POD Problem-Solving: Part 2

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June 2014
by Linda Carlson

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When I emailed IBPA members to ask about experiences with print-on-demand, and posted a similar query on industry LinkedIn sites, hundreds of you responded—with recommendations that make sense for all of us, whether we’re new to POD or new to all of publishing.

Last month, the first part of this series discussed pre-press options and procedures for print-on-demand, which uses digital printing to produce books only when orders are placed. Digital printing is also useful for creating short runs, so it’s a cost-effective method of getting a couple of dozen books for peer or media review, a box of copies for selling at events, or inventory of an older title when sales no longer justify offset printing.

What follows focuses on POD vendors, describing some of them and explaining what it’s important to know about customer service and distribution options. The three best-known POD vendors are Amazon via CreateSpace, Ingram via Lightning Source, and IngramSpark, as well as the Espresso Book Machine via its EspressNet database of titles. Each of these can provide a seamless process from publisher to purchaser, but other vendors can do the same.

For basic vocabulary that pertains to the entire POD process, see “Key Terms” on page 10 of the print edition of IBPA’s Independent magazine – June 2014.

Various Variations

Digital printing and POD are online processes that can be completely automated. Although the production itself will involve people, they will be invisible to you behind the “submit job,” “review proof” and “approved for distribution” buttons on your screen and the spaces for entering your credit card number and shipping address.

As with any automated online process—buying clothes, ordering snapshot prints, filing your income tax, even applying for a job—you’re dependent on Website programming and documentation. Of course, the quality of both varies from vendor to vendor and from one stage of the process to another.

How accessible live help is, how much customer contact people know about printing, and how fast people respond to your questions also vary. So does turnaround time on proofs. Some vendors appear to work around the clock; with others, you’ll wait a couple of business days for comments on what you’ve submitted.

Also, publishers report that delivery of proofs and finished books sometimes takes longer than expected—or promised. In general, they say, vendors are responsive to customer complaints about delayed shipments and glitches in quality.

Foulups with Files

We’ve all worked with software that periodically shuts down for no obvious reason, and with online forms that lack complete directions or refuse to acknowledge that we’ve provided the requested information. POD vendor software is no different. One issue with Lightning Source and IngramSpark is that you must keep type within the lines of the Ingram template. Self-publisher Joseph Labaki of Clunett Press in Edinburgh, Scotland, says he’s had to revise cover designs repeatedly because Lightning Source will not accept a PDF if spine art is not centered between the lines of its spine template. Similarly, error messages I received from Ingram several times said that my PDF extended so far onto the required template that the trim and fold lines were hidden, although the PDFs I created showed the lines.

GaleLeachGale Leach (photo right) of Two Cats Press in Surprise, AZ, who works with a local digital printer, paid for one cover proof after another as each one came out too dark before she learned about “a tiny checkbox in the setup on the printer’s Web site that said ‘Boost saturation and contrast.’”

At Merriam Associates in New York City, publishing consultant Lisa Merriam has used Lightning Source for several books with few problems and stresses careful checking to ensure that files have uploaded correctly. This is a special concern with Ingram, which charges for each upload. “I somehow hit the upload button twice for the interior and got charged twice,” she says. “The cover didn’t upload at all, so LSI used an old one.” But, she adds, “My rep was exceptionally helpful. She connected me directly to the tech folks and we got it worked out.”

It took an LSI customer service rep to solve a similar problem for Wayne Stahre of The Habitation of Chimham Publishing in Titusville, FL. After placing several orders for a new title, Stahre submitted a revised cover for the book, but proofs showed the earlier cover. “My other problems have resulted from relying on virtual proofs,” Stahre notes. Having used them for text-only books, he used one for a book block with a few photos. The virtual proof looked fine, he reports, but the photos were too dark when printed.

Like so many other publishers, Merriam and Stahre recommend always ordering a printed proof when using POD. That step will save you both time and money, they emphasize.

At Stone Bridge Press in Berkeley, CA, where publisher Peter Goodman has extensive experience with offset printing, he goes a step past paper proofs with digital jobs. “Quality is inconsistent, even at the best printers, so ask for approval copies before the job is shipped.” As he points out, digital press operators (“not exactly the print specialists of old”) don’t always see, or even know to look for, such problems as roller marks, inconsistent application of toner, and color shifts on covers.

