VoS BtS 7: Publishing a Print Version

April 7th, 2015 by Potato

[Back to the first post in the Value of Simple self-publishing behind-the-scenes series]

Printing on demand is really the innovation that has made it possible for people to self-publish print books without needing to commit a lot of money to a print run, while simultaneously dealing with distribution. Many local print shops will be able to do a small print run for you if you prefer to manage your own inventory, however I found it nearly impossible to compare the offerings of local businesses to those of the online giants.

The main PoD companies you’ll come across online are IngramSpark (and its sister, LightningSource), CreateSpace (CS), and Lulu. Both IngramSpark (IS) and LightningSource (LS) are divisions of Ingram, a massive world-wide printer and distributor of books — many large traditional publishers use Ingram for their distribution and printing. You’ll likely find many discussions and comparisons to LS, which was formerly the only way to print through Ingram. IngramSpark just launched in late 2013/early 2014, and now LS is trying to target small publishers with more than one title to their name, while IS targets the self-publisher with just one or two titles to put out. LS has more advanced options, while IS is more streamlined and easy to use. CreateSpace is part of Amazon, while Lulu is independent.

Lulu’s pricing is a bit off compared to the other options, but they aim to have a much wider menu of services (at additional cost) that you can get through them so that it’s more of a one-stop solution, including hooking you up with editors and cover artists. Lulu doesn’t look to charge any set-up fees, but has per-book production costs that are about 40% higher, which means that if you don’t need the services they provide the decision really comes down to IS vs CS.

For Canadians, the tight competition between IS and CS comes down to whether you think most of your sales will be in Canada or not. Under IS, you can set the pricing and wholesale discount of your book by country, whereas CreateSpace will dictate your non-Amazon, non-US royalties to you as part of their “expanded distribution” network — forcing a 60% discount on your native Canadian sales, even those through Amazon’s .ca site. I ended up choosing IS, in large part because I expected 100% of my sales to be Canadian (the material is specific to Canada); if your material is international in nature (as with Wynne Channing’s I Am Forever, a work of fiction — we’ll hear more from her at the end of the series), then being Canadian won’t really matter and you may prefer CS.

The rest of this will focus on my experiences with IngramSpark.

I’ll note that everything is of course still evolving: when I signed up with IS they only had two options for wholesale discounts (40% and 65%), but now they allow you to fine-tune and control it a bit more to anything between 30 and 55% (but still not quite as much control as with the more advanced LS platform). There was an annual fee to keep your book in the Ingram distribution catalogue before, which has recently been waived (likely due to competition as all of the major players have waived their distribution fees). It was only $12/yr before, so if this proves to be a temporary relief, the fees are not huge.

Discounts: as a publisher, you sell your book to retailers at a low price, they then mark it up to the list price and make some margin there — that’s the wholesale discount. With discounts it’s a tough balance: a store won’t carry your book if there’s nothing in it for them, but you need to make money too, and you will have fixed costs for printing that will come out of what the retailer pays IS/CS/Lulu (you can use their calculators to see for your format and page count, but expect it to be ~$4 US/copy). A higher discount can force you to drive your list price point higher, which may then eat into your sales (especially if you cross over some threshold for the genre), but set it too low to keep more for yourself and your book may never see the light of day, or never be featured with a special sale price. With IS at the time I didn’t have a ton of options, so I went with 40%, but that seems about right — many people say Amazon will list a book with less of a discount (as little as 20-30% and Amazon will likely still pick it up from LS), and that most bookstores need more of one (~60% is a traditional wholesale discount), however most bookstores won’t be taking your book anyway, and if you do the work of marketing it to them, they’ll likely still take it at ~40%.

Markets and Pricing: IS will let you control which markets and at which price your book sells at, but you must enable sales in the US (I was not expecting that, hoping to only offer my book in Canada). The thing I really didn’t understand at first is that it appears as though Amazon.ca still orders books through the US arm of the distributor, so you’ll get a royalty in USD based on your US price. This also affects your Canadian pricing — Amazon will ignore your manually determined CAD price (and what’s in the barcode and on the back of the book) and just use the US price with a currency conversion factor applied. Be sure to have your pricing set right the first time the book goes live, as they will not update the “list price” on the book’s page.

