Okay, I haven’t blogged in a couple months. I’ve been a bad boy. Someone should spank me. I’ll get my fiancee on that right away, though usually it’s the other way around with us. I’ll let you ponder that image while I get on with the post.
What was I writing about? Oh, Createspace vs. Ingram Spark. This really shouldn’t be a “versus” thing, more like the pluses and minuses of both, because as other bloggers have written before me–and will surely write after–they both can work together in perfect harmony. Amy Collins does a terrific job of breaking down how to use both over at www.newshelves.com, if you are interested in someone else’s take on it. I will give you my two cents worth here, particular in relation to the quality of the product. And by the way, I’m talking about the POD (Print on Demand) services they offer.
First, an overview of how the book thing works or at least a simplified version of it. Print on Demand prints off the book when it is ordered and doesn’t give a per-book discount for volume, because the whole system is setup for about as cheap as it will go. I’m not a printer, so for the finer details of POD vs. offset printing, you’ll just have to resort to Google like everyone else. Offset printing DOES offer a discount for volume. It’s made for large runs of at least 500 but usually in the thousands. Ever heard of those out-of-the-gate bestsellers that have an initial printing of 20 or 40 thousand or more? That’s offset printing (with a lot of marketing and build-up by the publisher.) POD is relatively new and much easier to setup, though the costs per-unit are higher. POD is basically a computer, a digital file of your cover and interior, and a massive laser printer (see below for the so-cool-I-want-one Espresso Book Machine!)
One of the advantages of POD printing is that you don’t have to store large quantities of your books. No warehouse space (or garage space) needed for a bunch of unsold units. I mean, where would I put 1000 or 5000 or (ugh) 20,000 copies of my book? The rats would probably eat them or the humidity degrade the paper before I got them all out the door! Not having to store large quantities of your book is a huge advantage for POD. This no-need-for-storage thing and low costs per-book for a single copy allow indie authors to be competitive.
I looked into offset printing just as a matter of curiosity. With Createspace, my book cost me $5.07. Now before you go bitching about why it cost you 9.95 through Amazon, realize that some other people have their fingers in that pie, and I don’t have much control over it. Offset printing would allow runs that can push that price even lower to 3 dollars or less per book. I looked it up, and at least with one printer, the cost would have come down to $4.10 a book (for a 352 page book) for an order of 1000 books. That would have come out to $4100 for those bad at simple math.
That’s the economics of POD printing. It’s been both good and bad for the publishing industry, just like the Internet has been both good and bad as a dispenser of knowledge (and often ignorance). But that’s for another post and another day. Another bitch-fest about the infectiousness of idiocy.
There are a couple other aspects of the business of books to note (this is a business and anyone who doesn’t realize it has already lost. Mark Twain was the greatest self-promoter ever, and Dickens and Hemingway weren’t far behind. Writing a great book is only the start.) I’ll cover the dangers of self-publishing and why you might want to navigate them anyway, but for now you just need to know how the bookstore model traditionally works. They (the bookstores) usually want a 55% discount off the retail price for them to stock it. Actually, that’s not quite true. They actually get a 40% discount, and the rest goes to the printer. But unless you select a 55% discount, you aren’t going to offer the bookstores even a 40% discount off retail. In other words, their profit margin diminishes quickly. And considering the high overhead of brick-and-mortar stores, that’s not going to make them happy.
They also want the right to return the book if it doesn’t sell. I’ll explain the dangers of selecting “returnable” in a minute, but without that offer of returnability, you will never be on the bookshelves, not as a stocked book, though they can still order your book if a customer asks for it. The bookstores only get paid (and pay you) if the book sells; otherwise, they return it to the distributor. I assume this whole model was invented by the New York publishers (“the five sisters”, as they are called) and enforced by an informal, age-old agreement between those publishers and major book sellers across the country. It probably never was a formal contract, and now exists solely by the inertia of tradition. The whole system makes some sense. The publishers only push the books they truly believe in, they market the hell out of them and accept any returns that come back to the distributor as a price of doing business. With offset printing their costs can be fairly low per book so they don’t lose much, if a book sells decently. It does make the traditional publishers risk-averse, so they put their marketing muscle behind big names or the best of the best debut authors. This system is a huge reason why royalty checks from major publishers aren’t sent out that often as they wait for the returns of unsold copies.
As I understand it, though, this system is a little bit different in today’s world. The bookstores no longer stock multiple copies of a book but maybe only one or two, if even that. Their ordering system just keeps refilling the book in quick succession as books go out the door. At least I read that somewhere. But I’m in the business of writing books, not selling them.
