Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby vs. CreateSpace

question-mark-background-vectorI was recently asked for the pros and cons of Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby. The answer, I quickly realized, is a complex one, greatly dependent on the particular publishing goals for the book. I also thought that in any decision tree, Amazon’s CreateSpace would have to rate a mention. So what follows is my attempt to delineate the decision tree I would adopt in choosing between these three services, à la Decisions, Decisions; Self-Publishing a Children’s Book, which many of you appreciated.

1. How important are bookstores to your sales strategy?
If NOT VERY, skip to 4.
If VERY, keep reading.

Let’s start out with a reality check. Self-published authors will find it almost impossible to get wide distribution in bookstores. Period. The reasons are legion but boil down to two words: workload and risk. Most self-published authors aren’t represented by distributors that bookstores are already doing business with, and there’s little incentive to slog through the paperwork to set up a new account or to take your books on consignment and handle you outside the system. Also, as a book buyer, you have thousands of titles per season from the top publishers and distributors to contend with. You don’t have the time to read many samples. Why gamble that this self-published author has taken the pains and expense to ensure a professional-standard book when you can choose from thousands of titles that have been vetted by professional editors, designers, and copyeditors?

But with this caveat front and center, bookstores might be a valid cornerstone of some self-publishers’ sales strategies. A good example would be if you have a book with a very specific market that can be reached through very specific bookstores. Take Katy Pye‘s Tracking the Flash: My Lighthouse Travel Log. Where would you sell that? Gift shops attached to lighthouses, or bookstores in the neighboring towns. If you’re a buyer in one of those stores, are you so swamped with lighthouse books that you don’t have the time to look at a self-published title? Probably not. You’d probably at least take a peek at something so specifically lighthouse-y.

You may also decide for emotional reasons that getting into bookstores is important to you. It’s perfectly valid to feel that if you’re going to go to all this trouble to write, fund, and publish a book, you’re going to enjoy a book launch party and the pride of having your book on shelf in your local bookstore(s). Depending on your relationship(s) with your local bookstore(s), this might be a real possibility and may even lead to a reasonable number of sales. Amanda Conran, for example, was guaranteed a launch party at Book Passage in Corte Madera, for the excellent reason that she works there. She sold around 120 copies of The Lost Celt on her big day. That’s about half the total sales of most self-published titles, if you believe what you can google, which is that the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies in a lifetime. This number shows up everywhere, most respectably in Forbes, but the original source is never given, so imbibe this factoid at your own risk.

In any case, if for either of the reasons above you decide that bookstore sales are important to you, then I would drop CreateSpace right off the bat. Most independent bookstores will not knowingly take a CreateSpace book. They hate Amazon that much, and Amazon doesn’t help out by playing ball either: CreateSpace offers roughly half the discount (read profit margin) that bookstores are used to getting from other distributors and publishers.

Ingram, on the other hand, already has a relationship with just about every bookstore in the USA and an established (and accepted) discount schedule. Within the industry, Lightning Source, Ingram’s original print-on-demand offering, was thought to provide much better production quality than CreateSpace—better color handling, more trim sizes, fewer typographic anomalies, etc. Spark has probably inherited some of this perception as a halo effect, even though its production process is different. (Lightning Source accepts printer-ready PDFs, forcing someone to pay attention to typography—or so one would hope; Spark, like CreateSpace, uses a “meat grinder”—an automatic formatting system that, in CreateSpace’s past, at least, was prone to errors.)

The Amazon stigma, if you’re targeting bookstores, is a compelling argument for favoring Ingram Spark. But how do you choose between Spark and BookBaby?

2. Do you want someone to produce your book for you?
If you want help, keep reading.
If you think you can do it yourself, skip to 3.

As Ingram wholesales for other book producers, you can benefit from Ingram’s bookstore relationships without producing your book with Ingram. BookBaby is a popular option.

When authors gush about their experiences with BookBaby, and quite a few of them do, it’s usually because BookBaby makes everything so easy. You pay them; they take care of it. Then, once your books are produced and in all the promised sales channels, they are out of the picture. No ongoing royalties, etc. It’s a straight “for fee” service.

They are credited with an excellent support staff who actually answer the phone. They provide easy, one-shop access to professional book designers and editors. (BARNT BARNT, that’s my alarm system blaring: for a professional-quality book, you need both of these services!) If I wasn’t a publisher myself and didn’t have easy access to designers and editors, etc., I’d probably consider using BookBaby.

3. Do you think you can produce a book yourself?
On the other hand, some self-publishers don’t need BookBaby’s menu of services. Some are already working with editors. I’ve been retained by a few of them, and these clients are a determined bunch who want to be more than authors—they want control of the entire publication process. (I actually brought one an invitation to submit from a traditional publisher, and he turned it down because he wanted to retain all creative control.) They want to pick their own illustrators and/or designers and have control of the cover art. They relish the challenge of marketing. They are digitally adept enough to deal with the meat grinders without suffering dangerous spikes in blood pressure. If you have your stable of professionals in hand and don’t need much additional production help, Ingram Spark is the most direct route into the Ingram database. As Ingram is America’s largest book wholesaler, that’s the catalog most independent bookstores will use when placing an order.

Be very clear that Ingram Spark, BookBaby, and nearly all similar services offer production, fulfillment, and easy ordering of your books, but although they use the word “distribution,” they are not full-service distributors. Industry distributors like Perseus and Independent Publishers Group have sales forces. In theory at least, their sales reps will go out there and plug your book. (In reality, their sales forces have thousands of books they can plug; they will plug what they think they can sell.)

Ingram and BookBaby, et al., do not offer sales services. They do not sell to the trade. YOU have to do the work to get a bookstore to place an order. Although you will be in the Ingram database, that database during any given season includes thousands upon thousands of titles, so unless the bookstore is actively looking for it, your book will not be found.

