While there are many book printers in the industry, two print-on-demand printing service providers stand out from the pack: CreateSpace and Lightning Source, Inc. Most vanity publishers use one of these two companies as printers, as do most self-publishing authors. Which one should you choose to produce your book?
Disclaimer: While I’ve tried to keep this article unbiased, I have used Lightning Source, Inc. since 2003 and have a lot more experience with them than CreateSpace. I have not published my own books through CreateSpace, however I have helped some authors publish through them. Obviously I like Lightning Source, Inc. more, but I also understand there is no “one-size-fits-all” publishing option. My intent for this article is so you can make an informed decision for your book and your goals.
CreateSpace (CS) is the newer of the two companies. In 2005, Amazon purchased BookSurge (founded in 2000), a POD printer and competitor to Lightning Source with their better color printing quality and changed the name to CreateSpace. At the time, BookSurge didn’t have a good reputation in publishing circles. Those of us in the industry who used them hoped with the Amazon acquisition things would get smoother, which they did… eventually. However, in the midst of the transition, the quality of the books went down from what they used to be when BookSurge was in business. At the same time, their customer service standards went up a bit. Here are the pros and cons, as I see them, to using CS:
- Fast and easy—Setting a book up with CS (after getting the formatting correct) is a simple step-by-step process. They even offer free templates for book covers.
- Publishing services—They offer basic publishing services like copy-editing and “custom” book cover design. These can be helpful options for self-publishing authors, while some may be more expensive than authors can find from freelance publishing service providers.
- Free title setup with order of one proof copy—Ordering a hardcopy proof is required, but it will only cost you a few dollars. Other than that there are no setup fees.
- POD printing—CS is a print-on-demand (POD) printer, so there are no minimums for you to order books from them. While their website makes it sound like they’re the only POD printer that works directly with authors, the fact is they are one of several (Lightning Source, Inc. is another one covered in this article.)
- Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing connection for eBook formats—Once your paperback is approved you can select an option for your book to be converted to Kindle format. This is typically done by a “meatgrinder” and not a hand-programmer, so non-fiction books with complex formatting may run into issues, but the interface is simple.
- “Expanded” distribution—CS recently added a $25 upgrade option that lists your book in multiple retail channels including Barnes and Noble’s catalog system.
- Indie publishing option—CS does offer ISBNs for resale (they’re one of the few legal resellers of ISBNs) or let you to supply another ISBN you own. This allows you to use them as a printer only and publish under your own label.
- Fast and easy—Fast and “easy” isn’t always the best way to stand out in the competitive world of books, especially if you’re a first-time author with no idea what you’re doing. Using book cover templates presents an entire realm of issues all on their own, not to mention authors thinking they can “go it alone” and get the same results as authors who use a team of publishing pros.
- Quality—I’ve spoken with many CS-published authors whose books had problems like cover coatings peeling, and most books published through them have no editing and very poor design quality. By getting their free ISBN and the “Published by CreateSpace” label on your book, your reputation is lumped in with thousands of others even if you worked hard to make your book have a higher level of quality. This can be an issue for an author who may want a traditional contract in the future.
- Hand-holding support—While you will get help with CS systems, setup of your book files and giving them more of your money to make your files useable (if you don’t know how to format your own book), you will not get personalized hand-holding from an industry expert for creating your book from start to finish and creating and implementing a marketing plan. On the plus side, I’ve only heard a couple of authors complain about CS customer service. In general they do a good job of keeping their authors happy.
- Trim sizes—CS offers a limited number of trim sizes and paper types, as well as only one style of color printing.
- “Distribution”—What CS doesn’t tell you is that their $25 per year “Expanded Distribution” option has nothing to do with getting your book onto bookstore shelves. Every CS author I’ve spoken with has told me they still can’t get into stores like Barnes and Noble for a book signing. What CS won’t tell you is they are “red flagged” by retailers like Barnes and Noble because they will publish anyone, any time. Because they don’t have any way to control the quality of books they print (writing, editing, design, etc.), it’s easier for stores to say, “No,” to CS-printed books than to have to vet authors who print through them to find a diamond in the rough.
- Bulk quantity discounts—CS doesn’t offer discounts for bulk purchases of books. This means whether you buy one or 500, the price-per-unit remains the same. You may save on shipping costs when ordering more books, but this is normal for ordering anything online from almost any company.
About Lightning Source, Inc.
Lightning Source, Inc. (LSI) was founded in 1998 by Ingram Content Group, the largest wholesaler and distributor of books in the world. As a result, LSI has a built-in distribution network to all mainstream brick-and-mortar retailers and over 25,000 online retailers. Almost every vanity publisher that says they will get you listed with Ingram is using LSI to print their authors’ books. Contrary to popular belief, LSI will work directly with authors who only publish their own books, not just publishers of others’ books. Here are the pros and cons to using LSI as your book printer:
- Fast—While not quite as fast as CS, LSI is still a fast printer. I’ve often placed an order on a Monday only to have books appear at my doorstep on Wednesday—two days later. Depending on the time of year (there are peak seasons for book printing) and how far you are from the print facility (they have print facilities in the US, UK and Australia) determines how quickly your books will get to you.
