As regular readers know, I put a collection of short stories on Smashwords four months ago, where it can be sampled, purchased and downloaded in various e-book formats. I now want to make a print-on-demand (POD) version of that content available, so people can order a physical copy of the book. (This post rejoins a conversation I had with myself — and many helpful commenters — shortly after making the e-book available. More here and here.)
There are a lot of companies offering print-on-demand publishing to independent authors. I also know there are a lot of disreputable companies — known variously as vanity or subsidy publishers — whose business model is predicated on charging abusive up-front fees for middling or nonexistent services. Industry propaganda against fee-for-service publishing says that money should flow to the author, not from the author, but as I noted late last year that propaganda has always been a self-serving fraud. Authors can be ripped off by anyone.
For any independent author, controlling costs and maximizing each dollar spent is critical. Philosophically I don’t care whether costs are up-front, fee-for-service charges or back-end participation. What matters is getting the most service or product for my money. As a practical matter, however, minimizing out-of-pocket costs is important because it preserves operating capital. The longer I can keep my head above water the longer I can write, and the longer I can write the more chance I have of seeing a profit.
Good decisions come from clarity. One way to improve clarity is through information gathering, which I engage in below Another, equally important aspect of clarity involves identifying and focusing on the right goals. While I would certainly like the best POD product for my readers, and I would prefer a solution sooner rather than later, only the very rich get to check off items on their to-do list without regard to cost. For the rest of us most decisions involve balancing money against a desired result.
Within that overarching context, then, my goals are:
- Make a POD book directly available to readers.
- Keep costs, and particularly up-front costs, down.
POD providers who charge substantial fees in advance are not going to make the cut, nor will publishers who cannot deliver books to readers through the retail channel.
To be clear, I don’t care who solves my POD problem for me. I have no feel-good criteria or expectations of loyalty, brotherhood, changing the world or any other emotional baggage. What matters is product, performance and price.
For my POD solution, here are the criteria I’m trying to balance:
- The ability to print one or more physical copies of my book on demand.
- The ability to ship copies directly to anyone who places an order.
- The widest possible distribution, reaching the greatest number of customers.
- Competitive prices, clear price structure, no hidden production fees or costs.
- Good customer-service reputation.
- Positive testimonials from people known to me.
As I said in the inaugural post on this site, “…every day there are fewer and fewer obstacles between the words I write and readers who might want to read those words.” The criteria listed above define the publishing and distribution obstacles I need to overcome in order to deliver my content as a physical book. My intent is to offload those functions onto a third party, so I can remain focused on writing content and connecting with readers.
Production: Do-It-Myself vs. Subcontracting
Whoever I use to do all of the above, I’m still going to have to prepare the content for publication. When I published my e-book on Smashwords I did everything myself, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. The requirements for physical publication, however, are both higher and more critical to the success of the end product.
In particular, the question of designing and delivering cover art presents me with issues I simply don’t have time to grapple with. From designing and creating the image file to delivering the image(s) in the proper format I think it makes sense to find someone to do that for me, provided the cost isn’t prohibitive. (And it might be, particularly if I want to have input on the design — which I do.) Other aspects of the production process — editing, proofing and preparing the text for publication — are probably going to fall to me, for better or worse.
As to the ISBN question…yes, I’m going to have to get an ISBN. I’m not happy about it because I don’t trust Bowker, in the same way that I don’t trust any self-interested monopoly. (More on ISBN’s and how to avoid them in an upcoming post.)
After a year looking at the publishing industry and reading about all of the snazzy new self-publishing options, including all of the exploitative companies that have piled into the space, I think most independent authors now realize there are only two real contenders that meet the above criteria: CreateSpace (CS) and LightningSource (LSI). Every other possible provider either fails to compete with these two companies on price and performance, or fails to deliver one or more of the criteria specified.
The difference between these two publishers is fairly straightforward, but the overlap between the two is growing. LightningSource is a full-blown book manufacturer servicing clients up and down the publishing continuum from HarperCollins to CreateSpace itself. CreateSpace is an entry-level self-publishing option with lower up-front costs and less-stringent production requirements. Almost by default, if you’re a small or medium-sized press you go with LightningSource; if you’re an independent author, and particularly someone publishing only a single title (family recipes, say), you go with CreateSpace.
