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Using CreateSpace vs Ingram for Print-on-Demand (POD) Distribution

Posted in Just for Writers

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

Ingram is the largest worldwide distributor of print books. When a bookstore orders a book, it probably comes from Ingram (perhaps through an intermediary).

IngramServicesIngram 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

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.

Createspace ServicesCreatespace Services-2Buying a print book from Amazon

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.

POD Quality

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you for this info! Your friend Mandy Jackson-Beverly pointed me to your site, and I just typed up a very similar blog post on distributing your books via both CreateSpace and IngramSpark and why. I didn’t know Amazon delays books if they are printed only via Ingram. Not that I do, I will keep my books in both places. Thank you again! XOXO

    June 16, 2015
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  2. […] When it comes to self-publishing paperbacks, innovative companies like Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightning Source’s Ingram Spark have paved the way for print-on-demand paperback books. That means no more mass-market orders of your book that will just sit in your garage collecting dust for years on end—your books can be sold through Amazon, Apple and more and printed when they’re ordered, saving you time and money. However, there’s something else to consider when it comes to which printing press to use: CreateSpace or Ingram Spark? It’s pretty well-known that CreateSpace is the cheaper option, but with affordability comes a dock in quality—Ingram Spark-printed books are notoriously better-looking, with clearer graphics, truer colors, and higher prices. So if you’ve got a picture book with lots of important graphics/photos and you’re okay with selling your book for a higher price, then Ingram Spark is the way to go. For a fiction book that’s in a competitive market like romance? CreateSpace will keep prices down and demand higher. Read more about the difference here, in this post by bestselling author Karen Myers. […]

    May 19, 2016
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  3. All considerations for when there are more books.

    With only one, it is better to keep it simple – and stick to writing.

    It will be interesting to see the evolution. For example, CS might offer a hardcover option with better paper, or a MMPB size option.

    I probably won’t get into these things for a while – I’m up to my ears in managing what I can do now – but I like to keep my eyes open.

    Thanks.

    October 13, 2016
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  4. A comment posted elsewhere from reader Christopher Meeks…

    Karen–

    I saw your blog from two years ago, and now I’m wondering what your advice is. I’m a small publisher, and I’ve been using both for myself and my authors. However, after one book received such great reviews, and a lot of bookstores stocked a copy or two from Lightning Source, I was socked with returns two months later, causing that book to plunge into the red.

    At this point, I realize I can’t compete in bookstores. If a store orders copies, they are likely to be on a shelf spine out. Then when the store’s software shows it’s been there two months, the books are shipped back to Ingram for a return.

    I’m now about to come out with a new novel, and I’m wondering do I even want to be at LSI anymore, even if I make the books nonreturnable? If they’re nonreturnable, no store will probably order the books. In short, I’m thinking of using just CreateSpace with their expanded offering, still using my own ISBNs to show it’s not from CreateSpace.

    What are your thoughts these days?

    –Christopher Meeks

    May 26, 2017
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    • Hi, Christopher,

      My current thoughts are:

      1) Bookstores are just not going to stock most of us prospectively. If you have a relationship with a local store, you might be able to do a consignment arrangement, but to expect (without significant pre-publication advertising in the traditional book channels to push the book) ordinary bookstores to stumble across our books, read about them, and decide they want to stock them is… unlikely. Not impossible perhaps (I’m sure there must be counter-examples) but unlikely. But since it can happen, that leaves us vulnerable to the expense of returns.

      2) Therefore, there is no reason to mark our books as returnable. Bookstores will order for their customers if our discounts are at the industry standard (55% going in to Ingram, thus 40% or so to the bookstore, depending on how many aggregators stand between them and the Ingram source), then there is no barrier to them ordering for a customer. The odds of the customer not picking up the book (and thus leaving the store with something they wish they could return) are low. Some bookstores might balk at that risk, but not most of them. Single individual returns probably come from this source.

      3) There are many reasons to use Ingram (non-returnable, proper 55% discount):

      A) World’s largest supplier. Not the only one, internationally, but the obvious place to start. If you use Createspace’s expanded service to be listed in the Ingram database, the best you get is to list it with a 40% discount. Ingram is still going to take its 15%, and so the bookstore sees it as a 25% discount and is much less likely to order the book, even for a customer — not enough profit for the effort.

      B) If you’re planning to distribute internationally (beyond Amazon, Kobo, Google Play), then many online bookstores will only carry ebooks if a print edition also exists (whether or not they also sell print online) — it’s a test of quality. So even if you use international distributors like PublishDrive and Streetlib, to reach those stores, your ebook might not be listed without a print edition existing, and their retail partners do look for it. I don’t know if it matters if that originates from Createspace with a lower discount, or not.

      C) If you begin to do international marketing, you will find that universal book linkers, like Books2Read, don’t cover lots of the retailers that you can reach (they’re growing, but still…) and as you begin to expand beyond the US and UK, you will find you need to start referring to “Available at your favorite retailers…” as a common reference.

      Now, imagine that you’re starting to run Facebook ads and you want to see if your title can get any traction in the English-reading market in Germany by targeting that audience on Facebook. Not only do you want your readers to be able to buy the ebook online in the stores you know are carrying it (via PublishDrive, say), but you also want to tell them the print edition is “Available at your favorite retailers”, which covers not only some online retailers, but also whatever physical retailers they use locally. Some of those are serviced by Ingram, and others can order books if a customer asks via an intermediate aggregrator. You won’t have any relationship with these stores; all you’ve done is advertise to “English readers in Germany” and they’re responsible for looking for the print edition locally, if that’s the format they prefer. If the bookstores where they shop order from Ingram directly, they’ll want the residual 40% discount that makes it down to them (via a direct starting 55% listing in Ingram, not a starting 40% listing via Createspace), and if they have to get it via another aggregator who gets it from Ingram and takes their own cut, all the more reason to start with 55% on the Ingram end.

      May 26, 2017
      |Reply
  5. Thank you for your reply, Karen. I will go back into Lightning Source and put the discount back to 55%. I thought it I were making it nonreturnable, I may as well drop the discount down to 40%. Your reasons for keeping it at 55% are good.

    One thing I’ve discovered, by the way, is that getting print copies is less expensive at Createspace than at Lightning Source. Createspace has cheaper shipping, too. I’ve been using Createspace to make Advance Reading Copies (which has “Advance Reading Copy” on the cover) to send out four months in advance of publication date. I make the book private on Createspace so that no one buys it. Later, when the book is published, I have it at both Createspace and Lightning Source. Originally, both places let me use the same ISBN number, as I was selling it at the same price, and from my publishing company, White Whisker Books. Now I will have to use two ISBN numbers, which will probably mean Amazon will show two entries for the same book.

    June 2, 2017
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    • You don’t need 2 ISBNs.

      CS (non expanded) uses your ISBN (you as publisher) and so does Ingram. They are the printers & distributors of your single work (one ISBN). If you got a short-run printer down the street so that you could get better quality and a better per-unit cost, that would use the same ISBN, too.

      Most people use CS for everything besides basic distribution: ARC copies, home inventory, sending books to the Library of Congress… it’s both easier and cheaper, and there are no setup, revision, or annual fees.

      June 2, 2017
      |Reply

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