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Do You Really Want Mass Distribution for Your Self-Published Book?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Do you want mass distribution for your self-published book?

Do you want mass distribution for your self-published book?

Many self-published authors seem enamored with getting mass distribution for their books. And they want it now!

I understand . . . sort of. We all want our books to be accepted and purchased by our target audiences as soon after publishing as possible. But I also understand how difficult that can be to achieve.

The Fantasy and Fallacy of Seeking Far-Reaching Book Distribution

Authors may feel that their books, missions, or messages are extremely urgent. This is especially a problem with nonfiction. They believe that the change they wish to see in the world is critical to the future as they define it.

Others realize that there is a unique, and possibly closing, window of opportunity to get their words out into the world, either due to current events, public sentiment, and tastes, or their own personal time-sensitive goals.

Emotionally motivated by their mission, they want wide distribution for their books. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting that. All authors want that! But the problem is that they usually have no audience for their work because they’re first-time authors with no fan base. Now that they’ve made the decision to publish, they’re stunned at what it could take to get the distribution level they want.

What Do You Mean by Wide Book Distribution?

First, we have to define what is meant by wide, or mass, distribution. And I’m guessing that even authors who say they want it don’t know what they mean by it.

Here’s what it could mean:

Mass Market Appeal and Availability

Some authors think that having their book available in a retail setting (bookstore, Walmart, etc.) means wide distribution. Multiple problems here. One, just because it’s in retail, even in a physical bookstore, doesn’t mean it will sell.

Second, getting a self-published book in brick-and-mortar retail is next to impossible. Lastly, with more and more sales of books (and everything!) occurring online, these “see it in the store” dreams are just nostalgia for a different retail reality that is becoming obsolete.

I’m always concerned when I look at self-publishing platforms that advertise “your book will be available through... [followed by maybe dozens of logos of book selling sites],” especially for eBooks. Don’t equate “available through” with “sales will be coming from.” According to a Bloomberg article from 2019, Amazon sells 88.9% of eBooks. Given that stat, how interested are you in having your eBook available through these other non-Amazon sites?

Additionally, if your book or eBook is sold through any channel other than where you self-publish it, it would be considered “expanded distribution.” While the sale will be made, you might not make that much money. In expanded distribution, there are more channels, all of which will take a cut. This reduces your royalties, sometimes to almost nothing.

High Volume Sales

How high? High enough to earn a bestseller status on a list such as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.? That could mean tens of thousands of copies sold. A brand new self-published author with no following and no experience has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of this happening, especially within a short period of time (like a year). It might be possible with a massive investment (measured in thousands of dollars, like several thousand) in advertising for the book, but even that’s no guarantee.

Media Coverage, Interviews, and Appearances

Often these authors think that getting media coverage (interviews, appearances, or getting their articles published) would be the key to getting the wide distribution they want for their books.

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For others, it’s an ego or passionate mission thing, and the media attention would help satisfy that longing and their egos. But if I would ask them how they plan to get that coveted media coverage, I’d put money on that they don’t have a clue.

Getting even the slightest mention in the popular media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) is quite a feat and may require the assistance of PR (public relations) professionals and services who have established relationships with media contacts. Media stations and publications are constantly bombarded with press releases and requests for coverage. It is also unlikely that the media will voluntarily seek out new self-published authors. Again, possible only with a massive investment of time and money.

The Everyone Problem

Even more troubling is that authors often equate wide distribution with their books being appropriate material for “everyone.” Here’s where I start rolling my eyes. No book, no matter how interesting the topic is for large segments of the population, is for everyone. This lack of audience awareness has self-published authors chasing every possible avenue of attention and sales, which can be quite exhausting and expensive.

Going Viral

The appeal of creating content (book, blog, video, etc.) that goes viral is quite seductive, including for self-published authors. Like viruses for this year’s strain of the flu, viral content is that which is widely and wildly distributed from person to person, almost without abating. “Going viral” is an elusive goal for self-published authors who want wide distribution and sales for their work.

Like many biological viruses, viral content can be highly unpredictable. The exact factors that can prompt a groundswell of attention and book sales may be completely uncontrollable. So if going viral is your definition of wide distribution, you’re simply hoping and gambling.

What’s Your Distribution Number?

Aside from being unable to define what they mean by wide distribution, I would venture that most self-published authors don’t have a clue about what their target mass distribution number is. Hundreds, thousands, millions?

At this point, it would be good to be reminded that best-selling books on the top bestseller lists may only be selling tens of thousands of copies. Plus, most self-published books only sell a few copies a month for most authors. In fact, in my 2016 and 2018 Thorne Self Publishing Surveys, 73.02% (2016) and 73.46% (2018) of authors, with one or more books published, were making less than $1,000 annually from their books.

That cannot mean a high unit volume of sales for most self-published books. So expecting book sales of thousands upon thousands of units—which is challenging for even the most popular books—is unrealistic for most self-published authors.

How to Get Real With Your Book Distribution Expectations

Yes, you want as many people as possible to read and buy your self-published book. I’m not saying to not try. I’m encouraging you to create realistic goals and expectations to avoid disappointment. Here are some reality check questions.

Why are you the one to deliver this message?

