News Update: Should You Use Lightning Source or Ingram Spark?

POSTED ON Nov 15, 2013

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Printing, Book Production, Self-Publishing > News Update: Should You Use Lightning Source or Ingram Spark?

For authors coming into the publishing industry, making choices like selecting a print on demand vendor, can be fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.

“Which one is best for me? Will they do a good job on my book? Will they deliver on time?” These are typical questions, but not always the best questions to be asking.

Ingram Book Company, the parent company of Lightning Source, recently launched their new author-centric platform for print on demand publishing and print and ebook distribution. It’s called Ingram Spark, and I interviewed Robin Cutler about the new service in July 2013.

I liked the idea of Spark quite a bit, because I’ve had to help many clients over the years navigate through Lightning Source (LSI). That’s because LSI is a business-to-business operation, and its clients are all book publishers—not authors.

Sites like CreateSpace and Lulu are designed for authors and other creatives to use. They are open, friendly, free or inexpensive, and used by tens of thousands of people.

But many authors have continued to use LSI for its unique blend of products and the distribution of Ingram, the world’s largest book wholesaler, reaching 133 countries.

Catching Up

Over the months, Ingram has been operating both businesses in parallel, and it hasn’t always been easy to tell where one starts and the other stops.

At first, authors were encouraged to try Spark first, since that’s what it was designed for. If you decided LSI was better for you, they would let you apply for an account there.

But in the last couple of weeks I started to hear that they had changed their policy. Authors who resisted using Spark were being told it was their only option. That was a bit troubling, because there hadn’t been any formal announcement from Ingram.

When a reader sent me an email describing an encounter like this, and that the Customer Service Rep (CSR) at Ingram told her point blank that it was Spark or nothing, I decided to find out exactly what was going on.

I got in touch with Robin Cutler, and we had a very informative conversation about the policies and practices at Spark, and how some of these policies look to the indie authors on the outside.

Robin assured me right away that the incident with the CSR was a “training issue.” I took this to mean that some policies may not have been spelled out, leading to the possibility that people could misinterpret Ingram’s intentions.

She also told me that authors can still choose between LSI and Spark. Robin pointed out the advantages to the self-publishing author of Spark’s interface and the ability to distribute and track both your print books and your ebooks throughout their channels.

Talking Discounts

The reason that many authors I talked to decided not to use Spark was the discounts offered (and one of the questions you really should be thinking about when choosing vendors, in addition to their other characteristics).

Ingram had decided that all authors using Spark would need to give their distribution partners a 55% discount.

Now, there’s nothing unusual about a 55% discount, and if you want to sell in bookstores—and that’s Ingram’s business—you’ll need to allow about that much anyway, and 40% at the absolute minimum.

The problem with Spark is that there’s no choice. At least for me, this lack of choice was in itself a problem. Unlike CreateSpace, which mostly services Amazon sales—and where you have to give a 40% discount—Ingram distributes to everyone in the book distribution chain.

That includes retailers like Amazon, brick & mortar stores like Barnes & Noble and all the independent stores, to wholesalers, jobbers, and just about everyone else.

I pointed out to Robin that to really understand the indie publishing community, you had to realize that many authors have no interest in selling their books to bookstores. In fact, it’s common advice to newcomers to avoid selling to bookstores unless they have a bona fide marketing plan and the money to put it into action.

I also talked about some of the many publishing models used by self-publishers. I have a book myself with LSI that’s on a “short” discount of 20%.

The book is almost 20 years old, and I know the market: people who want the book will buy it regardless of how discounted it is. I have no desire to promote this book to bookstores, and I don’t take returns.

This is true for lots of niche publishers. Why would I voluntarily give up 35%? For this book, that would be $6.28 on each book sold that I would be out of pocket to use Spark.

This problem is even more apparent with ebooks, where Spark only pays a 40% royalty. To authors who are used to getting 70% royalties on their ebooks, that’s a potential deal killer.

Robin explained that these royalties are influenced by agreements with “downstream partners.” What I take this to mean is that Ingram has existing contracts with wholesalers and others that aren’t easy to change. For ebooks, it may be hard for Spark to compete widely in the marketplace unless they manage to adjust these ebook royalties.

I asked Robin what kind of criteria I could use in advising my clients about which service to use. She said Spark was really intended for publishers with less than 20 titles.

This is perfectly reasonable if most of your clients are traditional publishers with real backlists and a publishing program putting out new books every year.

But it’s very far away from the typical self-publisher, and even from experienced authors who may have published 3, 4, or 5 books.

What Self-Publishing Is Really About

Part of the attraction of self-publishing to a lot of authors is the ability to have complete control over the production of their books.

When it comes to sales, part of that control is getting to pick—within the bounds of what’s available and what’s possible—your own business model.

When Spark took that choice out of your hands, it seemed to me that it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations of many self-publishers.

On the other hand, Ingram is to be praised for attempting to see to the needs of self-publishers by creating Spark. And at the launch, they promised to pay attention to the feedback from their market, and to respond accordingly.

It’s my sincere hope that they will do exactly that.

I’m someone who started publishing my own books in the 1980s, when almost no one thought self-publishing was a good idea, and it was really tough to even get a distribution account at Ingram.

So to have a portal where self-publishers can manage the production and distribution of their print books and ebooks throughout a 133-country territory, is enough to make me swoon.

Summary—What Should You Do?

For now, my advice about these two companies remains the same as before:

  • If you are a do-it-yourself author without experience in book publishing and you are unsure whether it’s something you intend to do for long, consider Ingram Spark for print on demand and wide distribution.
  • If you are hiring professionals, have a real plan for publishing and marketing books to a definable audience, and plan to grow your business, consider Lightning Source as an invaluable strategic partner in your growing business.

And pay attention to the news. When and if Ingram introduces flexibility to their discount policy, Spark could well end up being the best game in town.


Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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