Since about the beginning of the 2000s, the most profitable way for small publishers to sell books to Amazon.com has been to print and distribute at a short discount through Lightning Source, the leading U.S. provider of print on demand. This is the strategy I helped introduce and popularize with my book Aiming at Amazon and elaborated on in its companion volume, POD for Profit.
But now it looks like the glory days of that strategy have come to an end. And for those of us who have based our businesses on it, the question is, what should replace it?
In other words, what is Plan B?
Trouble in Paradise
Beginning in the late spring of 2011, Amazon.com quietly let its stock of Lightning Source books dwindle and in some cases disappear. Gradually, books began showing an availability status of 2–3 weeks, or in some cases, 1–3 weeks. By mid-June, the pattern was strong enough for me to spot it, and I sounded the alarm to my fellow publishers on the pod_publishers list on Yahoo, as well as to Lightning itself.
This was very different from how Amazon had operated in the past. For years before this, Amazon had kept substantial stock on hand for all Lightning books that sold even marginally—about three weeks worth, the last few times I tested it. More importantly, Lightning books out of stock at Amazon were listed as “in stock” with an availability status of 1–2 days. This was based on Amazon’s practice of having such books drop shipped from Ingram Book Company, as well as on Lightning’s ability to supply Ingram with the required books overnight. But Amazon apparently now felt that its drop shipping arrangement with Ingram was, at least in many cases, no longer essential or economical.
Though few Lightning publishers recognized any problem at the time of my alarm, the situation became increasingly obvious as more and more of their books went out of stock. Even so, many clung to the hope that this was all due to a glitch. But that hope faded with time.
Lightning Source soon acknowledged the problem to the extent that it developed a standard answer for reps to supply to client publishers:
We are aware that Amazon has changed the availability of some LSI titles resulting in 1–3 week delivery status. Currently, we are continuing to look into the issue and are evaluating our options to address it. We will update you as soon as we have more information.
Months later, Lightning was still issuing the same stock response, underscoring the fact that they were in fact powerless to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, Amazon was issuing this caveat to inquiring publishers:
Please note that making your titles available through a wholesale vendor and/or distributor does not guarantee an “In Stock” availability message on our site.
The result of all this was that many Lightning publishers saw sales of some titles dwindle or even plummet due to poor availability. Interestingly, other titles with the same status still did well—possibly due to good availability through Amazon Marketplace, or less need of quick delivery among that book’s prospective readers, or simply a more competitive position. To add to the confusion, many Lightning books continued to be listed as in stock, while others drifted between “in stock” and “2–3 weeks.”
A number of theories quickly grew up to explain the situation. Probably the earliest pointed to the usual suspect: It must be the short discount of 20% or 25% common among Lightning publishers. But this theory was quickly discarded, as even books set at 55% were hit. Likewise, this had nothing to do with returnability—which should have come as no surprise, as Amazon rarely returns books it buys outright.
Then there was the quick suspicion that this was a resumption of Amazon’s war against Lightning. But there was no evidence that only Lightning books were being targeted. If there was a campaign at all, it was more likely aimed generally at books supplied to Amazon only through Ingram and/or Amazon’s other drop shipper, Baker & Taylor, to help drive all publishers to supply books to Amazon directly.
But most likely of all, it was simply a decision by Amazon to leave behind some of the relatively few books still supplied to it indirectly—a decision that, financially, may make perfect sense. After all, Amazon may well lose money on all drop-shipped books. If it chooses to staunch that particular flow, who can blame it?
Over time, analysis revealed the real—and surprising—criterion by which some Lightning books were affected, while others were not at all, or only intermittently. It turned out that the Lightning books hardest hit were the biggest sellers! Here’s how it worked:
1. Amazon decided, probably as a cost-cutting measure, to stop drop shipping of better selling books from wholesalers. (At the same time, it removed purchase limits it had imposed previously to cut losses from that drop shipping.)
2. From late 2010 to early 2011—according to Amazon’s own financial reports—it experienced a surge of sales that left it extremely short of warehouse space. This made it necessary to lower its stocking levels of all books.
3. As before, Amazon still ordered books to anticipate demand. But to lower its stocking levels, it now set a cap on the number of copies of a book to be ordered per day—at least from wholesalers.
