Fit to print?: My take on Createspace vs. Lightning Source

In my new goal to help share what I’ve learned about self-publishing over the last few years, I thought this should be the first subject I address. It’s the question that I get referrals from other authors on the most consistently.

Firstly, as a self-publishing author, you might be wondering if it’s necessary to have a paperback at all. Well, it’s up to you. It’s not necessary, per se, but there’s still a not-so-insignificant community of readers who are die-hard lovers of paper. For them, ebooks just hold no appeal, either because they enjoy the tactile experience, because they like to interact with the book on a physical level (EW! I don’t mean that way. I mean, like highlighting or making margin notes.), or because they simply don’t care for technology or don’t have disposable income enough to invest in an ereader.

As an indie/self-published author, the monster’s share of your sales are going to be in ebook format. However, if you don’t have your novel-sized books available for sale in paperback, you’re missing on a market of dedicated readers. And like ebooks, getting your work into print is relatively simple. Whereas only a few years ago, self-publishing a paperback would have required an investment of thousands of dollars from an author, the process now can be done for almost nothing, using Print-On-Demand (POD) vendors. There are many POD operations including LuLu or Blurb.com, but if you’re really looking for full-scale production and distribution, your best bets are either Createspace (an Amazon company, hereafter referred to as CS) or Lightning Source, Inc. (hereafter referred to as LSI). The question then comes to, which one should you use?

Well, firstly, you should know it isn’t necessarily an either/or question. Both CS and LSI are non-exclusive, meaning if you wanted to, you could release the same book through both vendors. Based on my experience, however, LSI holds the clear advantage and suits best most (but not all) situations.

  • They are part of the Ingram Content Group.

And that means awesome distribution. In fact, Ingram is one of the primary distributors of paperbacks in the world; almost any book site or bookseller can obtain stock through them. (CS offers customers the option of listing a book in the Ingram catalog, but it costs you extra and takes a huge chunk out of each sale.)

  • You have (almost) total control over your wholesale discount.

Traditionally to be stocked by a bookstore or retail outlet, a 40-50% discount off of retail is required. i.e. If your book has a cover price of $10, they’ll buy the copy from you for $5-$6. Your royalty is the difference between this wholesale price and print cost. For this reason, until POD, self and small publishers had to inflate the cover price of a paperback in order to achieve any profit. CS’s standard wholesale rate is 40% when vended through Amazon. (It’s lower if the reader purchases through the CS store, but believe me, hardly any one does and Amazon doesn’t like to compete with itself so they make the CS not so attractive.) LSI lets you set the rate, as low as 20%. This INCLUDES sales made through Amazon. Mind you, at 20%, a bookstore will not be stocking your book. However, if your marketplace for paperback sales is primarily online, what the hell do you care? This lower wholesale discount allows you to lower the price of your paperback without cutting into your royalties. You can also change your wholesale rate and retail price, so if your book goes viral and you do want to make it practical for bookstores to order, you can adjust your rate and price accordingly.

  • Quality is king.

This isn’t to say the CS-printed books are bad quality. I’m only saying that in my opinion and experience, LSI prints are better.

  • It’s all about the options baby.

Both CS and LSI offer customers most size formats common in the market today. LSI offers more. LSI also offers hardback printing and matte finishes on paperbacks. (FYI: I know that CS is also trying to bring this option online.)

  • Show me the money!

Bottom line: you’re going to make better royalties using LSI, and that’s mostly because of the control you have over your wholesale discount. Here’s an example: using CS’s royalty calculator, a sale of a copy of my historical romance, A Love by Any Measure, currently priced at $11.50 would net me about $1.92/copy when sold through Amazon, and about a loss of .38/copy if sold through expanded distribution (a non-Amazon site via Amazon). (There is a higher profit on the CS store, but as mentioned, hardly anyone buys there.) Selecting at 20% wholesale discount, my profit per copy via LSI is around $3.83, regardless of where that book sells.

  • Okay, so why isn’t LSI always the better option?

