A Dirty Little Secret About Book Discounts

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Most of the writers using self-publishing techniques to reach readers know something about discounting books. They know that if you want to make your book attractive to bookstores, you must 1) offer your book to bookstores at a discount of 30% and 55%; and 2) make sure your book is returnable, because bookstores won’t buy books that aren’t returnable.

To date, the only print-on-demand (POD) vendor who’ll allow you do both those things is Ingram Spark (IS). In fact, that’s the main reason Ingram Spark has become so popular: it’s the way into bookstores.

Or so we all think.

But let me tell you a story about a book that a pair of savvy business writers published through Ingram Spark this past spring. We knew we wanted the book in bookstores, so we decided to offer the book at 40% discount. We assumed the discount would be passed down the line to bookstores.

Not so. When we went to our local indie bookstore and looked up the book in the Ingram catalog, the discount offered was not 40%–but 5%.

When I asked Ingram Spark about this at BookExpo last month, I was told that IS books were distributed by Ingram Book Company, a separate entity that took 10% and 15% before offering the book to bookstores. By the time it got to our little bookstore (which doesn’t have much clout in the distribution chain), the discount had dwindled to 5%.

What does that mean for writers? It means that you might as well not try to get your self-published book into bookstores because you’ll never be able to offer it at a discount that’s competitive. You might as well spend all your efforts finding your readers through Amazon.

Personally, I’m very surprised that Ingram has allowed this situation to exist, and that they’ve not been more transparent about how discounts are allotted. (Here’s Ingram Spark’s official statement on why you should discount your book.) As the premiere distributor of books to bookstores in this country, Ingram has a vested interest in helping independent authors sell their books into bookstores. Ingram Spark already takes 45% of your revenue for its POD services, plus an additional fee for printing your book. Does Ingram Book Company really need an extra 10% to 15% for distributing it?

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25 comments to A Dirty Little Secret About Book Discounts

  • Hi Holly, Regarding the problem of selling paper through bookstores, has anyone tried enlisting a “real” publisher to represent paper to bookstores, while retaining oneself as the publisher of the digital edition?

    It would seem that if that could be done, then the real publisher can limit the risk associated with returns and discounts — which are high risks to an author/publisher — and the author/publisher can handle the online sales.

    • Hi Lincoln,
      Plenty of authors would love to do this, but traditional publishers know full well that the economics of producing and distributing print books through bookstores are much more brutal than the economics of producing digital books and selling them either via Amazon or another online site–and so very few traditional publishers will willingly take on the task of publishing a print copy of your book while giving you the digital rights.

  • Thank you all for enlightening me to the very issues that has me upset. I will immediately change my discount back to the 30% from the 35%. No since in putting icing on “their” cake when I need to feed myself. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I got it, my book, my price. Have a blessed day everybody and thank you so much for taking the time to post your comments. I have to say this, I am very pleased with my hardback book, I am not pleased with the discount to the bookstores.

  • Ben Miller

    Your advice to David about ISBNs is incorrect. You said-
    “To answer your second & third questions, you can’t offer the same paperback through two channels (IS and Createspace) using the same ISBN… Every format of every title is supposed to have its own ISBN and its own distributor (either Ingram or Createspace Direct for your print books).”

    That is not the case. If an author buys their own ISBNs from anywhere but CreateSpace (now Amazon KDP), they are listed as the Publisher and can use that ISBN with as many distributors as they want. If they buy an ISBN through Create Space, they can only use it on Amazon, because Create Space is listed as the Publisher and owner of the ISBN.

    • Thanks for your input, Ben. Here’s what I know. If you have a book on Ingram Spark (which distributes to bookstores via Ingram Book Company), KDP Publishing (formerly Createspace) will not allow you to enable Expanded Distribution on their site. Specifically, the KDP message is: “To be eligible [for Expanded Distribution], your book must have an ISBN that hasn’t been submitted for distribution to another service.”

  • Hi Holly,

    Follow-up to my previous communication with you (thanks for answering all of my questions). My book is published and I’ve gone a few rounds with IngramSpark (my hardcover). It seemed they weren’t passing along 40% of my wholesale discount to retailers,, even though I offered the 55% to IngramSpark. No retailers were discounting it except Amazon and their resellers. So I put the question of “double-dipping” (IngramSpark taking 15% and Ingram Book Company taking 15%, leaving only 25% to retailers) to IngramSpark Tier 2 customer service (management) and this was the manager’s response:

    “IngramSpark doesn’t take any percentage of the wholesale discount. We only keep the print cost. If, for example, the wholesale discount is 55%, Ingram Book Company will keep 15% of that and 40% will go to the retailer. This is the same practice no matter who the publisher is. I’ve attached a screenshot of your book on ipage, the platform bookstores use to order through Ingram. The discount is listed as REG (regular) at 40%.”

