Amazon, Part 2 — Take the Gloves Off: Create Space v. Lightning Source

This is the second installment of a three-part series that grew out of a presentation by Thom Kephart, the community outreach manager for Amazon.com, at the Aug. 25 meeting of the Publishers & Writers of San Diego.

Kephart spoke about Amazon’s self-publishing divisions, CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, and also went so far as to suggest (dare I say “recommend”?) that authors also use Lightning Source as part of their publishing plan.

For those of you unfamiliar with Lightning Source, it’s a book printer and distributor; it is NOT  a book publisher. Huge distinction and a critical one to keep in mind when trying to sort out the pros and cons of one’s publishing options.

Personally, I like Lightning Source and I recommend it to those who choose to self-publish, or become an “indie publisher,” if you prefer.

Yes, Lightning Source can be frustrating to deal with (embedded fonts, or the lack thereof, comes to mind, as well as the non-bleeding edge). They are sticklers and demand perfection in the cover and interior electronic files, where CS is more forgiving. [Caveat: Do not use Word to create your PDF—use such programs as Adobe InDesign (expensive), Adobe Acrobat Pro w/Distiller (ain’t cheap), or Scribus (open source, free).]

Nor does LSI offer 24/7 hand-holding like Amazon. That’s because LSI is a printer, not a quasi-publisher, and it prints books for the largest publishers in this land and your land (consider Oxford University Press).

Having been accused of being a perfectionist myself, I like the quality of LSI’s product, and for print-on-demand (POD), I have yet to find better pricing or a better business model. Also, because LSI is owned by Ingram Content Group, it gives authors a direct line to one of the largest book distribution networks on the planet for just $12 a year. What a lot of people don’t know is that Create Space uses Lightning Source for extended distribution—i.e., for winging your fledging book out of the Amazon nest. Amazon, in return, is a distribution partner of Ingram and Lightning Source.

The Middle Man

Question: Why not eliminate the middle man (CreateSpace) and go directly to LSI for one’s printing and distribution needs? My answer is, “Do it.”

But LSI is not for everyone. As I said, it can be frustrating to deal with; customer service is good but not stellar; and it does not offer any of the pre-press services (editing, graphic design, manuscript conversion, and cover design templates) that CS offers. CreateSpace will even give the author an ISBN (but if you use that ISBN, CreateSpace is the publisher of record, not the you).

LSI has the slam bam, thank you ma’am approach. You submit your files and they go to press.

But with LSI—and this is where I become adamant—authors using LSI truly are publishers. They obtain their own ISBNs, and if they can’t DIY the pre-press stuff, they hire someone who can. The advantage is that the author has total control and gets custom work (and higher quality, IMHO).

Face it, the biggest expense in publishing the book is not the printing, which the industry calculates at about 20 percent. The biggest expense is the editing, followed by cover design and interior layout. And even Amazon’s Thom Kephart said, “hire an editor” who is not a relative or close friend.

I do understand (well, I’m working on it) that some authors don’t want the headaches associated with the LSI approach, and they don’t want to pay out a single penny upfront. They just want to get their book into print with the least amount of hassle and minimum cost. And if it never sells more than a few copies  . . . oh, well. CreateSpace, along with a host of similar services, offers that promise.

Even so, I don’t care what Thom Kephart or anyone else tells you, IT AIN’T FREE.

True, CS does not charge up-front fees for the basic setup, when the author provides the manuscript and cover ready to go to press. But Amazon is not in the biz of giving things away. Amazon/CreateSpace makes its money on the back end by (a) charging authors for editing and design services (packages begin at $299), (b) taking a cut of every book sold (LSI does not), and charging more for printing the books than LSI charges. Ultimately, Amazon extracts its pound of flesh. It’s just not as obvious as with LSI.

From that perspective, the only significant difference between LSI and CS is that CS allows authors to upload a Word doc, which is converted to a PDF for free (uploading a PDF is better, however). LSI requires an error-free PDF (recall “embedded fonts”). LSI also charges a $75 setup fee, although savvy authors know that LSI is waiving that fee for an indefinite period of time, if the author commits to buying at least 100 books (which comes with an additional 10 percent quantity discount). (Savvy authors/publishers also know that LSI provides the ISBN bar graph for free.)

