From E-book to Print Book, Part 2: One Indie Author/Publisher’s Mild Month with Lightning Source

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This is intended as a companion piece for my original report on CreateSpace, the Amazon-owned solution for independent, Print-On-Demand publishing.  Following my own, less aggressive version of the infamous “Plan B,” I also produced an identical version of Clotho’s Loom (under my Glas Daggre imprint) for the more industrial entity, Lightning Source, to have my alternative printing, Ingram listing, and extended distribution handled by them.  There was no intention on my part to manipulate prices (list is fine with me—more on this later,) but I simply wished not to put all my eggs in a single basket.

It should prove useful to directly compare and contrast the two printer/distributors, on primarily two fronts: first, ease of set-up and cost/service, and second, quality of product.  But let me dissolve any suspense right now: I’m not going to recommend one as vastly preferable to the other.  Both have pros and cons, and this report is meant to be informative, for the use of self-publishers contemplating the choice, from the perspective of one small author/publisher who has used them both, in late 2012.

First, you should note by my title that Lightning Source (hereafter LS) does not quite satisfy the need for immediate gratification that CreateSpace (hereafter CS) does.  The latter took one week only of production—from account opening, to copies in the mail—whereas LS took more like a month.  Still pretty darned fast, compared to the year traditional publishers consumed in producing each of my first two books.  In general, the wheels turn a little more slowly and deliberately at LS than CS, because it services the needs of everyone from giant publishing houses down to sole proprietorships.  And, as with all self-publishing outfits, it’s garbage-in, garbage-out, so the burden is on the self-publisher to get her files in proper order, proofed and corrected, according to the published guidelines.

Like CS, LS provides templates to aid in formatting.  I did encounter some difficulty here, because CS hand-holds you with a sort of preflight, online format previewer, which instantly shows a virtual mockup of your book.  If your gutters, headers, and footers, for example, do not fall within production tolerences at CS, you will know within minutes of uploading the interior file to CS.  And, it’s fault-tolerant—you can keep trying, at zero-cost to you, until you get it right (or, right as far as the computer can discern).  Yes, it’s all very automated over there.

By contrast, LS has actual people that will communicate with you from the very start—all by e-mail, in my case, though phone numbers are never far to seek—and you will be assigned an primary account representative, or Client Services Rep.  I probably exchanged a dozen e-mails with this person, and he was always courteous and prompt in his responses (as long as your expectations are not artificially inflated by sitting at your keyboard all day long) and appropriately attentive to my needs, even though I’m a bit player.  All in all, things operate just as one would expect in an arena of professionals.  I never had the need to communicate directly at CS, so I can’t comment on their humans.

Now, LS and CS do not have identical templates, and my files had to be altered somewhat.  This can be a bit nerve-wracking if one is pinching pennies, as LS does charge fees for uploads—so it is not like throwing darts at a board.  However, they are not draconian in fee enforcement.  My CSR determined in two cases that problems with my files could not have been reasonably avoided, and allowed me to re-upload free of charge.  In one other case (where I did make a significant alteration,) I was charged.  So I believe the final cost for initial setup was about $120 total—and it could have been about 1/3 cheaper, had I been perfect.  Also, a proof fee of roughly $40 may apply. Also, they have been known to offer discounts with orders of 50 copies.  Your mileage will vary.  This is in contrast to well, free setup, at CS (including ISBN—they own it, though).  By the way, my setup difficulties resulted from two sources: 1) I believe there are a few vagaries in the LS guidelines (as to the size of gutters and outside margins, in my case).  Also, 2) I am not a master of Photoshop and related PDF software, and my conversion into the PDF/X standard resulted in a few unsatisfying artifacts in my cover file.  After spending two days trying to remedy this on my own (LS has no tech support for this; CS will charge you) I discovered it was easier to upload a TIFF file.  Problem solved.