Here’s where authors can get delusional, especially those who feel they need to change the world. They’re so impassioned that they pursue impossible distribution channels and numbers, which can be financially devastating. Understand the needs and limitations of your author platform (fan base), and continually seek to build your thought leadership presence so that you become a sought-after expert that could attract book sales and media attention.

Is getting your work distributed widely truly urgent, or just your interpretation of urgent?

Authors who want to change the world can be most susceptible to feelings of urgency. They feel that if they just get more distribution, the world will logically and automatically accept their work and take action. Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to convert the unconverted since people are illogical beings. And, today, people are so overwhelmed with information overload that they can ignore much of what crosses their path. That’s why continually building a fan base of like-minded followers and buyers, and becoming a thought leader, is so critical when self-publishing.

Or if your sense of distribution urgency is more based on your own personal goals, such as “I want to become the best-selling author by next year,” realize that the world and the market may not share your sense of urgency.

Can your goals be accomplished another way?

Self-publishing is not the only way to achieve ultimate goals since it can be a long, hard road to riches or encouraging people to change their attitudes and behavior. Could you instead volunteer for your cause, or get involved in a community of people who share your passions and ideals? Becoming an author is just one of many paths to making an impact on society.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2019 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 11, 2019:

Lawrence, that's exactly what you should do! Patience is the key trait to have. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing! Have a great day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on July 10, 2019:


Great post here.

I've been communicating with some authors recently who've gone a long way down this path (mostly fiction writers) and they all say the same.

It takes time, hard work and strategy!

If you don't have those three you won't get there!

As for me, I want to grow my market, that's why I'm talking to them.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 07, 2019:

Kathleen, I think you're talking about "Expanded Distribution." Yes, as an Amazon/KDP author, choose it! That makes your book available to those who wish to buy your book through a standard retail bookstore (although that doesn't mean your book will actually be in the bookstore).

What I'm trying to impress upon authors here is that they need to reset their expectations about what is possible in terms of volume of sales and distribution. Possibilities are very limited for self publishing. Hope that makes sense.

Thanks, as always, for popping into the conversation! Have a great day!

Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 06, 2019:

Is there a negative impact on choosing wide distribution as an Amazon author? I'll admit, I selected the option thinking "Why not?" That's as far as my experience went.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2019:

Donna, I've gotten that question multiple times over the years. Honestly, I don't think it's viable or reasonable to self publish with the intent to attract a traditional book publishing deal. I'm not saying it's impossible, just improbable.

The only way that might occur is if your self published book has a LOT of sales. Publishers aren't really interested in your book, they're interested in the sales your book has made and the potential sales it could make. Plus, you'd have to do a sales job to get that deal, just as if you were seeking a deal for a manuscript. It's very unlikely that big publishers will scour the self publishing ranks for new authors or books.

Even the big publishers struggle with getting high volume sales for many of their books. So even if that transition should happen, it's no guarantee it would translate into more sales. Just the way the world is.

Thanks for adding that angle to the conversation! Have a wonderful spring weekend!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 03, 2019:

Am happy you do share all these things on publishing. it helps us much.

Donna Herron from USA on May 03, 2019:

Hi Heidi - Is it viable or reasonable to self-publish your book in hopes of attracting a traditional book publisher who would then publish your book on a larger scale?

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2019:

Mary, unfortunately, learning the hard way through experience can be the best teacher. While I didn't have any fantastic book sales dreams because I was using books to promote my other business, it did take me a while to understand the realities of the book industry. That's why I try to share as much as I can about it so that authors can understand the journey.

Thanks so much for chiming in and have a beautiful weekend!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 03, 2019:

Heidi, I understand every point you made here. You know this so well from experience. Writers dream and if it helps them finish their book to think it is the best book ever written and will be read widely, it's fine. They will learn after publishing how difficult it is. Disappointments often help to make us very realistic.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2019:

Bill, you've always had the right mindset when it comes to self publishing. You do it for your own pleasure and that of your ardent fans. It's just too hard to change people's minds.

Thanks, as always, for sharing your experience with us! Have a wonderful weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2019:

Pamela, you're right! The biggest mistake I see authors making is setting themselves up for disappointment. If I could just impress upon them that writing the book is only the beginning of a long publishing journey, I'd feel like I accomplished something.

Thanks for your kind comments and stopping by! Have a terrific weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 03, 2019:

Flourish, I think authors get stuck in what I call the "Oprah Book Club" problem. They've seen authors featured on the big talk shows, news, etc. and think that that's the ticket to sales. They've forgotten, as you've mentioned about the Pew report, that not many people are readers.

Thanks so much for sharing that startling statistic with us! Have a beautiful weekend!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 03, 2019:

I always love your straightforward take on these topics. I have no expectations regarding any book of mine. I publish them for my core followers to enjoy; that's as high as my expectations go. :) Have a great weekend!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 03, 2019:

This is such an informative article for want-to-be authors. It sounds like the biggest mistake us unrealistic expectations. Thank you for sharing your vast knowedge of publishing.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 03, 2019:

Although many authors claim to have an urgent message, I've read very few that genuinely did deliver one. For people who want to change the world, writing a book probably isn't the way to do so. They need to consider the 2018 Pew study that indicates that just over one-quarter of Americans haven't read a single book in any format in the preceding 12-month period. Although it's hard for writers to grasp, not everyone is a reader.

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