Ongoing Debate

So the heat (yes, “heat”) of the debate comes down to books printed at Lightning Source being listed by Amazon as “temporarily out of stock,”  accompanied by tales of delivery times stated in weeks rather than days.

Personal experience: Under Wigeon Publishing, I published a book last week (Home From the Banks, a collection of poems by Arthur Raybold). A few days before the official publication date—as listed in the ISBN meta data at Bowker—B&N offered the book for sale as a pre-order. When I checked Amazon, the book had not yet been listed. But on the day of publication, Amazon listed the title and screened the dreaded words: “temporarily out of stock.”

OK, fine. I ordered a copy, curious to see how long it would take to get the book. I was told it would be five days. The next day, I went back to Amazon. It listed the book as “In Stock.” Very cool.

Some have suggested getting around the “temporarily out of stock” situation by doing just what Kephart suggested—using both services. Use CS to get the book into Amazon immediately so the book is always “in stock” and use LSI to reach the rest of the world. (Use the same ISBN, which you want to get from Bowker, not CreateSpace.) The champions of this approach have dubbed this move “Plan B.”

I’m not sold on the idea (I’ve had more problems of availability with Barnes & Noble than Amazon), and I’m not sure it’s necessary. But I’m not going to tell anyone not to do Plan B. Just go in with your eyes wide open and, as Kephart advised, read the CreatSpace contract VERY carefully.

Another drawbacklast time I checked, CS does not offer a hardcover option. LSI offers hardcover with dust jacket and casebound (hardcover, no dust jacket).

Also of concern is market confusion. If booksellers other than Amazon want to stock your book, they may be reluctant to do so if they think they have to get it from Amazon/CreateSpace. Kephart said Amazon resolves this issue by restricting the availability of the book printed by CS to Amazon. I’m not convinced.

So (again, IMHO), for serious, professional writers—i.e., they are trying to earn a living at it or at least realize a profit (you can stop laughing any time)—who choose to “indie” publish, Lightning Source is the most cost-effective route for printed books. And I will continue to say that until someone comes up with a set of numbers different from mine. (E-books are another, which I address in Part 3.)

Let the debate rage on . . .

Next episode: Part 3 — Kindling the Fire With KDP

Read Part 1 — Amazon Publishing Services: It Ain’t the Whole Loaf

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About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- www.larryedwards.com -- www.dareicallitmurder.com -- www.wigeonpublishing.com
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8 Responses to Amazon, Part 2 — Take the Gloves Off: Create Space v. Lightning Source

  1. Pingback: Amazon Publishing Services: It Ain’t the Whole Loaf — Part 1 | Polishing That Prose

  2. largolobo says:

    Hi Larry,

    All sage advice. We have had many a chat on this topic. It’s all relevant and useful. There is subtext to what you say. The author that also puts on the publisher’s hat is the most effective beast on the block and should be the best business model for financial success; it is still a big hurdle for the average cat who is exhausted from just the writing process. The litmus test is, do you have the chutzpah to pull it off? You dare us to take up the challenge. You, my friend, have chutzpah!

    The Wolf-man

    • Thank you, Jack. I’m just trying to earn a few more shekels for my retirement.

    • That is the big conundrum for writers, especially those publishing fiction. They typically are not marketers, or even business-types. They want to have others do that unsavory task for them, or operate under the “build it and they will come” scenario. But even the bestsellers say it’s all about the marking. Amanda Hocking did that well (but her success did not come overnight). When James Elroy got the advance for his first book — $30,000 — he put it all into marketing and went on a self-financed national book tour. That rocketed him to the top of the charts, and all of his books have done well since then. Now, if only we all had $30,000 (in 1990s dollars) to pump into marketing.

  3. As a fledgling trying to write the book currently, I’ve not concerned myself too much with all these details of self-publishing, print on demand, traditional publisher, etc. However, with you as the protector of all things “writerly” here on my favorite blog platform, I worry less and sleep better at night.

  4. Chris says:

    Thank you Jack it is confusing to new authors and this makes it clearer
    http://ahairdressersdiaries.wordpress.com/

  5. Pingback: Amazon, Part 3 — Kindling the Fire With KDP | Polishing That Prose

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