Beyond these general distinctions, however, the differences between LSI and CS quickly become murky. Included prominently in the murk is the question of distribution pipelines, and how far those pipelines reach. For example, having your book listed in Ingram’s catalog is critical to making your book available with a number of retailers. By coincidence, Ingram owns LSI, but they also have a deal with CS to make sure that CreateSpace customers can be listed as well.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point in the incestuous world of publishing that my eyes glaze over and my hands volunteer to throw themselves up in resignation. Because I not only don’t want to have to understand all these third-party deals and subsidiary relationships, I don’t care about them at all. All I care about is getting my content to readers. Which is why I decided not to undertake more self-directed (and self-inflicted) reconnaissance of the publishing industry, and instead ask a number of very smart people who they would chose as their POD provider.
Ask And Ye Shall Receive
Before I pass along the wisdom of others, I want to stress that being able to ask questions of smart people is one of the greatest benefits of building an authorial platform and becoming a member of an online community. Questioning people whose judgment you know and trust speeds both your ability to make decisions and the confidence you have in those decisions. Again: every moment you don’t have to spend reinventing a wheel is a moment you can spend creating original content.
Here’s what people had to say about CreateSpace:
- CreateSpace can be employed with no up-front costs, but paying $39 to join the Expanded Distribution Channel (EDC) was generally seen as a good idea by those who spoke to the issue.
- CreateSpace’s pricing structure is not as author-friendly as LSI’s.
- You can use your own ISBN with CreateSpace, or you can get one from them. The downside of using a CreateSpace ISBN is that it applies only to your work as listed through CS. Owning your own ISBN means you are independent of this restriction.
- There is no hardcover option with CS.
- Currently CS’s international distribution options are more limited than LSI’s, but the gap is closing.
Here’s what people had to say about LightningSource:
- You’re going to have to shell out money up front, including fees. There is no way around this.
- LSI’s up-front costs and higher production requirements help screen out non-professional customers. LSI is not looking to expand into the self-publishing market, and has not lowered its standards in order to do so.
- LSI’s royalty structure is better than that offered by CreateSpace.
- You must provide your own ISBN’s for books produced by LSI.
- LSI does not offer the same level of community support offered by CS.
- Hardcover copies are available.
- LSI currently has greater international distribution.
I was also pointed to an excellent write-up on the (relative) complexities of using LSI.
Other useful observations that were passed along:
- Whether you use CreateSpace or LightningSource, hiring a cover designer who has experience with the provider you plan to use is a good idea.
- Having CS or LSI manufacture a book does not mean that book will be available everywhere. For example, Borders doesn’t use the same listing service that most other stores use, so making your book available through Borders means convincing that company to add your title.
- Anyone who originally started with Lulu eventually left and has no intention of going back.
- Respondents who have used CreateSpace for multiple books reported only one manufacturing issue, which CS’s customer service dealt with fairly. (Sample = 15 total titles by four authors.)
- I received positive recommendations for both CS and LSI. Nobody had anything bad to say about LSI’s product quality. CS’s quality was generally acknowledged to be a step behind LSI, but no one said the quality was unacceptable.
If anything surprised me about this decision it’s the number of times I went back and forth between CS and LSI, and how the gap between them closed each time. What at first seemed like clear distinctions soon blurred, and by the end of the process I almost felt as if I was flipping a coin between two acceptable solutions.
One nagging concern was that I didn’t want to spend time learning CreateSpace only to have to learn a new system if I moved up to the more demanding requirements of LSI. Comments from others made it clear that there is considerable overlap between the two, such that going with CreateSpace initially would impose little additional learning curve if I later chose to use LSI. This overlap was a big selling point for me.
Another reason the decision was so close is that CreateSpace is closing the gap with LSI. LightningSource hasn’t changed much over the past year, even as self-publishing has exploded. LSI knows its business and is sticking to it. (The support headaches of embracing self-publishing authors would be a nightmare for LSI.) While CreateSpace is in fewer markets, it’s pushing into more markets all the time, and currently provides more support to independent authors. (Between market reach and author support I need more of the latter right now.)
While nobody said anything negative about LSI’s production quality, I was pointed to several links from third-party sources who were unhappy with CS’s manufacturing standards. (See here, here and here.
The first and second of those three links are particularly instructive. In order to avail himself of LSI’s production quality the author held a fundraiser to raise sufficient capital. As you’ll recall, my two main goals were getting physical copies of my book directly into the hands of readers and keeping my costs down. LSI and CS can both deliver books, but CS clearly leads in terms of keeping initial costs low. (There’s no question that LSI’s overall costs to an author are lower if books are produced in volume, but that’s not the problem I’m trying to solve.)
On that basis, then, and for all of the other reasons detailed above, I’ll be going with CreateSpace as my initial POD solution provider.
— Mark Barrett