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Checking up on book distributors

Posted in Distribution, and Just for Writers

So, you've gone wide and international with your ebook distribution, and your print edition is in Ingram's database, making it available to a fair chunk of the world's bookstores, both physical and online. Your dashboards that list your titles with your various distributors all look fine and dandy. You given them your books, and they're making sure they're getting into the world's bookstores.

Time to sit back, proud of your books' availability in online stores all over the world, right?

If only it were that simple.

How are my distributors doing?

It’s not easy to figure that out.

I've been trying to sort out my various distribution options recently as I retire a couple of distributors and take on new ones. It's a confusing area, and the lists you can get of their channel partners are not always current or complete. I was focused on who had the best reach, or reached unique retailers, with reasonable returns and the ability to turn channels on and off to avoid duplication.

I get to retailers in a variety of ways.

Ebooks

  • Direct from my website (ecommerce). Gumroad (in several formats).
  • Direct upload. Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble. If I could (no Mac), this would include Apple iBooks.
  • Hybrid (storefront & distribution). Smashwords.
  • Distributor. PublishDrive, Streetlib (coming soon).

Of these, I use PublishDrive to reach every channel (including Apple iBooks and Google Play) that I don't go to directly. I restrict Smashwords to its storefront and its unique partners only. PublishDrive, Streetlib, and Smashwords all let you select or disable individual partner channels to avoid overlap.

Already there are complications — Kobo is also a distributor, so though I go there directly, it distributes my titles to its own partners. There is no ability to pick and choose among Kobo's partners, so it's up to me to avoid enabling one of Kobo's partners at one of my other distributors. (Perhaps that can be controlled at the manual level, via email requests to Kobo, but I prefer something more automated and reliable.)

Other complications — I have to manually request special retail pricing for Google Play, to keep its automated discounting from creating a problem with Amazon. Hard to find distributors that will let you set per-channel pricing, but I think that must be essential to adjust pricing in different parts of the world (like India).

Audio

  • Distributor. AuthorsRepublic.
  • Direct upload. CD Baby (coming soon).

Print

  • Hybrid (storefront & limited distribution). Createspace. (Not expanded distribution.)
  • Distributor. Ingram LSI.

Createspace only distributes to Amazon so there are no channels to disable to avoid duplication. Ingram can't provide a list of print partners — much too broad, and much of its reach is through intermediate distributors or aggregators. No telling where your books will end up at online retailers.

Where are your books, really?

I began by taking the lists of known channel partners from PublishDrive, Smashwords, Kobo, and AuthorsRepublic. I then went to each of those sites and tried to find my books there. That alone was an eye-opener.

It's not possible to do this for your print editions — there's no list of partners to be had. Nonetheless I kept turning up my matching print editions on the ebook distribution partners. I don't have any idea what that sequence of events is — do they receive a datafeed of my ebooks and then look for the book on Ingram? Do they carry all possible Ingram titles as a subject-to-delay option?

I've been speaking to some customer service folks at distributors who tell me that some ebook retail partners will only take your ebook distribution from a feed if they have the matching print edition (FNAC.es and FNAC.pt, for example), but how can you tell them to go get the print edition so that that can happen?

I also turned up audio editions on ebook retailers who were not part of the AuthorsRepublic partner list, presumably via intermediate distributors (or perhaps out-of-date partner lists from AuthorsRepublic).

Then I discovered just how bad the website technology of online booksellers is, outside of a very, very few. Aside from bad metadata issues, which kept my titles from being discoverable, there were more basic problems. A significant percentage of sites treated a search on “Karen Myers” as an “or” search — all instances of either “Karen” or “Myers” — instead of an “and” search — all instances of both “Karen” and “Myers”. As you can imagine, for searches on millions of records, this was pointless.

Categories are largely a joke, at best — worse than BISAC. If your customer already knows your titles and your name, you may reach them, but out-of-the-blue discovery seems wildly unlikely.

In the US, we are used to comparing Barnes & Noble to Amazon and laughing at B&N's lame discovery assistance (search, categorization), but B&N is more sophisticated than a great many of my international retailers.

The vagaries of retailers and datafeeds

And then there are the errors…

This article talks about some of the things that happen once you deliver files and metadata to distributors. There are many things you have no control over.

