Updated September 2019
A few edits for flow and to reduce repetition to come… but this is now mostly current! Apologies as I’ve been very busy!
Low cost print-on-demand companies to consider if you’re going to do all of the legwork yourself include:
- KDP PRINT (owned by Amazon.com and based in the USA)
- Ingram Spark (a sister company to Lightning Source; the latter is no longer open to indie authors but instead services small independent publishers)
- Blurb (best for photographic/picture books)
I’ve ended up combining KDP Print (previously called CreateSpace) and Lightning Source. For most new self-publishers I recommend using KDP Print combined with Ingram Spark. Read on to find out more – especially (1) why it’s important to understand about ISBNs and (2) why opting for KDP Print for Amazon distribution is highly recommended but why choosing their Expanded Distribution Channel to reach other online and high street retailers may not be a good idea and why Ingram Spark is likely to be a better option.
KDP Print (previously CreateSpace)
I found KDP Print* a great place to start my self-publishing journey for a number of reasons – though you will see later that, being UK-based, I have split my distribution between KDP Print and Ingram. (*for simplicity I have updated this article to refer to KDP Print instead of CreateSpace)
Reasons to consider KDP Print:
- Next to no set-up costs – more on this below.
- Your book is made available on Amazon.com for free. In return Amazon deducts 40% of the retail price, giving you a 60% royalty.
- It will also appear on Amazon store worldwide. Orders are printed in the US, UK or Europe and shipped direct to the customer. You don’t need to do anything.
- KDP Print provides free Word templates for formatting your book’s interior. The templates come in a wide range of sizes to match the most common print book sizes.
- In addition they offer step-by-step instructions on how to convert your formatted file to PDF ready for (free) upload. These final PDF upload documents also work for Ingram Spark if you’re using them too.
- They also offer a free interior reviewer tool where you can upload and check your Word or PDF interior file before you order your hard copy review
- KDP Print also offers easy-to-use free book cover design software ‘Cover Creator’ which you can use to design a print-ready cover for your book. The software, which is housed on KDP’s site, allows you to upload your cover text and images into pre-designed templates and play around with text and background colours to suit you needs. Once you have your first prototype, you can then preview alternate designs at a click of a button. (The templates come with images that you can use if you wish, but it’s likely that you’ll want to replace these with your own.) I’ve not used these templates for my own book covers – but they are worth knowing about because they are free! They can also give you ideas for briefing an illustrator on a design. NB I personally don’t recommend designing your own cover or using these templates – let a professional do it. But the templates are worth knowing about.
- If you decide not to use Cover Creator (see above) you can download free cover templates that will ensure that your cover file for upload is sized correctly for your book size /format and page count
- KDP Print will provide you with a free ISBN if you wish. Personally I would not recommend using their free ISBN if you want to get your books into bricks and mortar stores because book sellers do not look on Amazon kindly and will see that your book is published and distributed by them. In addition if you wanted to self-publish the same title through another site you would have to use a different ISBN. Rather I would recommend buying your own ISBN from Bowker in the USA or Nielsen in the UK. Go to my section on ISBNs to lear more and find links to these organisations.
- KDP Print provides an easy-to-use Royalty Calculator enabling you to play around with different retail prices and estimate what you will earn based on the different distribution channels you opt for. What you earn depends on your trim size and number of pages, whether it’s colour or black and white interior etc – more on these below. (More on how your final royalty is worked out here.)
- It also has the most fantastic Community Forum where you can get help on all aspects of formatting files, understanding ISBNs or distribution channels and so on – it’s also a great place to meet people doing the same thing as you are. And a great place to find some real gems of folk who will help you out with last minute formatting issues at a very reasonable costs. For more on this see the Word formatting section.
- It offers a free Preview Gallery where you can get feedback on your book from other KDP community members or friends/family.
- There is no charge if you need to make proofing corrections and re-upload your file, provided the page count stays the same.
- It has free member email support (requires log in) and they usually reply within one working day – you can fire anything at them from general to specific and they will answer. They also offer free telephone support for international customers – via a call-back system.
