Print on Demand (POD) (versus short-run print jobs) is the typical method used initially by indie authors, and the two big providers are Createspace (owned by Amazon) and Ingram, either via Ingram LSI (Lightning Source) or IngramSpark.
[UPDATE: 2018 — Amazon KDP has now fully digested Createspace but nothing else has changed. In all other ways, the remarks on Createspace apply to its replacement, Amazon KDP.]
The merits of Createspace vs Ingram is a common discussion topic among indie authors who produce paperback editions. This post is an update of this analysis and focuses on what your books look like to booksellers placing orders with Ingram.
The recommended practice these days is to use both vendors for print, if you can: Createspace (without their expanded distribution option) for Amazon, for inexpensive orders for inventory, for an online store, and for direct shipping; and Ingram for everything else. (The recent news about availability of print from Amazon KDP seems to signal that access to Createspace directly might change.)
(UPDATE – 2018. Createspace no longer has an online store. Amazon is their only print outlet.)
Some authors create a separate Library edition, just to use that part of Createspace's expanded distribution with a Createspace ISBN.
If you don't want to go to the bother (and the expense) of getting your own ISBN (a whole separate discussion) Createspace will supply you with an ISBN owned by Createspace for you to use, for free. (If you have an ISBN, you can use your own.)
Since the common progression for indies seems to be to start with Createspace only, and Createspace has an expanded distribution option and a free ISBN that gets your books into Ingram (“Booksellers and Online Retailers”), the question often comes up: why bother going to Ingram directly?
Why go to Ingram directly, in addition to Createspace?
The manufactured products are slightly different (quality issues with a small and debatable preference given to Ingram), and unlike Createspace, the Ingram edition costs money: a title setup fee (circa $49), an annual market fee (to stay listed in Ingram's database) ($12), and a revision fee for any change in cover or content ($40 each). The fee details vary a bit between Ingram LSI (mostly for traditional publishers) and IngramSpark (mostly for indies) and coupons/discounts are not infrequently available.
And you need your own ISBN, a not-inconsiderable expense in the US.
But there are other concerns.
A bookstore with good credit and broad needs may use Ingram as its main supplier. Other bookstores use smaller, more targeted suppliers who get their list of offerings from Ingram (and charge a fee).
Ingram allows you to set the same standard discount that traditional publishers use: 55%. Createspace's maximum is 40%.
Here's what that means. Ingram takes 15% of that discount for its services. It subtracts that from the books you list directly with Ingram, but it also subtracts that from the books it lists that were given to it by Createspace via expanded distribution.
So at 55% (Ingram's standard), minus Ingram's 15%, there remains 40%. Some of that may go to an intermediate distributor. Whatever's left over is the bookseller's potential profit, which he may discount to push sales.
At 40% (Createspace's max), once you subtract Ingram's fee of 15%, all that's left is 25% for the intermediate distributor(s) and bookseller to share. That is unattractive to many booksellers. Some won't even order books to fulfill customer requests at that small a profit to themselves.
2) Free ISBN / Publisher name
Createspace offers its own ISBN, if you don't have or want to use one of your own.
The general rule is: whoever owns the ISBN is the Publisher, from the perspective of forms and databases. Some recent forms have separated the two things, so that the owner of the ISBN and the “Publisher of record” and the provider of the data feed on a form can be different things, but that is far from general.
For a while, the Createspace data downstream showed Publisher = Createspace, even if you used your own ISBN. Now that only happens if you use a Createspace ISBN. And even so, what shows on a form depends on what the form uses for data sources: if it shows ISBN and looks up the ISBN, then it would get the ISBN owner. If it simply assumes the supplier of the data feed (Createspace) is the owner, then it shows Createspace as the publisher. That's how audiobooks often show up as Publisher = AudiobookFeedProvider even when the ISBN belongs to the Publisher.
How booksellers see a traditionally published book when they order from Ingram
iPage is the platform Ingram uses for booksellers who buy directly from them. Other booksellers use downstream suppliers who get data from Ingram and present similar information.
Here's what happens when you look up The Goldfinch on iPage. There are 8 entries, with different named publishers, for those formats that Ingram distributes for the work.
Little Brown is Donna Tartt's primary publisher. I don't have any idea how her various rights are owned, but it's not uncommon, for example, for audiobook suppliers to show up as “publisher” even when the ISBN is owned by someone else, such as Little Brown (because the audiobook supplier supplies its own datafeed to Ingram).
A) Stock on hand (far right) — can the bookseller get it in a hurry, in several copies?
B) Discount: REG (code for 40%, the “regular” discount available to the bookseller)
C) Publisher name (clickable) – useful for small presses to see what else is available)
D) Author name (clickable) – useful to see what else she wrote
E) Other formats and prices – maybe your customer wants a hardcover
F) Options (bottom) – returnable/not returnable. Strippable means send back the front cover only.
G) Category information – from the MARC record and related information
H) Physical information – from Ingram
How booksellers see an indie book published directly to Ingram
You can achieve almost as much as an Indie when you use Ingram directly, even if you're not Little Brown.
Notice, there's nothing there that says “POD”. (There's even a polite fictitious quantity shown on the far right (off photo) as if there were physical inventory to draw upon — not an issue for print-on-demand (thank you, Ingram)).
This is effectively indistinguishable from the output of any small traditional press.
How booksellers see a book published via Createspace with a Createspace ISBN, on Ingram
Here's what it looks like via Createspace's expanded distribution using an ISBN from Createspace.
A) Discount: 25% (what's left for the bookseller)
B) Publisher: Createspace
The lack of additional info is presumably the absence of a MARC record (created by libraries or 3rd parties) and has nothing to do with Createspace. The BISAC info does come from Createspace.
What does this say to the bookseller?
A) Any bookseller with a bias against supporting their competitor Amazon can easily see that this book is published by an independent author, just as they can tell if the source is Lulu, or various vanity presses.
B) Offers booksellers an unattractive discount, even if you set the maximum allowed by Createspace.
C) Doesn't let interested booksellers see what else is offered by your imprint. Your imprint name isn't visible if you use a Createspace–provided ISBN.
How booksellers see a book published via Createspace with a Publisher's ISBN, on Ingram
It's like the one immediately above, except that the Publisher name is no longer Createspace, and clicking on the Publisher name brings up more of the imprint's books.
And here's a different book from the same imprint/author with the full MARC data. In this case, the only thing that would give a bookseller heartache is the low discount of 25%.
What do I mean by MARC data?
The above book is in Worldcat. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom and expand the Linked Data section, you'll find it educational.
For more about Worldcat and MARC records, see this contextual overview.
Does any of this matter?
If we don't expect bookstores to proactively stock us, does any of this matter? Hard to say — we do know anecdotally that some stores won't buy books, even to fulfill a customer's request, if their potential profit is too low. And we do know anecdotally that some stores dislike sending any business Amazon's way.
My opinion is that I don't want any roadblocks at all in the way of presenting my goods to booksellers.
Your mileage may vary.