Monday, March 16, 2009

Lulu vs. CreateSpace: Which Is More Economical For The DIY Author?

At the risk of coming off as some kind of Amazon shill, I'm afraid I've just got to blog about one of their services again: CreateSpace. I feel this is necessary because I keep seeing tweets, posts and Facebook notes from indie authors--especially authors outside the US---who intend to go through Lulu based in part on a belief that Lulu is the most economical choice for the services offered, and in many, many cases, this is simply not true.

Still, don't take this post as a slam against Lulu, because Lulu may yet be the better choice for some authors and publishers. With CS, you deliver a print-ready manuscript file and cover art file, and CS prints your book---end of story. With CS there is no quality control, no one is checking your content for errors, nor even ensuring that you haven't inadvertently left editing marks in your manuscript file. You must be willing to either do all the tasks involved in bringing your book to print by yourself, or hire out for them as needed.

UPDATE, 9/30/09 - Createspace now offers publishing packages with added pro services for additional fees, but such packages are optional and you can still opt to use CS strictly as a printing/binding service.

Lulu, on the other hand, offers author service packages for authors and publishers who don't intend to go it alone. Those of you who do intend to go it alone, read on. Note that prices quoted herein are accurate as of this writing, but subject to change going forward.

I've spent considerable time wading through the terms, services, help and FAQ pages at both CreateSpace and Lulu, among other places, and here's what I've found.

Lulu - Published By You, Or Published By Lulu

If you go through Lulu, you can choose 'Published by You' or 'Published by Lulu'.

With PbY (US$99.99 if you're in the US, Germany or Netherlands and $137.84 if you're in the UK or Ireland), you retain all publication rights to your book and automatically get Lulu's Expanded Distribution Service thrown in, which will list your published book with book stocking catalogs used by international booksellers and libraries.

With PbL (free), you grant Lulu exclusive publication rights to your ms and must pay $49.95 extra for the Expanded Distribution Service if you want it. While Lulu's site isn't terribly clear on the ramifications of this, I would take it to mean that you cannot publish the same edition of the same book elsewhere (i.e., publish through Lulu for international orders and through CreateSpace for US orders), and it may also mean you must return to Lulu if/when you want to publish new editions of the same book. Here's the relevant licensing agreement.

***4/24/09 - update...the word "exclusive" no longer appears in Lulu's PbY agreement; however, if you read through the numbered items in the agreement, they seem to grant Lulu a de facto exclusive publication right anyway. Like I said, the verbiage isn't completely clear on what rights you are and aren't signing over to Lulu. Compare to this, from CreateSpace's user agreement, under the heading of Ownership:

Subject to the licenses set forth in this Section 6 and the following sentence, and as between the parties, you own all right, title and interest in and to the Content, including all patent, copyright, trademark, service mark, mask work, moral right, trade secret or other intellectual property or proprietary right (collectively, "Intellectual Property Rights") therein.

The stuff in Section 6 pertains to licensing rights allowing CS to set your book up for Amazon listings, search inside the book, etc., and earlier in the agreement CS refers to itself as a Seller of your content, but never refers to itself as the "publisher" the way Lulu does. Here's a link to the full CS agreement. If you are seriously considering working with Lulu, I'd suggest you contact them directly and get more specific information in writing before deciding one way or the other.***

In fairness, I'll say that if you accept CreateSpace's free ISBN, CreateSpace remains the registered owner of that ISBN, which means you will not be able to list your book with catalogs like Bowker's and Nielsen's because only the registered ISBN owner is allowed to do so. However, YOU still retain all rights to the material, you are not asked to grant exclusive publication rights to CS, and the matter of registered ISBN ownership isn't as big a deal for most individual indie authors as some scaremongers make it out to be.

If you're in the UK or Ireland, you must agree to this, separate terms of service for the PbY service. Note that it says you will be required to accept an assigned block of 10 ISBNs from Lulu. However, even if you opt for the free PbL service, you still must pay the Expanded Distribution Service fee of $49.95 to get your book listed in international book catalogs. Confused yet? Let's take a look at a recap of these pricing options.

US/German/Netherlands authors/publishers:
PbY option = US$99.99
Expanded Distribution for PbY option = included in PbY option
PbL option = no charge
Expanded Distribution for PbL option = US$49.95
no requirement to sign the Ireland/UK terms of service

UK/Ireland authors/publishers:
PbY option = US$137.84
Expanded Distribution for PbY option = included in PbY option
PbL option = no charge
Expanded Distribution for PbL option = US$49.95
must sign the Ireland/UK terms of service

See Lulu's chart comparing the distribution options.