In response to comments about customer service representatives’ typical lack of printing expertise, Janice Schnell Butler—an IBPA board member and a content acquisition manager at Ingram Content Group—said the group’s managers expect it may take a year for a new CSR to truly understand printing. This is not exclusively a POD problem, of course. Many of us have had occasional communication challenges with sales reps in traditional printing operations.

Help from Humans

Despite the automated online submission forms, most digital printers and POD vendors offer personal help by email, live chat, or telephone—and sometimes all three.

Marianne Sciucco, author/publisher at Bunky Press in Middletown, NY, calls CreateSpace customer service “excellent,” adding, “It’s wonderful to have someone available by phone to walk me though the process.” And Ruby Throat Press publisher Patricia Weenolsen of Seattle, who describes herself as a “techno klutz,” is full of praise for her LSI customer service representative. “I discovered a horrible mistake in my ISBN, and with help via email, tried to make the step-by-step correction on the LSI site before approving the proof. I made one mistake after another, a virtual omnibus of every conceivable error, even accidentally approving the faulty proof. Emails were flying back and forth. Finally, sensing that I was beyond frustration, my CSR called, we had a good chat and got the mess sorted out. She went above and beyond the call of duty.”

Laurenn BarkerAt Expressions Studio in Carlsbad, CA, Laurenn Barker (photo right) uses Lightning Source for her Lae Lae Collection. What she especially likes is that any LSI representative can check her files and provide assistance. “This is considerably better than the old method of calling a specific account person and having to wait for possibly 24 hours to get an answer.”

As Janice Schnell Butler explains, Ingram tracks jobs so that nothing can be lost. “Once a title is imported into our system, the files uploaded are logged with a date and time, and located within a folder for that particular title. We have rules that require files to stay in place once uploaded. Our system keeps a full record of what was provided and when, and logs that we reviewed the file by approving or rejecting it.”

It is possible for a job at either CreateSpace or Lightning Source/IngramSpark to be completely automated, but with Ingram’s POD, that’s unusual, Butler adds. “For most title submissions, we use a combination of the electronic proofing process and review by a team member.”

Besides Amazon and Ingram

If you want a box or two of books for direct sales or review copies, the giants will be happy to print those and ship them to you. CreateSpace and the Ingram Content Group aren’t your only options, though, and if you’re already working with an exclusive distributor, you probably won’t work directly with either of them. Instead, your distributor may arrange for POD.

Distributors such as IPG, Legato, PGW, Perseus Distribution, and Consortium can provide a seamless process for their clients. When a publisher sends files in to a distributor, the distributor’s staff then works with an affiliated digital printer.

LarryEdwards“Be wary of any so-called self-publishing service that makes big promises,” warns Larry Edwards (photo right) at Wigeon Publishing in San Diego. “These services may not have up-front fees, but they make it up on the back end through higher printing costs and/or by taking a share of the sales revenue. Based on my experience as a publisher and publishing consultant to indie authors, CreateSpace is the most economical option for POD, and it provides direct access to Amazon at a 40 percent discount. For the novice indie publisher, I recommend working with CreateSpace (but purchase your own ISBNs), because there are likely to be fewer technical glitches, and because of the direct channel to Amazon.”

However, Edwards says, “For distribution beyond Amazon, I recommend LSI or IngramSpark because (a) their parent company is one of the largest book wholesalers, and (b) you save money in the long run on books purchased for your own use, especially for IBPA members, who get a wholesale discount.”

If you want more options in trim size and quality, and possibly a closer relationship with sales and customer service representatives, you may choose to manage your own short-run digital printing and the delivery of printed books to your distributor or wholesaler. “It’s not exactly POD because I print in advance of orders,” says MaryAnn Kohl at Bright Ring Publishing in Bellingham, WA, who is now using United Graphics, “but it works for me. Perhaps the wait is a little longer than with true POD. But UG always seems to have the best prices, and customer service is stellar.”

