Not a whole lot has changed in the nearly three years since I first talked about distributors. If anything more distributors for e-books have joined the fray since Smashwords opened their doors. The problem is that many distributors are distributing in order to get their claws in the burgeoning indie market without regard to long-term implications.
And yes, despite claims that e-book sales are down or flat, many of these pundits have no accurate way to count indie books that don't use ISBNs. Amazon isn't about to inform them either.
Is it worth it to use a distributor?
Three years ago, I said yes, if only to get into Apple, Kobo and Sony. None of these retailers allowed direct uploads from individual writers at the time. Sony still doesn't. But three years ago, the only distributor to handle indie e-books was Smashwords.
There were complaints about Smashwords at the time, primarily about their trademarked Meatgrinder software that converted a MS-WORD file to various formats for distribution. Smashwords has since upgraded so you can upload an EPUB file. However, the EPUB must pass EPUB3 check (which, frankly in my personal opinion, is a bogus, bullshit way of trying to keep some books out of the market). But you still have to upload the MS-WORD file in order to convert to MOBI and other formats.
Since 2011, Kobo and Apple have launched their own self-publishing initiatives. Unfortunately, as the Kernel Pornopocalyspe showed, using Kobo's Writing Life shows their utter disregard for indie authors regardless of their genre. Apple insists that you can only upload through a Mac or other Apple device.
More companies have popped up since 2011 offering to distribute your e-books to retailers.
One of the most popular is Draft2Digital, aka D2D. They currently only distribute to Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. They ran in to a major snag during the Kernel Pornpocalypse when their entire catalog was deleted from the Kobo retail site. They have worked hard to settle the situation for the benefit of their e-book vendors
While I have no complaints about D2D's handling of the matter with Kobo, I had problem with a particular book passing the EPUB 3 check for distribution to Apple in June. Again, this was not something that was D2D's fault. Because of my family's moving situation, I marked the book as 'Do Not Distribute' to Apple on June 10. I saved the e-mail confirming the book's status.
Out of the blue in October, I received a notice from D2D that the book had been rejected by Apple. When I went online, my D2D dashboard said the book had been sent to Apple, but the book's individual record page said it was stil marked as do not distribute. After several frustrating e-mails with a young woman in Customer Service where she basically accused me of lying about the situation, I was so angry that I called D2D president Kris Austin and told him to delete my account.
My experience with XinXii wasn't much better. The company started as a German e-book retailer, but has expanded into distribution to the major retailers (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etc.). I have sold books in Germany, but only through Amazon DE. The year and a half I was with XinXii I didn't sell a single thing, but there are American indie writers who sold very through them. My problem with them began when they switched to an opt-out method instead of opt-in and only gave vendors two days to opt out.
In all fairness, Smashwords has also switched to opt-out for new markets, but they give vendors at least two weeks notice.
Overdrive focuses on the library and educational markets, but they do some distribution to retailers. They still doesn't distribute for individual indie writers. In theory, writers could form their own company to apply with Overdrive, but so far I haven't heard from anyone if it's worth distributing through them.
If you write romance, in ANY of its subgenres, check out All Romance e-Books. They are primarily a retailer, but they do distribute to the major markets. I haven't applied to them yet, but there are some legal matters involving Angry Sheep Publishing since I want to apply as a company.
So does using a distributor make sense?
It depends on your resources and plans. For me, uploading directly to Amazon and Barnes & Noble makes sense as long as books are $2.99 and up. Below that I actually earn more by distributing through Smashwords.
DH has suggested that I buy a MacBook for the sole purpose of directly uploading to Apple since my sales have improved significantly during 2013. I don't know if I want to deal directly with Apple considering some their previous behavior.
Kobo? It's going to take a lo-o-o-ong time to forgive their extreme over-reaction during the Kernel Pornocalypse before I would try them. I wasn't harmed, but I know too many authors who were.
One last word of warning, do not take my word or anyone else's concerning any distributors. Do your own investigating and do what's best for your business.