This whole process can be horribly slow, frustrating, but it does make some sense. At least it used to. Until Amazon came along and upset the apple cart.
Createspace (CS) was formerly known as CustomFix, a distributor of on-demand DVDs, and was acquired by Amazon in 2005, along with POD company called Booksurge, which had been in business since 2000. In 2008 reps from Booksurge, now a division of Amazon, began calling all publishers and informing them that they had to sign a contract with Amazon to publish their POD books through Booksurge, and not whatever company they had previously been using, or else they would suffer the consequences, i.e. be taking off Amazon. Okay, Booksurge (i.e., Amazon) didn’t really put it like that, but the implications were clear. Pretty shitty of them, right? Well, that’s Amazon for you. It’s why some people hate Amazon, particularly indie authors and small publishers.
I know people who stay up late at night (probably on some kind of intoxicant; I’m not judging) and do a lot of Amazon shopping. I mean, they have everything! Why not, right? I know, put away the credit card before you use your retirement savings to buy a bunch of crap you don’t need. The point is Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and everyone has to deal with them, whether you want to or not. I personally don’t have the energy to bitch about Amazon any more. I just play the game. They probably do screw everyone over one way or the other, particularly indie authors. Mostly, though, authors are upset because they aren’t selling and Amazon makes money off you, whether you sell or not. That’s kind of their business. As long as you price your book right, you’re probably getting more royalties than you are if you published through the New York houses, though without their distribution and marketing muscle.
Okay, enough of the Amazon bashing, because I really do like their system (mostly). First, I’ll finish the story of Amazon, Createspace and Booksurge. Basically, Createspace absorbed Booksurge and their POD service, which makes sense, given the negative publicity mentioned above. So that’s how Createspace became the POD service for Amazon. Amazon, in its attempt to control the Universe (at least the universe of books), did try to put a dent into the business of Ingram Book Company, who runs their own POD service, Ingram Spark, but then gave up and learned to work well with Ingram Spark (hereafter, I’ll refer to as IS). They even use IS for what Createspace calls “Extended Distribution Channels”.
I’ll quickly go through the pros and cons of Createspace first:
- Easier setup than Ingram Spark (and it’s free!)
- Better customer service (emails answered within 24 hours)
- Free updates to your cover or interior file at any time and for any reason. Ingram Spark charges for updates.
- Amazon offers expanded distribution through non-Amazon sellers, though the royalties are a lot less than through Amazon
- No returns accepted
- Printing costs for color books is much higher than Ingram Sparks
- International shipping isn’t as good as Ingram Sparks, but domestic U.S. shipping costs are better
Createspace is a breeze to setup. Your file is given the okay in 24 hours or they’ll ask you for adjustments, if needed. In my case they made some adjustments for me and simply asked me to okay the result, which was kind of cool of them. After I approved the proof, which you can examine both digitally online or in person, if you order a proof copy (some errors just don’t really stand out until you have the paper version in your hand), the book is up on Amazon in a couple of days. It’s really quite fast. And you can update the files at any time, free of charge. This can be a big deal. You can use the extra money for marketing or for a bottle of Champagne to celebrate! At some point, you will probably have to upload new files as you get professional reviews for your book. You’ll want to add them to the cover and/or interior (I left a page at the beginning of my book for that.) Maybe you got Stephen King to say something nice about you. Damn, you lucky dog.
You should note that any time you update the file it will be taken down off Amazon for that period of time. This means that, if your book is also offered through Ingram Spark, it will all of sudden be available at Amazon through third-party sellers for a higher price than when you were offering it directly through CS. Just something to keep in mind. This happened to me, and it freaked me out at first.
There are some downsides to Createspace.
CS Doesn’t Play Well With Others (i.e., Non-Amazon Customers)
The default CS distribution channel is Amazon, but they do offer what they call “Expanded Distribution Channels (EDC)”, which you will notice as you get setup in their system. Createspace will ask you if you want to use EDC. Just say no. Why? Basically for two reasons. One, if a clerk in a bookstore looks up your book on their computer system, it will say CREATESPACE on it, which screams self-published, amateurish and that brings me to the second reason not to use EDC through CS: poorer discounts to bookstores.
CS offers 40% discounts (off list price) to Amazon to sell and 60% for everyone else (that expanded distribution or EDC thing.) I’ll get into the nitty gritty of what this means in practice, using my book as an example, which comes in a 6×9 trim size and is 352 pages, black and white on creme paper. The cover is matte, not glossy, because I liked the look of the matte better for paperback, though I went with glossy for the hardback. Anyway, for a 352 page book, my print cost is 5.07. I offer it through Amazon for 9.95, which is the only way to offer a decent price point and also make a decent, though not huge, royalty.