- Your financial outlay is minimal – (a) you get free listing on all Amazon stores worldwide (b) you also have the option to select to wider distribution channels beyond Amazon – albeit it at much lower royalty rates : see the section below on Extended Distribution Channel. However, I would not recommend choosing Amazon’s Expanded Distribution Channel if you want to have the chance of persuading bricks and mortar stores to stock or be prepared to order your book – I talk about this more below.
In short, if you’re truly planning to go ‘DIY’, KDP Print is a great place to learn the ropes of preparing digital files for print-on-demand and to get your books onto Amazon stores worldwide. It’s also a great place to meet other authors doing the same as you. (For info – KDP Print also offers a full professional publishing service – from formatting all of your files to upload and listing and marketing of your book. However I’d be wary of shelling out huge sums at this stage – there are many more places to find freelancers to help you. Come and join the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out why. )
KDP Print’s Expanded Distribution Channel: pros and cons
There’s a full explanation of the EDC here, but in brief, it means your book will be made available on global data feeds that go out to book wholesalers and many online and bricks and mortar book retailers (beyond Amazon) .
There are two reasons why I don’t use this channel and why you need to take heed before doing so:
1/ Books you sell this way will earn you much lower royalties than your non-EDC sales because KDP Print deducts a 60% sales channel percentage from your list price compared with 40% deducted from your automatic free listing on Amazon.
2/ If you choose this channel, although your book will find its way on to the extended data feeds that get sent out by Ingram (and which bookshops see on their systems), bricks and mortar booksellers will see that any orders they place will be fulfilled by an Amazon company and may be be unwilling to order your book in due to the Amazon connection.
I therefore recommend using KDP Print for distribution to Amazon worldwide and then Ingram Spark for everything else. Also, by not opting for KDP’s Expanded Distribution Channel you can use the same ISBN for your book with Ingram Spark. If you were to use KDP Print’s expanded distribution and then decided you wanted to use Ingram Spark you would need to use a new ISBN for that channel, which would create two records for your book and be very confusing.
For the record, I use KDP Print and Lightning Source (a sister company of Ingram Spark — Ingram Spark didn’t exist when I first started self-publishing, but it amounts to the same thing), to ensure that other bookshops are receptive to ordering my print books. For indie authors the dual route is now KDP Print and Ingram Spark.
Launched in July 2013, Ingram Spark is a sister operation to Lightning Source (both are owned by Ingram content). Reasons to consider Ingram Spark for self-publishing your book in the UK are:
- You can use it alongside KDP Print’s Amazon channels with the same ISBN if you own that ISBN provided you don’t select KDP Print’s Expanded Distribution Channel. Choosing this combination of options means your book will show in stock on Amazon at all times, but at the same time – because you are using Ingram Spark – it will appear in the data feeds of most online bookstores worldwide and Ingram Spark will fulfil orders from those websites for you.
- It will also make it available via Ingram’s data feed to the main wholesale booksellers worldwide who in turn supply the retail high street book shops. (If you instead list with Amazon and choose their Expanded Distribution, bookshops will see it in their feed but will not be receptive to ordering due to the Amazon link.)
- Ingram has print facilities or printing arrangements in many countries and so can often fulfil orders placed through online or bricks and mortar stores relatively locally.
- Ingram Spark allows you to set your own wholesale discount price – and vary this by country of distribution. Choose your discount carefully, though – see next bullet for why.
- Bear in mind when using Ingram Spark that choosing lower-end wholesale discounts will make it unlikely that your book will get chosen by the large UK bookstores as stock. This is because they expect a minimum 35% discount from their suppliers – the latter being wholesalers (such as Gardners, Bertram’s, Baker and Taylor in the UK) who in turn buy from Ingram. I’ve opted for 45% discount, making an educated guess that this still leaves the retail shop book buyers a potential discount of 30-35% after the wholesaler takes their cut. Within a couple of weeks of launching The Secret Lake, seven branches of Waterstones (a major UK high street bookseller) ordered my book following calls I made to them to introduce them to introduce the book through The Secret Lake website . I doubt those orders would have happened had I opted to receive a higher royalty because Waterstones would have seen that the discount would have been too low – so it really depends on what you marketing aspirations are. See more in the marketing section.
- You can order your own short print runs from Ingram Spark for delivery to home or anywhere else in the UK – at very reasonable cost. I use these to take into schools and to supply to local bookshops on consignment. There’s a calculator on the front of their website where you can work out the costs If you only use KDP Print you can also order author copies for the same purpose.