As for per-copy-cost to me (to sell through my website, send out review copies, bring to signings, and so on,) I will note here that LS scales its cost-per-copy according to the size of the order.  If you are ordering 1000 copies, you’ll find the difference to be several dollars per unit.  However, as I am dealing in small numbers, my final cost per copy (including shipping) for a 540-page softcover book was almost $2.00 more per copy at LS than CS (CS price is constant, I think).  Royalties from online bookstores were also not quite as high from LS.  This disparity may sound steep, but I have to plead ignorance here.  Other articles have argued that your ultimate profit through LS will scale higher, if you achieve sales numbers in the several hundreds, so I refer you to those sources.  If you expect very few sales and are just looking to publish a mass market paperback for your personal social circle, the consensus seems to be that CS will leave you a higher bottom line.

At each stage, every small step in the LS learning curve will likely consume a day or two, and a buck or two—remember that the humans on the other end are working with you, and their time is worth money as well.  You will be required to order a physical paper proof, if this is your first job through LS.  It arrives in a timely fashion (figure a week,) and approval can be done online.

Now, let me move to a briefer and subjective evaluation of the final product.  Whose books are better?  This is not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison, because I went with a matte-finish cover at LS (versus gloss at CS).  This helps me tell copies apart at a glance—but I also don’t recall being offered the choice at CS.  LS gives you a pretty decent matrix of choice between trim sizes, bindings, paper color, and cover type (you can get two kinds of hardcovers!—at more cost, of course.  I calculated I’d have to raise my list price by 1/3 to remain profitable in HC, and ultimately demurred.  A hardcover is a separate edition and requires a new ISBN, whereas I was able to reuse my CS-provided free ISBN for my identical LS book.)  At CS, your choices as to size and paper only are comparable, but the other options are not offered. No hardcover.

I prefer the look and feel of the matte finish, but again this is entirely a matter of taste.  Gloss yields a more detailed image, by the way.  But other than one exception, the Lightning Source books do look better.  The interior print is remarkable for its dark, smooth quality—with my untrained eye, I see no real difference from offset (printing press) production in the type pages.  CS’s fonts are lighter and appear to have been produced in tiny dot-matrix, though I should emphasize they are entirely acceptable and should only strain the eyes of those with real ocular impairments.  Still, advantage LS.  The paper color and quality seem comparable to me, though LS manages to be a bit thinner (not a bad thing when your book weighs two pounds) while not feeling cheap in the least.  CS did seem to produce a bit more consistent trim tolerance, however.  My book has several borders near the edges of the binding and both covers (professional cover designers apparently know enough to avoid these).  For this reason, I can see, through comparison of many copies, that LS will sometimes cut a bit crookedly, or closer to tolerance in the edges.  Not enough to reject any copies, or to really bother me, but noticeable if you are the publisher.  CS does this, too—no one’s perfect.  And they do warn you.

Final Verdict: well, in all honesty, I am saving my LS copies for “special people,” both because of the higher cost and lighter weight, and because I prefer the matte. I also feel a greater peace of mind in knowing Amazon is not my only venue for distribution (or indeed, production).  Oh, and for those of you “Plan B” people out there, you should hear this.  Due to no action of my own, barnesandnoble.com (which listed my book well in advance of my initial shipment, perhaps a week after I approved LS’s proofs.  The Ingram system is efficient) listed Clotho’s Loom at a 9% discount from list (just over $18.00, versus $20.00 at Amazon.com).  A week or ten days later, Amazon dropped their price to match.  This is considerable, to me.  I set my price through LS at only 20% discount, with no returns (I’m not that keen to get the volume into physical bookstores, so I elected not to go 55% as often recommended).  The reader/purchaser reaps the reward of a reasonable retail price for a quality product, the online booksellers have new content to offer, and I (as both author and publisher) get a satisfying share of the earnings.  Win, win, Winnebago.  Take that, traditional publishing establishment!

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P.S. LS also charges an annual $12 distribution fee that CS, as far as I know, does not. Considering the initial fees that can reach toward $200, an LS book should be treated as a long-term investment.

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