IngramSpark – Reviewed

Ingram Book Group is the largest distributor and wholesaler of books in the United States. Founded in 1964, the company also owns Lightning Source, a print and fulfilment company with facilities throughout the world. In the summer of 2013, Ingram launched a dedicated publishing platform for small publishers. Although touted by many as Ingram’s answer to print and publishing services like CreateSpace, Lulu and Smashwords, IngramSpark is actually intended to be an easy-to-use platform for publishers lacking the resources of many larger publishers and holding a catalogue of less than ten titles. Ingram wanted a platform that could reduce the amount of time and effort publishers spend trying to manage the complexities of distributing a book around the world, but utilising the best technology, manufacturing, logistics, and distribution capabilities available.

 

The first obvious question to ask is what the difference between Lightning Source and IngramSpark. It’s a question I tried to answer in this post some months ago. In short, and while I do not want to rehash arguments and discussions from previous articles on TIPM—technically, beyond the front-end UI (user interface) of IngramSpark and Lightning Source—there is actually little if any difference in the final book product. All books pushed through IngramSpark go through Lightning Source’s print facilities and Ingram’s inner e-book platform, CoreSource. Where IngramSpark provides a smooth easy-to-use interface better suited to self-published authors wanting a degree of control, support, flexibility and independence outside of full service publishing providers (and with slightly reduced set-up pricing), it does restrict authors and publishers offering retail discounts lower than 55%. Where Lightning Source allows total flexibility on retail discounts, it does not present the ideal hand-holding and support experience for new publishers and authors unfamiliar with the book industry.

 

Brian Kittrell produced this helpful video to explain the differences between LSI and IS a little more.

 

IngramSpark is NOT a full service publishing provider, no more than Lightning Source is one. Nether offer proofreading, editing, typesetting, or design services. Consistently when you search through IngramSpark for answers in these areas, you will be advised to seek the assistance of an author services company. Likewise, IngramSpark cannot at this time offer book conversion services—in print or e-book—for publisher or authors. This means that even if you are an author with a registered publishing imprint and block of ISBNs—you still need to provide IngramSpark with a completed interior file (PDF) and exterior book file (PDF/JPEG for cover and ePub file for e-books) for print and distribution.

 

Even IngramSpark has been somewhat circumspect on defining exactly who their platform is most suitable for.

Trying to categorically say which publisher segment IngramSpark services has been impossible. Who is IngramSpark for? If you find this platform useful, then IngramSpark was built for you. – IngramSpark

An IngramSpark Account

IngramSpark (IS) is a tool that provides publishers with simple and affordable access to Ingram’s global distribution network for print and e-book content. Setting up an account with IS relatively easy, and certainly a lot easier than setting an account up with Lightning Source (LSI). You need completed book files, a block of ISBNs, a credit card, and an email address. See the How It Works section for step-by-step instructions. If you already have an LSI account, then you will be asked to contact your current customer service representative (at LSI) before proceeding.

 

You do not have to convert to IngramSpark if you are already a LSI account or if you are currently working with Ingram Publisher Services for distribution services. The issue here for Ingram is a publisher or author setting up dual accounts and mistakenly trying to push the same books through both platforms. Yes, you can have accounts with IS and LSI, so long as you are aware that you understand the requirements of both platforms and that LSI/IS files may be compatible with both platforms but cannot be submitted ‘as is’ with the same file names and templates. I’ve accounts with both, but I can understand IngramSpark’s caution in regards to dual accounts because the potential for an unmitigated disaster is high from a self-published author demonstrating a haphazard or carefree approach to both. During the sign up process you will also be asked if you have titles available through Amazon Kindle. (NOTE: If you have current publishing agreements with Amazon Kindle over the last 12 months, you cannot include IngramSpark e-book distribution without clicking the opt-out clause.

 

Robin Cutler, Ingram’s Manager of Content Acquisition, in an interview with Joel Friedlander from TheBookDesigner.com, is careful to underline the difference between IngramSpark and other one-stop-shop publishing services. She describes IngramSpark as an attempt to ‘marry print on demand technology with our ebook distribution technology together and then streamline all of our processes related to setting up an account making that as easy as possible and then setting up titles as easy as possible for publishers.’ This is a one-stop-shop for publishers to access distribution, rather than designed as a one-stop-shop for self-published authors.

