In the world of “print-on-demand” (POD) producers for small publishers (including self-publishers), the dominant players are Amazon’s KDP and Ingram’s IngramSpark. Through my own projects, and those of my clients, I’ve used both and have developed a sense of their relative strengths and weaknesses.
POD in a Nutshell
Print-on-demand refers to the process of a printer creating books one at a time as they are ordered, rather than running hundreds or thousands of books all at once.
The primary advantage of POD to a publisher is lower up-front costs and no inventory to manage. The downside of POD is that it tends to be more expensive (at least for large volumes, and especially for color), print and paper options are far more limited, and quality can vary.
“The choice of whether or not to use POD should be a part of your overall business strategy.”
Many small publishers, especially in fiction and memoir, can survive exclusively on POD. For others, they may use an offset print run for their primary order, then manage back list orders with POD—allowing a book to stay “in print” even after sales no longer warrant the expense of a full reprinting. But for color books, especially larger coffee table and art books, POD is far too limited, and likely too expensive.
Amazon created KDP—the Kindle Direct Publishing (Platform)—originally to support its Kindle eBook store. As they contemplated adding print options, Amazon instead opted to buy another company, called CreateSpace, eventually merging it into KDP. So now KDP supports both print and ePub. Here, I’m focused on just the print side of the business.
Advantages of KDP
The key advantage of KDP is that “publishing” your book through KDP gives you direct access to Amazon, including making your book available for Amazon Prime, and full support for Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. This includes the U.S. Amazon, as well as Amazon’s international marketplaces in the U.K. and elsewhere.
KDP is also relatively painless to use; every first-time publisher I’ve helped set up with KDP gets the hang of it pretty quickly. There are no setup fees, and your book can be live in just a day or two. It will take a couple weeks to receive ”author copies,” but you are able to order books “at cost” for your own direct sales.
KDP’s POD service is primarily for perfect bound paperback books with b&w interiors, although they do offer a reasonably priced color option (if your book isn’t too large or too long). They have recently started including a case wrap hardcover option for a limited subset of sizes as well. Both a nice matte and gloss laminate option is available for both hard and soft cover. There is no option for printing on the inside of the cover, however. Nor is there a dust jacket option.
Although KDP does, theoretically, give you access to the full book trade ecosystem through its “Extended Distribution” option, in practice no bookstore would ever stock books from KDP. The simple reason is that booksellers don’t find Amazon’s terms to their liking. Plus, many bookstore owners still turn up their noses at the prospect of buying a book from a competitor.
“Still, if you expect to sell only via Amazon or direct, this is a straightforward and economical way to get started in publishing.”
The KDP competitor from wholesaling giant Ingram Content Group is IngramSpark and it’s printing counterpart (and interface for slightly larger publishers) Lighting Source.
Advantages of IngramSpark
The key advantage of IngramSpark is that when your book is “published” through IngramSpark, it is automatically added to Ingram’s wholesale catalog. This means that bookstores and libraries worldwide have an easier time of finding and ordering your book. Your book can also be found (with a little work on your part) through online Amazon alternatives such as Bookshop.org and IndieBound.org. As well as including your book on Amazon—including Prime (although rarely with 2-day shipping) and “Look Inside.”
Like KDP, IS also allows you to order “author copies” at cost, although they tack on a handling fee (and, of course, shipping). Expect to wait a couple of weeks to receive these. So if you are in a hurry, you might just have to order via an online retail channel to get a few books quicker.
IngramSpark offers a few more options than KDP, including a choice of paper weights, two color printing options, and an optional dust jacket option for its hardcover books. Hardcover can be a printed case wrap (with or without dust jacket), or a blue or grey “digital fabric” plain hardcover with dust jacket. (By the way, you can order samples through your IngramSpark account.)
IngramSpark is significantly more complicated to set up, as you’ll need to understand more publishing lingo to do so. And their user interface is noticeably less user-friendly. But it is functional and, like KDP, IngramSpark offers plentiful online help. But don’t expect much TLC if you try to reach their customer service: as of 2021–2022, their email responses can easily take frustrating days to resolve issues.
Ironically, IS also requires a $49.99 set up fee (although membership in trade organizations such as IBPA may have discounts that waive this fee), and will take longer to go “live” owing to their review process. But you do have more control over your “wholesale discount,” so you can better tune your pricing strategy to your sales strategy—online only, or online + trade. IS also allows you to opt in or out of allowing bookstore returns (hint: bookstores require this for any book they’ll stock). And you can control—by global territory—what happens to books that are returned (you pay to get them shipped to you, or they are discarded).
“I would say IngramSpark is definitely a step up above KDP in terms of the required business mindset you’ll need to have regarding your publishing business. But if you’re ready for that, and looking to distribute more widely, IS is the better choice.”
Best of Both?
If you’re hankering for an “and also” solution, instead of “either or,” then you are in luck: with a careful configuration, you can have your cake and eat it too! By creating an Amazon-only version of your book on KDP, and an “everything but Amazon” version on IngramSpark, you will successfully cover both ends of the POD spectrum.
The only disadvantage of this approach is that books from each company will be slightly different: IngramSpark uses a slightly smoother and thinner paper, and so you will need two slightly different versions of your cover file to account for the slight differences in spine thickness. In addition, both services handle color slightly differently, so don’t be surprised if side-by-side you can see a difference between the books. Rest assured, it is unlikely any reader will ever notice these differences.
And eBooks, too
I should add that both KDP and IngramSpark offer eBook distribution as well. With KDP you can set it up either before or after your print book, and the eBook and print book will be automatically linked. There are some sales and placement advantages on Amazon if you are exclusive to Kindle. So read through what each company actually offers before deciding.
With IngramSpark, the eBook setup is included in the fee for the print book if you set them up together. As with print books, IS offers wider distribution of your eBook than KDP, including to Amazon and other online eBook sales channels.
Mind you, KDP and IngramSpark are not the only POD players out there. Other services targeted primarily at the self-publishing market include
- BookBaby (known for ease of setup and customer service; but expensive)
- Lulu (lots of add-on services available)
- Blurb (best print quality, but expensive; distributed through Ingram)
All of these offer some level of book distribution and fulfillment services, as well as printing.
For folks looking just to print books, and not worried about online order fulfillment or bookstore sales, there are several others that offer short run print-only solutions as well. Google around and you’ll quickly see the range of offerings.
A Word About “Free” ISBNs
Both KDP and IngramSpark offer the option of a “free” ISBN—the unique registration number for listing your book in the international ”Books in Print” database. Free is nice, especially since folks here in the U.S. will pay $125 per ISBN if you buy them direct (with steep quantity and other discounts available).
“However, I generally advise my clients that nothing good is ever free in publishing.”
The main downside of the “free” ISBN is that it will list KDP or Ingram as the publisher of the book, and limit you to only printing your book through through their service. Right or wrong, it brands you as amateur to professionals in the book trade, and pretty much guarantees nobody else will ever carry your book. For some, that is an ok limitation.
But generally it is better to maintain full control of your book from the start, and that means paying for your own ISBN registration.
You probably tire of hearing it, but there are different competing options out there because they all offer something slightly different. So there is no one best choice.
- KDP is the simplest and least expensive to set up. While it gets you “on” Amazon, it limits your other options.
- IngramSpark offers more print, cover, and distribution options. But more options mean more complexity. Still, this is the option for “wider” distribution.
Your choice will depend on your sales and promotion strategy. Working with your designer (especially if they offer production assistance, as Illustrada does) will help you make the best decision.
Feel free to contact me to talk more about your unique situation!