Self-Publishing Company Comparison: Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu or Lightning Source?

by Mike Holman

Welcome to my “Write a book” series.  Here are all the articles:

This article will compare the book costs and overall costs (including distribution) for three of the biggest self-publishing companies – Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu and Lightning Source.

Ok, so you wrote a great book and were rejected by every publishing company in North America.  Or maybe you would rather self-publish your book and do your own promotion and maintain more control over the book.

The question now becomes:

Which self-publishing company do I use?

Lulu and Amazon CreateSpace are probably the best known self-publishing companies, but there are many to choose from.  Lightning Source is another option, but it is not a publisher – in fact it is a printer and you have to set up a publishing company (easy) in order to get an account there.  Lulu and CreateSpace are also technically not publishers.

Most of the self-publishing companies you will encounter (such as Lulu) use Lightning Source as the printer for your book.  Needless to say, having an intermediary company involved will cost you money, but it should also be a bit easier to get your book into print.

How self-published compensation is calculated

In order to analyze the self-publishing options properly, we need to understand the costs involved with self-publishing – printing and distribution.  Note that the distribution costs are only applied to books sold through a distributor such as Amazon.com.  If you buy the books directly from your publisher and sell them yourself – then you are the distributor.

To calculate the book profit, you simply subtract the printing cost and the distribution cost from the retail price (set by the author).

Example:  An author has a book with a retail price of $10, the distribution fee is set to 40% and the printing costs are $3.50.

The profit  = Retail price – distribution fee – printing cost = $10 – $4 (40% of $10) – $3.50 = $2.50 per book.

 

Using a self-publishing company

If you use a company such as Lulu, they will be the printer and you will be the publisher and author.  However, they will only provide limited service unless you pay extra money.  Things like formatting, editing, book covers can be obtained from Lulu, but you have to pay for them.  They charge more per book than Lightning Source.

If you wish to outsource any aspects of your book creation process, it is not hard to find someone on eLance or oDesk for this purpose.

Using Lightning Source

If you sign up with Lightning Source then you will be the publisher.  This sounds a lot scarier than it is.  Here are the extra steps you need to do compared to using Lulu:

1  Get an ISBN – I had no problem getting these.  These are free for Canadians, so I got 10.  :)

2  Set up a publishing company.

Lightning Source only deals with publishing companies, so you have to pretend that you are one.

Instructions on how to set up a publishing company:

1)  Think up a company name.

Yes, that’s it.  Just come up with a name.  Alan Sheppard recommends setting up a website which I did, however I’m not sure if that is necessary or not.

In my case, I came up with the name Money Smarts Publishing, set up a website and that was that.

Let’s take a look at my recent book and compare the costs at Lightning Source,Lulu and CreateSpace.  The Lulu cost calculator is available on their web page on the left sidebar:

My book has the following specs:

  • paper = standard
  • book type = paperback
  • color = black & white
  • size = 6″ x 9″
  • binding = perfect bound
  • number of pages 128  (this includes everything – table of contents, blank pages etc)

The costs are:

  • Cost at CreateSpace – $2.38  (with the Pro Plan)
  • Cost at Lightning Source – $2.82
  • Cost at Lulu  – $7.06

You can see that CreateSpace has the lowest printing cost, followed by Lightning Source.  Lulu has a much higher printing cost.  Lulu charges an extra $4.24 per book compared to Lightning Source (who I use).

Lulu does provide some services which make publishing a bit easier such as providing ISBN numbers and not having to create a publishing company.  In my opinion all the benefits that Lulu offers are provided up front and should have a finite cost.  If their upfront service is worth $300 – then pay $300.  If you are paying an extra $4.24 per book and sell 500 books per year, then after five years you will have paid them $10,600 for the upfront benefit.

Lulu is not a good deal.

Yes, you can change your book from Lulu to Lightning Source or CreateSpace at any time, but then you have to get a new ISBN number and will probably lose any Amazon ranking that you had.  Plus it would be a hassle.

Why don’t I use CreateSpace?

If the printing costs of my book are cheaper with CreateSpace, then why do I use Lightning Source?  Simple – the other big cost is distribution.  With Lightning Source you can set the distribution fee to 20% and still get listed on Amazon.  The minimum distribution fee at CreateSpace is 40%.   For a $10 book, CreateSpace will cost an extra $2 in distribution which you won’t make up with the printing costs.

Why does anyone use CreateSpace?

I asked this question to April Hamilton, who is an indie author extraordinaire.  She explained that setting a lower distribution fee and making your books non-returnable (which I have done), means that a lot of book sellers will not list your book.  It really depends on the author and their books, but in a lot of cases, CreateSpace can be a better option than Lightning Source.  One great feature of CreateSpace, is that you can list a book for free, whereas it costs just under $100 to list a book with Lightning Source.