As I said, I’ve used both CS and LSI, and the reason isn’t merely because of all these advantages. There are times when CS is a better option. There are a few disadvantages to going with LSI, namely:

  1. Although author copies are cheaper than with CS, the shipping tends to be more and takes longer to deliver.
  2. With LSI, you must provide your own ISBNs. (CS lets you buy them cheap, keeping in mind they’re really leasing them to you, not selling it to you outright.) ISBNs in small numbers aren’t cheap. A pack of 10 will cost you around $250.
  3. Format standards with LSI are more complex. You’ll either need a bit of computer knowledge or have a professional formatter properly create a file that meets LSI’s guidelines.
  4. There’s more upfront cost and wait with LSI. Your first publication with LSI will take at least 4 if not 6 weeks before going live. (Subsequent works barring problems generally process in 5 business days.) They charge $75 for the initial publishing ($37.50 for the interior, $37.50 for the cover), plus $12/year/title to list the book in the Ingrams catalog. If you discover a mistake or want to change your cover, there’s a $40 fee each time you do so.

So, in the end, CS does make sense if you’re new and want to limit your financial exposure, or if you believe there will be a very limited market for your books in paperback. I used CS when I released a novella that I was certain would generally have small sales (it was a ‘just for fun’ type of book) and knowing I’d never sell enough copies to make back the printing costs.

Comments, questions, experience to share?

34 Comments  to  Fit to print?: My take on Createspace vs. Lightning Source

  1. jeanewatier says:

    Great article. I am currently with LSI (5 books) and very happy with the experience. I’ve heard that CS holds the rights to your book whereas LSI does not. Any insight on that?

    • Killian says:

      Jeane,

      Thanks! CS does not assume rights to your book; you maintain your copyright. However, if you purchase an ISBN from them, that ISBN can only be used for the Createspace edition of the paperback. Therefore, to that extent, they have exclusive rights to publish the Createspace edition (which I know is a bit of double talk, but that’s the way it works.)

  2. Another alternative is publishing through LULU. There do not charge for their ISBN. You are not under contract. They do every fine work. Product is in hand within 5 days of order. Being listed in the bibliodata base and your book being available on Amazon is free. It is $75 to have it available through Ingram, Bowker, and all other retailers including Barnes. I have no complaints and have put nearly all my paperbacks with them. The price for ordering your own copies is nearly the same as amazon and they do discounts on bulk….and they have really good customer service. Used them for 2 years now….would not chose any other source.

    • Killian says:

      Candace: Lulu is an option, but one that hasn’t appealed to me. LSI also does discounts in bulk (starting at 50 copies, which is a lot more than where Lulu starts around the 15 copies mark), and listing in the Ingrams catalog is included for no additional fee. Lulu is good for authors who will have a very low number of books ordered, but if there’s a need to scale up, they don’t handle that well. i.e. Most bookstores cannot or will not order Lulu-published books. Any reader of mine can walk into nearly any bookstore in the world and special order an LSI book. I know of at least one author whose book exploded, and Lulu just couldn’t keep up leading to many, many frustrated and disappointed readers (and a very, very embarrassed author). I just ran the example book I use in the post through Lulu’s calculator. It states the manufacturing cost for it from Lulu would be 11.58. I price the book retail at 11.50 and make 3.80ish in royalties on each sale. Using Lulu, at 11.50, I’d have a significant loss. (My author copies from LSI only run me about $6/copy).

      I have used Lulu in the past to prepare ARC copies, however, and I appreciate their facility in that capacity.

      • Can I ask how you went about setting up your account with Lightning Source. I looked at their information but am at a bit of a loss where to start…I used LULU in the past because I have very limited funds but if the book is listed with as many as they say, it might be worth for my. I could not find pricing on how much their ISBN’s run…I would like to try this because of your endorsement.

        • Killian says:

          Candace: I filled out all their applications to establish a publishers account. It took a few days to approve, as I recall. But one of the downsides of LSI as I mentioned, was that you have to furnish your own ISBN. In the US, ISBNs are sold exclusively by Bowker (http://www.bowker.com/en-US/). They get less expensive per unit in larger lots. This is why venues like Createspace or Smashwords can furnish them for little to no price; they buy huge lots that drive down the per unit cost. A lot of 10 usually makes the most sense for a self-published writer, and the cost of that is $250 (or $25/unit). Going with LSI does require one to have several hundred dollars up front to get started. Consequently, it might not be for those whose budgets are particularly tight.