And if you’re looking for your own digital printer, as Kohl has, Stone Bridge’s Goodman advises, “Check around for pricing. Everyone these days offers digital printing, but prices are all over the place.” In his opinion, “Better prices are in inverse proportion to patronizing marketing language. That is, a printer claiming to be your publishing buddy is more likely going to charge you a higher price.”

Sidestepping Sales Taxes

Perhaps because so much POD work is done for individuals, one issue with both CreateSpace and LSI/IngramSpark is sales tax. Since book manufacturers do not charge sales tax on material for resale, Kelley T. Jansson, a self-publisher at Center Chimney Publishing in Sandy Hook, CT, thought it was strange when CreateSpace charged it for her first shipments even though she was “obviously buying books in bulk to resell.”

Jansson then documented that she met CreateSpace’s requirement for a sales tax exemption certificate, and she will not be charged sales tax on future orders. I had an identical situation, but was unable to obtain a resale certificate in Washington state, because it now issues those only to businesses that have had a certain level of retail sales business in the previous six to twelve months. However, I will be able to claim a credit on my state sales tax return for sales taxes paid to CreateSpace and IngramSpark.

CreateSpace confirms that it may charge sales tax on orders shipped to Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. For an exemption, says Prashanth Kumar, a member services staffer, you need to “submit the appropriate Uniform Sales and Use Tax Certificate to our financial office. Allow one week for processing. For additional information, please refer to the form’s instructions or your state’s Department of Revenue.” If you already have a resale certificate, you should file it before your first order by contacting CS customer service at 4900 LaCross Road, North Charleston, SC 29406, or fax 206/922-5928.

If you’re working with LSI or IngramSpark, you should use the guides on their Websites to apply for tax-exempt status. Start from your account login page and note that Ingram requires a copy of a state tax exemption certificate.

Turnaround Times

Although one advantage of POD is that publishers can inventory few, if any, copies of a title, some say they feel forced to warehouse larger quantities because of slow turnaround on bulk orders. “The worst thing about working with CreateSpace is delivery,” Jansson reports. “It has not been able to fulfill my orders in less than two weeks.”

Bunky Press has had the same problem. “There was some sort of unexplained delay, and the books arrived at 7 the night before my first book signing! It was nerve-wracking,” says Sciucco.

Andrew Harvey, the principal of Hague Publishing in Australia, says getting anything from the United States to Perth is “somewhat problematic” at the best of times, and extremely difficult during the holiday season. “Don’t order proofs or books in December if you have a tight deadline, and don’t pay for any sort of priority delivery because it’s a waste of money,” he advises.

When CreateSpace shipped Hague two proofs on December 2, 2013, via a priority service, the estimated delivery date was December 17, but the combination of an unprecedented demand for Christmas shipping by Internet retailers and bad weather in the eastern United States meant that the proofs didn’t show up in Perth until January 12. On January 6, CreateSpace had shipped a second set of proofs, which did arrive on January 28 as scheduled.

In each of these cases, the vendor refunded the original shipping fees and also absorbed the cost of the second shipment.

By contrast, my own initial bulk order from CreateSpace was trouble-free: the books arrived the same week I placed the order. And “No problems” is how Stahre at The Habitation of Chimham Publishing describes his deliveries from Lightning Source—“I’ve placed several orders for 200 books and have received them in seven days.”

The best advice, says Brad Pauquette—who is CEO of both an independent publisher, Columbus (Ohio) Press, and a self-publishing service—is, be realistic about lead time. “Prepare for everything to take twice as long as you expect. If you expect to have your books available for sale and in your hands in one week, plan for two weeks.”

Getting Booksellers to Bite

Publishing POD does have a disadvantage: storefront booksellers, whether independent or chain, are often reluctant to inventory such titles, despite the fact that publishers using CreateSpace and LSI/IngramSpark can specify that copies are returnable.

“We use the expanded distribution program at CreateSpace, and we are affiliated with Ingram and with Baker & Taylor, but I am unaware of any bookstore or library that has ordered a copy of one of our books,” reports Mikel Miller, managing editor of Egret Books, which has offices in both Guadalajara, Mexico, and San Diego. “I’ve talked directly with bookstores; all say they don’t want to stock POD books because they perceive that unsold copies are difficult or impossible to return for credit.”

