I recently self-published a collection of my best haiku from the first year of my daily haiku writing experiment, Haiku Diem, through CreateSpace, the Amazon.com affiliated print-on-demand service (see the FAQ below if you don’t know what print-on-demand is) and have been asked by friends what the experience was like and whether I’d recommend CreateSpace for similar book projects of theirs. The short answers are: the experience was pretty horrible at times, until it got good, and: Yes, I’d recommend the service to others, especially in the one case where it will be the only practical option.

The Pros

The biggest advantage of CreateSpace over other services I considered was the cost of printing a color interior. (All the services allow you to have a color cover at no extra cost, of course.) The haiku in my book are illustrated by various artist friends of mine, and so I had to have color. CreateSpace was the only POD service that could do a color interior cheaply enough that I could sell the book for a realistic price.

Here are the actual numbers.

My 66 page haiku collection costs about $8 for CreateSpace to produce. That’s the base price of the book, and my profit margin is however much more I choose to sell it for. (Minus another percentage that CreateSpace takes from my profit, but the point is that I can’t sell the book for less than that $8, because that’s the minimum amount that has to go to CreateSpace with each sale.) That $8  is plenty low enough that I can price my book reasonably, and also sell it through Amazon.com, where CreateSpace takes an even bigger bite. By comparison, Lulu.com, probably the biggest and most well known POD publisher after CreateSpace, would have charged a base price of $18 for my book! That’s way too high even before adding a markup for my own profit.

So, if your project requires a color interior and you want to use POD, your only practical choice, as far as I know and as of this moment, is CreateSpace. (But jump to the FAQ at the end for a discussion of POD versus traditional self-publishing services.)

If your project is text-only, or only uses black-and-white graphics, here are the other pros I found with CreateSpace:

  • The option to also sell your book through Amazon.com. (However, they take a bigger cut of your profits in this case.)
  • The option to also sell your book through their expanded distribution service, which they claim will make it available to libraries and bookstores, in exchange for an even bigger cut of your profits. (I’m skeptical about whether bookstores, at any rate, would buy anybody’s book through the CreateSpace distribution service. For more on this, see the FAQ below. However, one certain benefit of expanded distribution is that people will be able to special-order your book through their local bookstore.)
  • The option to also sell your book as a Kindle eBook. (Though this process is not seamless. You basically need to go through a separate service, but they help you move all your stuff over.)
  • A really easy step-by-step process for creating your book, assuming you stay well within the plain vanilla formatting they recommend. In the easiest path through the process, you fill out a form with the basic information for your book (title, author, paper size, etc.), download an empty Word file they format to meet all their layout requirements, insert your own content, export it to a PDF file, and upload the PDF. Then you use their cover creator to select a pre-defined cover or upload an image of your own, and you’re done!
  • Tech support always got back to me within 36 hours. (However, they never got back to me in less than 12. No matter what time of the day I sent them an email, I wouldn’t get a reply until late the next evening. Which suggests to me that their tech support department is located on the other side of the world somewhere.)

The Cons

  • Much more limited options in terms of paper size and type than, say, Lulu.com, and also no option to do a hardcover book, which Lulu allows.
  • Other POD services largely let you put whatever you want in your book. You’re paying them to print it for you, after all. CreateSpace, on the other hand, imposes a number of limits on you regarding the layout and even the content of your book. (In some ways, you can consider this a pro. They’re trying to be more than just a printing service: they’re trying to act in some ways like a real publisher. They care about maintaining certain minimum standards for every book they publish, which might help their reputation with buyers in the long run and therefore help your sales.) Some examples of their rules are: interior title must match the title on the cover and the online listing, more than one blank page in a row not allowed, page numbering must be consecutive, layout and appearance of headers and footers must be consistent throughout the book. If you’re producing a normally formatted book, these rules should not be a hindrance, but if you’re attempting anything the least bit unorthodox, you could be in for a hard time.
  • One of their rules goes well beyond these mechanical factors: they require that all text and significant graphics stay well away from the edges of each page.  Partly, this is to account for a certain amount of randomness in cutting the paper, but the required margins are so big that it’s more than just this. They’re also imposing certain aesthetic standards on you. And graphics in particular will be subject to interpretation about what is “significant”. My book cover (shown above) was rejected in an earlier incarnation where the face was a little closer to the edge. When I moved it farther way from the edge, the cover was okayed, even though there were obviously other elements of the cover art that went right up to and beyond the edge. In the case of the face, I could totally see how they’d consider it significant while the background foliage was considered insignificant, but what if it was something else a little harder to distinguish and you disagreed with their call about what was significant and what was not? I don’t think there’s an appeal process. You’d just have to live with their call.
  • When they reject your cover or text, they do so in an email that lists the problems they found, but in very general terms and without telling you where they found the problems! So if they say something like, “text came too close to the edge of the page,” it’s up to you to look through your entire manuscript to find where that might have happened.
  • Their online documentation is not very unified or clear, and when you talk to their tech support people, they tend to just repeat to you what their online documentation says.

