Tuesday, November 23, 2010

CreateSpace for Smarties

CreateSpace, Amazon’s print on demand service, is one of the Internet’s best-kept secrets. It provides quality, cost-competitive printing, for audiences as small as one. I know this is true because I helped my thirteen-year-old son create a book for his Social Studies class last year. It cost about fifteen dollars—arguably less than I would have paid to get color prints and a binder cover for a standard report. CreateSpace also provides templates for live areas and margins, which makes page-setup a simple process.

The CreateSpace site lists an impressive array of services, from CD and DVD production to book production to Kindle conversions to editing, design, and marketing.The site's basic premise makes it an excellent option for book production services that can be automated—things like printing, distribution, kindle conversions, and disk duplication are absolutely invaluable. However, for services that are less amenable to the turnkey approach—text editing, book design, and marketing services, for instance—caution is as good idea.

The reason is simple: editing, design, and marketing aren’t things that lend themselves to automation. Users find themselves faced with paying higher prices for the sort of back-and-forth that should be standard operating procedure in design and editing, or settling for substandard results.

Another reason such services are questionable investments is because all sorts of people staff print-on-demand houses. Some are highly qualified. Some are not. And there's really no way of determining what you're getting. A good editor knows when to enforce the rules—and when to break them. A good designer understands that a good book cover sometimes takes time—sometimes it is even necessary to—gasp!—read part of the book! A good marketer understands that successful marketing depends not only on sending out press releases, but on follow-up.

“Most bookings don’t result from the initial press release,” says Sandra Van, CEO of PR Pacific and a long-time veteran of book marketing. “Bookings happen during the follow-up calls. And they depend on knowing which markets are likely to want to talk about what book. Follow-up takes time. I don’t see how any of the online book marketing services can offer the kind of follow-up that’s necessary, particularly not for the prices they charge. It sounds good—but writers are losing the most valuable part of the marketing effort when they lose follow-up.”

So what it comes down to is that CreateSpace is wonderful—for the automated parts of book production. Parts that require specialized knowledge (think “things people actually go to school for a long time to learn how to do”) it’s better to find your own resources—and be prepared to pay for the quality that your book deserves.

Using CreateSpace is, in most respects, incredibly easy. The site walks you through a series of questions about the size and type of book you’re producing, whether you’re supplying your own ISBN number or using theirs (they provide them for free, for books they produce), how you’d like your royalties handled, and how you want to set your prices. It provides templates to help you with layout. And if you get confused, there are customer service people available both by phone and by chat to help. What it can't do is provide you with professional design, typesetting, and layout skills.

And that's one area where users often run into trouble. Because CreateSpace is automated, certain elements of design are rigidly enforced. This can be irritating, but given that much of CreateSpace’s target audience has little design or layout experience it’s understandable that the process needs to be idiot-proofed as much as possible. Correcting a problem can be frustrating, since sometimes the customer reps aren’t quite certain where the problem lies. The best solution is to simply follow the rules from the beginning, or hire a designer who is familiar with both the benefits and the limitations of the site. If you’d like to talk more about CreateSpace and how to maximize its services feel free to contact me over at Magic Dog Press.

Sherry Wachter has been designing and illustrating all sorts of things--including books--for nearly fifteen years. She has written, designed, illustrated, and self-published two novels--one of which won the 2009 Best of the Best E-books Award--and several picture books. To learn more about book design or to see her work visit her online at Magic Dog Press.


  1. I used Lightning Source to publish Killer Career, but it was kind of confusing.

    I'm wondering if CreateSpace would be easier.

    Also, if the average book like your son's is $15 for the author to get, that would be too much. Maybe it depends on how many photos or pages are in it.

    One other question, if you create a book there, can you only sell it online at Amazon, or anywhere you want to? Do they have any sort of contract about that?

    Morgan Mandel

  2. "Follow the directions" -- such good advice, yet how many people don't think they're meant for them.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  3. Very helpful post, but I am a little confused about the design and layout issues you raised. Did you mean that a writer should get a professional do do the design and layout before going to Create Space to create the book? I have two books I want to get out in paperback and have been considering using Create Space.

    Also looking forward to the answers to Morgan's questions.

  4. Very helpful post. It still sounds very daunting, though. How much time does it take? Hours? Days?

  5. A couple of people I know have used CreateSpace and were quite pleased with the result. Lots of good info here, Sherry. Thanks.

  6. Good questions, Morgan. You're right about $15 a book being too much if that's the price for every book produced. However, I was referring to my total costs--including my book, shipping, and postage. That book is now available to me for under $4/book, and it's 24 pages, 8.5 x 8.5, full color, full bleeds, and a glossy cover. I've done several books using the same format, and retail them for about $12/book (this allows me to cover production, shipping, standard 40% bookstore markup, and a fairly generous royalty for me).

    You can sell these books anywhere. CreateSpace puts them on Amazon for you, but if you use the templates designated as acceptable to the national book distributors with whom they work your books can be processed and marketed through any bookstore that uses book distributors. In other words, if you choose your template wisely, your book is available by order through B&N, Borders, local bookstores, etc.

