A Closer Look at Self-Pub Platforms

On a recent Write Night episode (a Twitch TV stream and podcast hosted by author Travis I. Sivart–you can find it wherever you get your podcasts, including Pandora), Travis, Robert Turk, and I discussed our experiences on the different self-publishing platforms. I wanted to follow up a bit as I now have copies of the same book for examples from the three platforms I use: Ingram Spark, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (or KDP), and Lulu.

I use these three platforms for different reasons: Ingram Spark gains me a bit of creditability for bookstores to purchase titles, KDP is the best way to get my books on Amazon (though Ingram feeds in, I think KDP books gets higher placement on Amazon) and lets me take advantage of the Kindle Lending Library benefits, and I use Lulu to sell through the DreamPunk Press website.

First, a word of warning: I am very opinionated. You may not like what I have to say about your favorite platform.

Let me start with Ingram Spark. (Their product is above, far left (or top if you’re on a mobile device).)

This is the most recent addition to the three platforms I have experience with.  John Hartness from Falstaff Books gave me the advice to use Ingram Spark. He told me this is the gateway to getting your books in bookstores and libraries (that’s how he did it) and this is why I use them.

The only reason I use Ingram Spark is for this access to bookstores.

To be perfectly honest, I do not like the print quality on the covers and though I don’t particularly hate the paper quality inside the book, other printers seem to use a better quality paper. The tones on the cover print out cool, instead of the warm, almost coral tones the artist intended. The sharpness of the graphics is also lost in the print.

There is a fee to set up your titles in Ingram Spark: $49.00 per title. Now you can bundle your physical book and ePub together for that price, but only if you publish them at the same time, and you will need an ePub file of your title (they do not make it for you). If you want to take advantage of some of the benefits of publishing exclusively in KDP for the first bit of your book being available, you need to be careful. There are ways to get a coupon for this fee, by becoming a member of IBPA or ALLI (I’ll put more about these in another post).

They are also on the expensive side to purchase author copies from. The cost for author copies is more than from KDP, but pretty much on par with Lulu. You are getting the exact same book that bookstores would get, so you would be offering an identical product, which can help with creditability. Shipping times seem to be the slowest among the platforms.

You can use your own ISBN or purchase a “publishing bundle”, which, I think, includes 2 ISBNs (one for physical book and one for digital), and some of the other tools they offer publishers to “help sell your book”. This is on par with what you would get from Bowkers purchasing a small set of ISBNs for a single book (in fact, since it might be just what you are purchasing, but I am not sure).

The Ingram Spark interface is the hardest of the three to use, but they have “higher standards” for your files. Though since they have my least-liked product, I’m not certain it does any good for the small or self-publisher. Their interface will hang for me on a regular basis, and I will have to close down my browser and log back in – though that may be due to a high volume in users.

Now, let’s move on to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. (Their product is above, in the middle.)

**I just want to state from the outset that I loved Createspace and I do not understand why Amazon got rid of it and moved the whole thing to KDP (I mean, I know it was a business decision and they had a reason…I just don’t like the new interface and capabilities). This is a particular beef of mine. They got a big black mark in my books for that alone.

The biggest reason to use KDP is access to Amazon and all that readership the company has groomed over the years. It also offers the Kindle Lending Library, which has its own audience of rabid readers all by itself. And hands down, the Amazon Kindle paperwhite the best e-reader available on the market, and your Kindle book is easily accessed from one. I mean, a user can purchase your e-book straight from their Kindle.

The color quality on the KDP cover is the best and most true to what the cover designer intended. (I would say this is because I don’t have to do extra tinkering like I do with Ingram and can just use the file straight from my graphics person, but that wouldn’t explain Lulu’s cover.) You can see this in the photo, and in person it is quite distinct. The pinks should be warm, almost coral, like in the photo. The KDP copy is the only one that retained that warmth. Unfortunately, it lost graphic details, just as the Ingram Spark cover did.

There is no fee for setting up your title in KDP (a big +), and you can easily offer a Kindle version – just make sure you read the restrictions on offering digital copies elsewhere if you want to take advantage of the Kindle Lending Library. And of course, Kindle e-books only work in Kindles or in Kindle apps.

