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Distribution is really one of the most vital aspects of your business – it’s the method by which your books get to market. Whilst it doesn’t have the same glamorous reputation as Marketing and Publicity, it’s important to get it right from the outset to make sure your readers can actually buy your books.

Do I need a distributor? Can’t I do it myself?

There is no hard-and-fast rule that says you can’t do your own distribution, but if you’re thinking of doing your own distribution, think hard about all that entails.

In general, it’s the very small, often new publishers and the very large publishers who are able to run their own distribution. If you’re just starting out, you have one or two titles and you only want to sell to bookshops you already have a relationship with, you could absolutely distribute yourself.

For most, though, it will be a necessity – many indie presses run on far fewer staff than is really comfortable, and there just isn’t the time to be boxing up books, invoicing, processing returns, chasing non-payment, etc. – or the room to house so many books!

Most will find that outsourcing your distribution to a specialist book distributor will free up much of your time, and will provide you with an invaluable relationship for getting books to customers on time. With dedicated resources, their warehouse will likely have better conditions than your cellar or shed for storing books; they will have the flexibility to meet rises or droops in demand; and in an ever-changing marketplace, particularly with post-Brexit legislation changing the way distribution over borders operates, their specialist knowledge will be important.

Which distribution company should I use?

If you’ve made the decision to use a distributor, do a little homework about who looks best for you. Go with a specialist distributor (even if a craft-glue or dairy distributor offers to take you on, it’s a very different industry, so won’t do you much good), and have a look at their publishing clients. There aren’t loads of companies around, so it shouldn’t take you too long. We’ve added a short list below (which aren’t necessarily recommendations), but if you’re a member of the IPG you might find that they have a more extensive list.

Distributors will likely have requirements for application – they might want you to have a list of two or three titles, say, or some of the bigger distributors might want you to have hundreds.

Think about what you want from your distributor – do you want a basic service, or are you looking for a company that also does sales representation? Also does print on demand? UK and Ireland only or also Europe? Worldwide?

It’s also important to note that not all distributors want to hold physical stock – if you only want to do print on demand, this might make your choice easier, but if you want to print and hold copies you’ll want to check this first.

Word of mouth is one of the most important aspects of distribution – check out their client lists and see if you recognise anyone. Is there a publisher in the Network who might be able to speak to their experience with that distributor?

Bear in mind that, while it might feel like ‘the bigger the better’ in terms of market resilience or reach, a distributor isn’t your sales rep, and a small indie distributor probably also has a good bookshop client base – and it’s worth thinking about whether it’s important to you to be able to swing by and collect your books in person too.

On the other hand, if you just want everything to be as slick as possible, maybe you’re after a more automated system where there’s perhaps less room for human error?

And of course, we live in an era where we cannot ignore the environmental implications of business. Look into what your shortlist of distributors are doing – look past the greenwashing. Are they using renewable energy? Using ‘responsible deliveries’?

What terms should I expect to see in a distribution contract?

What might initially come as a surprise is you shouldn’t expect to be paid immediately. Distributors stagger payments slightly – usually by three months or so – meaning that sales made in January will likely be paid to you at the beginning of May.

They should, irrespective of this, inform you of sales every month (and/or via an online portal so you can check live or near-live sales data).

You will be paid for your sales, minus distribution charge (plus VAT), minus your sales representation fee (if you have it, and also plus VAT).

Usually your distributor charges for their service irrespective of returns, so if a bookshop returns a few copies six months down the line they won’t refund the deductions for their service.

In terms of the distribution charge itself, this will be slightly different if you’re talking about print on demand as well (which you should consider as printing plus distribution charges), but in general a distributor will charge somewhere between 10% and 20% of sales. (Bear in mind that distributors’ bills have gone up hugely with staffing, heating, lighting costs, and many have passed on increases recently rather than going bust.)

You might find you’re able to barter, and bring the cost down a bit, but so long as you’ve got quotes from several distributors (as you would when getting quotes for any services, be it printing a book or getting a tap replaced), you’ll get an idea of what the average is.

Ask about other services – are there any additional fees? Storage charges over a certain volume? Handling fees for returns? Carriage charges for gratis orders?

Overseas distribution and alternatives

When you’re slightly more established you might start looking for a distributor in different markets. It’s worth noting that different territories have different expectations of books – you might think, for instance, it makes sense to make a distribution agreement for North America, but you should remember that American and British readers are used to different formats of books, and we have different spelling and punctuation conventions, so it’s worth thinking about this hard before putting too much time or resources into it.

Most UK distributors will limit their contract to the home market – UK and Ireland – although some will also factor in Europe. Most will allow you to process orders through them internationally if you want, so it’s worth thinking about whether you need another distributor.

There are also environmental factors to consider in shipping books around the planet, so make sure this is a big part of your planning.

Finally, there are other options – worldwide print-on-demand wholesalers, for example, who give international retailers access to your back catalogue. It’s worth noting that some leading companies offer discounts via membership organisations – at the time of writing, for example, the IPG and Ingram offer a discount on set-up and access to the digital wholesale ‘global connect’ market.


  • The IPG offers page – for discounts and recommendations

A selection of UK book distributors 

Last updated: 16th September 2023
Author(s): Will Dady, Renard Press