Cutting through the confusion about printing options available to self-publishers

Posted By on March 11, 2011

I read an excellent post over on Matt About Business titled Online Options for Printing Your Self-Published Book. Consultant Susan Daffron explains in crystal-clear terms the options available to self-publishing authors for getting their books in print.

She writes, “Unfortunately, many options for turning your manuscript into a book are expensive and some are out and out scams. The publishing landscape is littered with unhappy authors who made poor choices for producing their book.”

I have come across a number of these authors, who, after sending me a copy of their “self-published” book, are shocked to learn they haven’t self-published at all. Instead, they have spent their hard-earned money on one of the so-called “POD self-publishing” companies that are really just subsidy or vanity presses in disguise. Many of them assumed this was their only option. It’s not.

Daffron explains: “If you do a Google search on ‘self-publishing’ you’ll see ads for big companies like Xlibris, iUniverse, and Outskirts Press. The problem with these companies is that they separate you from your profits by acting as a ‘middleman’ between you and the real print-on-demand printer they are using. In the book publishing world, these companies are referred to as subsidy or vanity presses. And almost every knowledgeable person in publishing recommends you avoid them (including me).

“Here’s why. Subsidy presses mark up their printing costs, and then pay you only a percentage of sales (called “royalties”). If you like profits, subsidy presses are not your friends. Often they have complicated contracts and keep rights to artwork you paid them to produce. Most people regret going with a subsidy once they discover the alternatives.”

“To make the most profit, you need to be the publisher of record. To do that, you buy your own ISBN block from Bowker. Owning your own ISBN makes it possible for you to go to the printer directly and get the same distribution the subsidies offer.

“Once you have your ISBN, have a graphic artist lay out your book so you maintain your ownership rights, and take it to a printer yourself. (Hiring a freelancer to lay out your book usually costs less than the ‘packages’ subsidy presses offer.)”

You’ll also want to hire an editor to edit your book and a graphic artist to design your book cover; skimping on these two areas may mean a significantly lower quality book. Outskirts, AuthorHouse, and the like offer these services, but they are almost always poorly done. Books are often full of errors and covers tend to be your choice of a picture and a font (so another book could have your exact same cover with a different title). These books are pretty much unmarketable; even worse, they may put the author’s reputation at risk.

In terms of on-demand printers, I agree with Daffron’s recommendation of either CreateSpace (owned by or Lightning Source (owned by wholesale giant Ingram). Many self-publishers think they need to work with an outfit such as Lulu or Fast Pencil in order to get their books printed digitally (POD); that’s not true. Both CreateSpace and Lightning Source work directly with self-publishers—no middleman required. “For example,” Daffron writes, “a 200-page book costs $9.30 to manufacture at Fast Pencil. However, you can get the same book for $3.50 at Lightning Source. Why spend $5.80 more per book?”

I’ll be self-publishing Jump Start Your Books Sales, 2nd Edition, this summer, and my plan is to go to Lightning Source. Although they have higher setup fees than CreateSpace, they offer better distribution to the trade. If you only want to sell your books through Amazon and you plan to release just one title, CreateSpace might be your best bet.

Know what you are getting into before you sign any dotted lines. As Daffron points out, just because a company comes up in a Google search, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your best option for getting into print.

About The Author


16 Responses to “Cutting through the confusion about printing options available to self-publishers”

  1. Right on and well said, Sue! I’ve worked with Lightning Source and recommend all my clients to do the same. Their account setup process may be confusing at first to a newbie, but I feel that is to separate the serious authors (those looking to publish more than one book) from those who only want to see their names in print on a memoir or poetry book.

    Some of these “free” publishers (like Lulu) are also vanity. They’re making their money on the back-end, producing tiny books that only cost a couple dollars to print, yet retailing for $15 or $20. And the author gets “royalties” of a fraction of the difference, plus the retail price is set so high they’re most likely not going to be able to sell books beyond the friends and family market.

    And the worst part is, these companies grab hold of the author’s distribution rights for up to three years. So if you’re unhappy after choosing a vanity publisher, good luck getting out of that contract and going elsewhere. Too often the vanity route ends up costing thousands of dollars more than just Indie publishing it the first time around, due to authors having to start over from scratch to reproduce their books.

