Award-winning author Terri Giuliano Long originally wrote this article for me in October, 2011. The Huffington Post published her comprehensive update in 2013. Link here to read Paperback Distribution: Createspace vs. Lightning Source.
Congratulations! You’ve decided to take the plunge and publish your book. Welcome to the indie revolution! In addition to the myriad design and marketing decisions you’re about to make, you must also decide whether to publish only in eBook format or publish in hard copy too. Authors choose one option or the other for various reasons. For our purposes, we’ll assume that you’ve decided to publish your masterpiece, your baby, in paper.
Which service do you use? If you’re the nervous type who prefers everything done for you, you may want to go with one of the full-service self-publishing houses. It’s been a publishing lifetime since those so-called “vanity presses” made their debut. Back in the day, print on demand was a dirty word and authors who published with these shady companies worked (their detractors whispered), under the sick yellow glint of supreme self-delusion.
Today, even the top dogs use POD technology, and terrific full-service publishers, like Pennsylvania-based Infinity Publishing, offer an array of high-quality services and print books that rival any I’ve seen on the market. Of course, those services come at a cost. Royalties are typically low and retail prices can be high.
If you’re looking for a low cost, high royalty option, the two major competitors are Createspace and Lightning Source. While both are reputable companies that produce library-quality books, there are major benefits, drawbacks and differences to each that every author should be aware of before making an educated choice.
Createspace is a quick, relatively simple, inexpensive option for authors hoping to sell high-quality hard copies of their self-published books primarily online. With Createspace, publishing a book is easy and hassle-free; optional services include complete setup, cover design, formatting, and marketing. CS also offers a free DIY book creation service. Or, if you wish, you can hire your own designer. As long as your digital file meets CS specifications, you’re good to go. You can use your own ISBN (purchased separately, on your own) or, if you prefer, Createspace will supply one for you. (If you opt to distribute through the library and academic institution channel, however, you must use a CS-assigned ISBN. When I published my CS edition, that’s the reason I used theirs.)
Like most self-publishing companies, Createspace allows the author/publisher to choose the book’s retail price. By self-publishing standards, the CS per/book cost is low, offering authors the flexibility of choosing either a higher royalty (by setting a higher retail price) or a lower retail price (enticing for buyers, but lower royalties to the author).
With retail pricing, CS and LS are comparable. Compared to other self-publishing companies, CS and LS come out ahead. At one point, I considered working with a full-service self-publisher. I loved the company, found the staff friendly and professional, their design services excellent, and their print quality superior to CS; problem was, their sales model, which offered absolutely no flexibility, would have forced me to set my retail price at a minimum of $17.95, a cost that I felt would price my book out of the market.
Createspace offers no return policy, which means corporate brick-and-mortar bookstore chains are unlikely to stock your book. According to a Createspace customer service rep, the company instituted this policy to protect their authors: returns are unpredictable and, with shipping and handling expenses, accepting returns can get costly. This is certainly true, particularly if you factor in return shipping and handling changes.
For expanded distribution channels, CS offers a set wholesale discount of 40%. The author has no choice in this. The industry standard is 55%, with 47% and under considered a “short discount.” While, yes, less of a discount means that authors earn a higher royalty, a sub-standard discount decreases incentives for bookstores.
Today, with the rapid decline in bookstore sales, and the majority of sales occurring online, you may not care if bookstores carry your paperback book. However, if you suddenly find yourself with a hot-selling title, you may change your mind. If you try to place your CS-distributed book in bookstores, you’ll run into problems. When In Leah’s Wake hit the Barnes & Noble bestseller list in August, B&N considered stocking the paperback in their brick and mortar stores. When they realized that Createspace was the distributor, they declined, citing the CS non-return policy. I never reached the point of negotiating discounts. Unfortunately, I ran into the same thing with other bookstores.
Of course, stores can always order your book from Createspace to fill a customer request. Nevertheless, if they don’t stock your book – put it on their shelf or, better yet, in their window – you lose impulse buyers and bookstore loyalists, as well as bookstore employee evangelists. As a solution, Createspace suggests hand-selling your book. If you approach your local B&N or independent bookstore, especially if they anticipate enough local interest to generate sales, there is a good chance that they’ll agree to stock your book. As an incentive, you can offer your own return policy or perhaps ask them if they’ll accept your books on consignment.