  3. Karysa Faire says:

    Excellent article! Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Awesome article. When I get the second book in my series completed and have covers that look like I won’t need to change them 🙂 I will probably use LSI. I loved the look of Karin’s book when she brought it in to show us!

  4. Pamela Fryer says:

    Great information! I have considered using LSI but haven’t yet (it was that $75 outlay that stopped me) I just don’t sell enough print to warrant it, but I may consider it on my next book.

  5. Damian says:

    Great article. I am one of many trying to decide which one to use. I think I might go with both, providing I can use the same ISBN. Do you know if this is possible?

    • Killian says:

      Each unique edition/format needs its own ISBN. When you assign an ISBN from your lot, you’ll also need to enter its metadata on Bowker’s user interface (i.e. format, page numbers (if print), size, binding, etc.). You can use the same ISBN technically if all the metadata is the same between the two publishers. However, CS is likely to reject a previously assigned ISBN, though I cannot state with certainty that they would do so.

      • As long as you are buying the ISBN from Bowker you can use it for both LSI and Createspace, as long as it is the same exact title. However, you can not buy the $10 ISBN from Createspace and use for LSI, only because the ISBN is in Createspaces name and not yours. Same with LSI, you can buy one from them, but can not use it on CS. Only the ones directly bought from Bowker allows you to use it for both printers.

        • Killian says:

          This is partially true. You can use it if you transfer from CS to LSI, but only if EVERYTHING else about the book that shows up in metadata is the same, i.e. page count, trim size, binding type, etc. You can’t transfer the $10 ones from Createspace because you don’t actually buy the ISBN; the $10 is a leasing fee basically. Createspace still owns that ISBN even though it allows you to register it in a different name.

  6. Skye Warren says:

    Thanks for the post. Very informative, and I think I’ll be checking out LSI. I’ve used CS and been pretty happy with it–even though the quality isn’t that impressive. Further, I’ve never been concerned about expanded distribution for my books because they’re really not “library content” 🙂 For the project I’m considering, though, that distribution will definitely be useful. Crossing my fingers 🙂

  7. Kimber says:

    Thank you for the very informative article. I am trying to choose between CS and LSI. I had decided on CS until I started reading about print royalties.

    My book is a thriller set in Africa and it is possible I might have a large print demand.

    Killian – I have worked for Barnes & Noble bookstores in different areas and am anticipating those friends I have in 3 states that are managers there to order my book in for the staff rec display. With this in mind, do you think LSI is the better option because of this? If I go with CS, it just means that when BN orders the books in, I get a lesser royalty. Right?

    I have a graphic designer working on the cover and will also format the interior for me. Buying my ISBN and the $75 start up fee seem to be worth it to go with LSI.

    I appreciate the advice.

    • Killian says:

      Yes, if you opt in to expanded distribution via CS, the BN managers should have no problem ordering your book. I don’t believe the process on their end differs depending on if you’re with CS or LSI. But, yes, you’re also correct that your royalty will be much, much lower via CS. Think, pennies versus dollars.

      • Kimberly Goode says:

        Thank you Killian for the honest feedback. I’m going to go with LSI.

        • FYI, I don’t know if because you work for them they will buy it, BUT most bookstore have to have a 55% off retail price before they even look at it. Also most of them state that you must have a D&B account (Dunn and Bradstreet) PLUS and integrated barcode, meaning that on the barcode it does not have the POD imprint (90000 number on the little barcode). The only reason most do not look at books with it, is because the 90000 states pretty much that you can change the price at anytime. Bookstores do NOT want you changing the price because they can either loose out on money, or have a hard time keeping track of when to have it at what price.

          • Killian says:

            Thanks for this additional information. I would add that most indie/self-published authors don’t have a big enough demand for paperbacks to set their prices with brick and mortar bookstores in mind. However, bookstores want to make their customers happy (as a customer myself, I appreciate that), so they will special order a title listed in Ingram’s if requested, even though they will make little if any money on the transaction. We need to distinguish between bookstores ordering a single book and ordering stock. THE D&B is more about books they’ll want to order to keep in stock with anticipation of their customers wanting it. Again, most indie authors have a niche audience, so this isn’t likely to be the case. However, if an indie author develops enough market demand for their books in print, they would definitely want to swing back around and find a different solution. This article was geared to the majority of indie authors who are looking to sell most of their paperback through live events or online retailers but also want to have them available for special order or arrangement with traditional bookstores.