Let’s break this down further. If you sell through Amazon, what does the 40% discount really mean? Well, it means that 40% of 9.95 is about $3.98. Subtract the 3.98 discount and the 5.07 printing cost from the 9.95 retail price through Amazon and you get 0.90, which happens to be my royalty. So who gets the 3.98? A combination of Createspace and Amazon for distribution and the use of their supply chain.
So how about the 60% discount for EDC? First of all, this forces my price point up. I have to offer it at 14.95, just to get about the same royalty rate (60% of 14.95 is 8.97 plus 5.07 printing costs, leaves .91 to me.) It also means more hands in the cook jar, since CS actually uses Ingram Spark for expanded distribution. What? Yes, now you have another mouth to feed. CS doesn’t have the distribution of IS, so CS turned to IS to handle all non-Amazon orders. This leaves a much smaller cut to the bookstore and adds a third party to the supply chain, CS to IS to distributor to bookstore. I personally rather the bookstore (even the giants Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million) get their cut than add a third-party distributor to the chain.
So don’t use Createspace’s EDC. Get set up with Ingram Spark instead. That’s my advice, for what it’s worth. IS has a much better distribution system, particularly internationally, and they have deeper roots in the industry. But CS is still the best option when selling through Amazon, particularly for your price point to be competitive. So I say use both.
One last thing to note about ISBNs. Createspace will also ask you whether or not you want to use their ISBN. I highly advise you to buy a block of 10 ISBNs from Bowker (www.myidentifiers.com). Yes, it’s $250 for 10 (you can easily use 3 or 4 of those for a single book), but if you use Createspace’s ISBN, you will show up to anyone as “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform”, which used to show up as “Published by Createspace.” This will be listed under publisher when a clerk at your local book store looks you up in their computer system. This screams self-published. It screams poor quality. It also screams non-returnable and poor discounts for the bookstore. Having your own ISBN, listed under your own publishing business, simply says professional. If you’re going to do this for the long haul, then you really should invest in your own ISBNs.
According to Wikipedia, “the Ingram Content Group was formed in 2009 as Ingram Lightning Group merged with Ingram Digital Group. Ingram Content Group’s operating units are Ingram Book Company, Ingram International Inc., Ingram Library Services Inc., Ingram Publisher Services Inc., Ingram Periodicals Inc., Ingram Digital, Lightning Source Inc., Spring Arbor Distributors Inc., and Tennessee Book Company LLC.” That’s a lot of Ingrams in there, except for that last one. O.H. Ingram founded the company in 1938, using money he inherited from his grandfather’s timber business. Mostly, they were into oil and refineries and barges (one of their barges wound up in New Orlean’s lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina, not that you care), but in a flurry of acquisitions back in the 60s, Frederick and Bronson–the sons of O.H. Ingram–bought a text book depository for the Tennessee public schools. The rest, as they say, is history.
They have the industry’s largest active book inventory with access to 7.5 million titles and serve booksellers, librarians, educators and specialty retailers. That’s how big they are. Traditionally, they supplied traditional New York publishers with offset printing, but over time they entered the POD game as self-publishing became more of a thing and founded a company called Lightning Source (LS) in 1996. LS also licenses books for a printing kiosk called an Espresso Book Machine (invented and sold by On Demand Books) that can be setup in any public space and accepts files downloaded from LS. It prints, binds and cuts books on demand while the customer waits. Pretty cool, huh? You should watch the YouTube video of the process. I really, really want one for Christmas (please, baby!), only they cost about $17,000.
One more historical note, Ingram Content Group, along with Lightning Source, was almost sold to Barnes & Noble in 1999 until independent bookstores and the American Booksellers Association balked and put pressure on Ingram to nix the deal, which they did.
Okay, now to Ingram Spark. Their parent entity, Lightning Source, was really setup for publishers more than authors, so the company came up with Ingram Spark (www.ingramspark.com) as a way to keep up with the changing landscape of publishing today. IS markets directly to authors and competes with Createspace and other POD services like LuLu.