These are great ideas, but selling books by hand takes time and energy that many authors simply don’t have.
In August, when Barnes & Noble declined to stock my book, I contracted with Lightning Source to print and distribute a separate ILW edition. It’s too soon to determine if this will have been a good or bad move. While the Lightening Source print edition of ILW is now readily available to stores, and can be ordered for overnight pickup, LS reports only total sale numbers, giving me no way to tell if bookstores have ordered copies to shelf.
Despite nearly equal numbers – in September, I sold 223 paperback books through Createspace and 188 through Lightning Source – my Lightning Source edition ranks consistently lower on Amazon than my Createspace edition. This hour, for example, my LS rank is #22,678, CS #4522. Sales calculations determine rank. This disparity in Amazon rank, and again with total sales being roughly equal, suggests that many of my LS sales come from retailers other than Amazon.
Lightning Source, the go-to POD publisher for big guys like Random House, offers library-quality POD as well as offset printing (for higher print runs). They can also scan existing hard copies, a service CS doesn’t offer.
The return policy and wholesale discount makes LS books more attractive to booksellers. LS publishers have the option of accepting or not accepting returns. As a publisher, you set your own retail discount – I offer the standard 55% but you may offer less – giving you flexibility in offering wholesale incentives.
Lightning Source distributes titles through all the major players, including Ingram, Baker and Taylor, Bertrams, and others, which means that stores, libraries and academic institutions can buy LS books without making any changes to their process. Theoretically, if you go with LS, bookstores, libraries and academic institutions should be more inclined to buy your books.
Lightning Source costs more than CS. LS charges a $37.50 setup fee and $30 for proofs. Later, if you need to make corrections, you’ll be charged $30 per file change, plus $30 for a new proof. Createspace offers free setup, proofs have the same low set-cost as books, based on size and page count – in my case, $5.17 – and each file change costs $25, in addition to the set single book charge.
Should you decide to order a book for your own use or to give to a friend, Lightning Source charges more too. One copy of In Leah’s Wake from Lightning Source costs $6.30, plus shipping; the same book from Createspace – if I’m enrolled in their Pro Plan - costs $5.17, plus shipping. The difference is, the price of CS books is set, with the same cost for 1 or 500 books, while Lightning Source offers quantity discounts.
With LS, the book creation process is more complicated than with CS. First, LS is entirely DIY. Although they do provide optional marketing services, they offer no design services. If you run into a problem with a digital file, you’re responsible for making corrections. While the same is true with CS, CS offers design services.
Before you begin, you must create a publishing company. There is no need to incorporate. You can set up an LLC (Limited Liability Corporation) or operate under a trade name, also called a DBA (Doing Business As). Here’s info from the Small Business Association on both. Lightening Source requires you to fill out a standard business application. This is not a hugely big deal, but it can be time-consuming. By the time I had my paperwork in order and submitted, two weeks had gone by.
Another drawback: Amazon stocks CS titles, while listing LS titles as having a 1 – 4 week delivery time. (LS claims to ship Web orders within 5 days.) This is purely anecdotal, but the delivery lag seems to be a turn-off for buyers. On Amazon, my LS edition retails for $2.00 less than my CS edition, yet my CS sales are much higher. To check the veracity of Amazon’s listed delivery times, I ordered a copy of my LS title; it arrived in less than a week.
Amazon’s delivery time for my LS edition recently increased from 3 to up to 4 weeks, so these artificially extended delivery times may be a marketing decision on Amazon’s part. I’m not sure. It’s possible that they’ll reverse it, but, while I hate to be a naysayer, I don’t see that happening unless they get a lot of flack.
SELLING THROUGH BOTH DISTRIBUTORS: You may be thinking, as I did – I’m smart: I’ll use CS for Amazon sales and LS for distribution. If so, hold on.