    CreateSpace makes its money from the books it produces and sells on authors' behalf. If at any time you're unhappy with the service you can simply go elsewhere and have your book produced--but you'll need to get your own ISBN number, since the one CreateSpace provides will route profits through CreateSpace for distribution.

  7. My suggestion would be to work with a professional designer who is familiar with CreateSpace's systems. If you go to their site and browse the books on offer it's pretty easy to see which ones have had professional help and which have not.

    The question of whether or not to pay a professional designer comes down to, in my opinion, how many books you plan to sell. If you're creating a book for friends and family who know and love you (and of whom there are a limited supply) maybe it's not a bad idea to try your hand at it. If, however, you'd like to market your book to a broader audience, you'll be facing some tough competition out there on the bookshelves; then it might be wise to consider getting professional help (I've blogged about some of the pitfalls of cover design before here: http://wp.me/pMf9x-3P ).

    What it comes down to is a simple formula--will you sell enough books to cover your design expenses--ideally around $2,000- $3,000 for book and cover? Or are you willing to invest that into something that will be a thing of beauty and joy forever?

  8. The length of time it takes to design a book and cover can vary dramatically, depending on the skill, experience, working relationship, and workload of everyone involved.

    The thing is, converting a manuscript to a typeset document is a pretty mechanical process. Converting it well takes time--time to adjust type for widows, orphans, and strange text breaks, to massage text to get the best possible use out of each page, and above all, to allow the author to read and edit the typeset manuscript.

    And that right there is one of the best reasons to hire your own designer or, if you can, do it yourself. I have yet to typeset a book for anyone where substantial changes didn't happen after the first review of the typeset document. Now, I don't even estimate a job without factoring that important step in--it's why I allow for three rounds of revisions, and why I encourage authors to not rush through that first reading.

    So back to the question--typesetting goes fast. Typesetting well takes a bit more time. Taking the time for a final edit after the first round of typesetting takes even more. I just finished typesetting a book for a woman who came to me with a clean, edited manuscript. She had a day job, so her editing had to happen on weekends and evenings (that's pretty typical for many of us). It took us a little over a month to produce her book. Most of that time was taken up in editing.

    Yes, it's possible to slam a book together in a week. But I wouldn't recommend it.

    Once the book's at CreateSpace you'll wait around two weeks for your proof. At that point, if everything is as you'd like it to be, you can push a button and be good to go. If you require another round of revisions from them, you can plan for around one to two weeks.

    As far as the system being onerous goes, it's like a lot of things. The first time through it's good to have someone to show you how to navigate. Each subsequent trip through becomes easier. And if you're planning to sell your books you'll probably want professional-grade design help, anyhow. If that's the case, it's really very simple. If you'd like help navigating the system the first time email me, and I'll be happy to talk you through it.

  9. Sherry, what's the difference between BookSurge and CreateSpace?

    Some POD services offer editing services for a flat rate--I know BookSurge did--but what is their motivation to do a good job for you, when you've already contacted to purchase the books?

    And what is the expertise, as you pointed out--most of the BookSurge production reps I worked with on behalf of a client a few years ago didn't know the first thing about formatting a book (I had to tell them to flow text around pictures!), let alone an index. (They did a broad search for words/names, for instance, unfortunately lumping the author's Ukrainian uncle in with Communist Joseph Stalin and St. Joseph's Hospital in New York--this after I had already done the index by hand, necessitating a 14-hour re-do).

  10. BookSurge and CreateSpace merged a couple years ago. I, too, did some work with BookSurge, and the quality was uneven. I never used their editing or design services, and from the sounds of things that was probably a good thing. Possibly that goes back to the whole issue about what online POD services can offer both at an expert level and cost-effectively.

    One thing that I found with BookSurge was that the paperback POD services they offered in-house tended to come out better than the more extensive services they offered through partnerships with other providers. For instance, BookSurge offered a hard-cover, dust-jacketed print option through an outside partnership. It sounded great, and I tried to use it. I found, though, that it was next thing to impossible to get errors corrected--we went round and round on that, and I'm sure it was a frustrating to my BookSurge rep as it was to me. Eventually it was corrected, and I even came out a bit ahead on book copies, but I absolutely understood why, after the merger, CreateSpace no longer offers hard covers. IMO, they've done a smart thing in dropping a service where they couldn't control quality.

    For the record, Catherine, layout programs like InDesign now offer indexing as a built-in feature. It's a little fiddly, but it's there, and it works, and it allows me to control what's happening with the index so I'm not spending hours undoing "corrections."

  11. Very interesting. I wonder how Lulu compares in quality and ease of use? I don't think they provide editing or other services, though.

    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

  12. Sherry,

    Thanks for the thoughtful intro to Create Space. Have you worked with other automated book publishing services? I've heard great things about Lulu from artists doing limited edition books, but I don't know how the costs/services/distribution compares.

    Susan T

  13. Excellent advice Sherry. As you know, but I will toot since the readers here may not know. Sherry did my book cover and it rocks! I hope to publish first as an e-book and then using create space. December, cross my fingers.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  14. I've successfully used CreateSpace three times to create chapbooks for two writers' groups. Your observations about the service are right on.

    My next project will use it as well. This will be for my novel, so it's a bigger undertaking. But the previous projects have given me plenty of confidence in CreateSpace.


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