KDP has the most affordable author and proof copies, but they now place a line across the proof cover indicating it is not for resale. True author copies cannot be purchased until the title is for sale on Amazon, so an author cannot purchase copies from KDP for a release party, unless they want to put it out for sale then spend some money on expediting printing and mailing. This doesn’t do any favors for an author trying to build buzz about their book with a release party that coincides with the publication. This is not a problem with Ingram Spark or Lulu.

KDP lets you use your own ISBN or use an Amazon ISBN (for free). If you use an ISBN from Amazon, bookstores can tell is an Amazon ISBN and may not purchase your title through distribution (after all, Amazon is a big competitor who has been responsible for many a book store closing); you can pay an additional fee to establish your own imprint (but bookstores can still see it’s an Amazon ISBN; Amazon just added an imprint to their account in Bowker).

The KDP platform is easy to use (I guess – it still isn’t as easy as Createspace), and certainly not as finicky as Ingram Spark (though the quality standards at Ingram may be one reason bookstores will buy indie books from them – but I caveat that as more hype than anything else). It also lets you create your Kindle e-book file from your print files (though I upload a pdf for print and a text file from Word for digital – again, that will be another blog post).

Last, but certainly not least, is Lulu. (Their product is far right (or bottom if you are on mobile) in the photos).

Now, I do not have my titles listed in Lulu’s book store; I use an app to link the title in the DreamPunk Press Shopify website to Lulu – and they print it when ordered and then ship it directly to the purchaser. Though I usethe app specially developed for Shopify, there is another app available for websites hosted on sites. If you contact Lulu, they will send you information (they gave me a lot of help when I set up the app on Shopify).

I love the copies I get from Lulu: the details on the cover are sharp and the paper quality is excellent. The only issue with the cover is that it too came out very cool toned, but even the cover designer conceded the detail still made it the best product.

There is no fee to set up a title in Lulu. You get the same opportunities for Global distribution as you do using KDP, including Amazon. If you distribute an e-book through them, it can get that same Global distribution. I do not know how bookstores regard distribution from Lulu (though Lulu claims it gets you into Ingram).

Author copies cost about the same as for copies purchased from Ingram (again, more expensive than from KDP). However, you can purchase copies from them before your book is available for purchase (which I use them for, since KDP now puts an author copy mark on the cover for copies purchased before it is published on the platform and limits the number of copies you can purchase before publication). CAVEAT: I don’t offer my books for sale via Lulu, I only use them to purchase those initial copies and to link to DreamPunk Press.

You will need your own ISBN. This can be expensive, but Bowkers now offers self-publishing ISBN packages that are more palatable for the self-publishing author. If you are a small press (like DreamPunk Press), you will be buying your ISBNs in bulk, anyway, and getting them at a discount.

Now – if you are putting something like a personal family calendar or a personal journal or personal photo book (yes, you can do these at Lulu) you do not need an ISBN. You only need an ISBN if you are going to distribute your book. So, if you are using KDP (and not Ingram), you COULD use Lulu for those early copies (just don’t publish them to Lulu’s bookstore and use the selection that they are for personal use only).

It is very easy to use Lulu’s platform (easier even than KDP!). The interface for the app is also easy to use, though a little different from their regular platform. The only downside is that the two are not connected, so I upload files to their regular platform to purchase author copies, then load the same files in the app for customers to purchase. NOTE: you need to supply your own bar codes if you want them on your books, adding them to the files before uploading them to Lulu (Amazon and Ingram put them on the books for you). You can get them free at several online sites; choose one that works for you (and yeah, this sounds like another blog post from me). If you want to load your book to their bookstore, you need to select that option at initial set up.

Overall – My favorite for quality of product is Lulu, and that is where I prefer to purchase my author copies, even if it is more expensive. My second choice is Amazon, simply because it is the most cost-effective for an author – I can offer a steeper discount for in-person sales and still make a buck or two – and they have built-in readership audience rabid for new books (as long as I can get them to notice mine). Ingram is good, but they seem to have the longest shipping times, and they are pretty much on par with Lulu for the cost of the books, but their cover quality fails my tests. However, if you want to get your title into a physical book store, Ingram is your best bet – but you still need to advertise to booksellers (and again, that will likely be yet another blog post from me).

These are not the only self-publishing or small-publisher platforms available, just the ones I have experience with. What are some others that you have used? I can always check them out and update my preferences if I need to. Leave your favorite self-publishing platform in a comment.