    She did provide me a screenshot of my book listed in their online distribution catalogue and it was offered at “discount REG – returnable” as she said. As for IngramSpark’s service, it’s so far INFERIOR to Createspace’s service that I’ve been going out of my mind. And they have A LOT of fees. It’s costly, for sure, but since my book (novel) deals with baseball and has some key endorsements, I needed a hardcover to give in gratitude. To me it was important. (I wrote it under a pen name.)

    Thanks again for the great site! Hope this helps a bit.

    David Anthony

  • David Anthony

    Hi Holly,

    You really do have a great site here. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge.

    I’m about to publish my third book, but my first in hardback and my first with Ingram Spark. To make just $1.95 royalty per book at a 55% wholesale discount I have to price my hardback at $27.99. That seems high, but then most brick-and-mortar stores seem to discount the retail selling price by 20-30% it seems, at least on new releases. That’s not a lot of money in royalty but it may serve a purpose in the long run, helping to build readership. I’m not very good with social media, I’m afraid, so I’d have to spend that 55% discount on marketing anyway (perhaps). I realize I still need a low-cost marketing campaign of some sort.

    Still, I like CreateSpace’s/Amazon’s royalty better on trade paperbacks and ebooks.

    So my questions are:

    1. Do you think Ingram Spark would even push my hardcover book if I only offer my trade paperback and ebook versions through Amazon?

    2. Could I publish trade paperbacks for the same book through both company’s with different ISBNs?

    3. Is that advisable?

    4. Do you know if Amazon would allow me to link up the hardcover Ingram Spark edition to the same Amazon book page as the Amazon trade paperback and Kindle ebook?

    Thanks again, Holly. Sorry if these questions seem foolish. Even after having already published two books, this process of self-publishing still confounds me.

    • Hi David,
      First, let’s clear up one point: Ingram Spark (IS) will not push your hardcover book regardless of what you do. They’re job is simply to make your book available to the marketplace through the Ingram database (which is the database bookstores use to order books). That’s different from actually marketing your book to bookstores. You can indeed offer your paperback and ebook versions through Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) at the same time. No problem.

      To answer your second & third questions, you can’t offer the same paperback through two channels (IS and Createspace) using the same ISBN. But I’ve never tried doing so by using two different ISBNs. It’s certainly not the way the system is designed, and for that reason, I suspect you’d get tripped up somewhere. Every format of every title is supposed to have its own ISBN and its own distributor (either Ingram or Createspace Direct for your print books).

      And to answer your fourth question: once you upload your hardcover files to Ingram Spark, you will see the hardcover edition appear on the Amazon page with your Createspace paperback edition and your KDP ebook format. Sometimes the IS hardcover edition first appears on its own page…but if you wait a few days, Amazon automatically combines all formats into one page.

      Good luck. No foolish questions here. We’re all part of this Wild West of new publishing options.

  • I’m extremely new to this world of self publishing, so excuse my green questions.
    What is the bottom line? I’m quite confused about what the wholesale discount should be.
    E.g. can I make it 35% or am I screwed in some way by not making it 55%?
    Also, in theory, I’m ok with a returned book in the US but what about the rest of the world? Canada, UK, etc.?
    Createspace has changed some of their offerings. Has this changed anyone’s opinion of dealing with them vs. Ingramspark?
    Thank you,
    And of course, please point me to links if these questions have been answered elsewhere.

    • There are no green questions. We’re all trying to cope with an ever-changing scenarios in today’s new publishing landscape.

      My bottom line: to compete with traditional publishers in a bookstore, you should set your discount at 55%–and even then you may find that the net discount to bookstores is small. That’s because both Ingram Spark and Ingram Book Company reduce the discount you offer to bookstores. (This gives them a cut of your revenue.)

      As for returns, you should make your book returnable if you want to sell it into bookstores. Once you get into the Ingram Spark site, you can set it returnable for the US and not for international countries–which is what I recommend. It’s particularly expensive to take returns from other countries.

  • Aimee

    Hi! If I am only planning to sell on Amazon (but I need hardcover, so am going through Ingramspark), should I just set the discount at 0%? Does Amazon care what the discount is?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Hi Aimee,
      Ingram Spark will not let you set the discount to 0%. The minimum discount you can set for a print book through Ingram Spark is 30%. Given your situation, I’d say, set it for the minimum discount (which will be even lower once the book is offered to bookstores) and plan to sell your book through Amazon. You’ll have no problem with Amazon.

