How to Sell Your Book, CD, or DVD on Amazon

Micro-niche, long-tail publishing

For several years I’ve been producing books, CDS, and DVD in small quantities for small audiences. Micro-publishing. Or to use the apt phrase of Chris Anderson at Wired: mining the Long Tail, a place where the little that sells a lot is equaled by a lot that sells a little.

I’ve had numerous requests from readers for the secrets of getting their self-published material on Amazon. It’s no secret, but here is what I have learned in the last few years about how to get your book, CD or DVD listed on Amazon.

First, why? I began listing self-published material on Amazon because I wanted a way to reach the wider public with my stuff but I did not want to have to deal with shipping out copies to each customer who ordered on my website. For a small-timer like me, mailing out, and keeping track of onesies and twosies is very disruptive for my day job. By having my stuff on Amazon, Amazon’s mighty enterprise became my shipper (they are very good at this), so the only place I have to ship my copies to is to their warehouse.

More importantly, as popular as my website may or may not be, it doesn’t compare to the traffic headed to Amazon to search for books and DVDs. By having my stuff pop up among the big publisher’s offerings for “similar books” or even in reader’s lists and guides, my titles gain a greater chance to be seen and ordered. In a certain way, unless your stuff is available on Amazon, it ain’t available. In fact for better or worse, the only way you can purchase my books is via Amazon. As a side benefit, by focusing all my sales via Amazon, tiny advances in sales are magnified by Amazon’s sales rank, which garner it more attention, more links via recommendations, which increases sales in the hoped for virtuous circle.

The cost of using Amazon is high. They take 55% of the “official” price (not the sale price but the price you originally determine). That means that even if they discount the book (good for sales), the discount is coming out of their half. But it means you are only getting 45% of your listed price. In addition you pay for shipping books there, and of course for printing them, so the math does not encourage fortune making. Most self-published books are in the “long tail” zone, selling only a few copies per month. I’ve done better, selling several thousand copies over a couple of years, but still: This is not a way to make money; this is a way to distribute your message.

In 8 easy steps, here is how to get your book, CD, or DVD listed on the long tail of Amazon:

1 Get an ISBN (for a book), or a UPC (for a CD or DVD). For one book it costs $125, for one CD, $55, for one DVD, $89.
2 Get a bar code based on the ISBN or UPC. Costs $10, or may be included in UPC.
3 Sign up with Amazon, $30 per year.
4 Duplicate your stuff; include the bar code on the outside.
5 Ship two copies to Amazon
6 Send cover scan
7 Track sales
8 Register it (optional)

The full details, with how-to tips and links to recommended sources, are as follows.1 GET AN ISBN/UPC NUMBER
Every item sold needs a unique number. In the book world, that is the ISBN (International Standard Book Number). In the rest of media, it is a UPC (Uniform Product Code). The most expensive and aggravating step of getting a book onto Amazon is acquiring an ISBN or UPC, a procedure outside of Amazon’s control. For self-publishers this is where the hassles are.

For Books:
Bowker, the big Books-in-Print broker, is the official agency in the US that assigns an ISBN to your book title. Every book (in fact every version of a book) has its own number. On its webpage Bowker requires you to purchase a minimum block of 10 ISBNs for $245; sign up here. That’s about $25 per number; but then you’re likely to have 9 numbers too many, unless you are sure you’ll want to do more than one book. Nowhere does Bowker advertise that you CAN get only one ISBN from them for $125. They seem to make this as difficult as possible. You have to call this Bowker number (877-310-7333; select option #4 in the voicemail) and ask them to fax you an application to apply for one ISBN number. (No, the form is not on their website.) After you mail them a check they will send you a number that contains the code for a blank shared generic publisher. But since I knew I was doing more than one book I bought a block of ten.

For DVDs:
The official way to get a UPC is to become a member of the UCC (Uniform Code Council). You register online as a company here, and they issue you a company number which then becomes part of your UPC codes. The minimum membership fee is $750 for a block of 100 codes, plus an annual renewal of $150. This is obviously unacceptable for most self-publishers, so there is a gray market alternative. You can buy a UPC code from a reseller. Subdivisions caters to small-time entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and musicians. You can purchase a UPC for $35 (after a one-time $75 registration fee). This is a great bargain; for your $35 you get emailed a TIFF of the actual bar code, so you can skip Step 2. If you are truly trying to minimize your initial expenses and you are sure you will need only one UPC you can purchase one (with bar code image delivered) for $89 from Rovix.

A friend recently told me about this deal, which I have not tried. If you use Discmakers to duplicate your DVD, they’ll give you a free UPC bar code. Their prices for duplication are hard to beat.