- Cheaper than CS—Yep, you read that right! While many authors who use CS think they’re getting books cheaper, LSI offers quantity discounts starting at an order of 50 books, then another discount tier at 150, 250 and so on. This makes them significantly cheaper than CS for an author to order his or her own books. Now the flip side to this is that books sold through Ingram’s distribution channels don’t get these discounts. For books sold directly to customers through Amazon, CS holds the market in price. I set up the same book with LSI and CS. My per-book price through CS was $2.50. My per-book price through LSI when I ordered 50 was $2.27, then down as far as $2.07 each when I ordered 250. Saving 50 cents per book adds up fast!
- Free title setup—to authors “in the know” who ask their LSI reps for the code, LSI will waive their typical $75 book setup fee if the author’s first book order is 100 books or more. Honestly, if you can’t sell 100 copies of your book, you have no business publishing one.
- No minimum—Like CS, LSI is a print-on-demand (POD) printer. This means there are no minimum orders. You can choose to order just one book if you wish.
- Quality—LSI holds the original patented POD technology, and CS can’t meet the same level of quality and still offer free setup. LSI also offers matte coating, dozens more trim sizes, and superior premium color quality, as well as a standard color quality option similar to CS quality. They even do hardback full color books, though these are rather expensive.
- Customer service—LSI gives you four personal reps—each in a different department. If you can’t get ahold of one, you can get ahold of another who will point you in the right direction. They also offer online chat support (I think CS has this, too). You can pick up the phone and reach your assigned rep directly, instead of going through a bureaucracy of “Press 1…” “For xyz, press 2.” (I’m unsure if CS assigns a rep with a direct phone number.)
- Real book distribution—LSI gives authors “in the know” access to bookstore shelves for a mere $12 per year. I’m not talking about “expanded distribution,” CS’s way of trying to compete. There are about 11 requirements for a book to be stocked on shelves and CS doesn’t meet half of them. LSI’s book setup process includes options to meet all these requirements.
- Amazon.com + 25,000—Contrary to popular belief, CS isn’t the only way to get on Amazon.com. Amazon also has a relationship with Ingram Book Group. Set your book up with LSI and you’ll see your book magically appear on Amazon and 25,000+ other online retailer websites about two days after you approve your proof!
- Drop-shipping—While CS offers drop-shipping as well, LSI gives you the quantity discounts with their drop-ship service, and you can work with your rep to make sure your books arrive exactly when they need to. If you have a speaking engagement at a two-day conference, you have a narrow window for your books to arrive on time and your rep can help you make that happen.
- Account setup—LSI has a longer account setup process than CS. Allow about 3-5 business days for your account to be complete. There is some semi-confusing paperwork involved. The reason for this process is LSI keeps a relationship with their book buyers, who expect a higher level of quality, through Ingram Book Group. They don’t want just anyone printing books with them, and look for smart people who can handle a little paperwork. It’s their way of cutting out the riffraff and creating a “vetting” process for self-publishers sort of like what exists with traditional publishers… though not nearly as rigorous.
- Setup fee—If you don’t order 100 books for your first order with the secret coupon code, your setup fee is about $75. They also charge about $30 for a hard copy proof, which includes overnight shipping. This fee is optional, but highly recommended over viewing a digital proof.
- Kindle setup—LSI is a book printer only, so while they have eBook options for PDFs, they do not currently offer Kindle, iBooks or Nook setup. These accounts need to be set up separately with a different vendor.
- Publishing services—LSI expects all files submitted to them to be “trouble-free,” meaning a qualified book designer who knows what settings to use has created files that won’t cause any problems or need any additional formatting. This means you have to contract a book designer who knows how to design POD books (which you really should be doing anyway). They do not offer publishing services other than book printing.
- ISBNs—In order to have an account with LSI, you must have ISBNs registered in your name. If you had an ISBN given to you (which is illegal, by the way) or an ISBN that belongs to another company (such as one belonging to CS that’s on a previously published version of your book), you will need to acquire your own ISBNs and register yourself as a company.
When Should You Use CreateSpace?
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer who doesn’t want to outsource your book’s design to a professional team, you can use CS’ templates, which make it really easy for first-time authors with a limited budget to get a book done. They also offer services like cover design, but honestly you’ll get better quality for a cheaper price from a freelance designer site like 99Designs.com. I wouldn’t jump through the hoops of LSI if you only ever want to publish just one book, if you don’t care about offline/bookstore sales, if you primarily want to be an eBook publisher, and if your book is a simple lead-generating book.
When Should You Use Lightning Source, Inc.?
If you’re serious about taking your book publishing to the next level, with the ability to not only get inside book stores and other retailers, but be able to publish other people’s books in the future and reach a much wider market, LSI is for you. If you care greatly about the quality of your book and are willing to find a professional team of editors and book designers to help you craft a best-seller quality product, and especially if you want to publish more than one book or a series. While LSI has a few more hoops to jump through to get started, they publish many titles for the “big six” traditional publishing houses and therefore already have a good reputation as a book printer with Ingram and retailers.
Make an Informed Decision
Before you choose either printer for your book, make sure you research all your options thoroughly, including your publishing options of using a vanity self-publishing house, a traditional publisher or starting your own independent company. If you’re going to start an independent publishing house, I highly recommend using Lightning Source, Inc. from the beginning rather than the “cheaper” CreateSpace option, as you’ll end up wanting to switch over eventually. If you’re just playing around, testing the market or publishing a book for the fun of it, use CreateSpace.