    Take Sue and Susan’s advice – stay away from the companies that ask you to pay now, then pay later by offering you “royalties.” You’ll be doing yourself and your book a huge favor!

    ~Kristen :)

  2. Great stuff, Sue.

    For this reason, I try to explain to people that self-publishing is not a binary. There are levels, if you like.

    This does a great job of explaining some of the factors to consider–and what to avoid.

    So, you know Matt, eh? He’s a real troublemaker.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Kristen! I have had to break the bad news to too many authors that their books are not marketable because of the subsidy publisher’s name on the back cover and their books are not saleable because of an inflated price set by that subsidy.

    And since you didn’t include the link on the great article you wrote addressing this very post, I’m going to add it here: :-)

  4. Thanks for commenting, Phil. And I don’t know Matt — but just stumbled on that article yesterday. I’ll have to explore his blog a bit. I’m a big fan of troublemakers. ;-)

  5. Sue,

    Thanks for referencing my article on Matt About Business! I’ve written a lot about this topic and in some circles my take on self-publishing is unpopular. The reality is that if YOU own the ISBN, you are the publisher of record. If iUniverse owns the ISBN, you are not the publisher. So you aren’t truly self-publishing. (I wrote an article called “Are You Really Self-Publishing Or Not?” that goes into more detail.)

    I agree with Kristen that if you want to make the most profit for a book printed on demand, you need to avoid the middlemen and go direct to a printer like Lightning Source or Create Space. I have used LS for all of my books and have found them to be an excellent company to work with, so I recommend them to many of my clients too.

    Obviously, it depends on your book and your goals, but if you have a book with a black and white interior, want excellent online distribution, and don’t want to carry inventory, LS is a great option.

    - Susan Daffron

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Susan! The reality is that if YOU own the ISBN, you are the publisher of record. If iUniverse owns the ISBN, you are not the publisher. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? I just wish more people realized it. Thanks for the comment!

  7. [...] Cutting through the confusion about printing options available to self-publishers [...]

  8. [...] Collier (co-author of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition) recently wrote a great blog post about various “POD Publishing,” “self-publishing” and “vanity” [...]

  9. I found this most useful, thank you :) I wish all self-publishers could afford to deal directly with printers. CreateSpace, for example, only allows a gloss finish on covers, as far as I know, whereas if you find a good local POD company, digital printing is very cheap these days, and you get to control all of your profit worked out off a markup off cost. If it were up to me, I’d only go ‘self-pub’ with eBooks and print yourself, but we can’t all afford the initial print run!

  10. Hey Wesley–Thanks so much for commenting. But I’m a bit confused…are you saying you can’t afford an initial print run of paper books?

  11. [...] Collier (co-author of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, 5th Edition) recently wrote a great blog post about various “POD Publishing,” “self-publishing” and “vanity” [...]

  12. Has anyone heard of “inkwater press”? I am considering having my childrens book “self” published through them. Thanks for any replies ;)

  13. Hey Clayton–I checked on Absolute Write and they are supposedly a vanity publisher, so you can’t really self-publish through them.

  14. A question:
    If you use Lighning Source, could you list your book on Amazon and arrange for advertising there so people could buy it at Amazon? Or does Amazon only use their affiliate, CreateSpace? If you use Lighning Source, then where would you list the book for sale?
    I want to self publish my novel because sending it to third party literary agents has proven very fruitless for the past several months. At least, I want to have a place where family and friends can obtain copies of my book! Any advice? Thanks, I will be checking back.

  15. John–Lightning Source is owned by Ingram, one of the country’s largest wholesalers. So you can arrange for distribution to the book trade (including Amazon) through LSI. Feel free to contact me via email if you have any more questions. Thanks!

  16. Sue,
    Thanks for your reply.
    I understand a LS client can show a made-up “publisher name” on page 1 of his book. Otherwise just “Independent Publisher” will appear there, which sounds awfully generic. But I also heard that if you invent a publisher name, it will complicate matters when the author’s remittance payments are made out to “Punxatawney Books” or whatever, not in the author’s name.
    Is this a real, issue, do you think? Will having a made up publisher name add prestige to the book, or is it not worth complicating matters? Please advise, and thanks.

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