  • The retailer may override or ignore or otherwise screw up the basic genre categories you provide. Or apply the category of the first title in your set of titles to all your titles. (Yes, really.)
  • All sorts of metadata goes missing: author names, book descriptions, covers.
  • It's good if your “Book N of Series X” hint is already part of the book's description, since it's not common to find books classified as parts of a series, in sequence. (And then, of course, when the book description itself goes missing, there goes your last chance to associate series books together, if the covers don't make it clear by style or text)
  • Your ebook & print (& audio) editions may or may not be correctly connected to each other
  • The occasional duplicate book turns up, either as a burp in the datafeed, or as a remnant from an earlier distributor's feed, now discontinued.
  • All of these errors can occur either across the board for all your titles at the retailer, or just for random specimens.
  • Random titles can be missing, or all of them.

Worst of all, even when you properly identify the source distributor and ask them to resend that datafeed, the retailer has his own schedule and may skip such an intermediate delta file. A full refresh of all the data is the only sure remedy, but that's not under your control, or the distributor's.

The receiving retailers may also decide they don't want to take your books, for whatever reason (they can't be looking at them intelligently — there are far too many — so surely it's algorithmic in some fashion.) I can't begin to guess how that might work.

Some retailers have damaged data for older titles that never seem to have been cleaned up. Others seem to be skipping short stories in favor of novels, or insisting on matching print editions. While I can understand a retailer not carrying any or all of my titles, one that has some books in a series but not others is obviously not doing that deliberately.

When you turn up similar errors in the matched print editions, I am at a loss for how to even start trying to get that fixed, since I can't tell how many intermediate aggregators there are between the retailer instance and Ingram.

Watch out for switching distributors

It's hard to say whether the problem lies with the retailer or the distributor, but in my zeal to turn to anyone-but-Smashwords for distribution to a channel, where available, I have found plenty of remnants left behind after disabling a channel at Smashwords (most recently Tolino and its retailers) in order to go to that partner via PublishDrive. That means that the datafeeds from PublishDrive for those titles are being ignored for the old remnants from Smashwords.

What can you do?

You can either ignore all this data rot, or you can attempt to force a certain level of cleanliness down the distribution channels. The first step is finding all the problems for all the retailers you can identify.

Since you can't fix the problems at the retailer directly, you have to know which of your distributors is the source for their data, and since you get the list of partners from the distributor (warts and all), that's where you start.

Hardcore tracking

I sampled how my books looked on remote online bookseller sites, but it got confusing, between ebook editions distributed from one source and print editions from another, matched up (or not) on the bookseller’s site.

Finally, I bit the bullet. I put together a big fat spreadsheet with retailers grouped by distributor down the left and my titles (17 now, 20 shortly) across the top. In each intersecting cell, I dumped the URL for that title on that retailer. (For sanity's sake, I omitted any retailer in a distributor's partner list that carried none of my titles (grumbling while I did so — what good are they to me then?)

This took quite a while (hours and hours), but I’m glad I made the effort – it was very educational.

Here's what it looks like for some of the simple distributors. (The grayed-out cells represent editions that don't exist, like print editions for short stories).

Click to enlarge

The color-coding is tied to my “Notes” column. I was able to take the Kobo block (rows 14 through 25) and point out a variety of issues with their customer service. I've passed along similar dumps with commentary to Smashwords and PublishDrive.

When I find print editions at the ebook retailers, I add them to the Ingram section. (A red block means a title is missing). You can see that the print edition issues on the Tolino sites aren't severe except for missing covers and some missing titles, but ebooks (the following illustration) are another matter.

Click to enlarge

Note that the Tolino stable of ebook retailers, that I reach via PublishDrive for ebooks, has different problems. From the customer's perspective, some of my ebooks have issues, and some of my print books, and who do you think they blame if not the author? My quality rating diminishes accordingly.

Click to enlarge

Here's a case where clearly Tolino has all the print editions (with a couple of exceptions) and doesn't want to accept ebook editions without a corresponding print edition (my short stores abbreviated as “S1, S2, etc.” But there are random exceptions.

Keep on top of it

This spreadsheet goes on for 120 rows without Streetlib, which will add a bunch more. It took forever to put it together with all of those live URLs in the cells, but it's the first time I've looked at it in a disciplined way. In a couple of months, after my distributors have had an opportunity to deal with the first mega-batch of errors, I'll look at it again, and keep going through it every few months, distributor by distributor, with a “Last checked” datestamp.

No point going through the trouble of worldwide distribution if you don't make at least some effort to keep it clean. I learned quite a lot doing this, and I expect to learn more as I keep it up.

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3 Comments

  1. Wonderful stuff!

    I’ve a less-detailed version on paper (I just do not get on with Excel and spreadsheets at the data-input level) and find it very useful to riffle through the pages every few months and update and check on things.

    Three quick points / questions.