Now to the bullet points:
- Much larger reach than CS, so international shipping costs are much better
- Much cheaper on color printing, if that’s your thing
- Industry standard discounts that work well with non-Amazonian retailers, both online and brick-and-mortar
- Does charge a setup fee ($49) and another fee to change any files for your book ($25 for the cover, $25 for the interior, and $50 for both)
- Books can be returnable or non-returnable
- Hardcovers available, which are no longer offered through CS
IS is much larger than CS, which is why CS uses them for their expanded distribution. But because you have to pay CS in addition to IS, it’s much better to go with IS directly than to use CS’s expanded distribution. I found that for that same book listed for 9.95 on Amazon, I had to offer it for 15.95 through Ingram Spark to get the same royalty rate. This is partly because CS does the 40% discount for their own distribution, whereas I used the 55% discount through IS (which, as you might recall, lets IS take a cut of 15% and give 40% to the book stores, approximately.) IS does now offer a 40% discount option, which allows a book seller (you or another publisher) to sell a book cheaper to online retailers, just as CS sells to Amazon for a 40% discount. I personally chose that 55% discount, because I like to let the old-fashioned independent bookstore make a profit.
As for returns, I made the mistake of selecting returnable with IS when I first started. I also made the mistake of selecting the option for sending unused copies to me, rather than destroy them, which is the other option. Within about a month, I realized my mistake and changed it. You see, someone could order a 1000 books, then return 999 or them (or all of them) up to 180 days later, and you will be charged. That’s right. They could charge you for all those books with no risk to themselves. There’s really no downside to ordering a bunch of books for a book that could take off like a rocket but probably won’t. Well, there’s no downside to the distributor. There’s a HUGE downside to you. If you see me on the side of the road in a house made of cardboard, living in a puddle of my own piss and looking as if I haven’t shaved or showered in months, you’ll know why. Have pity on me and buy me lunch.
Head to Head
Okay, now for what matters most: quality. I read the blogs and the discussion groups. They indicated that Ingram Spark was the better quality book, though not by much. I found the exact opposite to be the case. Now, maybe CS stepped up their game, I don’t know. The CS book was just better quality paper. It felt better and read better.
The IS book arrived damaged. I wasn’t very pleased about that. It had a dent in the cover and something smudged on it. The printing wasn’t smudged (that would’ve been a deal breaker), but a little dirt seemed to have gotten on it. I’m pretty forgivable about most things and want to chalk it up to just random human error that is rare and won’t happen again. Whatever happened, it was careless. That being said, even with none of that, I would have preferred the CS copy. You can see why when you look at their template for the cover design. The spine is not as wide for IS. That’s because the paper is simply thinner. I think that leads to a less quality book, IMHO, and some of the pages did fall out as I read the copy.
On a side note, you will have to design your cover to the specs of the printer, which as I said, are different for CS than IS. It’s not a lot, but you have to be very specific in your design to get the spine to align properly in Photoshop, which you save as a pdf file and then upload to CS or IS or whomever.
You definitely benefit from having a paper version of your book, so I highly recommend. You just look more professional and more appealing to Amazon, since you offer value. I’ve read somewhere that this will, in turn, help your rankings, over just having an ebook version. I also rather enjoyed the process of designing the cover and seeing it in hard copy form.
I found found IS customer support to be more responsive than CS, though I’ve read others who said the opposite. IS has an online system that seems pretty responsive. I could get someone on chat within minutes, whereas I had to wait for a 24-hour email response from CS, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t nearly as helpful. When you need answers, sometimes you need them now, not tomorrow.
I liked both Createspace and Ingram Spark for different reasons. The quality of the book is better at CS, IMHO. And the price point through CS for Amazon customers is better so you can remain competitive, though I prefer to use IS for non-Amazon orders instead of EDC through CS.
Ingram Spark, because of their larger reach, is better for international shipping and offers industry-standard discounts without adding another hand to feed. They offer the option of accepting returns, which you shouldn’t take, unless you blow up so big you can afford to take the risk when your book is selling like hotcakes. But at least it’s an option, which it isn’t through CS. It also looks more professional when ordered through a book store, since your own company (you do have a separate company name other than your author name, don’t you?) will show up as publisher. Even if you use your own ISBN through CS, something with Createspace in the publisher field will show up and raise red flags. It just doesn’t look professional.
So I say Createspace for Amazon customers, since most of your business will be through Amazon anyway, and Ingram Spark for everyone else, since their wider reach works well with non-Amazonian outlets. And if you need to order copies for yourself to distribute for free to reviewers? Order from CS. They are better quality.
One more thing. I have no experience with LuLu, another POD service, so you can Google that one and see what you think. This is just my two cents about Createspace (www.createspace.com) and Ingram Spark (www.ingramspark.com). Leave a comment and tell me about your own experiences.