With this limited ordering in advance of sales, Amazon’s stock of Lightning books was constantly being replenished, but not always fast enough to meet demand. For faster selling books, Amazon was simply selling books faster than they arrived—leading to a continual availability listing of 2–3 weeks.
As for slow selling books, they arrived at Amazon faster than they sold, leading to a continual listing of “in stock.” This ironically led to the optimism of many Lightning publishers, who believed their books had escaped Amazon’s changes—which was true, in a way, but only because of low sales. And then there were the borderline books, which changed their status according to whether their sales tipped higher or lower—in the process, alternately lifting the hopes of their publishers and then dashing them.
It’s important to understand that the reduced availability of Lightning books came about only through the conjunction of Amazon’s curtailing of drop shipping and its lowering of stock levels. Neither one by itself would have caused a major problem. What’s more, with Amazon’s constant testing and adjusting, its stocking levels and its cutoff point for drop shipping could in the future both keep changing, frequently or even constantly. For example, the reported opening of several new Amazon warehouses in September 2011 may well lead to higher stocking levels, possibly even bringing all Lightning books back in stock.
At the same time, any relief from the problem doesn’t mean it won’t recur, or even become the norm. In other words, regardless of how the current situation pans out, we can no longer count on good availability on Amazon for books distributed through Lightning Source.
With the crumbling availability of Lightning Source books, a number of Lightning publishers naturally looked more seriously at CreateSpace, Amazon’s own operation for print on demand.
CreateSpace has already for several years been a prospective POD publisher’s most viable alternative to Lightning Source. Though CreateSpace’s required discount of 40% has made it less profitable for publishers than Lightning at short discount, this difference has been largely offset by CreateSpace’s much greater ease of use; and Lightning’s much wider distribution, while a definite advantage, has not been essential while the great majority of POD books are sold through Amazon.com. Also, the availability times of CreateSpace books on Amazon are always an unqualified “24 hours.”
The truth is, for most self publishers just starting out, I’ve been recommending CreateSpace over Lightning for some time, at least to begin with. That recommendation is even stronger now.
But what about the many small publishers like myself who have already invested heavily in selling through Lightning—many of them encouraged to do so by my own books? Should they stay the course and accept reduced availability, reduced sales, reduced profit? Or should they move to CreateSpace, again for reduced profit? Or is there any way at all to move forward without first moving backward?
At the beginning of July—spurred by the prospect of a business meltdown for an entire class of small publishers I helped create—I decided to go public with an experimental replacement for the publishing plan I had practiced, made my living from, popularized, and been identified with for years. Exciting times. I called it Plan B.
Over the course of the summer, I and many other Lightning publishers tested the new plan, analyzed the results, refined the details. And, lo and behold, it worked. By the time September rolled around, the income from my own publishing operation had pretty much returned to normal.
That’s not to say this is the best plan for every publisher or every book. Among my own books, I did not apply it to slower sellers. But for those who would like to try it, here it is, starting with a brief list of basic elements.
• Set up your book at CreateSpace, and sell from there to Amazon.com.
• Keep your book at Lightning Source, and sell from there to everyone else.
• Raise your list price enough to provide about the same profit as before on each copy sold by Amazon.
• Raise your wholesale discount at Lightning to a standard 55%.
Surprised by the discount change? Didn’t expect that one, did you? But it happens to be the key to the entire plan. Here’s why:
By setting up at CreateSpace, you solve the availability problem and regain sales for your book. But that’s at the cost of reduced profit per copy. So, you raise your list price to regain profit. But with a higher price, you again lose sales.
The only way you can now regain those sales is for Amazon to substantially discount your book. But, contrary to a popular misconception, Amazon does not discount CreateSpace books—at all—unless they’re sold and discounted by competing booksellers, and especially by BarnesandNoble.com. In fact, as a minimum, Amazon will match a discounted price on BN.com for any book other than a textbook.
By keeping your book at Lightning, you guarantee it will be available on BN.com. And even if the book is at short discount at Lightning, BN.com and therefore Amazon may discount it. But not enough to greatly affect sales.
That’s why you increase the wholesale discount to 55%. This will generate the highest possible discount at BN.com, and so at Amazon. Because of your higher list price, you’ll make the same profit per copy; and because of the discounted sale price, you’ll sell about as many copies as before.