Another reason for going with CreateSpace is that their printing costs are the lowest.  For an author who distributes their own books, CreateSpace will probably be the best deal.

Check out April’s analysis of CreateSpace vs Lulu.

Conclusion

I think for most authors, Lightning Source or CreateSpace should be their top choice.  Lulu is just way too expensive.

  • If you want your book listed on Amazon and Barns & Noble only,- choose Lightning Source and set the distribution to 20%.
  • If you want a wider distribution and will set the distribution to 40% or higher, choose CreateSpace.
  • If you distribute the book yourself, choose CreateSpace.
  • If you are just creating a fun book, which you will give to your family as gifts – choose CreateSpace.

Anyone out there have any thoughts on self-publishing companies?


{ 8 comments }

1 Rachelle

Thanks Mike

I was looking into this myself and I found it extremely difficult to compare prices. The way they have it set up it seems that all costs are not revealed up front.

How are book sales going? and when are you going to publish those other 9 books ?

2 A.P. Stephens

I use Lightning Source for my books. I set up my wholesale discount at 45%. Thing is, Ingram keeps 20% of that when you sell your books to a B&N or Borders physical store. So when I set up book signings at Borders, etc., they only get 25% off the retail price (which is their bare minimum they like when it comes to an event). If your book is listed as non-returnable, they will not purchase your books with their own money up front. You would have to bring in your own stock and then worry about them paying you later with a check, which can take 3 months.

You always want to have a self-published book that has Ingram or B&T distribution….if you are in it for more than just wanting a book published or want to keep it strictly online or by you hand-selling it. But if you want to play with the big boys, list it as returnable and get it in some stores. It’s a nice way to get new readers who might just stumble upon your book by chance.

LS is pretty cheap to set up your book. It’s $35 for the cover upload, $35 for the interior, and $12 annually for the Ingram catalog fee. You can pick up your own ISBNs for cheap (2 for $90, etc.).

….and one tip to any writers who want to do their own thing: please don’t charge $15 or $20 for a 100-and-change page book. You have to keep your prices competitive with other books. So go with a printer/publisher that will allow you to sell it for what you figure is good. I sell my first book for $11.95 (300 pgs) and my second for $15.95 (430 pgs) and I still make about $2-$3 per copy.

Great post…keep up the nice work. :)

3 Mike

Thanks for the comment AP!

I’ll change the LS setup fee – it was over $100 for me, only because I had to redo the cover. Oops!

Regarding the price – that depends on what type of book it is. Fiction is very competitive – I’m guessing that’s what you wrote? Non-fiction is a different story altogether.

4 Kim Shaffer

I published a book this year using CS. As I had previously published through Lightning Source and still had an account there, I thought I would set up distribution there, as well. Probably an ill-conceived idea. The point is, I ended up with versions of the same book from both CS and Lightning Source in hand to compare. The quality of the CS book was definitely better. CS uses heavier paper, for one thing. So aside from the set-up costs being ridiculously high at Lightning Source, the book printing quality is lower than with CS.

5 April L. Hamilton

Mike –
Just wanted to make a small correction. Createspace is not a publisher, and in fact they’re very adamant that authors *not* list Createspace as publisher on the copyright page of any book produced by Createspace. Createspace is a print and distribution services provider, that’s all. =’)

6 Tyrone

u hit the nail on the head. That is my strategy thatI have been using for all my books. Excellent article

7 Charlie Wetherall

Great article! But when you talk about self-publishing “profits,” you should, IMHO, always include freight costs and returns in your calculations. Moreover, savvy self-publishers would do well to include the costs of ancillary services they provide. Keep in mind that mainline publishers pay authors paltry royalties because they also maintain buildings, grounds, editors, designers, production staff, publicity and marketing services, fulfillment, etc. But when self-publishers provide this stuff, they ignore these costs. That’s a mistake. Even successful self-publishers might discover that they’re earning about 5-cents an hour for their publishing services. Moreover, you’ll learn the importance of these costs to your P&L when you become so successful (and I hope you do) and start paying others to perform this work.

8 Judith Marshall

Great article, Mike. I did a lot of research last year before publishing my debut novel, “Husbands May Come and Go but Friends are Forever,” and I used Amazon’s Book Surge, which later merged with Create Space. As a POD (print-on-demand) option, I think they offer the best solution not only because there upfront costs are reasonable, but also they offer the highest royalty (35%)–at least they do for my book. They also allow you to use your own ISBN and imprint. I’m quite happy with their product and their service.
Regards,
Judith Marshall
http://www.judithmarshall.net

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