When you make the decision to take the plunge into the often-intimidating world of self-publishing, one of the most important questions you’ll have to answer (aside from ‘do I write dino erotica or monster porn?’) is ‘who do I use to print the damn paperbacks?’. Assuming you aren’t going down the spare-room-filling route of a print run, you have three primary options: Lulu, CreateSpace, and Lightning Source. I’ve used all three, and, to be honest, there are differences. Some of these matter, some don’t – to me, at least. I’m coming at this from the angle of a UK writer and indie publisher, so some of the issues I have won’t be relevant to others.
While my primary experiences are with CreateSpace and Lightning Source, I have tried Lulu (detailed below), if only briefly. As such, I’ve made a short mention of my experiences with it, however, the main focus of this piece is Lightning Source and CreateSpace.
Not really a major contender for printing my book, The Septic Circle, due to their higher pricing and lack of decent trim sizes. If you are printing a one off book for yourself, or for family, and don’t want anything fancy, then they might be your best option. They are based in the UK and their turnaround was pretty fast when I used them to print off five beta copies of The Septic Circle for my brave beta readers. Because of the lack of suitable options for me, I had to go with a 6 x 9 trim (too outsized for fiction, IMO), and the standard glossy cover.
The book was easy to set up and the online interface simple to use for a novice. It didn’t take long to whizz through everything and get a set of copies ordered, although good luck to anyone foolish enough to dick around with their cover creator. Pay for a pro. I was only trying to make a basic thing for beta copies, but I gave up after getting fed up with the limited options and amount of faff it involved, and got my designer (my put-upon partner) to knock one up, which could then be uploaded. I didn’t worry about proofing, as these were only beta copies, and they arrived swiftly.
The cover quality was good – not stunning, but good. It wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, but otherwise the cover itself felt sturdy enough, if not a little cheap-feeling inside. The interior print was sharp and the paper was serviceable. On the whole, for what I wanted it for, it was perfectly acceptable, if expensive. Overall, it is hard to asses Lulu further, as I used their service in autumn last year, and only for a basic beta copy. I wasn’t too fussed how it all turned out as long as my beta readers had something to get their mitts on.
- Easy to use site and project interface
- Swift delivery, thanks to the company being based in the UK
- The price. Way more expensive than the other two major players.
- Cover not as sharp as I would have liked.
- Limited choice of trim sizes
As loathe as some may be to praise them, given that they’re Amazon, they are a major player in the POD space and, to some extent, deserve their laurels. The site is easy to navigate, has a stack of help files and useful forum posts, and generally makes things easy for the uninitiated to begin their self-publishing journey. Their interface is easy to use when setting up your book, and if there is ever anything you aren’t sure of along the way, or you get bored and want to Google some porn/raid the fridge/fall asleep in front of Storage Hunters you can always save your progress and come back to it another time. They want your business, so they make life as easy as possible for you.
Once you set up your book, upload your files and cover, and sort out your distribution (where you want to sell it) you can submit it. At this point CreateSpace begin crunching your book to make sure that there aren’t any horrific errors, before allowing you to move on to the proofing step – arguably the most important.
You are given the option to view a digital proof (PDF) or order a proof copy. Once the proof is approved, your book will go live on your selected distribution channels within a few days. CreateSpace say between 5 – 7 business days but, in reality, it was much sooner – perhaps two or three.
One of the baffling downsides to the service, however, was that because CreateSpace is a US company, and although they ship Amazon UK orders from somewhere in the UK (Lightning Source are rumoured to actually print them!), proof and author copies have to come from the USA. There is no getting around this (there actually is a very fiddly way, but it’s expensive, time consuming, and for another post). Ball-ache? Yes. However, given how cheap the copies are, and the fact that you can get expedited/priority shipping (recommended if you don’t want to be combing beetles out of your new beard by the time they arrive), you can actually have your spiffy new book inside of a week.
Looking at my member dashboard now (11th February), if I were to order twenty copies of The Septic Circle, with priority shipping to the UK ($55.99), they would – so it is estimated – be here on Wednesday, 19th February – total spend for twenty copies coming in at $150.19 – which, using xe.com’s excellent currency converter, works out at £91.30. When I ordered my proof copy from them before Christmas, using priority shipping, it arrived in lighting-quick time. I had placed the order around 10am, and by 5pm the same day it had been printed and despatched. The same day. It arrived the day after they said it would be… but that’s only because they said it would arrive on Boxing Day, and there’s no post that day in the UK. Very impressive service.
Quality? The book was gorgeous. The matte cover (now a free option) was lovely – although, if you are a neat freak, be warned, it picks up finger-marks very easily – and the print quality was good, if a little less sharp when it came to the blurb than I would have liked. The colours were spot on, according to the cover designer, and the general appearance was pleasing. Inside, the pages were quite a deep creme – I can understand complaints from others who have used them that they look too weathered – and the paper was thicker than I would have expected. For me this wasn’t so much of a problem, but it may well bother others. Overall, I was very happy and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again.
The member dashboard looks basic, but has everything you probably need. It has a link for you to order copies, displays your total number of sales for the month (it takes quite a while – up to half a day or more in some cases – for sales to register), and how much you have earned in royalties for each region – US dollars, UK pounds, and euros.