In fact, you may find that Amazon leapfrogs BN.com’s discount, making the sale price much lower than your former list price, bringing even greater sales, and making your book more profitable than ever. You may also find that Amazon customers are encouraged to buy just by the presence of a discount, regardless of whether the sale price has changed.
Of course, with the higher wholesale discount at Lightning, you will make much less per copy from any U.S. book sales not on Amazon. But since those sales are generally only about a fifth of the total for Lightning books, this shouldn’t too heavily weight the overall balance.
To sum up, Plan B attempts to balance the losses from a higher discount with gains from a higher list price, while keeping sales steady or even increasing them.
Now let’s see in detail the steps for implementing this, as applied to a book set up at Lightning for U.S. distribution. Note that the entire sequence will take one to two months, and that your book’s profitability will remain down until you’ve finished. Also note that the sequence is designed to maintain sales, not profit per copy, during the transition. That’s because your overall profit will remain down either way—but if you lose sales, it will erode your book’s long-term positioning on Amazon.
1. Set up the book at CreateSpace, in the same format and edition, with the same title, and using the same ISBN. For now, set your list price to the same as before. Turn on the Amazon sales channel for the book. CreateSpace will now handle all sales of that book to Amazon.com.
Note: Do not use a different ISBN at CreateSpace. If you do, your book will have two distinct listings on Amazon, with sales split between them, which will hurt your book. You want only one version of the book listed on Amazon, and you want it supplied by CreateSpace.
Also, do not activate the “Bookstores” option of CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution Channel (EDC). This sends your book to Lightning Source via CreateSpace’s own account—at less favorable terms to you! What’s more, the duplication at Lightning can create a conflict that keeps your book out of Lightning’s data feed to booksellers!
As long as you stick to the same ISBN, your book’s detail page on Amazon will remain basically the same, with the same customer reviews, pairings, and so on. The only parts that may change are the marketing data—price and availability—plus the info you submit when setting up the book at CreateSpace—for instance, the description and the publication date.
2. At Lightning Source, raise your book’s U.S. list price about 20%–25%—in other words, to a price higher by a fifth to a quarter than what you set at CreateSpace—and raise its U.S. wholesale discount to 55%. Remember, Lightning activates price and discount changes only at the end of each monthly accounting period—which usually does not correspond exactly to the calendar month. Also, you must submit them ahead of time by at least a week, with possibly a few days extra for large discount jumps.
3. At BarnesandNoble.com, watch for the new, higher price and then a new discount. The new price may appear there overnight from the time it’s posted by Lightning, but the new discount can take a while to show up. That’s because BN.com won’t calculate and apply the new discount until copies in stock are sold and new copies are ordered. For a book selling reasonably well, this might take a week or two. A slower selling book might have to wait much longer.
This, by the way, is one reason you shouldn’t raise your list price by more than 20% or 25%, at least not at once. If the list price is too high, BN.com might not be able to sell the book at all, so no new discount will ever be applied. If you do need to raise the list price much beyond that, you should probably do it in stages.
I assume BN.com has a system for figuring discounts, but I have no idea what it might be. Typical discounts can range between 15% and 30%, with some farther afield than that. Still, with any luck, the book’s new discounted sale price will land in the same ballpark as its old list price. And if it falls far short, it will get another chance the next time the book is reordered.
4. Compare the new, discounted BN.com sale price with the list price you set at CreateSpace. (Remember, this CreateSpace price is still the old one—the price you had at Lightning before raising it.) If your CreateSpace price is lowest, you’ll have to raise it to just above the BN.com price, even if only by a penny. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see Amazon match the other price.
Your price change at CreateSpace will generally show up on Amazon overnight. But it may show up at first only as a list price, with the sale price taking a few days to catch up. Presumably, this means that Amazon has some copies in stock and will wait till they’re sold before reconciling the two prices.
5. Watch for Amazon to exactly match the BN.com price. This may take a week or two, probably based on a periodic or rotating check of BN.com prices by Amazon.
And by the way, it’s the price that’s matched, not the discount. Amazon and BN.com each calculates its listed discount after setting its sale price—but Amazon rounds up to the nearest percentage point, while BN.com rounds down. So, Amazon’s discounts often appear a percentage point higher, even with the prices exactly matched. (One can only marvel at the marketing genius of BN.com, pointlessly making itself look worse than its greatest rival.)