  • Hi Holly and all,

    I know this is an old thread, but I’ve found it very helpful and was wondering if anyone could fill in one last piece of the puzzle for me.

    When publishing through IngramSpark, if I choose to set my wholesale discount to the minimum 35% and focus on selling through Amazon, will it affect my book’s level of visibility on the Amazon site? Do Amazon place more importance on books which offer a higher wholesale discount?

    Ultimately, I’m wondering, if I don’t plan to have my book stocked in brick & mortar bookstores, is there any benefit to offering a high wholesale discount?

    • Hi Tommy,
      To my knowledge, Amazon doesn’t handle your book any differently depending on the discount you set on Ingram Spark. However, I have noticed that when you publish on Ingram Spark instead of Amazon’s own Createspace, there are some times when your book shows a slightly slower delivery time on the Amazon page (“ships in 1-2 days”). That’s probably caused by Amazon being out of stock on an Ingram Spark book and taking a day to reorder and ship stock from Ingram.

  • Holly, maybe you should explain in exactly what way your little bookstore “doesn’t have much clout in the distribution chain.” Either they have an Ingram Book Company account, or they don’t. It sounds like they don’t and are buying Ingram books through a third party, and that that’s where the extra discount is disappearing.

    If you set a 40% discount at IngramSpark, Ingram Book Company should take 15%, and the next business down the line should get 25%. If you want that next business to get 40%, you need to set 55% at IngramSpark. That’s not news — I’ve been writing about this mistake among indy publishers for over a decade. (See my book “POD for Profit.”)

    • Thanks, Aaron, for the comment. I’ve followed your work through your books, and I know you’ve studied this stuff extensively. All I can tell you is what the bookstore saw on their end when we checked on purchasing through Ingram–and it wasn’t 25%. It was 5%.

      But even if it were 25%, the point is that self-published books rarely make it through the distribution chain competitive priced, from the point of view of bookstores.

  • [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “0”. Reason: Human SPAM filter found “oy” in “comment_content” *]
    I agree that bookstore sales are the least profitable sales. However, if you want to have bookstores even consider carrying your book, then you have to set the discount to 55% (not 40%). The solution is to use a combination of CreateSpace AND IngramSpark. Set your book up on CreateSpace FIRST, okay it for distribution when you have seen a satisfactory printed proof, and DO NOT, under any circumstances select Expanded Distribution, which does get you into the Ingram catalog, but offering only a 20% discount, which no self-respecting bookstore would consider (let alone 5%! Really?).

    With that combination you maximize your royalties from online sales, locking in Amazon with CreateSpace. After all, Amazon owns CreateSpace. Your royalties from Amazon will be about 30%. At least they were for two client books I ran through their calculators. With IngramSpark, for one of those books, the royalty would be about the same because she sets a pretty high price on her books given her specialized market. But on the other, it is about 10%. However, that client does way better on Amazon because her book was set up in CreateSpace first.

  • This also happened to me. My most expensive book to buy – the hardcover – reaps me the lowest commission AND is not offering enough to bookstores for them to buy it. I had the discount at 40% and I’m considering lowering it since bookstores just won’t make enough to carry it. I ended up consigning paperbacks to my local bookstore (they wanted the paperback and not the hardcover – go figure), which pays very little to me. After my cost to set up at the store and for a display, it is likely I’ll be in the red even after several sales.

    Do you know if online retailers (Amazon & BN) will still sell my hardcover through their sites if the hardcover discount is lower than 40%?

    • Is your question: will Amazon and B&N still sell your book through their ONLINE sites if the hardcover discount is lower than 40%? If so, I believe that both will sell the book online so long as they can make some kind of profit on it.

  • Hi Holly,

    ALWAYS LOVE what you share with us all. I have a quick question. Did you set a 55% discount at Ingram Spark? OR 40%? Because I had the same exact issue. I mistakenly thought that by giving a 40% discount, I was setting it for bookstores. But no…. 55% is to Ingram and other wholesaler and then THEY sell it to bookstores at a 40% discount.

    In addition a LOT of independent bookstores do not hit Ingram’s new “threshold” of ordering and so they are not eligible for the full discount. They only get 20- 30% because they don’t do enough business with Ingram and Ingram penalizes them with a short discount.

    • Hi Amy,
      In this case, we set the discount for 40%.

      And you’re right: if a bookstore isn’t top tier, it doesn’t get the kind of discount that the big bookstores get. So it looks like it’s practically impossible to offer a 55% discount to bookstores no matter what a self-published author does.

  • It gets worse, Holly.

