An earlier version of this article was published here.
Note: The following observations reflect my personal understanding of the differences between the two services, based on my own and others’ observations. They do not include private information received from any of the vendors involved.
Ingram is the largest worldwide distributor of print books. When a bookstore orders a book, it probably comes from Ingram (perhaps through an intermediary).
Ingram offers two services for publishers: Lightning Source International (LSI) and IngramSpark. The former is for “real” publishers and was all they offered until a couple of years ago. Its contracts are daunting, its interface is a bit clumsy, and its communications are a bit slow and sometimes cryptic (especially to indie publishers who aren’t familiar with publishing industry terms). Indie publishers and others lamented, and Ingram offered a new service, Spark, with a friendlier front end and slightly more restricted discounting terms. They stopped letting most indies into LSI once Spark was launched (I got into LSI just in time). Both systems, I understand, use the same back ends and services — the only difference seems to be that there are fewer discount terms on Spark, and the front end/customer service is easier for the newbie.
Ingram will charge you for returns, an area that terrorizes new indie publishers because they don't know what to expect. (These days, it seems to be pretty harmless, now that bookstores have adopted just-in-time ordering practices instead of ordering in bulk and returning leftovers. UPDATE (2017): I no longer allow returns, since I don't expect to be stocked on bookstore shelves without some form of significant marketing, and that removes one financial risk area. I may revisit this once I step up to that form of marketing.)
CreateSpace (CS) is owned by Amazon and intended for indie publishers. It’s very user friendly, with good customer service. It had a fee per book, just like Ingram, but then dropped that altogether. It lets you use a CS ISBN if you don't have one of your own. (Ingram requires you to have your own ISBNs, like a “real” publisher). In fact, it requires a CS ISBN for the Library portion of its expanded distribution service, presumably due to its relationship with Baker & Taylor.
There are two basic levels of CS distribution: Amazon-related, and expanded. The Amazon-related is closely tied to the KDP program, so linking your ebook and your CS POD book is very easy. CS also offers a webstore, for what that's worth (I've never sold a book there).
The first Expanded service compares directly to Ingram.
Here's how it works under the covers, as far as I and others can tell…
When Amazon receives an order for your POD book, and finds you only available via Ingram, the buyer can receive a “there will be a delay” message from Amazon. I believe this reflects Amazon's unwillingness to preorder from Ingram and store in its own warehouses. I'm not sure if this is because Amazon considers Ingram to be competition to CreateSpace (which it owns) or because Ingram sees Amazon as competition or just because there is currently no contractual arrangement between Amazon and Ingram allowing it to stockpile titles.
When Amazon receives an order for your POD book, and finds you available via CreateSpace, the service is immediate. I believe Amazon automatically preorders stock from CS so that it will be available for sale, invisibly to you, and you are not charged if it sits there forever or is returned.
So why not only use CreateSpace – free ISBN, no charge for books, ease of ordering at Amazon? Because there's a whole wide world out there that isn't Amazon.
Buying a print book anywhere else
CS is NOT a worldwide distributor (other than for Amazon). When you use the CS expanded services, what happens is that CS uses Ingram to distribute the print book (like many other small vendors). It registers your book in the Ingram database, as “Publisher=CreateSpace” (EVEN IF YOU USE YOUR OWN ISBN, NOT ONE PROVIDED BY CS). This means when a bookstore (including online bookstores) looks for your print book, they search the Ingram database, find it under “Publisher=CreateSpace”, and if they are sensitive about Amazon as a competitor they may refuse to carry it. For example, at Barnes&Noble, where my ebooks are sold, my print books appeared as “available from third parties” (when I only used CS). Some bookstores think of Amazon as competition, and others associate CS with “indies” and scorn indies as presumed low quality.
If you use Ingram directly, you will pay an annual fee for the book, and it's not as friendly as CreateSpace, and you will need an ISBN. But your books appear to bookstores as “Publisher=YourPublisherName” and no one can tell that you're an indie publisher (there are thousands of publisher imprints). That means that your print books now appear at online retailers, matching your ebooks, and bookstores are willing to carry them.
Except for the ISBN, the Ingram costs are trivial. Here's my thinking on why you need your own ISBNs anyway, though lots of indies just go for the short-term savings instead.
The current best practice recommendation is to use CreateSpace for Amazon (not the expanded services) and Ingram (LSI or Spark) for everywhere else.
Distributing via Ingram if you are already distributing via CreateSpace
If you are already on CS and want to go to Ingram, you must FIRST remove your book from CS expanded services (so that it is removed from the Ingram database). This will take a week or two and won’t disturb any of your Amazon customers (and you probably don’t have many other customers for your “Publisher=CreateSpace” entry). You will need to check that it’s been removed by going to Ingram and trying to enter your book with that ISBN – you’ll get an “already there” error if it hasn’t been removed yet. You may have to nag CS customer service until that's done. The update cycles between the vendors take a while. Be persistent.
Do NOT load your book to Ingram with a different ISBN to avoid this process – having the same edition of your book with different ISBNs will cause problems for you. If you used a CS ISBN, consider it to be retired after the book is removed from the Ingram database – you can only use your own ISBN there. This means you should recreate your Amazon CS edition with your own ISBN, too, after this is done, so that your book has the same ISBN regardless of the retailer.
You can use the same PDF book interior file at both CreateSpace and Ingram, but you will probably need to adjust the PDF cover file because the paper stock used is not identical, and thus the paper thickness is not identical, making the width of the spine different for each service.
The level of quality for the two services’ POD products seems to be very similar, now that CS offers matte as well as glossy covers. Ingram offers more formats (for LSI, maybe not Spark) than CS, but since you will want the same formats for both services, that doesn’t matter. Both POD vendors are of reasonable quality these days, but not quite as good as bulk printing, and errors can happen (tilted covers, defects). There is anecdotal discussion of third party services doing the actual printing for CS that sometimes have quality control issues, but in my experience the problem rate is very low.
You can tell the difference between POD books printed by Ingram and CS if you look closely (paper thickness, color) – therefore I recommend that you put all the books in a series in both places, rather than have some in one place, and some in another. A customer who orders them all will tend to do so via the same retail channel and should therefore get perfectly matched sets. If you are going to be delayed placing all of your books with both POD vendors, do them series by series.