6. When Amazon matches the BN.com sale price, raise your list price at CreateSpace to match your list price at Lightning. You will then see Amazon change its list price to the new one, while its discounted sale price continues to match the one at BN.com. Your book’s profitability should now be about where it was before Amazon started mucking around—or at least be able to climb back to there.
At this point, you’re through! But Amazon might not be. What I found is that, within another week or two, you might see Amazon apply its own, even higher discount. Typically, this is between 30% and 35%. If that happens, then your book might actually do better on Amazon than ever before.
To clarify this whole process, let’s look at the figures for Aiming at Amazon. My original list price was $16, so that’s what I set up for the book at CreateSpace. (At the time, I had the book on the Pro Plan, but CreateSpace has since extended that plan’s basic benefits to all books and discontinued it.) At Lightning, I raised the book’s list price to $20 and changed its 20% discount to 55%. BN.com quickly listed the $20 price, then later discounted it to $15.84. When I saw Amazon matching that, I raised the list price at CreateSpace to $20. Amazon continued to sell the book at $15.84. Later, though, Amazon discounted it 32%, to $13.60—it’s lowest sale price ever!
As for profitability, my profit per copy was $8.91 while short discounting at Lightning with a $16 list price. My profit per copy at CreateSpace, with a list price of $20 and the required 40% discount, is now $8.39. Meanwhile, back at Lightning, with a $20 list price and a 55% discount, my profit per copy is $5.11.
For September, the book’s total U.S. sales were 112 copies at CreateSpace and 19 copies at Lightning. This meant an average profit per copy of $7.91, for a reduction of about 11%—which appears to have been more or less made up by slightly higher sales than expected that month, probably due to Amazon’s lowered sale price.
Since I first proposed Plan B, I’ve seen a number of questions come up frequently, so let’s look at them.
I’m about to self publish my first book. I was planning on signing up with Lightning Source after reading your books, but I haven’t yet. Should I still do that but follow Plan B?
Probably not. As I’ve tried to make clear in later editions of my books, CreateSpace by itself is a much better match for most new self publishers. Unless you already have experience in publishing or have a book that has already proven successful through CreateSpace, I suggest leaving Lightning alone for now.
After reading about Plan B, I’ve decided to publish my next book with both Lightning Source and CreateSpace. Do I understand correctly that it should go to Lightning first?
No. As originally written, Plan B was meant for self publishers transitioning from working with Lightning alone to working with both Lightning and CreateSpace. The steps I outlined apply only to existing books of such publishers. As such, there aren’t a lot of self publishers who still need it, because most of them have already made the switch.
Because of the plan’s success, the name “Plan B” has over time been applied more generally to the approach of working with both Lightning and CreateSpace. If you’re coming at this fresh, though, there’s no reason to follow the sequence of steps I prescribe. Just submit your book to both companies in any order and at the final price you want for it.
Personally, I usually submit first to CreateSpace, because it’s simpler and cheaper to correct mistakes there. Then, when I’m happy with my proof, I send the book on to Lightning.
After reading about Plan B, I want to publish with both CreateSpace and Lightning Source. But I started out with CreateSpace, and my book there is signed up for the Bookstores part of the Expanded Distribution Channel. Can I just disable that for the book before submitting it to Lightning?
No, because that will leave the book’s ISBN in Lightning’s database, where it will still be associated with CreateSpace. You must ask CreateSpace to get the ISBN deleted from its Lightning account. This may take time and persistence.
As an alternative, you might consider republishing the book with a new ISBN at both Lightning and CreateSpace and linking the new to the old to carry over reviews. Linking should not be a problem if you do not identify the book as a newer edition and you don’t change the title. Amazon’s AuthorCentral can help with linking, if it’s not done automatically.
I haven’t seen any availability problem with my Lightning book. Do I really need Plan B?
No. If your book isn’t selling well enough to outpace Amazon’s advance stocking, or to trigger Amazon’s halt in drop shipping, then by all means, stick to Lightning and a short discount. But keep an eye on availability.
I tried Plan B, raising the list price of my book to $7.50, but it was never discounted.
As far as I can tell, neither BN.com nor Amazon will discount books with a list price much under $10. (I don’t know the exact cutoff point, but it’s probably between $9 and $10.) Many of my own books are priced lower than that, and I’ve left most of those exclusively at Lightning Source, with some still at a 20% discount.
