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Publishers, Printers and Distributors. Oh my.

Publishers, Printers and Distributors. Oh my.

Publishers, Printers and Distributors. Oh my.

From author to publisher to marketer, indie authors cover many roles. Yet we're each just one person tackling the world, book in hand and hope in the heart. It's not just us authors who wear many hats, though. Once you step foot into the Print-On-Demand world, you'll find everything seems a bit overlapped there, too.

From author to publisher to marketer, indie authors cover many roles. Yet we're each just one person tackling the world, book in hand and hope in the heart. It's not just us authors who wear many hats, though. Once you step foot into the Print-On-Demand world, you'll find everything seems a bit overlapped there, too.

From author to publisher to marketer, indie authors cover many roles. Yet we're each just one person tackling the world, book in hand and hope in the heart. It's not just us authors who wear many hats, though. Once you step foot into the Print-On-Demand world, you'll find everything seems a bit overlapped there, too.

I’ve noticed a common point of confusion in the self-publishing forums: confusion about who’s a publisher vs who’s a printer. This happens particularly when an author approaches the Print-On-Demand (POD) services for the first time.

So let’s have a few definitions to clear things up.

Author

This is you. You wrote the book. Go you!

Publisher

This is also you. When you self-publish, you are your own publisher. This is what defines you as an indie author - that you chose not to find a traditional publisher to put your book into the world, but instead chose to do so yourself. Again, go you!

Buyer beware: If a “publisher” approaches you and says there is a fee for them to self-publish your book - don’t do it. This is not a real publisher at all, it is a predatory vanity press, and that will drain your bank account. You never pay a real publisher. Ever. Either go traditional where the publisher pays you, or stay on your chosen self-publishing path and be your own publisher.

Printer

Sometimes you’ll hear folks say that when you go with a traditional publisher, that they’ll print the book for you. While it’s true that traditionally published authors do not have to print their own books, saying that the publishers do it is slightly misleading.

A publisher is not a printer, so they aren’t technically doing the printing. They do, however, commission a printer to print the book on their behalf. 

While I don’t believe it’s particularly common for a traditionally published author to mix up the printer and publisher roles, it’s a mistake that comes up when authors use POD printing instead.

I’ve heard authors refer to Amazon’s KDP or IngramSpark as their publisher, but this would be incorrect. Those are printers. POD printers, to be exact.

The confusion arises because each of these POD printers seemingly wears multiple hats. Truth is, they often belong to larger conglomerates which have different branches for the different roles. Only one of which is the POD printer.

Which brings us to…

Distributor

The distributor is the entity that makes the book available for wholesale purchase. Your readers can’t directly buy a copy of your book from a distributor, but libraries, bookstores and other retailers can.

In the POD world, it’s not uncommon for the printer and the distributor to get muddled up and lumped together as the same entity.

Just like a publisher is not a printer, a printer is not a distributor. The confusion is warranted though, because the naming of the companies involved can be tricky to navigate.

Take, for example, IngramSpark:

  • IngramSpark is a printer and a subsidiary of a company called Ingram Industries.

  • Ingram Industries also owns a distributor called Ingram Content Group.

  • Ingram Content Group puts out a product called the Ingram Catalog.

oof. That’s a lot of Ingrams. 

One benefit of printing with IngramSpark is that it gives authors access to a distributor. Namely, Ingram Content Group. As an indie author, it can be very hard to get a distributor otherwise. So this is a coveted benefit.

It’s also the source of the confusion.

Worth noting that IngramSpark does not automatically put all books printed through them into Ingram Catalog. When you print with IngramSpark, you are greeted with two buttons: “Print Only” and “Print & Distribute.” By choosing the latter, you’re opting into that sweet distributor deal.

Retailer

Another POD printer that appears to do double duty is Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

KDP is owned by Amazon, which is a retailer, perhaps the most famous one in the world. When you choose to print with KDP, you are automatically agreeing to have your book made available for retail purchase on Amazon. 

Think of it like this: if Ingram lumps together, POD + distributor, Amazon lumps together, POD + retailer.

Though, unlike IngramSpark, which gives you the option to opt into its additional service, Amazon requires is. KDP will only print books if you accept Amazon as your retailer.

In a traditional model, the process is: Printer -> Distributor -> Retailer.

In Amazon’s model, its: Printer -> Retailer.

Side note: This is why authors can get slightly better margins on their KDP printed books than they do on their IngramSpark printed books. There’s no middleman taking an extra cut.

Summing It Up

Wow, that was a lot of words. Let’s try summing this up in a few easy to digest bullet points:

  1. You are both the author and the publisher of your book.

  2. KDP and IngramSpark are POD printers.

  3. Ingram Content Group is a distributor.

  4. Amazon is a retailer.

There. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, right?

Footnote: Untangling all the different roles is hard. Even harder is organizing your book launch timeline so that all these pieces work together alongside all the other work you've got to do. For help with that, download our free timeline calculator here.

About the Author

Tara Kelly left a cushy Silicon Valley job to pursue writing. Since then, she’s published a book on UX design, as well as seven children’s picture books under the pen name Kelly Tills where she tackles topics like neurodiversity, gender, and why you shouldn’t steal bananas from a monkey. Tara is the co-founder and CEO of Frontlist.io where she helps other indie authors launch their books on their own, and without falling prey to the predatory underbelly of the author services industry.

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