Self-published books now account for 30% to 40% of ebook sales. Ebooks themselves make up close to 40% of all books sold, and in 2018 they are set to outsell print books in the US. All this bodes well for self-publishing authors, for whom ebooks are the preferred format. They will continue to see a healthy growth in sales as more and more people adopt e-reading. Self-publishers are also benefiting as customers switch over from brick-and-mortar bookstores to online ones like Amazon, which put self-publishers on a level footing with traditional publishers.
If you are still wondering whether to self-publish or take the traditional route, you may read through the pros and cons of each option. In case you decide to self-publish, we have put together a list of publishing service companies that are popular among independent authors. The basic services that these companies provide are manuscript conversion into publishing-ready formats and access to one or more retail platforms. Some companies even offer a range of author solutions such as professional book editing and cover design, enhanced distribution, and marketing and promotional assistance.
But before you go through our list, know about the two main types of publishing service companies: retailers and aggregators.
A publishing company that sells books exclusively through its own retail store is classified as a retailer. Examples include Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and CreateSpace, Apple’s iBookstore, Barnes & Noble’s Press, and Kobe. Some of these companies, however, have launched special programs and partnerships to distribute books to other retailers, e.g., CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution program.
An aggregator not only offers a publishing and retailing platform for ebooks, but also distributes them to a number of partner online retailers and libraries. This helps authors get the widest possible reach, without having to format their book to each publisher’s guidelines and maintain multiple publisher accounts. Aggregators can also get ebooks into channels that authors cannot approach directly; e.g., Scribd, a digital library with a subscription service and more than 80 million users worldwide, does not accept ebooks directly from authors.
For their services, aggregators charge a 10% to 20% commission on sales, over and above the retailer’s own cut.
While the term “aggregator” applies to distributors of ebooks, “distributor” is used for companies that make print books available to brick-and-mortar stores, libraries, and academic institutions, e.g., IngramSpark. Some aggregators, like Lulu and Bookbaby, even distribute and retail print books. Given the degree of overlap and the essential similarity in what they do, both types can be referred to as “distributors.”
The list of companies below follows no particular order. You can choose to publish with one or more of them.
1. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP):
Owned by Amazon, KDP publishes and retails ebooks that can be read on Kindle devices or on devices that have installed the Kindle app. This is one publisher that an independent author cannot afford to ignore: About 80% of all English-language ebook sales occur via Amazon, and self-published titles alone account for 42% of this figure.
If you are willing to grant Amazon exclusive distribution of your ebook for a 90-day period, you can enroll into KDP Select, a marketing program that helps authors promote books largely through discounts and countdown deals. If KDP Select works well for you (and discounting is an effective way to promote sales—as the success of book promotional services like Bookbub shows), you can re-enroll into the program as many times as you want. Participation in KDP Select also makes your book available to subscribers of Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners Lending Library for Amazon Prime members, and you will receive additional payments depending on the number of pages subscribers read.
Kindle ebooks use the .MOBI format, unlike most other publishers who use .EPUB. If you have created your ebook in Word, you can convert it to .MOBI using free conversion software like Calibre.
KDP pays authors royalties of 35% or 70% on the book’s list price.
This is Amazon’s publishing platform for print books and uses print-on-demand publishing, where no stocks are held—a book is printed only when a customer places an order.
Books published with CreateSpace retail exclusively on Amazon, unless the author has opted into their Expanded Distribution program. Under this program, authors can make their books available to online and offline retailers such as Barnes & Noble, and to distributors such as Ingram and Baker & Taylor. On being added to the distributors’ catalogs, the appear in the ordering systems of the distrubutors' network of retailers, libraries, and academic institutions, and can be ordered whenever a customer places a request at any of these places.
Amazon gives customers a better browsing and purchase experience by linking a book’s paperback and digital versions during the publishing process, provided the details of both versions match exactly.
Amazon takes a 40% cut from every regular sale, and 60% from sales made through their Expanded Distribution program. Royalty is paid after deducting Amazon’s commission (40% or 60%), a fixed charge, and a per-page charge from the book’s list price. Note that CreateSpace does not at present offer the hardcover format.
Apple’s iBooks is the second-biggest ebook retailer after Amazon, accounting for 10% of sales in the top 5 countries. Its more than 40 country-specific ebook stores give unique benefits to authors: They can price their books differently in each country depending on the prices of comparable books, and even set prices in the local currency. Moreover, authors can schedule free book and discount offers anytime, and there is no exclusive distribution contract.
To publish directly on iBooks, you must have a Mac device; else you will have to go through an ebook aggregator.
Apple offers a flat 70% royalty rate.
4. Barnes & Noble Press:
Formerly known as NOOK Press, this is a self-publishing portal from Barnes & Noble. It accounts for 3% of ebook sales, almost all of it from the US. It also offers print-on-demand publishing. Books published with Barnes & Noble Press retail only at their online and physical bookstores.