My book was out of stock at Amazon all last fall, but this spring I’m seeing it back in stock. Does that mean the crisis is over?
Sorry, no. Based on my analysis, this is an expected pattern. As I said, Amazon is now ordering books based on sales, but not always fast enough to meet demand, and this can lead to books being frequently or continually out of stock. But you would see this especially from fall to winter, when Amazon book sales in general are on the rise. From spring to summer, you might well see the opposite pattern: Book sales are on the wane, so Amazon’s orders are more than needed to meet falling demand, and books wind up in stock. In the fall, the cycle will most likely start over, leaving your book out of stock through the holiday buying season, when you least want it to be.
If I follow Plan B in the United States, what should I do about other countries?
Now that CreateSpace has expanded into Europe, you should probably follow Plan B there too. Amazon’s availability listings for Lightning books haven’t deteriorated there—they’ve never been that good. CreateSpace’s European channel fixes that. And though Amazon seems to have stopped price matching WHSmith, having a book at both CreateSpace and Lightning apparently may still generate an Amazon UK discount of 10% or more.
Here’s another reason to follow Plan B in Europe, and anywhere else as well: If you don’t, you’re likely to see cross-market sales that take advantage of your book’s lower U.S. wholesale price. For instance, you might see European Amazons buying from the U.S. instead of from the U.K.; or U.S. Marketplace vendors undercutting prices on Amazon.co.uk. This would negate much of your advantage from maintaining a different discount. Besides that, you may feel, as I do, that it’s wasteful to encourage shipping books across oceans when they can be printed locally.
Amazon sells my Lightning books, but I don’t live in the United States. Should I follow Plan B?
It may not be worth it, because CreateSpace’s arrangements for payments and taxes for publishers outside the United States are currently not as favorable as Lightning’s. At best, you will be asked to submit official paperwork exempting you from withholding of 30% of your profit on U.S. sales for U.S. taxes. At worst, you will wind up having to file an annual tax return in the U.S. as well as in your own country.
With this kind of hassle, it may make more sense to stick with Lightning alone and take the penalty. Or you might consider relying on Lightning alone in the U.S. but adopting Plan B in Europe. On the other hand, with the tightening of IRS restrictions, there’s no guarantee that Lightning won’t also have to institute withholding.
But please don’t depend on anything I say about taxes—I’m far from an expert in that field. There are far more knowledgeable people on pod_publishers.
Amazon gives my book an availability listing of 2–3 weeks, but I ordered a copy as a test, and I got it in six days. Are they lying to discourage people from buying my book?
No, not really. The actual delivery time of a book ordered by Amazon from Lightning is probably about one to two weeks. But to cover itself, Amazon has always been conservative in such estimates, so it instead says two to three weeks.
At the same time, it’s likely that Amazon had ordered one or more copies of your book in advance of sales, meaning the books were already on their way and could have shown up any day. Amazon’s listing, unfortunately, does not take account of this at all—which is a bit lazy on their part, since package tracking should let them know exactly when any book should be on hand.
Under Plan B, if Amazon gets a 40% discount for my CreateSpace books, what’s to keep it from ordering the same book directly from Lightning at a discount of 55%?
I’m not sure anything actually prevents this, but I think CreateSpace’s partnering with Lightning for the Expanded Distribution Channel may make it impracticable. In any case, CreateSpace is telling publishers that Amazon will not place orders elsewhere for books set up at CreateSpace.
Of course, it’s always best to test such assurances, and I did just that with an “Orders by Publisher ID” report, which is available from Lightning reps by special request. I was able to confirm that, for the month of September 2011, Amazon did not place direct orders at Lightning for any book of mine that was also signed up at CreateSpace, even though it did order other books of mine.
Update—A year later, I checked this again, having received two reports that Amazon did in fact order from Lightning in preference to CreateSpace during September 2012. I found a limited number of such orders for a few of my titles in that month, but none in October. I’m still monitoring this, but it looks likely that this was an unusual situation, possibly due to a backlog of orders at CreateSpace, and may not even have had anything to do with the difference in discount. If you’re concerned about this issue and want to check it out further, please join pod_publishers. (In other words, please don’t ask me directly.)
To follow Plan B, I asked Lightning Source to stop selling my book to Amazon, but my rep told me they can’t do that without stopping all distribution!