First, by publishing print editions through both companies, using separate ISBN numbers (as I currently do), you kick yourself in the head. Book Scan, the company that tracks book sales, tracks by ISBN number. There is no way to show that two ISBN numbers belong to one book. Having two separate editions of a book hurts your sales rank. This is true on retail sites like Amazon and it’s also true of tracking for bestseller lists like USA Today or the NY Times. As we all know, once they hit stride, bestselling books sell because they’re bestsellers.
The other day, my CS edition ranked under 3500 on Amazon, while my LS edition ranked over 19,000. If every sale were credited to one edition, the higher sales numbers should have put my rank under 1000. Sales numbers affect not only buyer perception. They also determine where your book populates in queues. A book with high sales finds its way into the “readers who bought this also bought this” queues of popular titles. When you finish a book you loved, where do look for another? First, check the author’s backlist – and then you look at those queues. Believe me, a book on the first page of the queue on the detail page for The Help sells copies.
A book queued with a hot title has what we refer to as “a positive meta-message.” In other words, a book associated with a hot title gains status in the buyer’s mind. Currently, ILW is queued with Midwives, While I Was Gone, and a few other older Oprah book picks. I’m ecstatic! Truly, I am. But, what if I’d been smart and stuck with one edition? Combined sales may have put it in the queue with newer bestsellers, maybe even on a back page in the queue under The Help.
Yes, if you own the ISBN for your book, you may use the same number for both LS & CS print editions. BUT – while this may help your Book Scan rank – if you’re NY Times bestseller caliber, kudos to you – it changes nothing on Amazon, the world’s number one reseller. On Amazon you will still have two detail pages – one for the CS and one for the LS edition. Despite using the same ISBN number, sales of CS and LS editions will be credited separately. So, except for Book Scan, you’ll still be dealing with ALL problems outlined above.
NOTE: I was contacted recently by Aaron Shepherd/Shepherd Publications. According to Aaron, who’s published 12 books, if you use the same ISBN number for your Lightning Source and Createspace books, you will not – as I had been told by the CS rep I spoke with – end up with two detail pages. Here’s how Aaron recommends getting around this: http://www.newselfpublishing.com/PlanB.html You may still encounter the problems I mention above with availability and stocking.
I haven’t tried Aaron’s method, only because I just learned about it and have not yet had time to make the adjustments. Although it seems rather complicated and time-intensive, it may be worth trying.
Important: LS requires you to own the ISBN. You can NOT use a Createspace-supplied ISBN number with LS. If you publish with CS and opt-in to the library and academic institution distribution channel, you MUST use a CS ISBN.
WHAT TO DO?
It takes about 4 – 6 weeks for LS titles to populate on online retailer sites. A few weeks after mine did, spurred by the rank issue – sadly I’d failed to consider the rank issue beforehand – I contacted LS and asked them to cancel distribution to Amazon. I figured I’d use CS to service the Amazon behemoth and LS everywhere else.
No dice. With Lightning Source, it’s all or nothing. You distribute or you don’t. You can’t pick and choose.
Meanwhile, I’d already cancelled CS distribution. Practically overnight, the CS edition disappeared from online retailer shelves – e.g. BN – leaving me with a LS-distributed book with a 1 -3 week delivery time! Ack! Only one week earlier, the LS book had been listed as in stock! SO . . . I re-upped CS distribution – what choice did I have? – putting me right back at square one.
My advice? Wait until your eBook sales pop to spring for a paperback. Six months is a light-year in this evolving publishing world, and who knows? The rules may have changed by then. Or, publish your paperback with Createspace.
If you have the time and resources, consider hand selling to bookstores. If sales justify it (you’ll have to decide when that is) and you can afford to, offer your own return policy. This may not fly with corporate retailers like Barnes and Noble, but it will probably work in local BN and some indie bookstores.
For now, while it’s certainly not optimal, experience tells me that’s our best bet.
Terri Giuliano Long grew up in the company of stories both of her own making and as written by others. Books offer her a zest for life’s highs and comfort in its lows. She’s all-too-happy to share this love with others as a novelist and a writing teacher at Boston College. She was grateful and thrilled beyond words when her award-winning debut literary novel, In Leah’s Wake, hit the Barnes and Noble and Amazon bestseller lists in August. She owes a lot of wonderful people – big time! – for any success she’s enjoyed! Follow Terri on twitter @tglong, and visit her website.
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