Royalty rates range from 40% to 65%, depending on the price of the book.
An anagram of “book,” Kobo accounts for about 2% of total ebook sales in the top 5 English-language markets combined. It is a significant player in Canada, though, where it accounts for as much as 25% of ebook sales.
Like the Kindle, Kobo offers an e-reading device as well as an app for reading on other devices. Ebooks published with Kobo are available to readers in over 190 countries. It also runs the Kobo eReading Program with the American Booksellers Association, and member bookstores can give their customers access to Kobo’s 5 million+ titles. Kobo also has partnerships with e-book retailers around the world.
Royalty rates are either 45% or 70%, depending on the ebook’s price.
This is a self-publishing service established by Ingram, the world’s leading distributor of print books connected to 39,000 bookstores, libraries, and online retailers in more than 150 countries. IngramSpark also distributes ebooks to all the top online retailers, including Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble.
They publish hardcover books, and even offer a premium level of printing—this is useful for books containing many pictures. They also offer authors a book returns option; authors who opt in stand a better chance of being stocked by brick-and-mortar booksellers, who are otherwise reluctant to carry self-published titles.
IngramSpark charges a 53% commission for sales to bookstores and 30% to online retailers, after deducting book production costs. They also charge a $49 set-up fee and $12 annual fee.
Smashwords is a popular ebook aggregator and distributes ebooks to almost all the top retailers, including Kobo, iBookstore, and Barnes & Noble. They have extensive ebook formatting guidelines that enable easy conversion into the formats required by their multiple retail partners. On the flip side, Smashwords does not distribute to Amazon, and offers no support with ebook formatting. If you need help formatting your ebook, and/or if you would rather publish with an aggregator that also distributes to Amazon, you may be better off publishing with Draft2Digital.
Smashwords takes a 10% cut on books sold through their own retail channel, and 15% on books sold through other retailers—this is in addition to the retailer’s own fees.
Although Draft2Digital has fewer retail partners than Smashwords, it distributes to Amazon and covers all the major ebook retailers. They have another significant advantage—they will format your ebook, and for free. They charge 10% of the retail price at most retailers.
Lulu is one of the oldest online self-publishing companies and a popular distributor of digital and print books. They retail books through their own bookstore as well as distribute to other online stores (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc.) and book distributors (Barnes & Noble and Ingram). Lulu offers both hardcover and paperback formats for print books. Their ebook conversion, publishing, and distribution services are free, but they sell an array of support services including editing, cover design, and book marketing. For books sold through their marketplace, Lulu charges a 20% commission after deducting any book production costs applicable to print copies. Sales generated through partner retailers would additionally attract their own commission.
Bookbaby retails books through their own Bookshop and distributes to other retailers as well. Apart from publishing and distribution, they also sell services such as editing, cover and interior design, and marketing. Services can be purchased individually or as a package. All services are paid. Ebooks earn 100% royalties after deducting the retailer’s commission. Sales made through Bookshop, however, earn 85% royalties. Bookbaby also has a print-on-demand service. Printed books generate royalties between 10% and 30%.
There are other ways to publish and sell, too. For example, you can publish and sell directly to your customers from your own Web page by using Gumroad. You can also crowdfund your book using platforms like Unbound and Inkshares: Pitch or directly post your book/book proposal—as required by the platform, set a funding goal, and create a campaign to get support. If the goal is met, the company will edit, design, publish, distribute, and even market your book like a traditional publisher would.
So which self-publishing platform is best?
Here are a few thinking points:
As Amazon dominates 80% of the ebook market, you should publish directly with KDP rather than go through an aggregator. You could choose an aggregator/distributor for the rest, or even ignore them temporarily if you’re a new author learning the ropes. If you go exclusively with Amazon, you can access their powerful marketing features even as you earn a higher royalty rate. Bear in mind, though, that if the other retailers are excluded indefinitely, your book may never reach its sales potential. After all, Kobo accounts for 25% of the Canadian market, and iBooks for 30% of the Australian and 10% of the overall market. It is best to try out all the major retailers at some point in time, or for some of your books.
If you want to sell print copies, and have signed up with KDP for ebooks, go with CreateSpace for Amazon. Alternatively, you can opt for IngramSpark, Lulu, or Bookbaby because they offer print-on-demand copies as well as distribute to all the major ebook retailers. If you choose the latter, remember to exclude Amazon when you select retailers from your distributor’s list. Print copies cannot be sold without an ISBN, and it is better to get one on your own rather than use the one assigned by your publishing service company.
Some companies may not accept books from authors located outside the US. Royalty payment processes and payment frequency may also differ across companies. Look up the FAQs on the company websites or contact support for specific queries.