Your rep is correct, and what you tried to do is not part of Plan B! This has nothing to do with changing your book’s availability through Lightning, but only with adding availability through CreateSpace. When your book is available through CreateSpace, Amazon will buy it there, regardless of whether it’s offered by Lightning.
According to CreateSpace, I can’t use an ISBN there that has been used at another service. Doesn’t that make Plan B impossible?
That prohibition is only for books signed up for the Bookstores component of CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution Channel, and the reason is that CreateSpace contracts with Lightning to operate that component! Since every other self-publishing service also uses Lightning, CreateSpace would be trying to set up an ISBN that was already in Lightning’s system, which does not allow that kind of duplication.
With Plan B, you continue to work with Lightning directly and avoid signing up for the Bookstores component of CreateSpace’s EDC. So, there is no conflict and no prohibition.
Help! I have a book at Lightning, but when I tried to enter the same ISBN at CreateSpace, an error message told me I couldn’t reuse it!
Despite frustrated messages in online forums, and even confirming statements from personnel of both CreateSpace and Lightning, this has nothing to do with using the ISBN at both companies. This message most likely means you have yourself at some point entered the ISBN in a listing at CreateSpace. The ISBN is retained in the CreateSpace database even if you delete the listing. The only way to use that ISBN again is to get CreateSpace to manually delete it.
Help! I have a book at CreateSpace, but when I tried to enter the same ISBN at Lightning, an error message told me I couldn’t reuse it!
Unless your book is signed up for CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution Channel, this has nothing to do with using the ISBN at both companies—just as in the case of the previous question. This message most likely means you have yourself at some point entered the ISBN in a title setup at Lightning, even if you did not complete it. You must return to that setup and either complete it or delete it. On the My Library menu, click on “Titles Not Yet Submitted.”
You’re using higher discounting at Lightning to get Amazon to lower its sale price through price matching. Can’t you get the same result just by setting a higher list price at CreateSpace than at Lightning?
Yes, and in fact, you might call that Plan C. The problem is that it violates CreateSpace’s terms and conditions. Though I’m not aware of CreateSpace ever enforcing this, you’re prohibited from setting a list price there that’s higher than any you’ve set elsewhere. And even without that prohibition, it would be a pretty dirty trick.
CreateSpace says the discount you need to offer is 60%, not 40%. Does this mean your plan is no good?
According to CreateSpace, the 60% discount is only for copies sold through the Expanded Distribution Channel. Even if a book is signed up for the EDC, the discount for copies sold to Amazon is 40%. Note, though, that CreateSpace also deducts the book’s printing cost from what it sends you—just as Lightning does.
Are there any other advantages to working with CreateSpace as well as Lightning?
CreateSpace generates a much more reliable book listing on Amazon, even giving you direct, ongoing control over your book’s description. If you require multiple proofs for your own design process, you can avoid Lightning’s high proof fees by getting them from CreateSpace. And CreateSpace availability might help you avoid the endless loop that can occur when trying to revise a popular book at Lightning.
You don’t mention CreateSpace’s lower printing costs. Isn’t that a big benefit?
Because of Lightning’s different pricing for short run and distribution, short run printing at CreateSpace can definitely be cheaper. But when printing for distribution—which is the main way most small publishers should be using print on demand—there’s really no significant difference between them. So, in general, I think this often-mentioned “advantage” is overrated.
But there are exceptions. One is for books with larger trim sizes. Unlike Lightning, CreateSpace does not charge extra for large pages. So, if your book is 8.5 x 11 inches, for example, you’ll pay significantly less for printing at CreateSpace. Another exception is for some kinds of full-color books.
Can I use the same files at CreateSpace as at Lightning, or do I have to start over?
There are a number of small differences in file requirements between Lightning and CreateSpace, but in many cases, the exact same files will work. Some publishers even report successfully sending book covers that are placed on one of Lightning’s templates! Personally, though, I think this is a terrible idea, because the only way CreateSpace can use such a cover is to rasterize the whole thing before cropping the template away.
The files that are most likely to work without change are interior files for black-and-white books that are text only. You’re also fine with interior graphics in those books, as long as they don’t come closer to the edge than a quarter inch. Closer than that, and you’ll have to meet different bleed and layout requirements. For covers too, you have to meet different bleed requirements, as well as a stricter limit for spine text on narrow spines.