          • Kimberly goode says:

            Thank you. This is very informative.

  8. Kelly Sebastina says:

    Excellent stuff. I love CreateSpace, have 2 books on the way, especially the wonderful community assistance by professional help and first-time authors…………… The book comes in time and the quality is very very good ……………………..

  9. John says:

    Hi Killan,

    Thanks for the great info. I have two questions:

    1. Have you ever experienced difficulties with Amazon.com selling your LSI books? I have heard stories that Amazon plays dirty tricks by saying “Out of Stock” or “Out of Print” for LSI books.

    2. If you set you wholesale discount at 20% with LSI, does Amazon push back or anything for forcing them to sell your book with only a 20% discount?

    Thank You,
    John

    • Killian says:

      John,

      You’re welcome. To answer your questions:

      1. I’ve never had a problem with Amazon listing my LSI books as Out of Print. I have removed books from print for my own reasons, but even after the ghost record of that edition has stayed live on Amazon. They will list it Out of Stock on occasion, but more recently what I’ve seen them do is report my book as being in stock, but mark it with a caveat that the specific title requires an additional 2-3 days to process. I don’t have an issue with that; it’s just a consequence of the POD business model.

      2. I think you’re confusing wholesale and retail discounts. When I publish via LSI with a 20% wholesale discount, that’s the rate that Amazon buys the book from LSI. Once Amazon has the book in their possession, they are at liberty to sell it at whatever price they wish; the author’s royalty is earned at the point of sale between Amazon and LSI, not Amazon to the consumer. The price of my book as it appears on Amazon is the MSRP I set with LSI. I’ve never seen them discount it except one time on the UK site for one title. (Then because they had bought copies from LSI to keep in their warehouse that didn’t sell, so they were just trying to get rid of stock on hand. It didn’t effect my royalties.) Surprisingly, however, I have seen BN discount my paperbacks on their site to the point where they’d be taking a loss on them. One might argue that for so little profit, Amazon doesn’t really have an incentive to push your book. Luckily at this point in time, the algorithm that they use to decide which books to suggest to which readers doesn’t take into account the wholesale rate. I’ve experimented with moving my wholesale rate to as high as 45%, and the only effect it had was a major decrease in my earnings.

      • Kimberly Goode says:

        Good information Killian, thank you. A quick question. I’m pricing my Trade Paperback @ $14.99 with LSI. Since this is my first book, I’m confused at where to set the wholesale discount through LSI. People say, “set it where you want,” I just don’t know what the average % is where most authors set it.

        This is for wholesale only for online sales, NOT brick and mortar stores I’m asking about. Do you generally set yours at 20%? At that rate, does BN.com and Amazon discount it on their site? Another writer friend tells me I have to set my wholesale discount at at least 40% before BN and Amazon will even think of discounting them for online sales on their sites.

        Of course, I’d like a higher royalty, but I’d also like to discount the wholesale enough that Amazon and BN will discount it for the public. What I did do when I set the price was establish my rock bottom royalty @ 55%. It was very low, but something that was in the competitive % royalties that traditional publishers would offer a first time author and worst case scenario, I could live with.

        On a side note regarding LSI – they have switched to a “queue” calling system. Even though you have a Rep, they don’t have direct lines anymore. So when you call in, you “might” get your Rep or might not. When I asked to be transferred to my Rep, I was told they can’t do that and to email my Rep to set up a conference call. It’s the only complaint I have as each person I talk to will give inconsistent information, which is starting to become confusing and needless to say frustrating.

        My graphic Designer called in and had to call back twice before she got someone that could walk her through a setup problem she was having on the website. I emailed the Sales Dept two days ago to set up a conference next week to discuss the process and my options, I still haven’t heard back. Aside from the communication, they have been wonderful and my proof was “perfect” and no one could tell it was a Print on Demand. They are all VERY nice, but the “queue” I think is problematic. They seem to encourage email communication.

        sorry for the long post….