- Fast delivery
- Easy to use service
- Nice range of trim sizes and cover options
- Copies were cheap
- Overall quality is good
- Proofs and author copies are sent from the USA
- Back cover text not as sharp as it could/should be
- Paper thickness could put some people off
- No easy route to UK bricks and mortar retail
Not a site for the faint of heart. If you’ve arrived on LS’s shores from the sunny climes of CreateSpace, then you’re in for one hell of a fucking shock. Lightning Source is more of a trade site than it is an author-friendly POD site. It is set up for use by publishers, and, as such, requires that you have your own ISBNs before you can show up at the party.
It takes days to set up and apply for an account, with digital forms needing to be signed and printed copies of things either faxed or physically mailed to LS for approval. Only then can you start setting up a book on their system, which is far from the easiest thing in the world. Much of the time I spent with LS was me hunting for things, or scanning FAQs. There is almost zero hand-holding, and what help you do find on their site can be frustratingly vague and presumptuous at times.
It is a trade site, though, not an author-friendly site with an interface to match, so I can hardly complain – you have to get through the best you can, although their customer service, the few times I have had cause to contact them, have been very prompt and helpful. I found that, much of the time, I was kept in the dark. LS likes to just get on with things. No buggering about, it just shuts up, goes away, and does what it is supposed to, before turning up days later, completely surprising you. That’s great. It isn’t great, however, when you’re sitting there, thinking “did I upload the right file to the right place?”; “has my order gone through?”; “once I approve my proof, do I need to wait, or can I order stuff?”; “hello? Is there anyone there?”
It is also more expensive to set up a book. CreateSpace don’t charge you for the process, just the end product when you (or someone else) orders one. LS, however, charge a set up fee per book, and a tidy £21.00 for a printed proof. I’ll wait while you scrape yourself off the floor. Yes, although that £21.00 includes postage – presumably to be delivered by an emerald-encrusted unicorn. However, they will also charge you for any adjustments that you need to make, so make damn sure that the interior file that you upload is error free, or you’ll pay through the nose for your mistakes. You’ll be charged every time that you need to alter and upload a new interior file/cover file.
What is great, is that they can open the doorway to the holiest of UK holies… bricks and mortar retail. Or, more to the point, Waterstones. While it won’t mean that Waterstones are falling over their engorged bits to stock your book, it will mean that, thanks to LS’s ‘in’ with the big UK distributor, Gardners, Waterstones are more within your grasp – you’ll still have to persuade them to stock your book though, meaning a visit here and reading the section ‘Submitting Your Book For Consideration’. They also have strong distribution options, home and abroad, which include Amazon and Barnes & Noble. However, thanks to Amazon’s suspect pissing about with POD books by anyone other than CreateSpace (Mr Google is your friend here, if you want to know more), you may want to leave all handling of Amazon to CreateSpace, and everyone else to LS. And there are a lot of everyone elses, making them the best option as far as serious distribution goes.
The overall quality was good – the paper is lighter, and the text darker than CreateSpace, but which is better will be down to individual tastes – although there were issues with the book itself, in that my copies always arrive bendy. Wavy. Odd looking. After contacting LS customer service, I was told that this is due to the heat applied during the digital printing process. I have found that the kink in the books does go away (but never entirely), but when I first get my hands on them, whether I’m ordering a lone copy or a box full, they look bad at first, IMO.
- UK based
- Good customer service
- Crisp-looking interiors
- Great UK distribution options
- Great range of trim sizes
- Good overall quality
- Expensive to set-up
- You’ll pay to correct/re-upload files for proofs
- As a new user, it feels like you’re flying blind, much of the time
- Time-consuming set-up process
- Bendy books
Each company has its merits, but, ultimately, it comes down to what you need. Ideally, I would have liked to use one company for everything, but because of the experiences of others with Amazon and other POD companies, I decided to go the multi-printer route. For Amazon I use CreateSpace, and for everything else, including US retail distribution, as well as the big UK distributors, I use Lightning Source. For new users coming on board, Lightning Source may now be a different kettle of fish. I got in before they changed things up, whereas now, smaller publishers – namely you, if you are publishing your own book – are being shunted on to their new service Ingram Spark. It was rolled out in the US last year and is supposed to be more user-friendly, being targeted at authors and small publishers. I don’t know much about it, except that a big downside is that you can’t set the royalty rate yourself, unlike with Lightning Source. So if you want to offer retailers 50%, you can’t. You have to go with their options. Not ideal, but if you use CreateSpace, this will already be the case there, so again, it may not be a big deal for you.
Can you avoid using Ingram Spark? No idea. If you lie and say you are a medium-sized publisher, maybe. I’m sure their customer service reps can be of some help if you want to go the main LS route now. Hopefully this will still be an option.
I’ve been happy with both, for various reasons, and although CreateSpace is undoubtedly easier to use (and faster), Lightning Source’s powerful distribution options are a big deal. While there is little difference in overall product quality, it will come down to a personal choice. What matters to you. So ask yourself what you are looking for, and whether the pros outweigh the cons for what YOU want and expect.
Addition – 31/8/14: I have noticed that, over time, my LS books have developed an odd little issue in that the covers have shrunk or receded ever so slightly. It is just barely noticeable but, at the right side, you can now see a sliver of white where the pages peek a microscopic amount from behind the cover. Why this is, I don’t know. Heat, age, cheap process, who knows. I just know they weren’t like that six months ago. May not be an issue, but it is only right that I present it along with all my other experiences.