Color requirements are actually much simpler at CreateSpace. Though it can handle all-CMYK covers with a 240% total ink limit, such as required by Lightning, you’ll do better with most color in RGB with an Adobe RGB embedded color profile. And actually, you should always design your covers that way, and convert them to all-CMYK only when necessary and as a last step. Interior color graphics too are best supplied to CreateSpace in all Adobe RGB.
Spine width will be slightly different, due to a difference in paper thickness. Personally, though, I always design my covers off template and round the spine width to the nearest eighth inch. If you do that, the difference in width from Lightning to CreateSpace probably won’t affect you at all.
You can use the bar code from Lightning’s template or elsewhere, but why bother? If your cover has none, CreateSpace will add one, using an ISBN of either yours or CreateSpace’s. (Don’t confuse the ISBN with the bar code that encodes it!)
Lately, CreateSpace has offered the option of letting you approve your book without seeing a proof. I strongly advise against this! CreateSpace techs have a nasty habit of altering your book and cover design to fit their requirements—without telling you!—and not very competently, either. Sometimes you can see that from the cover thumbnail displayed on the CreateSpace site when your proof is ready. But other times, you won’t see it till you have a proof in hand.
I tried setting up a book at CreateSpace, but their quality control is terrible!
It certainly is. Sloppy trimming is extremely common, but that’s far from the worst of it. I had one proof that had two different books of mine glued into one cover. I’ve had short color picture books with missing pages or with blank pages added. I’ve had unauthorized—and awful—alterations of my covers.
Still, the differences between CreateSpace’s quality control and Lightning’s are mostly differences in degree rather than kind. For now, I consider inadequate quality control to be the cost of benefiting from the print on demand business model. If you are more concerned about print quality than anything else—as sometimes you might need to be—then POD simply isn’t appropriate for your book.
When I followed Plan B and signed up my book at CreateSpace, I saw a surge of sales—but now they’ve dropped out of sight. What’s going on?
This catches a lot of publishers, but it’s only a quirk in the transition. Here’s what causes it:
1. While your book is solely at Lightning, Amazon is ordering copies in advance of sales, even if not enough to fully meet demand. So, at the moment you approve your book at CreateSpace, there may actually be several copies on the way from Lightning, and some or all of these may be intended to fulfill customer orders already placed.
2. When you approve your book at CreateSpace, Amazon will immediately order enough copies from CreateSpace to fill existing orders overnight—even if copies to fill them have already been ordered from Lightning. This means CreateSpace may report several copies sold on the very first day.
3. Once all past customer orders are filled with CreateSpace copies, the Lightning copies will no longer be needed for that. Instead, they’ll go into stock as they arrive and be used to fill subsequent orders. This means that Amazon may not need to order any more CreateSpace copies until Lightning copies are sold out. So, for that period, CreateSpace will report no sales, despite continuing sales on Amazon.
Of course, as soon as the Lightning copies sell out, Amazon will get copies from CreateSpace as needed, and your reported sales will even out. This shouldn’t take more than a week or two.
Lightning is giving me an error message when I try to switch my U.S. discount from 20% to 55%. What do I do?
When you try to radically adjust your discount, Lightning throws up a warning and asks you to choose a reason from a menu. Just select the one saying you want to increase sales. (To change back, you’d select the one saying you want to increase profit.)
The warning you see applies to only one market. After you select your reason, you must click “Submit” again. You will then get the same warning for the next market. (If you don’t see all these warnings, you may have to scroll your window.) Keep clicking “Submit” and responding to warnings until all markets have been covered. Then click on “Submit” a final time. This will take you away from the page entirely, and until then, you’re not through! In fact, at that point, you should go back to the page to make sure your changes were saved.
Your request must then go for manual approval, so be sure to submit it at least a few days before the normal deadline, which is itself about a week before changes are to go into effect. I have not heard of anyone having this change rejected or even questioned.
What happens if I follow Plan B and then Amazon restores good availability to Lightning books? Will I be able to go back to short discounting at Lightning?
It’s simple enough to turn off the Amazon.com sales channel at CreateSpace and switch back to a 20% discount and a lower list price at Lightning. But I’d be cautious about doing it, because you won’t know if or when poor availability will return. And the entire process of changing to Plan B can take up to a couple of months. Besides, if Plan B gives you about the same profit you had before, or even greater profit, why go back?