 

So if we run across someone and we think they’re better served by CreateSpace or Author Solutions or whatever, you know we’re happy to refer them over that way… – Robin Cutler, IngramSpark

Yikes! The referral to CreateSpace might perhaps be a sound decision for many self-published authors, but referral to an Author Solutions’ imprint is certainly a horse of a different colour! IngramSpark is no assisted author service provider by any means, and I think it should just stick to what it knows best.

 

Please be aware that there are restrictions in some global territories to setting up an IngramSpark account. You will be asked to electronically sign contracts. Once you have set up an account, you will be introduced to your dashboard navigation on the publishing platform and it is here you will be required to complete set up of your account with some tasks: completing business address, compensation information (royalty payments), credit card details and tax information. As far as I can see, bank details must be supplied. This is a commercial agreement you have electronically signed, so don’t expect PayPal to be an adequate means of doing business. Compensation will be deposited directly into your bank account. The first payment from IngramSpark will be made to your account within 90 days from the first payment received from retailers and libraries. All other payments will follow monthly. NOTE: DON’T refer to payments from IngramSpark as royalties when communication with their support department. IngramSpark is your print and fulfilment provider, NOT your publisher! IngramSpark pay YOU—the publisher—revenue.

 

From the dashboard, publishers can load/update book files and gain access to a cover template generator that should simplify the process. The dashboard will also give you access to your project/titles and information on sales, which is updated daily. Publishers’ sales reports are correlated on a monthly basis. IngramSpark provide a full user guide here in PDF.

 

• Input your contact details
• Input your title ISBN
• Upload your title metadata
• Input title usage list price and territory rights
• Upload your ebook (EPUB & JPEG) and/or print (PDF x 2) files
• Input your credit card details

 

IngramSpark allow users to set up titles as print or e-books, or both simultaneously using the online title set up and load-up tools. As this point biblio, metadata, genre categorisation and author/publisher details can be set up. The tool will take you through print specifications, distribution channel options, pricing and returns. I would not advise any account users/publishers to commence this process until they have all the production files ready and all relevant detail to hand, including ISBNs. The load up of production files works with an easy-to-use ‘drag and drop’ facility.

 

 

The load up tool will also calculate the overall charges due to the publisher before the process is complete. Trim sizes, paper types and bindings can all be selected at this stage much in the way it is carried out with Lightning Source. A publisher is locked into a 55% retail discount, but returns are accepted by IngramSpark, and can be switched between ‘deliver’ return and ‘destroy’ return at any time. (NOTE: Publishers, regardless of their base (USA or non-USA), would be unwise to select the ‘return’ delivery option. Fees for returned addresses are charged at wholesale cost +$2 per title for shipping and handling ($20 per title for non-US addresses!). I strongly suggest the ‘destroy’ return option. You can find the IS Print & Ship Calculator and the Publisher Compensation Calculator here.

 

 

Publishers can also place direct orders for books through the dashboard and specify freighting means and any kind of delivery address. Should a publisher order 50 units of a book directly within sixty days, the $49 set-up fee will be waived. When Ingram initially announced the launch of IngramSpark during the summer of 2013, there was mention of a buy link to Bowker/Nielsen for blocks of ISBNs, but as of the time of this review, it does not look as if this facility has been set up yet.

 

Fees for Set Up & Revenues
• Print costs and print options mirror what LSI has
• $49 cost to set up p and e books
• $49 cost for p only set up
• $25 cost for e only set up
• $49 refunded if 50 copy run ordered by publisher within 60 days
• $12 annual fee per title
• No proof cost (if PDF)
• $25 revision fee once in distro channels
• 55% locked discount (on list price) to retailers—Spark might revise this following publisher feedback
• 45% publisher revenue on list price after deduction of print manufacturing costs
• 40% publisher revenue on e-books

 

The 45% list price revenue for publishers is the most controversial part of IngramSpark, and a 300 page B&W interior paperback book, with a full cover colour, priced at anything under $11 (retail) will leave an author with virtually nothing!

 

IngramSpark also provide a very detailed and easy-to-follow FILE CREATION GUIDE for books submitted through an IngramSpark account. Frankly, the depth of platform guides and support for IngramSpark are astonishingly good. Outside of IS, the guides would still be helpful to any small publisher or author starting out on the right professional foot in learning how to prepare files and understand the requirements of the book industry.

 

Distribution

 

Ingram offer some the largest wholesale and retail channels available fulfilling orders placed through 38,000 retail and library partners worldwide for both print and e-books. Ingram and Lightning Source have become the distribution mainstay option for many fully assisted self-publishing companies that work with authors.

