Createspace vs. Lightning Source: Which is better for Self-Publishing Authors?

16599295_mlI’ve seen versions of this debate raging around the internet for several years. The short version goes like this:

1) Lightning source produces better quality books

2) Lightning source offers more professionalism and the right kind of discounts therefore

3) Even though it’s more expensive and a pain in the ass, you should go with LS instead of Createspace because it gives your book more availability: that is, it makes your book easier for bookstores to order, should they want to.

There’s nothing wrong with the basics of this argument, and that’s the reason I spent extra months and invested a few hundred dollars more to make my book available on Lightning Source. I set up everything right. I set it at the standard 55% discount.

Years later, here’s what I’ve learned:

Nobody will order your book just because it’s available. Bookstores order books that will sell, and for that, they usually consult bestseller lists.

Indie booksellers will add your book on consignment sometimes, and LS books might look a little prettier, but I’ve done just as well getting Createspace books into bookstores and don’t notice a huge difference in quality.

(I notice sometimes that I get bulk orders of 5 or 10 books, which I know are bookstores buying through Createspace’s Expanded Distribution, so I don’t think I’m losing any sales there. If somebody hears about and wants your book, they’ll find it and buy it.)

I’ve also learned that putting books into bookstores on consignment isn’t worth the time and effort: there are better, smarter, cheaper ways to sell books than to move them one by one in return for miniscule checks for a few dollars.

I have a not very popular non-fiction research book, and since I stopped promoting it a couple years ago, I get maybe 1 sale a month from Lightning Source, if that. On Createspace I routinely sell 5 or 10, and double that in ebooks. This means that the money I’ve earned off of Lightning Source, after the rather hefty investment costs (cover: $37.50 + interior: $37.50… I think) I’m still in the red.

If you’re vanity publishing and want the prettiest book possible, and you don’t mind spending a lot of extra time and money stroking your ego, go for it.

For anybody else, who wants to treat their book as a smart business investment, here’s a recommendation:

Start with Createspace, because it’s free. Do the best you can for minimal investment. Get a great cover and professional interior formatting (actually – I would start with the ebook first for a few months, make sure people like it and it gets good reviews. If it seems like it’s picking up speed, go ahead with a print version).

Direct all your marketing to one place (Amazon). I know some indie publishers/bookstores hate Amazon, but politics aside, Amazon is the place indie authors get rich and famous. Let it do the heavy lifting for you, getting your book in front of thousands of new readers, where it will succeed or fail on its own merits.

Once your book has steady sales, is climbing the bestseller ranks, is getting new and valuable reviews, then you can think about going with Lightning Source – although if it’s good enough to be in bookstores, and your sales are strong enough, a publisher will come to you, making it a mute point.

Getting into bookstores should not be your goal!

Your primary goal is to have an awesome book.

Your secondary goal is to get your book in front of LOTS OF PEOPLE, and to present it to them in a way that MAKES THEM WANT TO BUY.

You have a product, you need to create the desire, package it professionally, and build demand.

Createspace lets you put out a print version faster and cheaper. Scrupulous readers may note that the book quality is not of the highest caliber, but if the cover and interior formatting look professional, they will blame the printer or publisher, not the author.

The author’s job is to tell a damn fine story; readers are paying for the story. As long as they are satisfied with the writing, the quality won’t be an issue.

Conversely, I often see authors spend thousands of dollars making a perfectly beautiful book that tells a story no one is interested in, because the authors never considered whether people would enjoy reading their book.

If you’re planning a book launch…

Which you should be doing of course, and if you have some brilliant strategies for turning your book into a STORY by connecting it with some current events or burning media issue, and if you have some events planned around the launch, then you should probably have both the ebook and print version ready (getting the files right takes a LOT longer than you think, always give yourself a few months of extra space before you launch).

I like printing a few hardcover versions through Lulu (because it’s easier and cheaper to set up than Lightning Source) and taking some media kit shots of me in a bookstore (doesn’t have to be an official ‘book signing’ – you can even put a few on the bestseller shelf and take pictures of them there).

Of course there is no one right answer, but Creativindie is about maximizing profit and limiting extra expenses, and if your book is untested, it’s better to start small and build readership than to go big.

A final something to think about: flawlessly printed books will also meet higher expectations.  A beautiful made book with a mediocre story may get harsh reviews, while a badly self-published book with a mediocre story, which began with modest reader expectations, could get much better reviews.

About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me

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