The Bleeding Edge

Most of these cons emerged in my struggle to create a “full bleed” book. (In which the illustrations on each page extended all the way to the edge of the paper.) The online instructions for full bleed were very confusing and even self-contradictory at times, and when I submitted manuscripts that tried to follow the rules, the rejection emails I got would sound as if they didn’t even know that full bleed was an option. (i.e. they would complain that I was letting content on the page get too close to the edge of the paper – but isn’t that exactly what full bleed is supposed to be about?) When I asked their tech support about this, they basically repeated what the documentation said.

I finally got so frustrated with this that I gave up on full bleed and just placed all my text and illustrations well within the margins of each page, and suddenly, using CreateSpace was a breeze, as noted above. I used their Word template for my interior and adjusted my cover art to stay well within the margins and didn’t have any more problems passing their review process.

After my final revisions passed review, I was able to immediately download a PDF proof, which I forwarded to all my artists, and also order physical copies. While waiting for the physical proof to arrive, I got feedback from the artists and did two more rounds of revisions, both of which passed review with no problems. Once the proof copy arrived (looking gorgeous and well put together) I clicked a button to go live and my book was instantly available for sale through the CreateSpace online store! (It takes a few more days for books to appear on Amazon.com.)

Even though my book is now live, I can still upload revisions should I discover any more bits that need tweaking. I can also change the price or distribution options. Finally, as the author, I can order copies at a steep discount.

Conclusion

As I said, though my experience with CreateSpace was pretty bad at first, it got much better as soon as I gave up on doing full bleed pages, and I would recommend the service to others, especially if you have color in your interiors, in which case CreateSpace might be the only practical choice.

FAQ

Finally, here are some answers about POD in general that I didn’t manage to fit into the post above.

What is print-on-demand?

A method of publishing where the books are printed out one at a time at the time they are ordered online. This means that no inventory needs to be stored, and no print runs done.

Why should I use print-on-demand rather than a traditional book printing company  to self-publish my book?

With POD, you don’t have to invest up front in a big printing of your book, or store and manage inventory, or handle sales yourself. Instead, you just upload it in digital form to the POD service, and every time they sell a copy online, they take care of the credit card processing and shipping and then send you your cut of the profit. Nothing could be easier! On the other hand, traditional book printing is still much cheaper, so if you’re willing and able to invest in a print run and handle sales and inventory and distribution yourself, you’ll make more on each book.

Can my POD book sell through bookstores?

Theoretically yes, but practically speaking, No. CreateSpace does give you an “expanded distribution” option that theoretically makes your book available to libraries and bookstores, but the reality of bookstores is that they generally won’t stock a book unless they can later return the remainders. (The copies that don’t sell.) If you live in an area with lots of strong independent bookstores, you might be able to convince some of them to stock your book, but it’ll be a lot of work for relatively few sales.

How much more can I make per book compared to publishing through a real publisher?

This depends on how you price your POD book, of course, but with my haiku collection, I’ll be earning about twice the profit per book from if I were getting a standard book royalty on it. However, this is only for copies sold through the CreateSpace online store. For copies sold through Amazon.com, I’ll only be making about what I’d earn from a real publisher, and for the expanded distribution option, I would actually have to raise the current price of my book to make any money at all.  So the advantage of self-publishing – that you can keep so much more of the profits – is blunted a little by the more expensive nature of POD vs. traditional self-publishing printers, at least at this point in time.