    I went out on a sales junket this spring, to see if I could sell to book stores on the Mainland. I live on Kaui`i where we only have one book store, so I’d removed the discount and focused entirely on internet sales. On the Mainland, I figured I could sell my books directly to stores—they wouldn’t have to order through Ingram Spark or pay shipping, and I’d make more money. What I found out—something that makes sense for book stores but sucks for self-pubbers—is that any sizable book store doing serious buying every week is not going to buy books from some author who comes a-knockin’. No reflection on the writer or the book(s), it’s just not how they roll. If they’re interested, they’ll order through their formal acquisition system along with the rest of their weekly orders (always at the 40% discount, and returnable). They’re not going to set up a whole new accounting process for little you and your memoir, (plus they’d want to reorder it from Ingram, not from you out on your remote island). However, offering them the (55%) discount means a massive profit cut for the author. So hefty it’s truly not worth doing….(if income matters to you). Your sales trip alone will cost way more than you’ll ever get back.

    But then I managed to get a book-signing at a Barnes & Noble, scheduled for 6 months down the road. And they won’t allow me to ferry in the books myself, they’ll only pre-order them through Ingram (so they get all the money at the signing, and can send back the books we don’t sell). So I had to choose: either offer the discount to EVERYBODY or lose a book-signing at Barnes & Noble. Okay, okay, I re-instated the discount (which btw takes 30 days to go into effect) and agreed to B & N’s terms, knowing I’ll take a loss across the boards for at least several months (if not forever), in order to do this book-signing. (I’m inclined to believe any author would do the same.)

    But I also found out: when you offer the discount (yes, it has to be 55%—Ingram taking !5%, leaving the book stores the other 40%), that discount goes to ALL wholesalers. And Amazon and other on-line booksellers are wholesalers. So when you offer the 55%, you also lose from every single internet sale! That was what really stopped me in my tracks—WOW, is the system rigged against authors! And it wasn’t until even later, when I got home and was about to publish my next book, that I learned Ingram Spark also takes 40% of its EBOOK sales!!! (And I’d thought I was streamlining things by having more formats under one umbrella.)

    So, yeah, Ingram Spark is raking it in.

    I’m still relatively new at this, but what I’m doing for this third book (EXPEDITION COSTA RICA, out this week) is launching it at the minimum discount (30%) for the first month while I offer it to my email list. Then, after they have time to order, I’ll change the discount to 55% in time for my B & N signing in September (in Boulder). I’m going with discounting my books for a little while to see if the book store route may have something to offer that I’m not aware of yet. (I’m not brilliantly optimistic.) If not, it’s back to the internet and little local shops that are delighted to buy books directly from authors.

    Sorry this is so long, but I hope the info is helpful to someone. Only took me 5 years to figure it out.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Wendy. And you’re right that when you work with Ingram Spark you add at least one middleman–Ingram Book Company–who’s going to take a extra chunk of your profit. When you compare that to selling your books direct to readers on Amazon, it makes Amazon the better deal. (However, when you get into the Extended Distribution Channel of Amazon, you begin to see Amazon taking a larger chunk of your profit.

      I think the takeaway here is this: while it’s ego-gratifying to see our books on bookstore display racks, it is both difficult and costly for self-publishers to sell books through bookstores. Wish it weren’t so, but there it is.

  • I’ve been struggling with both the returnable issue and the discount issue. I’m led to believe that bookstores won’t stock unreturnable books, which is understandable, but those same bookstores will order them for a customer upon request. But if the 55% wholesale discount-the rate Ingram recommends-is whittled down to 5% for some bookstores, what’s the benefit to the indie author? I’d be interested in your opinion on what discount percentage indies should consider.

    • It’s true that bookstores are highly resistant to stocking books that are unreturnable, and it’s true that bookstores will order them for a customer on request–but who do you know still orders a book through a bookstore? When a bookstore is out of stock, most of us just go home and order the book on Amazon.

      As to what discount to offer, I’d say that the whole question has to be reframed because NO discount is going to make your book competitive enough for a bookstore to order absent some other compelling reason (such as: you’re a local author whom everybody is talking about, or you just made the New York Times bestseller list). The better question to ask is: why do I want to be in bookstores in the first place? How can I get my book noticed by readers without having to go through the traditional path (reviews in newspapers, books in bookstores). And the answer, though still difficult, has to do with using social media to drive readers either to your website or to Amazon directly. And by social media, I mean not only Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, but also Goodreads, Bookbub, and other book-centric marketing sites.

      We all need to realize that the traditional publishing business–like so many other businesses–has been disintermediated by new technologies, and self-published authors are creating new ways to get books into the hands of readers. Right now, these new paths are inefficient and bumpy to maneuver, but sooner or later the kinks will get worked out.

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