4. Are you primarily interested in online sales?
Unless you have a very specific target or excellent bookstore relationships (count celebrity or royalty as instant excellent bookstore relationships), most self-publishers will rely primarily on online sales. This is not disabling: independent bookstores now account for less than 10% of all book sales, according to a 2014 article in Forbes. If your intent is to go online-only, the choice comes down to Amazon vs. someone like BookBaby.

BookBaby’s advantages were covered in 2 and they apply whether or not you’re interested in bookstores. Your title will sit in Ingram’s catalog, just in case pigs fly and a bookstore wants to order your book without any prompting; but for the rest, BookBaby will take care of production of the print-on-demand (POD) book and conversion of the e-book, and usher both into the appropriate retail channels, dominated by Amazon for POD, and Kindle for e-books. They’ll charge you a fee for their services, and then you will take all profits minus the cut to your retailers.

Amazon is a little trickier in that not only do you have to handle print book production yourself, you have to handle ebook production also. Even if you are not intimidated by this, there will still be two separate Amazon companies with their own procedures that you’ll have to deal with: CreateSpace for the POD book; and Kindle for the e-book. If you would like your e-book available for every device, you will also have to convert your book into multiple e-book formats and distribute them separately to non-Kindle platforms like iBooks and Kobo.

One plus of persevering and tackling CreateSpace and Kindle yourself is that you can take advantage of Kindle’s Select program. This gives you higher royalties and various marketing perks in exchange for a period of exclusivity—at a minimum, 90 days. Another advantage is that your POD books are directly in the Amazon system. You don’t have to ship books to them; they print them right off their own printers. But one of the most compelling reasons to consider the CreateSpace + Kindle bundle is profit. By not paying the likes of BookBaby, you can invest less in the production of your book. (Although, repeat repeat: I would really urge you to pay for a book designer for the cover, a professional editor, and ideally a separate copyeditor—so any apparent savings may be a false economy.) CreateSpace is also  thought to generally offer lower per-book prices than Ingram Spark, although costs vary with page count and format. When you get into the publishing business, you will be bowled over by how thin the margins are, so any penny saved is a penny earned.

OK, at this point I’m not sure if I’ve bored or depressed you into a stupor or confused you with all the branches of my decision tree, so I’m going to close with one last question:

5. Do you really have to choose between them?
Going back to the original question of whom I would choose, BookBaby or Ingram Spark, and having introduced Amazon as a third candidate myself, here is what I would try if I were a self-publisher with a commercial fiction novel. If, say, I had a romance, or a piece of sci-fi, or a mystery—all genres that do well digitally—and I were a first-time publisher with few professional contacts, I would:

  1. Go to BookBaby and have them help me with design and editing, because, as I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, both are necessary to give your work its best shot, and unless you are yourself from an affiliated field, you might not know what good design and editing is. BookBaby not only gives you access to those services, but their suppliers have been vetted, and from what I can see, BookBaby knows a thing or two about professionalism and design, so “better than nought” as they say in northern England (pronouncing the “nought” as “nowt”).
  2. Have them distribute my POD book, including to Amazon and Ingram. I’ll get the world’s largest online retailer, and the world’s largest bricks-and-mortar wholesaler as sales channels—recognizing that the responsibility for sales (pushing consumers to those channels) falls 100% on me.
  3. Order 100 (more if you’re really brave) print copies and sell them hard to friends and family. Take sample copies into all the independent bookstores within a 50-mile radius (my personal definition of “local”) and try to negotiate consignment deals. Do the math carefully here because you should expect to give away a commission of at least 40%. That may leave you with little profit.
  4. At the very least, negotiate a book launch party with the best independent bookstore within that radius. Work very, very hard at bringing my own crowd, knowing that I will get exactly three members of the public who happened to wander in.
  5. Have lots of photos taken signing books. This is your author’s moment, and most self-published authors will look back and realize they spent a few thousand dollars on it, so suck as much joy out of this marrow as you can.
  6. Have BookBaby hold off on distributing my e-book, but have them hand me a Kindle-ready mobi file.
  7. Go to Kindle Direct Publishing and sign a 90-day exclusivity deal for my e-book to access the Kindle Select program benefits. Make the most of those benefits while I can.
  8. Cancel my Select privileges and revert to a standard Kindle Direct Publishing account once the first 90 days are up.
  9. Go back to BookBaby and ask them to now take the hold off and distribute my e-book to all their e-book channels, other than Amazon.

If you follow this strategy and all goes well, you will have Ingram and Amazon as sales channels, a reasonably professional product with the minimum of head- and heartache, a book launch party so you’ll at least have proud moments and happy memories, direct and consignment sales, the advantages of Kindle Select for your critical three months at launch, and distribution into most other e-book channels after the exclusivity period. I know that BookBaby will hold off on e-book distribution for three months; their reputation for answering their phone and being accommodating held up on personal inspection. And also, I want you to notice one thing: this strategy, if successful, might maximize your chances and even deliver personal satisfaction (a good launch party, as Amanda Conran enthused, is “everything I dreamed of, and more”) but it may not deliver you sales.

Sales is the unicorn. I’ve only ever heard one person in publishing say they know how to ensure it. Not any publisher, nor any editor either. Only one person: James Patterson. For what he has to say, go here. You will have to pay, but that should not surprise you.

Hope this helps!

For more on the publishing game, join me at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for a one-day Publishing Bootcamp. Or pick my brain while on retreat—I have one space left for my Oct 6-9 Port Orchard writers’ retreat, co-hosted by author and writing coach, Sheila Bender, and five spots open for Oct 9-12. Email me at shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com if you’re interested.

In the meantime, enjoy the first days of summer and happy writing!

Shirin