What Does Lulu's Distribution Service Promise To Deliver - Or Not?

So maybe you're willing to fork over the extra money for international distribution, but here's the zinger. Right in its terms, Lulu says:

"The decision to list a book is up to the individual retailer. Published By You and Published By Lulu distribution services gets your book listed with the distributor used by major retailers like Amazon. This means major booksellers will have the option and ability to list your book as available for sale, which they did not have before. In our experience, Amazon will almost always list a book for sale once they have access to it through the wholesaler.Then again, when you purchase a distribution service, it can take 6 to 8 weeks for your book to hit an online bookshelf. This is because most booksellers only update their database with new listings once a month."

In other words, while they will get your book into the major distributor catalogs, Lulu does not guarantee your book will be listed on Amazon or anywhere else. The catalogs Lulu lists with are Bowker (for US + int'l.) and Nielsen (for UK). I don't doubt that "Amazon will almost always list a book for sale once they have access to it," but I don't know that "almost always" is worth paying a fee for.

As it turns out, you can register to add your own listings to these services FOR FREE, but only if you are the publisher of record. That means that whether you publish thru Lulu or CS, if you want to be able to add your catalog listings (which accomplishes the exact same thing Lulu says they'll do for you with their 'expanded distribution service'), you must purchase your own ISBNs from Bowker, and possibly your own barcodes as well.

Bowker offers a package deal where you can get your own ISBN + barcode + Bowker catalog listing starting at US$150. That's $50 more than the $99.99 US Published by You option at Lulu, and $12.16 more than the UK/Ireland Published By You option at Lulu.

One advantage of listing your books through Bowkers and Nielsen, whether you do it yourself or let Lulu do it for you, is that doing so makes your books available for order through any retailer, bookstore or library. Personally, I don't feel indie books receive enough bookstore or library orders to make this worthwhile, but if your motivation is to make your book available to be listed on, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble online and even Borders online, it's probably worth the expense.

In contrast, if you opt for the Premium package at CS (US$39, a one-time fee that keeps your per-copy production costs permanently lowered), plus the Bowker ISBN + barcode package (US$150), you'll be out up to US$89 more than if you'd gone with Lulu under PbY. However, you won't have been required to sign that UK/Ireland terms of use, and your book will have all the same international listing opportunities as if you'd gone w/ Lulu's PbY service.

At this point you may be thinking Lulu still looks like the most sensible option, even with the UK/Ireland terms of service, but you haven't taken per-copy production costs into account, and that's where Lulu really fails.

Per-Copy Production Costs Are The Bottom Line

Taking one of my own CS books as an example, a 346pp, perfect-bound, 6x9, black and white trade paperback with full color cover, with CS's Premium service my per-copy production cost is $5. That means I pay $5 per copy to buy author copies. The same book thru Lulu will run me $11.46 in production costs per copy, and $11.46 to buy each author copy.

Mainstream trade paperbacks of these approximate dimensions sell for US$14-16 in stores. Given that the bookseller's take is a standard 40% wherever you sell, online or brick-and-mortar, if I want to price my book right in the middle of that range ($15) the bookseller's take is $6. Just to break even, I'd have to raise the retail price on my Lulu book to just over $19, $20 or more if I'd like to make at least $1 profit per copy.

The CS book, by comparison, can remain priced at $15 per copy and I'll still earn $4 per copy in net profit/royalty. In fact, I can price my book at the lower end of the scale, at $14 (which in fact, I do) and still earn $3 per copy in net profit. That's a royalty of 21.4%, which is a damn sight better than mainstream authors get.

But what about that total expenditure of $189 you'd have to absorb ($150 to Bowker + $39 to CS for the Premium package), or the $100 ($138 in the UK) you'd spend on Lulu's Published By You program? Assuming you price your Lulu book at $20, you'd have to sell 100 - 138 copies before you break even. You wouldn't clear your first dollar of real profit on your Lulu book till copy #101 - 139 sells. However, if you've published through CS you can make back most of your upfront investment in author copies.

Recall that Lulu's author copies for this book are $11.46 each, and CS's are $5. You save $6.46 per author copy by publishing through CS. If you plan to order 25 author copies (for friends, family, hand-selling, and sending to reviewers), you'll save 25 x $6.46, or $161.50, right there. This leaves you with about $28 to recoup, which means if you'd have to sell 7 copies of a $15 book to break even and 10 copies of a $14 book to break even. Given that your CS book is priced so much lower than your Lulu book, it will be much easier to make those sales than if you'd gone through Lulu.