Key points to be aware of:
- You will need to supply your own ISBN (see the section on ISBNs) – but this is no bad thing!
- Unlike with KDP Print, there are set-up costs with Ingram Spark and there is a charge each time you alter a file – but these costs are by no means prohibitive. And if you join The Alliance of Independent Authors there is a code you can use to have these set-up fees waived.
- Ingram Spark offers free eProofs as well as hard copy proofs (for which there is a cost). The eProofs are great for checking first drafts and it’s free to upload a revised file if you discover any proofing errors, but be sure to order a hard copy proof before going ahead with final publishing.
- If choosing only to use Ingram Spark (and not KDP Print) you are likely to experience listing problems on Amazon’s sites in terms of ‘Out of stock’ messages, or delivery times showing of 1-3 weeks, because Amazon is not fulfilling those orders (but would like to be…). In contrast, if KDP Print is your distributor your title will always shows as being in stock on Amazon. This is why I recommend you use KDP Print for all Amazon channels and then Ingram Spark for everything else. If you are reading this and already have out of stock issues try contacting the relevant Amazon team via your Author Account – but prepared to get a standard reply; in the early days they were very helpful, but more recently they tend to refer you back to LS/IS. Here’s where you set up an Amazon UK Author Account
If Ingram Spark sounds of interest (I hope it does!), here’s what they do and don’t provide at the practical level when it comes to file preparation:
- It doesn’t provide interior templates for formatting your book – instead it just provides file size specification guidance. However, I found that my interior files created from KDP Print templates upload fine to Ingram Spark provided you choose the same book size and paper colour on each site.
- Ingram doesn’t provide any cover design software akin to KDP Print’s, so you would need to be using an independent illustrator to design your book cover and he/she will need to follow the Ingram Spark file creation specifications when saving the file for upload. (These are subtly different from the KDP Print specifications, so you cannot simply use the same files.)
- It does provide a what it calls a Cover generator – by which I mean a basic template that your illustrator can use with their illustrator package to ensure that your book cover design is correctly sized with images and text positioned within trim lines, the bar code correctly positioned, and so on.
Top tip on trim size if you’re thinking of using Ingram Spark
If you’re thinking of using Ingram Spark and are going to prepare your files using KDP Print’s Interior templates, make sure on KDP Print that you choose a trim size and paper colour that is also available from Ingram Spark!
Back in 2011, I had to spend a lot of time at the last minute reformatting The Secret Lake from 5.06″ x 7.01″ (the most common size for a children’s book in the UK) to 5.25″ x 8″ – because I suddenly noticed in the small print that Ingram Spark (or rather Lightning Source, which I use) would only print the former book size on white paper and not cream. Things may have since changed, so do check for yourself if you’re thinking of using this size. I would rarely recommend white paper for fiction – because it looks self-published! Back in 2011 I sent notes to CreateSpace and Lightning Source suggesting they include 5.06″ x 7.01″ on cream paper due to its being the classic size for a children’s book in the UK – I must check whether they have now implemented this!
The above all said, after have sleepless nights (!) over being forced to choose a few inches/centimetres above the norm, I can assure you that my book does not stand out like a sore thumb in the children’s bookshops due to its size. It looks great!
I have to own up that I don’t know a lot about Lulu.com because I quickly discounted them when I saw that the paper sizes they offered for paperbacks weren’t suitable for children’s fiction. Also, at the time I was doing my research, the cost to use them was more expensive than using CreateSpace and Lightning Source – and I did see this mentioned on quite a few forums and blogs. That said, I also noticed a lot of UK-based authors saying they were successfully using Lulu for their UK sales and CreateSpace for their US sales – so it’s definitely worth checking them out. When I have more time I will update this section to make it more useful for comparison purposes. In the meantime here are a couple of useful links:
Again, I know little about Blurb – again because none of the trim sizes they offered were suitable for the book size I needed. But I do know that it is easy to use and fantastic for making books that contain lots of photographs or illustrations. I have several friends who have used it for photographic books and they have been delighted with the results.
Here is their website link if you want to check it out (use the drop-down at the bottom right of the screen to select your country).