF to be sold in their partner stores.
Is it better to pay upfront, or a percent of sales?
If you sell a lot of eBooks, paying up front will be less expensive in the long run.
Can I distribute a public domain book?
Read the terms of service for each company. In the early days of eBooks there was a rush to publish public domain eBooks but stores have since implemented limits on this.
How do I distribute eBooks for free?

The major eBook retailers—Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing/KDP), Apple (iBookstore), Barnes & Noble (Nook), Google (Play), Kobo (Writing Life)—have self-service portals that are free for self-publishers to use. You make the most money when you “go direct” with these stores because there is no third-party (aggregator) to pay.

Your mileage may vary: 8 caveats to forecasting sales

  1. Regular readers of eBooks tend to be loyal to one store.
  2. Promotions and metadata changes can help with short-term boosts, but store sales rankings are most influenced by sales and reviews.
  3. A store can help by sending shoppers to your book, but they won’t keep showing them a book that isn’t selling.
  4. Authors with books that appeal to audiences in other countries should make sure their book is also in the Apple and Kobo stores. (These two companies have more country-specific stores than Amazon.)
  5. In my experience, the fewer the books an author has, the more their sales will be concentrated on Amazon.
  6. Unless an author has a broad platform of readers, they will do better by concentrating on a single store. At least until sales become self-sustaining or they begin store-specific marketing programs.
  7. Chicken and egg: If you don’t sell in numerous stores, you won’t increase your reach to new readers. At the same time, distribution is not the same as marketing. Sales outside Amazon happen when you focus on marketing programs that target the readers shopping in those stores.
  8. The above caveats may not hold true if you sell eBooks from your website (direct to readers). Your success selling direct to readers is a function of your website’s traffic, your mailing list, and your social media reach.

What aggregators have you tried? Have you had success you can share? What’s more important, convenience or control? Drop your comments in the box below.

 Photo by Josip Ivankovic on Unsplash

In Feature Articles for Publishing Perspective on January 7, 2019

In Russia, a government plan to provide lower-cost retail sites to independent booksellers at state cultural facilities may help smaller bookstores survive.

By Eugene Gerden

Retail Sites at Theaters, Museums, Libraries

According to statements from officials of Moscow’s science and culture ministry, independent bookstores in Russia can anticipate new levels of support this year.

A broad list of planned support measures has been discussed, the most important being to provide booksellers with special properties at which they can open new retail locations. According to state plans, these sites will be designated inside the facilities of state theaters, museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions. They’re to be made available to booksellers at deeply discounted rental rates.

Government statements indicate that support of independent booksellers this year is one of the state’s priority targets in the field of book publishing, a recognition that large chain bookstores are creating formidable competition for independents. As Publishing Perspectives has reported, bookstore chains have announced major expansions and many are under the ownership of some of the country’s largest publishing companies.

Alla Manilova, deputy minister of culture, tells Publishing Perspectives that the rental rates offered to independent booksellers for the new retail sites will be based on the costs of janitorial services, housing, and communal expenses.

Several publishing observers are welcoming the new initiative, particularly in recognition of its placement of bookselling outlets near other cultural hubs.

Since 1989, the number of independent bookstores in Russia is reported to have been in steady decline. Despite the expansion of chain operations, the country is said to have one bookstore for every 50,000 people, while comparable European Union estimates are of one store for every 5,000 citizens.

High rental rates are frequently cited as a major problem, the cost of retail space accounting for some 35 percent of a bookstore’s budget, something independent store owners say is a major impediment to opening additional locations. Since 2008, average book prices in the country have already grown by some 40 percent, suggesting that price increases aren’t an option.

Speculative figures attached to the statements of intent for the new year estimate that as many as 10,000 jobs could be created by the anticipated expansion of independent retail sites.

Booksellers Welcome Promises of New Aid

Lyubov Bialiatskaya, co-founder of a Vse Svobodny, a bookstore in St. Petersburg, calls the idea of new retail sites in cultural centers “beautiful” for readers and critical for booksellers operating outside of the large chains. She agrees with assessments that high rent is among shop owners’ most daunting challenges.

Nevertheless, there is criticism, too, of the announced state initiative.

Elena Yampolskaya, chairperson of the committee on culture for the Duma, says she believes that the latest state proposal in its current form, may contribute to a growth of corruption in the industry, and will not provide any help to independent booksellers.

Yampolskaya tells Publishing Perspectives that there are no guarantees that these preferential retail areas at cultural facilities won’t be snapped up by bookstore chains or by companies affiliated with them.

Her concern, however, isn’t shared by Boris Kupriyanov, co-founder of the publisher Phalanster, who says that even the occupation of the specially allocated premises by large bookstore chains will contribute to the overall development of the book industry and its sales sector.

In addition to the announced intention of the government to make new retail sites available, there are to be special grants and tax benefits extended to local publishers, funded by regional budgets and provided to booksellers, as well.