For CDs:
You’ll need the same UPC for a CD and you can purchase one from Rovix or Subdivisions. But there is a cheaper alternative for music CDs, one with added advantages. For $35 you can sign up your CD on CD Baby, which is sort of an online record store. They will list your CD on their marketplace and for another $20 give you a UPC and bar code. Here‘s how. CD Baby’s marketplace in non-exclusive, so you can also sell your CD on Amazon as well. So for $55 you get a UPC, a bar code, registration on Soundscan (see Step 8), and exposure on CD Baby. For additional fees they will also produce, duplicate and package your CD (or DVD) from your files in a one-stop shop. I’ve not used those services, but we did use CD Baby to get one UPC/bar code for a CD selling on Amazon.

One reader suggested an even cheaper source for a single UPC/bar code: the Indie Artist Alliance will sell you one for $10. Sign up here.

That’s the gnarly part. The rest of getting on Amazon is easy. If you are doing a book, proceed to Step 2. If you are doing a DVD or CD skip to Step 3.

Once you have your ISBN, you’ll need a scannable bar code of it that has to appear on the item. The bar code must match the item’s UPC or ISBN number. There is software for generating your own codes. Or you can purchase bar codes for books from Bowker (for $25 per bar code) at the same time that you are applying for ISBNs. Other sources are cheaper — and the bar code identical. For the occasional code we need we use a company called Bar Code Graphics; they’ll generate bar codes from both ISBN and UPC. Its easy and cheap — $10 per code. Within a couple of minutes of ordering online you’ll receive, via email, the bar code as an attached file (in ESP, the standard postscript format) which can then be pasted into your cover artwork. (If you use the UPC resellers mentioned above, they will mail you a design-ready bar code.)

Your book or CD may already be printed. In that case you can affix bar codes printed on labels and then paste them on the back cover. This works fine. The same vendors selling bar codes will also sell a roll of bar code labels.

The no-brainer part of publishing these days is getting your book, video or CD printed in small quantities. There are a lot of outfits that will duplicate as few as 10 copies, and some that will even duplicate physical copies on demand of one. I’ve gotten as few as 15 DVDs made for about $4 a piece, with printed labels. Prices can drop to as low as $2 a disc for 50. There are a zillion places to duplicate discs in small quantities. Try Discmakers. For short run DVDs I’ve used MidSouth Duplication (they cater to Nashville) with happiness. For how-to print small runs of books (as cheap as $2.50 per book) see my advice here.

With an ISBN or UPC in hand, you can apply to the Amazon Advantage Program. It cost $30 per year to join the program. The sign up page also lists the requirements for CD and DVD packaging. You’ll need to know what bank account your sales money should be deposited in. Amazon must first approve your title, before you send them any books. According to Amazon, the approval process for new titles can take several weeks, but in my experience it only takes a week.

Once your book is approved, you’ll receive your first order from Amazon, via email, usually for two copies. You confirm your order, via the Advantage website, and ship them off to Amazon. (Until they get them in their system, Amazon advertises the books as “available in 2 weeks.”) Make sure you package your shipment to minimize rough handling. On a couple of occasions Amazon has returned books to us for the slightest of dings. We used to send books out in bubble wrap envelopes, but now I box them. As copies sell, Amazon will send you orders to replenish its stock. To keep their stock low, Amazon may have you ship them one or two books out at a time unless your book is a popular seller. If there is a sudden rise in sales, Amazon may request larger quantities each time. Amazon has begun to institute sophisticated algorithms to anticipate how long it will take you to fill an order, how often they should order from you, and whether you have seasonal spiky sales, etc. We found it is in our best interest to fulfill orders from them quickly.

To get the cover of your book shown on Amazon, you can either have them scan the book, or you can ftp the cover art to Amazon. Having them do it takes a few weeks but in our experience it is more reliable than their FTP service. (If there is a problem with your image, Amazon won’t put it up but they are unable to tell you what’s wrong with it. Amazon claims it will institute a new fail-proof way to upload in the spring of 2005).

Each month, you’ll get an email statement from Amazon summarizing how many books were sold and how much money was deposited in your bank account. You can access this report on the web too. I think you can have Amazon mail you a check instead of direct deposit, but there is an additional charge for this.

As an Advantage member, you can choose to participate in Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” program. If you desire, the entire contents of your book will be scanned and made searchable via Amazon’s search engine. I have not done this yet, in part because my text books are all available in full text online and my image books are not searchable, but it’s a great idea for most books. Others I know who have done this have claimed increased sales. It’s perfect for books with technical terms that may not show up in a title. The service is free; you only need to mail them one book, which they will scan. More information is available from the Advantage site.

This is an optional step, but since it’s free, why not? As a courtesy, Bowker allows you to register your book in its mega directory “Books in Print.” This is the master list of all books available anywhere, which bookstores and libraries use. This is not an automatic listing that happens when you apply for an ISBN, so you’ll have to go to Bowker directly to register each of your titles. The slight downside to this inclusion is that you may be approached by libraries and bookstores about purchasing your title directly. If you are into that, good. I’m not, so I send these direct queries to Amazon.

Tracking the charts is a big thing in music. In order to be tracked by Billboard or any other monitor your music CD or music video DVD must be registered with SoundScan. Registration is free.

-- KK (with Michele McGinnis) 02/22/05

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