If you do switch back, keep in mind that CreateSpace will remain your book’s “vendor of record” at Amazon. That means, among other things, that the list price you’ve set at CreateSpace will remain the list price on Amazon—even if Amazon is buying your book from Lightning or Ingram with a list price dramatically different. To prevent a price difference, adjust your CreateSpace price before turning off the Amazon.com sales channel. Or, with the channel turned off, you can go the more tedious route of contacting Amazon and asking them to change your book’s vendor of record to Lightning (and getting one of their self-serving email warnings against doing that).
Is there anything really original about your Plan B? You’re just replacing your short discount with standard discounts for both wholesalers and retailers, just as Lightning and your critics have been telling you to do for years. Shouldn’t you have just done this from the start?
In essence, Plan B is certainly a move from short discounting to standard discounting. But there has been good reason to avoid it before.
When I adopted short discounting, there were basically two options for new self publishers wanting Amazon to buy their books: Amazon Advantage and Lightning Source. Standard discounting at Lightning Source, then as now, meant offering a 55% discount. Standard discounting at Amazon Advantage should have meant 40%—but because Amazon had decided to take advantage of small publishers, it demanded the same 55% that a wholesaler would get! I found that, by instead going through Lightning with a short discount of 20% and lowering list prices accordingly, a small publisher could easily increase profit by about 50%.
What has changed? In a word, CreateSpace. Amazon’s introduction of a publishing service from which it acquires books at a standard, reasonable discount of 40% makes it possible for POD publishers to adopt standard discounting without severely hurting their income—though of course, there’s the hassle and expense of double sourcing with CreateSpace and Lightning.
If I start giving a standard discount at Lightning, should I go all the way and also accept returns, to encourage stocking by offline bookstores?
There’s always the temptation to try, and always the small chance it might work. But with the high cost of print on demand, accepting returns can be high-stakes gambling—and that’s if you’re successful! For myself, I prefer to stick to my principle of “Forget Bookstores” to keep hassle to a minimum.
I’m following Plan B for the books I already have at Lightning Source. Should I go through the same steps for a new book?
No. Plan B was designed to maintain a book’s position on Amazon as much as possible. But a new book has not had time to develop much of a position, so there’s nothing you need to maintain. (If you don’t understand what I just said, read Aiming at Amazon. In fact, read it anyway.) Just submit the book to Lightning and/or CreateSpace at the final price and discounts, then be patient.
I have a new book at Lightning only, and Amazon is showing it as “Temporarily out of stock.” How do I fix that?
Well, as I’ve been saying, the best way is usually to set the book up also at CreateSpace. But you should instead be able to fix the book’s availability by simply ordering a copy from Amazon. After Amazon itself has ordered it, they’ll post the usual estimate of time till shipping. (This change may take a few days.)
If you’re going to fix this, though, you should do it as soon as you see that notice. If your book starts being listed by Marketplace sellers, you may no longer be able to order from Amazon itself.
By the way, this problem became common only in late 2012. So, the status of Lightning books at Amazon seems to be growing worse.
In the past, I’ve published only through Lightning Source, but you’ve convinced me I need to publish through CreateSpace. Can I get the benefits of Plan B by submitting to CreateSpace alone and signing up for its Expanded Distribution Channel to get the book to Lightning indirectly?
No. To allow profit for itself, CreateSpace gives Lightning a much lower discount than what I recommend. What’s more, you’re almost sure to be frustrated by the lag in getting your book to Lightning and making changes there. Since you are already used to working with Lightning, you’re much better off continuing that, in addition to working with CreateSpace.
For details, see my article on the EDC.
How do I keep up with developments on this issue?
As with all issues regarding POD, you should sign up for my email bulletin and join pod_publishers on Yahoo. And of course, you should keep a close eye on your own books. Sales Rank Express is particularly good for that, if you have a number of them.
Anything else I need to know?
As always, my online materials are meant as supplements to my books. Particularly, if you have not read my POD for Profit, you may not have the background to carry out this (or any other) plan with reasonable ease. Unfortunately, I am seeing a fair amount of that: People who have not read my books before adopting Plan B and who then become totally befuddled by the process.
Good luck with your books!