Determining what price to list your book at is a bit tricky. You’ll want to start by looking at what your competition is pricing at, but you’ll have to keep your cost structure in mind (some bestsellers will have economies of scale you may not be able to match as a self-publisher).

Getting listed in electronic bookstores like Amazon and Indigo is easy — IngramSpark (or CS/Lulu) will take care of that for you, and the online booksellers will likely pick you up because there’s no cost to having another book in their database. They recommend having your title set up 6 weeks in advance for it to percolate out to the retailers, but for me it only took about 3 weeks to show up on their sites. The retailers will pick up your book’s information from the printer, but not necessarily faithfully. I’ve already talked about the CAD retail price issue with The Value of Simple, but the description is also a touch wonky: it’s clearly three separate paragraphs in the Ingram catalogue, but some retailers just have one giant block of text there.

Getting into bricks and mortar bookstores is a whole other matter. I did not bother, but my understanding of the process is that you can either pay an exorbitant amount of money for a certain amount of time on the shelf, or you can call up every single individual manager of Chapters/Coles locations to convince them to order copies of your book. In IS you can select whether or not your book is returnable, and even whether you want returned copies shipped to you or destroyed. Given that they charge ~$20/copy to ship it to you, and they only cost ~$5 to print, it really only makes sense to return and destroy. Being able to return unsold books does reduce the risk for bookstores taking your book while increasing your risk. But again to be realistic, it’s unlikely you’ll get shelf space as a self-published author anyway.

Direct Sales: A big way self-publishers sell their books — especially when starting out — is through direct sales, whether in person at events or through your own website. I don’t know how Amazon is able to ship so quickly and so cheaply (a very small minimum order seems to generate enough margin for them to ship for free), but for individuals in Canada books can be expensive things to ship. I ordered padded envelopes from uline, which was by far the cheapest option I could find, and the envelopes are actually quite good. The book is thin enough that I can send it by regular lettermail — $5.30 per book after tax — and it’s a good thing too because parcel mail or expresspost is prohibitively expensive. On my direct sales website I include a discounted cost for shipping, and eat part of the cost out of my mark-up on the books.

Lulu and CS provide a neat direct sales option, creating a sort of higher-margin ministore for you on their site. However, the shipping costs here may be deal-breakers for your Canadian readers. If IS offers something like that, I haven’t found it — but prefer to order a print run and manage it myself anyway, and my personal store is all set up.

Libraries: As part of the cataloguing-in-publication service, your book will be included in a listing of new books published in Canada; as far as I can tell only one library system actually found the book this way. Most libraries have some kind of form where you can let them know about your book, and my success here has been mixed. I offered free copies to three “hometown” library systems: London Public Library and Toronto Public Library have not responded or included it in their catalogue; the Prince Edward Island Library did (and the uptake there has been great, with all copies almost always checked out and in patrons’ hands, sometimes with holds).

Let’s Get Ready to Publish: So you’ve decided on IS (or are just following along with my experience here), and you’re ready to get your book out to the world and into your hands for events.

First, you have to create an account and set up a title. They [used to] advertise the cost to set up a book as $53 Canadian, but I was actually charged $49 US — the Canadian figure is just an estimate based on exchange rates. With the credit card fees and weakening dollar, that ended up being more than advertised ($56.42). (note: I see they’ve just now stopped listing prices for Canadians)

They will provide you with an InDesign template (including a barcode) for your cover, and it’s actually a good template, clearly marking the bleeds, the danger zones, and the safe zones for content. You can choose whether your barcode has a price embedded in it, or if it will just be an ISBN. So with the interior contents (book block) in a standards-compatible PDF, and my cover designed and turned into a standards-compatible PDF, I was ready to upload. It took a few days for them to verify the files and make the book available to me to order proofs, which I did (I ordered 10, to check over and to hand out as advanced review copies or ARCs).