 

In essence, I can understand why IngramSpark don’t consider companies like CreateSpace, Smashwords, Blurb or Lulu as competitors. These companies offer something different to IS—maybe even more flexibility and willingness to work with authors prior to the completion of production-ready files. And whether that means featuring basic cover design widgets or an array of premium services like design, editing and marketing, Ingram is specifically a global distributor with print and e-book fulfilment—not a publisher or even a complete publishing solution. I think before comparing IngramSpark with other so-called competitors—that should be borne in mind.

 

The real power of IngramSpark is ease of use, time efficiency, a very powerful UI, and go-to-market speed. IngramSpark is still a work in progress and I am only too aware, in the few months since its July launch, that many authors haven’t—and won’t—switch because of the locked 55% retail discount. I know only too well that Robin Cutler and Ingram executives are very much open to feedback from IngramSpark’s newest account holders on this issue, and while they won’t commit to saying anything publicly, I am convinced that it is simply a question of when they relent on the locked retailer discount, not if they will. I’d be happy with a two-tier discount system—say 55% and a lower 40%. I share the opinion that if self-publishers are serious about selling books into physical bookstores, that few buyers beyond a handful of local independent stores prepared to support and host local authors, are going to accept much below 40% as a discount on the retail price of a book. I know some authors who negotiate with independent sellers and can achieve even lower discounts, but believe me, it remains a vast exception to the rules of the industry.

 

I’ve had the pleasure of publishing books through LSI, Blurb, Lulu, Bookbaby, Smashwords, CreateSpace and several other smaller publishing platforms (myself and clients), but none of them come anywhere near what IngramSpark has as an actual publishing platform. I’m making careful distinction here between online design tools and load up facilities, and proper publishing engines working to industry standards—meaning proper book file preparation specs, bibliographic and metadata submission, and all viable e-book and print distribution channels (wholesale, retail and library). What IngramSpark has put together for publishers against what exists elsewhere is like comparing the Nokia 2310 with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3. Technically, the best I have seen—freely available—is Blurb’s BookSmart software. Blurb’s limitation has always been distribution, certainly not vision, and their publishing platform will integrate with professional design software like Quark and InDesign. It’s one area Ingram can learn from.

 

Overall
The IngramSpark publishing platform is outstanding as a post-production file system. There is simply no other accessible platform that remotely touches what it can deliver. It’s a work in progress and by no means perfect.
• It needs the promised ISBN purchase link to Bowker/Nielsen
• It needs an online conversion tool for e-books
• It needs to accommodate the load up of InDesign and Quark pro files
• It needs at least a two-tier discount option for book distribution

 

If IngramSpark wants to present itself as a professional option for small and independent self-published authors, then it needs to look at integrating its platform with professional software. With Adobe shifting much of its products to subscription models, I would suggest Ingram offer some form of online affiliation and discount to Adobe’s Creative Suite of online products. Certainly I’d also like to see some kind of IngramSpark publisher forum and series of video tutorials.

 

IngramSpark is not the new answer to CreateSpace, despite what has been reported elsewhere. It is rather more an upmarket competitor with a better interface, but with some restrictions savvy self-published authors might be uncomfortable with. This is a publisher platform aimed at small publishers with less than ten titles, but does not carry the same frustration and chunkiness of LSI. In many ways it’s actually easier to define the kind of authors IngramSpark is not suitable for.

 

• If you already have an account with Lightning Source as an author-publisher, than I see no reason to switch at the moment.
• If you are an author who needs to seek technical advice and support to produce production-ready files from MS Word docs, then IS isn’t for you.
• If most of your readers buy your books online, and in e-book form, then IS isn’t for you. Stick with Amazon Kindle and CreateSpace.

 

If you use professional design software to produce your books, publish more than one title per year, have a designated publishing imprint and block of ISBNs, several back catalogue titles already published, understand a little of the publishing business, and want to sell your titles to a wider audience and on a more professional level, globally, then IngramSpark should be a serious consideration if you don’t already use Lightning Source as a print and fulfilment option.

 

In my initial provisional review of IngramSpark, I gave a very restrictive 6.0 rating, but having examined them thoroughly, and used their UI, I’m upgrading the rating to an 8+. IngramSpark is without doubt a premier option for small and self-publishers.

 

UPDATE: November, 2014 – IngramSpark now offers a lower 30% retail discount along with the 40% and 55% points.

UPDATE: November, 2015IngramSpark Introduce New Service Features

 

RATING: 8.5/10

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