While it's true that Lulu offers production cost discounts on their POD books on a sliding scale based on how many books you order upfront, given that the whole point of going POD is not having to order a minimum quantity up front for hand-selling, such discounts aren't terribly relevant to the typical author seeking POD services.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Why Amazon And Indie Are Not Mutually Exclusive

I received an email today from someone who says:

I am wondering why you call yourself an "inide" (sic) author when you have not one, but 2 links to Amazon on your site with no mention of Amazon is the anti-indie.

As the manager of an indie book shop we seek the support of authors by asking them to post as a purchase option.

I cannot believe that you profess to be indie all over [your author] site when you are blatently (sic) promoting Amazon, an entity that has been responsible for destroying the spirit of indie across this country. You will have a very difficult time getting indie book shops to support your book with a page that has Amazon all over it.

Here's my response:


My books are only available through Amazon, they cannot be ordered through any brick-and-mortar store. I did not elect to list with Ingrams or Lightning Source because the expense is not worthwhile when compared to how many books I think I can reasonably sell through brick-and-mortar outlets, whether corporate or independent.

However, if you visit Publetariat, an online news hub and community for indie authors and small imprints I founded recently, you'll find the Indiebound link right there on the front page of the site:

I have a different perspective on Amazon, and one I hope you'll hear me out on if you're really as indie-minded as you say you are.

In order to survive, a business must excel in at least one of three areas: price, selection or service. Amazon competes on selection, and to a lesser extent, price. But they can't hold a candle in terms of service to the local, independent, brick-and-mortar bookstore in my town that specializes in children's and teachers' books. The staff there has an encyclopedic knowledge of kids' books and authors, as well as a finger on the pulse of the local schools' required reading lists. So when I want children's or teachers' books I go to that store, and if the book I want is not on-hand in the store I order it from the store instead of from Amazon, even if Amazon has it priced lower, because I want to compensate the store's staff for their great customer service. Likewise, there's an indie bookseller in Santa Monica that specializes in art and architecture books, and it's always worth a visit when I'm in that area.

Like it or not, people go where they can get what they want according to their specific priorities. If they want selection and don't care about personalized service, they'll go to Amazon. If they want a current bestseller in their hands today and don't care about personalized service, they'll go to a Borders or Barnes and Noble. If they want personalized service and in-depth knowledge about the books they're buying, they'll go to a local, independent bookshop.

Businesses have to earn their customers, and as the co-owner of the pond maintenance business my husband operates, I know this all too well. He can't talk people into using his service with an argument against the evils of big, corporate pond services, and indie bookstores can't talk me into shopping their stores with a similar argument.

Let Amazon dominate the impersonal, warehouse approach to bookselling. No brick-and-mortar store, indie or otherwise, can compete with Amazon on selection, so why try? But also recognize, Amazon is handing small, indie booksellers a huge opportunity to provide the things Amazon cannot: personalized service tailored to a local community or demographic, and knowledgeable, friendly staff. Those are things customers are willing to pay for and drive out of their way for. But if a given shop can't offer me better service, better prices, or better selection, they simply haven't earned my business---or anyone else's.


That local, indie bookshop in my town is doing just fine, thanks to an owner smart enough to turn her shop into a true community center by offering a full calendar of both free and fee-based kids' activities, early education speakers, store appearances and signings from authors of children's books, and of course, that helpful and knowledgeable staff. Everyone in town knows about Judy's shop, and we're very happy to repay her efforts by remaining her loyal customers---even if we must pay a little more for the books in her shop, and special-order a book from her every now and then when we can't find it on the store shelves. Any indie bookshop that fulfills a need in the marketplace can achieve the same level of success and customer loyalty. But any business that must be subsidized through 'pity purchases' in order to survive is a business that simply isn't viable in the long run, because it's not meeting customer needs in at least one of the three key areas: price, selection or service.

Sometimes the business landscape changes, and that's not always a bad thing. Big, chain bookstores will continue to lose ground to Amazon because they can't beat Amazon in any of the three key areas. But in such an environment specialty booksellers can flourish and thrive if they're willing to capitalize on strengths they have which Amazon lacks, and adapt to the new landscape instead of lamenting it.

And one more thing - There's nothing anti-indie at all in my position that indie booksellers need to earn my business. I don't expect anybody to buy my books merely on the basis that I'm an indie author. I must earn each and every purchase through the quality of my work, and that's as it should be.