    Re: Tolino, have you tried simply pulling from Distributor A and trying Distributor B to see of that changes anything. I use Draft2Digital for a lot of my Tolino titles and generally it’s not been too bad, although of course each store has its own quirks.

    D2D is not on your ebook distribution list. Is that simply because D2D has no unique outlets not covered elsewhere? I’m impressed overall by D2D’s data input facilities (compared to Smashwords, far superior), and likewise Pronoun, although again, no unique outlets to make that worthwhile.

    Gumroad. Along with Shopify, Selz, Etsy and others, Gumroad is one of the D2C options I need to take a closer look at. Would love to see a post on this, not so much for what you yourself get out of it (that will depend on the author, books and reach) but on the practical aspects of set-up, maintenance and engagement with consumers.

    March 9, 2017
    |Reply
    • Re: Tolino, I’ll see what data refreshes from PublishDrive can do, first, esp. if they can flush the Smashwords remnants. But I’ll keep your D2D possibility in mind if that doesn’t get it done.

      Re: D2D… I was with Smashwords first, and I don’t see much of anything that D2D does for me (considering the retailers I go to directly anyway) that SW can’t match, plus SW has a number of unique channels, though it’s hard to tell if I’m actually in some of them — tough for a civilian to explore some of those library systems. So I’ve never had a compelling reason to swap over to D2D, and I do sell the occasional book in the SW store.

      But I gotta say that dealing with Smashwords… how to put it?… it makes my database and IT-experienced skin crawl. Literally makes it itch. I intellectually loathe the Rube Goldberg site design, a mess of patchwork, with controls scattered all over it. It’s not as intellectually opaque a black box as Goodreads — nothing is — but it comes in a close second.

      Are you aware of their latest? You can now choose to be an Author (the old default) or change to a Publisher or Agent. This is designed for small presses with multiple authors. What this means to you is that, if you don’t, they will still declare you to be Publisher=Smashwords (and that shows up on the retailer sites). You now have to figure out how to convert your Author site to a Publisher site (even if you’re a one-man publisher) and create a secondary author account (which they call a “ghost author” — for crying out loud), in order for them to make your titles show as Publisher=YourImprint. And you want to do it, because the visible connection to Smashwords is still an issue in a lot of places, as the black mark of the indie.

      Re: Gumroad, it was a simple ecommerce expedient at the time. I wanted a “buy from the author” link on my book pages (Gumroad for ebooks, the Createspace store for print), and it was handy (back in 2012). On my to-do list is stepping up to better ecommerce like Shopify, but it’s not urgent — I’ve sold almost nothing this way, and since I’m worse at marketing than any other aspect of the business, I haven’t focused on “engagement with consumers” (if only!) yet. I could do a writeup on Gumroad — it’s very simple (one of its strengths) and international (handles all the payment issues). You have an opportunity to set ad hoc categories, but I wouldn’t call it a discovery engine. Go to any of my book pages and start the “Buy from the author” link to see what it’s like for the customer.

      Basically, while I believe strongly in book pages with good sets of basic links (e.g., To Carry the Horn), I think almost none of my buyers go there (sigh…) but instead go directly to their favorite retailers. I’m just this instant adding UTM query links to my ebook files (and print books) in PrettyLinks wrappers so that I can test that belief via Google Analytics. On the one hand, I would like a thriving and useful ecommerce option from my book pages, but on the other, I’m not going to force my readers there if that’s not what they want to do. I need the metrics I’m putting in to start providing facts (vs general impressions) that I can base priorities on.

      March 9, 2017
      |Reply
  2. The Smashwords as publisher problem was one of the (many) reasons I shied away from Smashwords and went to D2D, StreetLib , etc.

    D2D is such a smooth ride it’s almost worth being there just for that. Likewise Pronoun, which is a very good bet for anyone totally US-focussed.

    I do see enormous potential with options like Shopify for well-branded multi-book authors selling a range of products, and the real value lies in being able to sell packages in a way the big retailers don’t allow (“buy All My Books”, “Buy Series X and get Series Y free”, whatever) and to sell accessories and trinkets and other branded items, courses, special editions, personalised products, etc, while also carrying the mainstream retailer links for those who want that convenience.

    Few readers will find the store on their own but effective use of promo (esp. author newsletters) can drive traffic there and if it’s a pleasant experience and there is material and goodies and options there that are not elsewhere then they will come back.

    If I weren’t stuck in West Africa with limited internet and no access to mainstream shipping then this would be a top priority for me to shift reliance away from the mainstream retailers. Much better royalties too!

    March 10, 2017
    |Reply

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