        • Killian says:

          I can’t state anything about averages; I don’t have access to that data. I generally set mine in the 20% – 40% range. Keep in mind that it’s HIGHLY unlikely brick and mortar stores are going to stock your book unless you’ve specifically made arrangements for them to do so. (There’s also a way for you to arrange a special price if you, say, are working with a local indie store that’s agreed to carry your book. PM if you want more details on that.) If you believe there will be a sizable number of people who will want to special order your book from a physical store once it releases, I’d suggest keeping the discount rate high, i.e. 40% to 50%. The reason being is that the profit for the bookstore is the difference between the wholesale price and the cover price. Support your local indie store, give them as healthy as a profit margin as you can. However, if you don’t anticipate many people special ordering your book, I’d suggest just keeping your wholesale price low and lowering the price rather than counting on Amazon or any other online retailer to discount it. This is best for you (lower prices = more sales) and your readers (lower prices = happier readers). The bookstores and online retailers get the same wholesale rate. Yes, if you list your book for $14.99 and have a 40% discount rate, it’s more likely Amazon will discount it and settle for less profit on their side. But why would you worry about maximizing profits for Amazon? Aren’t you more concerned with maximizing your own royalties?

          Also, I should have mentioned this in the article, but you can (at least with LSI, not sure with CS) change your price and wholesale rate later. LSI lets you change it up to once a month. So, you can play around with it and see if different rates give you different results.

          I can only speak to my customer experience with LSI, which has been wonderful. It’s not uncommon that I get an answer via email within an hour when I write them. Perhaps their phone support is not as good. I’m just a person who prefers email, since I like to have a written record.

          • Kimberly Goode says:

            Thanks Killian! This is great info. I will PM if I put my book in an indie bookstore. You’ve been so helpful, I really appreciate it.

  10. David Solomon says:

    This is a great piece. Very informative. I’ve read several articles but it seems like at a certain juncture, all of the authors always say the same thing which is ” All you’ll have to do is find someone to set up the file for proper format” and ” have your cover/layout designed… and you’re free”. But for a neophyte, where does one even begin to find the right person to do those two HUGELY IMPORTANT things? Perhaps there can be a follow up piece on questions to ask and best places to look etc…

    Thanks again and Happy New Year!

    • Killian says:

      I do all these myself (using Adobe InDesign and Photoshop), with the exception of the cover of Have Gown, Will Wed, designed by Okay Creations. The best thing is to connect with some local or online authors and get recommendations on who they use. There are also a number of premade cover designers. An internet search should turn up a good number of places to start. Or, if you want to do it yourself, I recommend watching a few classes via Lynda.com. (Note: access to these courses does require a subscription.)

      • David Solomon says:

        Thank you for such a timely response! I am going to take your counsel and continue to see what’s what. Your article here is by far the most informative I’ve seen and I thank you for it again.

        Brilliant!

  11. Tracy says:

    Killian, thank you so much for all your great advice. I did start the process with LSI. I am experiencing slow response times for e-mails and phone messages. And, strangely, on the same day, I received one email from LSI and one from IngramSpark, both saying that I should use the other service.

    • Killian says:

      I need to do an updated post mentioning IngramSpark. I need to look into it a little more in depth though. I hope you get righted soon!

  12. Jodie Renner says:

    I publish my print books with both CreateSpace and IngramSpark (printed by Lightning Source).

    Two main problems I’ve encountered with IngramSpark/ Lightning Source:

    I can make as many changes as I want through CreateSpace but IngramSpark charges me $25 for every new upload of the file, even if I’ve only changed a word or two. Same with the cover file.

    Secondly, the books from CreateSpace are printed with a better quality paper or ink. They look professional. The ones from IngramSpark bleed through – I guess the paper is thinner. It makes my book look like it’s been printed at an amateurish small printer.

    Also, when I need help, I get an actual person right then by phone at CreateSpace. At Ingram I tend to get the run-around…

    • Killian says:

      I’ve heard back from several people about poor customer service with IngramSpark. I can only speak to my experience directly (I am with LSI, not the Spark program), and it has always been top notch. As to quality of CS verses LS, I’ve had the opposite impression. On the contrary, the few times I’ve had to contact CS support, I’ve had a convoluted experience. It could be that Spark is using lower quality paper than LSI’s main POD operation. Yes, the charge for new uploads is one of the major drawbacks of going with LSI.

Your two cents appreciated: