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Lightning Source Best for Self-Publishers?

 

Ben Galley

Today, in the third part of our ‘Which Distributor’ series where Alliance members share the experiences they’ve enjoyed with distributors, author Ben Galley gives us his take on Print on Demand (POD) company Lightning Source:

If your book were a delicious pie, distributors would be the ones who put it in the hands of the supermarkets.

It’s a very simple analogy, but it rings true. Distribution is the supply link between our printers and the bookstores, and without it, our books would simply never reach our readers’ hands. That’s a painful vision. And to me, so is keeping a veritable mountain of books in your garage, shipping one at a time, staring at the big hole in your bank account.

No, thank you, I want a different road.

With the advent of the digital revolution came Print on Demand, and with it came distribution relationships. Now, POD companies have forged relationships with the wholesaler distributors to allow us indies access to the channels normally reserved for the traditional houses. The very same channels from which bookstores purchase. Once again, it seems that the revolution has delivered us a sparkling set of tools!

I use Lightning Source for my printing and distribution. The reason I chose them, among others, was because they had the widest reach of any company I had come across. This is mainly due to the fact they are owned by Ingram, the world’s largest book wholesale distributor in the world. You also don’t have to pay for bolt-on distribution packages as you do with some companies.

Included in the registration and setup fees, which are less than £50, your books are distributed to:

US

  • Ingram
  • Amazon.com
  • Baker & Taylor
  • Barnes & Noble
  • NACSCORP
  • Espresso Book Machine
UK
  • Adlibris.com
  • Amazon.co.uk
  • Bertrams
  • Blackwell
  • Book Depository
  • Coutts
  • Gardners
  • Mallory International
  • Paperback Shop
  • Eden Interactive Ltd
  • Aphrohead
  • I.B.S – STL UK

Source: Lightning Source

This is the crux of distribution. The more distributors your have, the wider your reach. The bigger your distributor, the bigger the booksellers you can access. So, the wider your reach and the bigger the bookseller, the higher your revenue can go! It’s all about creating revenue streams and maximising exposure. There’s no good printing with a company that only distributes to one bookstore on the outskirts of Nowhereville. Instead, aim high.

Via Lightning Source, Gardners (and therefore Waterstones, which uses Gardners), I have been able to hold book signings and get permanent spots on shelves. All my books are printed to order by Lightning Source, so I never see them; they go straight to the customer. I don’t have to pay for warehousing or keep them in my garage—nor do I have to shell out for large volumes or handle any shipping. The wonders of the digital age!

The big question of course is how much do the books cost me. Distribution and revenue streams are all well and good, as long as you’ve got margins that allow you to make money. More good news here. The print costs for my books allow me to pass on a reasonable discount to the end of the chain—booksellers, and meanwhile make a living for myself. That’s the only catch with distribution, adding another link in the chain means another slice of the pie. Here’s a breakdown of the costs for firstly setting up an account, and then printing a book with LSI:

Digital File Example (GBP):        

21.00 per cover

+21.00 per text file

Total title set-up cost £42.00

 

Example 1 (Small paperback –  210x148mm):

70p per unit                      70p (standard cost for the size)

+ 300 pages @ 1p            £3.00

Total price per unit         £3.70

 

Example 2 (Small hardback – 280x216mm):

400p per unit                     £4.00

+ 300 pages @ 1.4p         £4.50

Total price per unit         £8.50

Method of upload? It’s a PDF upload via a very simple author dashboard that handles all the ordering and title information. Or, if you want to go old-school, you can send off a file via the mail. Be warned though, they do charge a fee for that.

Of course, if you do like fulfilling orders yourself, and want to keep hold of that slice of the revenue, LS do facilitate this for you by printing direct to bookshops or direct to you, and with bulk discounts too. So they cater for every type of author and bookseller. Here are the discounts they offer:

Titles printed:              Discount:

50 – 99 Units                 5%

100 – 249 Units             10%

250 – 499 Units             20%

500+ Units                     25%

This is all well and good, but what are my personal experiences of LSI? I have to say, I’m really happy with them. Beyond their distribution abilities, they are just a smooth-running machine that have been invaluable in making my physical books a reality. Here are some specific points about my experience:

1. Excellent customer service. Every author has their own rep that they can call or email. I know mine by name, and he’s been invaluable over the last two years.
2. Quality. A book on a shelf is judged on its quality, and thanks to LS, I regularly get comments and messages about the feel and binding of my two books. LS really seem to put the effort in, which is refreshing.
3. Corporate structure. As a big company, they are often unwilling to bend, and you are at the mercy of their processes should you have an issue. I uploaded the wrong file once, and still had to pay the revision fee, because the process had already been started. Despite the rep giving a personal touch, their hands are tied too.
4. Big revision fees. I noticed a misplaced fleck on my cover once.  I decided to fix a typo at the same time to save cost. Being a touch OCD, I couldn’t ignore them! I definitely will in the future; it cost me £54 to change them both. Ouch.
5. Easy dashboard. I like simplicity, and the LS author dash is just the bare bones you need. It’s not as aesthetically pleasing as say Kobo’s KWL, but it’s all you need.
6. Data shipping. Catalogue aside, LS don’t actually actively push your books out. It’s more data filtering, or shipping, than active marketing. They have no bolt-on services  like CreateSpace or Lulu have. It’s more about availability than advertising. For me, it’s convenient being able to say ‘I’m available through your wholesalers,’ but it’s not often that a store orders my own book of their own volition. It’s the customers and fans that do that. However, LS will put you in their advance catalogue for a monthly fee. (I’m waiting to get a quote on this for my titles. I will update you as soon as I do).

So that’s my distribution story. Simple as, well, pie!

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30 Responses to Lightning Source Best for Self-Publishers?

  1. Althea Hayton July 25, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    I discovered them in 2006. They transformed my whole writing career as a self publisher because at last I didn’t have to take out a bank loan to buy 1000 copies and store them and take out an insurance policy to safeguard my investment. I have found them helpful and above all they are transatlantic and are making inroads into Australiasia. Great, as my readers are all over the world.

  2. Fiona Joseph July 25, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

    I’ve been a very satisfied LS customer since choosing them to print and distribute my biography of one the the Cadbury women. Yes, LS is not for the faint-hearted – there’s no hand-holding – but if you’re able to ensure your cover designer and typesetter save their files to EXACTLY the right technical specifications, and ensure your manuscript is as perfectly edited as possible, then they are an absolute dream to use. Getting books into local branches of Waterstones or for sale on Amazon.co.uk was no problem and the POD model avoids having 1000+ books mouldering away in the garage. My main marketing strategy is giving talks at clubs and societies, which generates ‘back of the room’ sales – so I order copies direct to me (in batches of 100). The production quality of the book is always excellent.

  3. Michael N. Marcus July 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    I’ve been very pleased with LS since 2008 — except for the high cost of revisions. I now use CreateSpace for multiple generations of proofs, and then when I am satisfied I put LS to work.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.bookmakingblog.blogspot.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

  4. Joanne Phillips July 27, 2012 at 2:02 pm #

    I also use Lightning Source and although my experience is limited (one novel so far, released in July), I have been happy with them overall. Their paperback books are not quite as high quality as, say, CPI, though. The paper and printing process seems to give the books a very slight ‘wavy’ look, never lying completely flat. Whereas traditional novels printed on bookwove, have a different feel.
    Regarding Waterstone’s, I’ve had to apply for a separate Gardners/Waterstone’s trading account, which can’t be supplied POD and which, when approved, will have me supplying Gardners so they can supply Waterstones! If I don’t do it this way, Waterstones will only order from Gardners on a special order (firm sale) basis. So while it is great that Lightning Source make the book available to Gardners, for me it’s not been the direct route to Waterstone’s – and book signings – that Ben has experienced.
    The other problem with distribution to Gardners, say, is the discount I set through Lightning Source. You can, as far as I know, only set one, and mine is 40%. Lower than this and I make next to nothing per book, but while 40% is fine for retailers, Gardners take their cut and pass on only 20% discount to booksellers, making it uneconomical for them to hold the book as a stock item. My local bookshop I supply myself, from my own stock – so far, the book being available through Gardners hasn’t been the bonus I thought it would.
    In future, I might seriously consider CreateSpace, who (I believe) print via Lightning Source in the UK, so the end product is the same anyway, and one can still obtain the trading account with Gardners, and be for sale on Amazon, for far less – and more quickly.

  5. Karen Inglis July 28, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    Great summary, Ben

    I too use LS – and offer the 40% discount. To be honest I had no idea that Gardners take that big a cut when selling on to Waterstones, though it doesn’t seem to have stopped Waterstones ordering in my case (nor Ben’s !).

    As Ben says, once you are up and running it’s fantastically seamless service. You can also get sales reports at any time via your dashboard.

    A further advantage is that they drop ship to any address that you specify if you want to place your own orders. For example, I had an email late on a Wednesday evening from a mother in Sunderland who wanted 18 copies of my children’s book ‘Eeek! The Runaway Alien’ for party bags for a party for her son at the weekend – I had none at home and thought it would be impossible to fulful the order. I also wasn’t sure if I’d make any money. When I checked my dashboard and priced the order including delivery I could see that I’d still make the £1 per book I normally make (it’s a children’s book so my retail price is low and I don’t make huge profits – but that’s fine!)

    I then rang my rep at LS on the Thursday morning and he told me that for a small fee (which ended being £3.50) they could prioritise my order. The copies were printed later that morning, shipped at the end of the day and delivered to the customer’s home via UPS just after lunchtime on the Friday! I couldn’t believe it! (Nor could she!)

    But, yes, making corrections is expensive so getting proofs via other routes is a good idea.

    On the ‘no returns’ front, I’ve managed to strike up a relationship with Gardners who will stock the book on a no returns basis – this was largely on the back of the volumes of sales I generated with Waterstones via my signings – which gave me a track record. So I keep an eye on Gardners’ stocks via their website and just let them know when it’s running low. They order in 50 at a time.

    I’m a little out of touch with how the advent of CS now printing direct in the UK might affect all of this… It’s something I need to look into…

    K

    • Jhonson February 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

      managed to strike up a relationship with Gardners who will stock the book on a no returns basis – this was largely on the back of the volumes of sales I generated with Waterstones via my signings – which gave me a track record. So I keep an eye on Gardners’ stocks via their website and just let them know when it’s running low. They order in 50 at a time.

  6. Tim Gray August 3, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    When I set up with LS some years ago, it was very resistant to working with authors rather than publishers, because of the possible overhead in hand-holding through the technical bits. Has that changed?

    I like the service and the products, but am still put off by the cost of set-up and revisions. LS also compels you to pay £21 for a softback proof, so set-up is £63 if everything goes right and potentially over £100 if any changes are needed. ISBN (I don’t think LS will supply these so you have to get your own) and distribution are extra.

  7. Wayne Gulley October 22, 2012 at 3:44 am #

    I am an independent publisher who chose Lightning Source because of their reputation for quality service. I can say that over the last 3 years I have been impressed with the ease of the Lightning Source interface for submitting new titles and their customer service. Their customer service representatives have been very friendly and helpful and are easily accessible by phone (and E-mail). In terms of things that I would like to see improved is their reports (publisher compensation reports) and fees for additional uploads (revisions). Over all I am pleased with Lightning Source and plan on continuing my business relationship with them.

  8. Francisco Faus November 5, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    This website was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that helped me. Kudos!

  9. gabrielle bergan May 23, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading your article, Ben.

    I’ve decided to self publish my book, and am considering using either CreateSpace or Lightening Source. I’ve read a couple of articles where Lightening Source is said to be challenging to use…..best for only people who are tech savvy. I’m not that tech savvy, but I
    would love to get my book into book stores.

    You make LS sound relatively easy to use, Ben. What do you say about someone like me using LS when I have little technical know-how?

    Thanks.

    Gabrielle:)

  10. James Lythgoe June 23, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    I have been dealing with LS recently to set up an account and distribute my book. I have found them very helpful and responsive. I don’t know what sales will be like because I have only just uploaded my files. However, with the distribution they have I can only imagine that it will be better than what I have now.

    I think any self-publisher should seriously consider LS. I do wonder though, how well the printed book will sell. I offer both a printed format and an epub format and it is the epub that is selling the most. Anyway, I am about to find out.

  11. Thelma K June 29, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Has anyone published a children’s picture book with LS?

    • Richard Denning July 13, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

      Thelma I published a middle grade book with illustrations. via LS. I think the illustrations work well. and came out well. But they were black and white not colour

  12. Christine Hurst July 15, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

    I’ve been weighing up whether to use LS or CS for POD books (one blog I read suggested using both, to maximise Amazon distribution). I am reading Aaron Shepard’s book POD for Profit, and am becoming very confused. It seems extremely difficult, but you guys all make it sound quite easy.My books are childrens’ early chpater books and I am trying to understand the dynamics of distribution. I particularly want to target libraries (both school and public) as this is where my readers will be exposed to my books. Does anyone have specific experience with distribution to libraries?
    Thanks.

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  14. Nirupam Banerjee September 11, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Is Lightning Source available in the Non-English languages?

  15. Joan December 17, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

    I have signed up with Lightning Source but keep on being pushed to Ingram Spark. Do you have any opinion of the Spark alternative? It seems to me that it is cheaper to launch, but that the returns are smaller. What do you think? Thanks, Joan

  16. Avalon weston December 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    I have used Feed A Read for 3 books now. Found them helpful . I hope the new edition of the guide will compare them with LS re costs etc. they seem very comparable and as a older IT challenged writer I found them easy to use. There is no set up fee but a higher distribution fee.

  17. rob towner June 27, 2014 at 1:27 am #

    I outlined some sales data I received from Lightning Source on my blog if anyone is interested :) Let me know if you have any questions

  18. lizzie eldridge September 13, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    If I publish via Amazon and CreateSpace, does that preclude me from using Lightning Source? From what people have said, Lightning Source sounds brilliant as a mode of distribution but if I publish via Amazon first, does that prevent me from using Lightning Source or not?
    Thanks very much for your help and advice!

    • Debbie Young September 17, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      Only if you’ve signed up for KDP Select, which restricts you to exclusivity with Amazon for as long as your agreement runs. (You get the option to renew or cancel it every three months.)

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