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
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez says
Great overview, Mark! Interesting feedback on Lulu as I’ve bought 5 books from them to-date and the quality has been solid. Oddly, the most recent purchase was Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight which is an AmazonEncore book. Not sure what the deal is there.
I’m about to put together a little self-published project of my own and you just saved me a lot of time on researching my options!
Thanks for the feedback. I was hopeful this might be useful to others considering the same question, but I don’t think I expected confirmation in 8.4 minutes. (The web is a wonderful thing.)
Regarding Lulu, the author-centric nature of the post caused me to elide over the point you make. Nobody complained about Lulu’s end product. Reasons for leaving Lulu and going with (usually) CreateSpace were generally on the cost/royalty end.
I also think your point about A Wish After Midnight is apt. Compared with a year ago, CS and LSI are so much closer to each other, and Lulu has certainly tried to keep pace in its own way. As such the stepping stones any author might want to use — and might find useful if they have enough success to scale up — are now effectively touching, if not competing with each other. This not only makes the transitions easier than they used to be only twelve months ago (defeating proprietary constraints along the way), but helps keep costs down.
Good luck with your project. 🙂
Will Entrekin says
Nice post, Mark. I published a collection three years ago, when Lulu was pretty much far and away the best option; since then, I’ve stuck with them because they’ve continued to serve well. I’m about to publish a second book, my first novel, so I was considering all the new options available (there are a lot). I applied to LSI and checked out CreateSpace.
I think I’m going to end up going through Lulu for printing and straight through Amazon for digital this go-around, with this book. That may be because I’ve used both before and have had positive experiences with them, and for my needs, they are solid.
Next year, however, I’m planning on publishing my third book, another novel, and I think I may go with LSI on that one. I see the difference as akin to the difference between a studio and an indie movie.
Wish you all best with your endeavor. It’s great to see more writers thinking carefully and thoroughly about all this and not just doing it on our own but doing it on our own -well-.
Hey Will —
It’s amazing how quickly things have changed (and continue to change) in such a short time, isn’t it? A very good sign for people who would like to plant a flag more or less permanently in the idea of writing independent of others.
There are so many people who want to make writing part of their life without having to turn pro or dedicate themselves to the requisite suffering. There’s no reason those people shouldn’t have simple and viable options that scale to their needs, but prior to the internet and digital content those options didn’t exist. Being a ‘writer for life’ should be a valid choice, like being a gardener or pet owner.
I think you’re right to stay w/Lulu if you’re happy. I’m starting all this from scratch, and CreateSpace simply beats them (but not by much) on a few points that matter to me. As for making the leap to LSI, I aspire to do the same at some point. 🙂
On your final point, yes: a body of ‘institutional knowledge’ continues to grow among writers interested in hiking the independent highway, and that in itself is a big change over the past year. Buzz, hype and marketing are being replaced by a collective/communal experience. Good for all, I say.
Will Entrekin says
I’m not sure I caught which points they differ? I’d be interested to find out where Lulu diverges from the bullet points you enumerated. Reading them, I wasn’t sure of the split. Was it mainly royalties?
Two related concerns:
First, Lulu tends to withhold specific pricing and fee info until late in the specification process, while showering the prospective author with any number of up-sells — many of which the average customer might not know enough about in order to make an informed decision. I got tired of fighting Lulu’s marketing department in order to use Lulu’s publishing functions.
Second, when I compared numbers between Lulu and CreateSpace, CS was usually ahead, and usually clearer about how choices might affect costs downstream.
In the end the fact that I didn’t have to fight CS’s site or corporate motives in order to get the info I wanted from CS’s site was meaningful to me. And believe me, I’m no fan of Amazon or Jeff Bezos.
Lisa Yarde says
I think you made a good decision, if ease of use and upfront costs are prime concerns. I did the same comparison before going with CS, and they sold me on their costs and responsiveness (email at 2am telling my proof was ready less than a day after uploading file). I’ve heard good things about LSI but the initial costs, particularly the cost of the proof turned me away.
Thanks for passing along your own experience. As I noted in response to the comment just above, people interested in self-publishing are getting to know the lay of the land, and that’s a big change form a year ago. As companies like Lulu, CS and LSI start to recognize that fact, they’re going to be compelled to meet market expectations rather than try to drive them in their own favor.
Wendy Bertsch says
Thanks, and thanks again.
I’ve only recently started to think about self-publishing in print. The process of e-publishing went smoothly, and if my marketing plans are successful, I’m going to have to follow up with print copies before long.
The task of choosing a provider is daunting, but you’ve given me some excellent data to consider. Believe me, I’ll make good use of the time you’ve saved me!
Glad to be of help! 🙂
Brent Robison says
As usual, excellent overview, clearly articulated. I’ve worked with Lulu on three books and have been pleased with process and quality, but always unhappy with price. (For short run digital book production, not strictly POD, I’ve also used InstantPublisher, TriState Litho, BookMobile, and McNaughton & Gunn.) When I started with Lulu, CS did not exist and LSI was over my head in both cost and tech requirements. For my latest book just over a year ago, I considered LSI, even got an account, but decided in the end to stick with Lulu. One of the biggest reasons was the ease of ordering and fulfillment: a Store page comes automatically with Lulu, but there’s no equivalent with LSI.
However, after more investigation, I’ve decided to migrate gradually to CS to take advantage of lower costs. I suspect I’ll leave Lulu entirely, unless they revise their price structure to compete. LSI is still on the horizon, a half-aspiration, but I may never feel like scaling the wall they have up against tiny self-publishers like me. An important criterion in my selection has always been ease and convenience since I do everything myself, in the cracks between day job and family duties.
It really is amazing how quickly the landscape for POD has both changed and matured. As I noted in reply to a comment above, the pathway from Lulu to CS to LSI seems almost seamless now, and I think that’s a good thing. At whatever point someone wants to join the self-publishing pipeline, there’s an entry point that meets basic needs at a given tech/experience level.
As an author takes on more responsibility (and risks more $ up front), the deals get better and the professionalism scales as well. It’s almost absurd to say this, but that’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?
I agree about ease-of-use issues as well. I’m not looking to create a new career for myself.
At some point someone will try a third-party solution to help authors get into LSI (if that’s not happening already). The only problem is, if they pull it off, LSI may decide they want that market, too, and that will be the end of that niche. 🙂
Thank you soo much for writing such an informative article. As a newbie author my head is exploding with all the information that is being bombarded my ways. A lot of my initials doubts you have cleared them up with this article.
Also, if my paperback was assigned an amazon ISBN. Is it soley an amazon ISBN or is it independent?