Labaki echoes Miller’s comments. “Getting your POD book onto bookstore shelves is very much a ‘catch-22’: if there’s demand, stores will stock it, but to have demand, the book has to be on the shelves.”

“If I walk into a store and there is a local-author connection, I might get some interest,” says Ed Charlton, publisher at Scribbulations in Kennett Square, PA. “Assuming I get some interest, if the book isn’t returnable and isn’t sold with a 55 percent discount, the bookseller might consider a consignment deal. If the book does have standard terms, I’m still limited to the bookstores where I can make eye contact with the buyer.”

Bookstore distribution has always been an issue for small publishers, regardless of production quality, and many publishers mentioned that digital print quality can vary between vendors and even between books from the same vendor, especially if there are multiple printers for a quantity order, even a quantity as low as 20. One variance is spine thickness, a surprise to publishers and booksellers used to seeing every copy of a title printed with the same text stock and cover stock. This will be especially obvious to booksellers and librarians if copies ordered from one vendor sit on a shelf next to copies ordered from another. For example, my new 276-page book is barely five-eighths of an inch thick when printed by IngramSpark but three-quarters of an inch thick when sourced from CreateSpace (which lists titles in the Ingram database though its Expanded Distribution program, making them available to the trade).

“Some people I’ve spoken with—especially librarians—associate books printed as they are ordered with poor quality,” says Chel Avery, publications and distribution coordinator at Friends General Conference in Philadelphia. Eric Hutchins at SkipJack Publishing in Houston has heard the same opinion. “There’s widespread ignorance of what POD means in 2014, with too many booksellers believing it means poor quality, no returns, and vanity publishing that they shouldn’t waste their time with.”

That may not be a problem when established publishers offer special-interest titles. At Seattle’s Parenting Press, publisher Carolyn Threadgill remembers when Amazon received five dozen orders in a single day for Internet Safety and Your Family—available only POD and as a PDF from the publisher’s Website—after an announcement of the title appeared on LISWire (liswire.com), a press release Website read by librarians.

Using an independent distributor may also alleviate or eliminate the problem. “As satisfied as we’ve been with Lightning Source, we are now distributing through Small Press Distribution in Berkeley,” says Mark Givens, publisher at Pelekinesis in Claremont, CA. “This change serves two purposes: it alleviates the general anti-POD bias by putting the manufacturing process into the background, and it provides us with a distribution system that fits independent presses.”

Another option: looking outside the book trade. “Other retailers are often delighted to carry books related to their stock, and not just nonfiction,” Karen Myers of Perkunas Press in Tyrone, PA, notes. “I’ve placed fantasy books on fox hunting in tack stores located in fox-hunting territory.”

A final tip: don’t blame the problem on POD, says Nancy Freund Fraser of Gobeau Press, with locations in Key Largo, FL, and Lausanne, Switzerland. “Being a new publisher with no track record is the problem. Even though my book has national distribution and standard trade terms and is fully returnable, bricks-and-mortar stores are not taking the risk of inventorying it. It’s a publicity/consumer demand question. Once consumers demand a title, the stores will stock it, whether it’s POD or offset.”

POD Pluses

Overall, most of the responding publishers see advantages for POD. Yes, the procedures can be quirky, and yes, the quality can vary from book to book. However, because unit prices seldom vary by quantity (although freight costs will), self-publishers and established presses both can afford very short runs. “Another plus is that I don’t have to make room for boxes of books,” says Sciucco, adding, “The real beauty of digital publishing” is the ability to make changes as necessary. “I’ve already updated my front and back covers to add reader reviews.”

And, Goodman points out, “Some vendors offer instant access to selling channels, and the savings in administration and tedium provided by that may make up for whatever price savings on production you get elsewhere.” This is especially important for self- and micropublishers unable to set up cost-effective wholesaler or distributor relationships.


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) has just launched Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results: How to Buy Print, Broadcast, Outdoor, Online, Direct Response & Offbeat Media, using both CreateSpace and IngramSpark.

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