Book printing service is the bright Spark

The difficulties facing self-publishers in trying to make money from print books are illustrated by the launch of the new IngramSpark service aimed at smaller publishers which mixes together the existing Lightning Source print-on-order service and the Ingram print and ebook distribution networks.

The new Spark operation launched at the start of July and I have been checking over the details to see if it offers any new opportunities.

Fixed discounts

The first thing to note is Spark has set discounts of 55% for print books (minus printing costs) and 60% for ebooks.

Users of the present Lightning Source service can set their own discount as low as 20% (meaning the writer/publisher gets 80%), which is either a good or bad thing depending on your point of view and whether you’re a bookseller or a writer/publisher.

The set Spark discounts mean if you are the publisher you get 45% of the print book’s list price (less printing cost) and 40% of an ebook list price.

Ebooks already on Kindle are not eligible

It’s unlikely you would want to use this service just for ebooks or even at all for ebooks as you can get 70% of your ebook price through the major player, Amazon, although there are no details of whether Spark would continue to pay out 40% on low-priced or high-priced ebooks where Amazon has a royalty of just 30%.

In any case it’s probably immaterial as if you have provided any ebooks to Amazon for Kindle in the past 12 months you are not eligible for the Spark deal as you have a previous relationship with Amazon under an existing agreement.

If you have any ebooks with Apple, you would need to remove them before uploading the books to IngramSpark. You would lose any reviews or ratings on those books.

Lightning Source prints, manufactures and ships IngramSpark print titles, fulfilling orders placed through its 38,000 retail and library partners around the world.

It’s worth remembering that LS seems to have an uncertain relationship with Amazon, with books distributed through LS frequently to be found “out of stock” on the Amazon sites. Amazon, of course, offers its own POD service with Createspace.

IngramSpark also feeds book data into the CoreSource platform, so ebooks can be listed on major online retail sites, including iBookstore, Kobo, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kindle.

Set-up fees

Spark charges a $49 set-up fee for a combined print and ebook and will still charge you $49 if you only want a print book, so you’d probably think there wouldn’t be a set-up fee for ebooks but if you’re using Spark just for ebooks, there is a $25 set-up fee and a $12 market access fee, which is charged annually. If you want to make any changes, there is a $25 revision charge.

Drop-shipping deals

Where LS and Spark can offer independent authors and publishers a good deal is in the area of drop shipping, that is printing quantities of your book and shipping it to you.

This is only good if you are able to sell the books yourself, either directly to readers through a website or at events or to bookshops. There might also be cases where you would want stocks of a book to hand out at conferences, for example, or for a client.

Printing costs

I’m going to look at Spark’s book printing costs and to confuse the issue I’m going to use UK pound sterling prices, mainly because the UK prices are the same for drop shipping or channel orders, whereas there are two different prices for the US, with drop-shipping orders priced higher, although not by much. There are fairly clear price lists provided for the US, UK, European Union and Australia.

The standard Spark UK print pricing for a small 18pp-46pp paperback with black and white interior and colour cover is £1.14 per unit while the unit cost for 48pp-106pp is £1.78.

Big savings on volume deals

When it comes to placing an order, you should particularly bear in mind the cut-off points in the single-title volume discounts offered by Spark, as you can make substantial unit savings by opting for a slightly higher print run. The discounts are:

  • 1-99 units: 10%

  • 100-249 units: 15%

  • 250-499 units: 25%;

  • 500-999 units: 35%

  • 1,000-1,499 units: 40%

  • 1,500-1,999 units: 45%

  • 2,000-plus units: 50%

For example, using the printing price calculator on the website, you can see the cost of 500 copies of a 48pp paperback sized 178mm x 111mm (4.37ins x 7ins) with black and white interior, perfect bound, laminated, printed and shipped in the UK would be £1.16 per unit (£580 total) with standard shipping of £18.64. Those are good figures.

If I doubled the run to 1,000, the unit cost would drop to £1.07 (total £1,070) while shipping would be £34.78.

For 5,000 copies, the unit price would fall to just £0.89 (£4,450) with £168 shipping.

However, if you managed to cut just two pages out of your book you could make even bigger savings as Spark offers a price of just £0.57 per unit for 5,000 copies (£2,850) of a 46pp book (£165 shipping).

If you only wanted 500 copies, the cost per 46pp book would be £0.74 (£370) with £18 shipping charge.

The price stays the same on any lower pagination, for instance, for a 36pp book the cost per unit would still be £0.74 for a print run of 500.

Things get more interesting when you move up in pagination.

For instance, 500 copies of a 108pp book on the same basis as above would cost £1.16 per unit (£580 total) plus £35 shipping.

If you ventured on to a print run of 5,000, the cost per unit would fall to just £0.89 (£4,450 total) and £335 shipping.

Cost of printing 90,000-word novel

If you were publishing a novel of around 90,000 words, you would probably need a book of about 240pp and 500 copies of a small paperback of that length would be £2.01 per unit (£1,005) with £71.49 shipping.

The cost of such a book with a print run of 2,000 would see a substantial unit saving to £1.55 per book (£3,100) with £283 shipping costs.

If you are able to sell direct, then you can make some decent money on these sort of figures but there would be a lot of work involved.

Thin margins for print on demand

The above are all quantity orders for drop shipping, what happens if and when somebody orders your book through Spark’s distribution outlets and a book is printed on demand?

If, again using UK money, you priced your 240pp small paperback fairly highly at £8.00, your costs would be 55% wholesale discount plus £3.10 print charge (which is the cost for a single unit), leaving the poor old publisher with so-called compensation of just £0.50.

US figures for the same book priced at $12.00 with a 55% discount and single-unit print charge of $4.02 would leave the publisher slightly better off with $1.38.

The lowest that a UK writer/publisher could price a 240pp novel would be £7.00, as after discount and £3.10 print cost that would leave £0.05 in profit.

For the US, the lowest price would be $9.00, which would produce a net of $0.03 after discount and $4.02 print charge.

IngramSpark’s got a very wide reach for distribution but the margins are so narrow for POD that you would have to question whether the effort is worth the return.