The proof step is an important one: you will spot an error or misprint that escaped you in all previous electronic and letter paper print reviews, or something new that cropped up in sending your files through IS. There is a change fee of $25 to upload new files and revise the book (note that the fee applies to the cover and book block separately so if you have to change everything it’ll be $50), expect at least one revision on at least one part of the book and just build it into your budget. This process is also why you want to have a nice lead time of a few weeks before your book is officially available.

One thing I had trouble finding out in advance was whether there would be customs brokerage fees on the shipments of books from IS — one document they had on their website said there wouldn’t be for Canadians, another said there would be for all non-US clients, as did the warning while I was paying. I’m happy to say that there were no brokerage fees on shipping with IS (it would have added about $1/copy to my cost direct sales cost if there were, as well as a great deal of anger because brokerage fees are BS).

I did not use their services for the e-book, but rather created my own ePub and AZW3 versions through Calibre and directly worked with the Kobo Writing Life and Amazon Kindle Direct Program systems (which I was already familiar with from the first book) — see part 4 and part 5 for more on the e-book creation and publishing aspects.

They will note in several places that there can be inconsistencies/variances in the printing and cropping of up to 1/16”, and I was surprised to see that this was not just a cover-your-ass kind of warning, but indeed the variability you can expect to see. I figured that the whole print run might have a shift in the positioning of the trim by up to that margin of error in one direction or another, but would mostly be essentially perfect to the naked eye, and consistent through a run. In reality each copy has its own positioning, and the full 1/16” variability is in force even across just a few dozen copies. While you would never notice with any given copy in your hands (unless you ignore their advice about thin outside borders that might get cropped weird), if you stack them up side-by-side you can see the shifting of elements. When designing your cover keep that in mind, and try not to put anything that’s small enough for a 1/16″ shift to be noticeable (for instance, I have 1/4″ coloured bars on the top and bottom of the spine, which in hindsight I would not do again — I would run the white spine right to the edges and into the bleed area, or make the entire spine a solid colour, green in this case).

Then I was able to order a bulk print run for myself (giveaways, review copies, and direct sales), and IS handled distribution to Amazon and Indigo.ca (and I’m sure a few other retailers and libraries I’m not tracking closely). The book went live as scheduled Dec 1st, and aside from the situation with the pricing and the currency conversion, completely without a hitch. At one point just after release Amazon was predicting a 2 month shipping time, but everyone I’ve heard from has received their books within 2 weeks at the most, so they are able to meet the demand in a reasonable amount of time.

In terms of analytics there’s very little through IS (especially compared to all the ebook self-publishing platforms): you get a snapshot of your past 30 days of sales as soon as you log in, but on any given day (once you’re past the first 30-day period where the counter only goes up) it’s pretty hard to say what the sales are like unless you’re obsessive about tracking it. I have not been able to find any information about what portion of sales go through Amazon versus other retailers — it’s all lumped into one line item. Indeed, as far as I can tell there was no point in setting a Canadian price in the catalogue as all the sales have been in USD through the US channel — and I can’t tell if that’s because of how it’s actually working, or if that’s just how they lump it together for reporting.

You’ll find out shortly after the month end how well you did in the previous month, and will get paid about three months later to your Canadian bank account. They will take care of converting your royalties to CAD, at a rate that appears to be very close to the posted fair exchange rate at month-end — if they had sent raw USD to your bank account I doubt your bank would provide rates as good (though in my specific case, with the CAD dropping, taking a marked-up bank rate three months later would have worked to my benefit). They asked me some simple questions during my account registration, figured out I was Canadian, and I have not faced US withholding taxes (and didn’t have to register for an ITIN for the privilege).

All-in-all I’ve been quite happy with IngramSpark, and it definitely has some advantages over CS for Canadians with books that will mostly have sales here. Knowing how much variability there actually is in the printing, I would have made some slight changes to my cover design (particularly the spine), but otherwise found it pleasantly surprise-free and am happy to recommend them to you.

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