Distribution is a thorny problem for many small publishers. This section aimed to disentangle some of the confusion around the subject with four questions about wholesalers, retailers, and direct sales:
Unfortunately, the results were somewhat inconclusive, as the analysis below will demonstrate. It may be that publishers’ distribution arrangements are at present too complex to be reducible to survey responses capable of tabulation.
Over 85% of respondents outsource at least some portion of their distribution, with over half outsourcing it entirely. The survey was not able to investigate which external partners were used for distribution at any higher level of granularity; however, some information can be inferred from the following questions on wholesale and retail distribution.
There appears to be significant confusion among small publishers as to the wholesalers through which their ebooks are being distributed. A number of publishers reported dealing with multiple wholesalers which are more likely to be dealing with one another than with the publisher directly (such as Faber Factory, which manages distribution for its clients), while others reported only a single wholesaler. This question could perhaps have been more clearly phrased.
Part of the reason for this confusion is no doubt that the boundaries between distributors, wholesalers, and retailers are much blurrier in the digital space. Indeed, OverDrive perhaps should not have been listed as a wholesaler, given that its business model is centred on enterprise-level contracts with libraries rather than sales to retailers as they are traditionally defined. Nevertheless, its strong representation in this chart is a mark of libraries’ centrality to ebook sales: as Aptara notes, ‘[d]espite some controversy over distributing eBooks to libraries, especially in the Trade sector, most publishers (57%) are doing so.’ (2012, p. 27)
One interesting aspect of the increased availability of self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Apple’s iTunes Connect is the extent to which small publishers are using them to replace traditional wholesale arrangements.
The word ‘directly’ in the question was intended to indicate that publishers should not mention retailers to which their books are already distributed by their wholesale partners, but given that over half of respondents reported distributing ‘directly’ to Amazon – even though only around a quarter were uninvolved in a wholesale arrangement or unsure about one – it seems likely that this question was misinterpreted to some extent.
An interesting comparison can be made here with data gathered by Aptara.
Despite the geographical differences and the fact that over three years have elapsed between the collection of Aptara’s data and my own, the market shares for the major retailers are broadly similar: Amazon as the clear leader – a position it has maintained since Aptara’s first survey in 2009 – followed by Apple and Kobo (Aptara, 2012, p. 14). Amazon is generally thought to control 70% of the ebook market worldwide (Bhaskar, 2013, loc. 1058). Interestingly, Nook has lost significant ground since the Aptara survey, while Google has gained market share.
To complete the distribution picture, respondents were asked whether they sell ebooks directly from their website. Around a third of respondents responded in the affirmative. There did not appear to be a strong relationship between a publisher’s size and a decision to sell ebooks directly. When compared with Aptara’s data at Figure 30 above, it can be seen that publishers are increasingly likely to be making sales directly from their own website or specialised ecommerce site (2012). However, direct sales are not without their difficulties: earlier this year independent publisher Deborah Emin wrote a piece for Publishing Perspectives on the difficulties she encountered selling ebooks exclusively through her website, which eventually led her to partner with a digital distributor.