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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

Tom Benjey's run with print-on-demand self-publishing

Guest post by Tom Benjey

Major publishing houses have been using POD technology for some time to keep their backlist titles in print. POD technology allows books to be printed digitally one a time, thus relieving the publisher of the cost of printing a batch of books and having capital tied up in them until they sell. The small capital investment required to publish books via POD technology also makes it possible for an author to become a publisher by forming a company (it’s easier than you probably think), buying a block of ISBNs from Bowker, hiring an editor, and learning to prepare PDFs to fit the printer’s (sometimes arbitrary) specifications (or farming out that task). But being a publisher means more than printing books, it also means distributing them to resellers. While there are numerous companies that will print books, there are few that provide distribution.

Lightning Source (LSI), by virtue of being an Ingram company, distributes the books it prints to the industry via Ingram Book Company, the country’s largest book wholesaler. In essence, a book available from Ingram is available to just about all resellers, including online resellers large and small, and to libraries. LSI also handles billing and collection after the publisher sets the discount rate (20% to 55% off list price). When it sells a book, LSI receives the list price less the discount set by the publisher and subtracts the cost of printing from that and records it on a monthly report for the publisher. Ninety days later, LSI transfers the money to the publisher’s bank account. I have been using LSI this way since 2007 when I began reprinting what I call the Pop Warner Single-Wing trilogy, three long-out-of-print books about the early development of Warner’s single-Wing offense. These books are in no danger of ever appearing on a best-seller list but, after a few years, I recouped the out-of-pocket expense invested up front in this pocket. Making these books available to football historians and aficionados is a classic long-tail application of POD technology.

A plethora of companies that call themselves POD publishers or self-publishing companies sprung up to capitalize on wannabe authors. They are a recent incarnation of vanity publishers. Two of them, CreateSpace and Lulu, offer distribution and also operate as POD printers. I recommend against using any of the services they offer beyond printing. CreateSpace is owned by Amazon and offers single-copy print prices generally lower than LSI’s prices. Lulu’s print prices are too high to consider using them for anything but a handful of copies. Lulu is also useful if you don’t want a barcode printed on the back cover. Traditionally ARCs, formerly galleys, have not had barcodes on them. LSI and CreateSpace require barcodes on the back covers, so Lulu can be useful in situations where you do not want barcodes. 360 Digital does a fine job of printing without barcodes but does not have distribution and requires a minimum order of 25 copies. CreateSpace and Lulu both offer distribution to Amazon and through Ingram (via LSI, I’m told). Lulu’s high print costs exclude them for consideration for books that are to be resold. CreateSpace demands a 40% discount for books sold through Amazon and requires that books distributed through Ingram carry a CreateSpace ISBN rather than the publisher’s.

CreateSpace and LSI are competing for small press business at present. CreateSpace never had a charge to upload or revise files, where LSI has always had such a charge. However, CreateSpace had a charge, called ProPlan, to get their best print prices and for distribution to Amazon. Last Fall, LSI reduced their file upload charges from $75 per title to $37.50 and recently began to offer free online proofs in lieu of $30 overnight delivery of hardcopy proofs. CreateSpace has now dropped the $39 ProPlan charge and gives all books its best print charges and free distribution to Amazon. Competition has resulted in lowering costs for publishers.

I started using CreateSpace in 2009 and am using them to reprint the annual Spalding’s Football Guides for the late 1800s and early 1900s as I find originals to scan. CreateSpace has become more difficult to deal with. They routinely reject the books because they don’t like the page-numbering scheme over which I have no control. After considerable arguing, I have been able to get them to approve all I’ve uploaded so far except the 1915 book. That one is being printed via LSI. If CreateSpace becomes too difficult to deal with, I will have to shift all the years to LSI. CreateSpace hassled me about copyright issues for a couple of books. Apparently, the person who was assigned this task was unaware that books copyrighted before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain. After that, it gets murky, so the 1922 guide is the latest one I will consider reprinting. CreateSpace also charged me sales tax on one order even though I had filed my sales tax license with them some years ago. I won’t know if this was cleared up until I see my credit card statement.

Handling sales tax is becoming an increasingly nasty matter as states (Pennsylvania, where I live, in particular) are trying to increase their tax revenue. Most authors need to keep a small supply of books on hand to sell at appearances and to people who want signed copies. The printers are glad to sell you copies of your books for a little above printing cost and shipping. We are required to collect sales tax on many of the books we sell and the tax man is getting more inquisitive. A word to the wise…

A few years ago after studying the matter, Aaron Shepard recommended printing books via LSI at a 20% discount because bookstores aren’t likely to stock these books no matter the discount. Some bookstores will special order them to maintain good relations with their customers. Recently, Amazon lengthened the expected delivery times of popular titles printed by LSI. When such titles are shifted to CreateSpace they magically become readily available. (My titles are not popular enough to be affected by this.) A solution that has been recommended is to also make books available through CreateSpace to fill Amazon orders and increase the list price on the books printed by CreateSpace to make up for the revenue lost by increasing the discount from 20% to 40%. Authors doing that frequently occupy themselves with tracking Amazon’s discounts, which are necessary to keep their books’ prices in the competitive range.

Thanks for this interesting account to Tom Benjey, author of
Keep A-Goin': The Life of Lone Star Dietz
Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs (Jim Thorpe & Pop Warner's Carlisle Indian School football immortals tackle socialites, bootleggers, students, moguls, prejudice, the government, ghouls, tooth decay and rum), with Francis Bernie Kish
Prostate Cancer and the Veteran
Carlisle Indian School (Tom's blog)
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