Lightning Source – Reviewed (Updated June, 2011)

Lightning Source has become synonymous with authors pursuing what is described as ‘true self-publishing—whereby an author sets up their own imprint, purchases a block of ISBN’s and uses Lightning Source’s global print and fulfilment services to publish and make their books available for distribution.

“Lightning Source, an Ingram Content Group company, is the leader in providing a comprehensive suite of inventory-free on-demand print and distribution services for books to the publishing industry. Lightning Source gives the publishing community options to print books in any quantity, one to 10,000 (POD or offset print runs), and provides its customers access to the most comprehensive bookselling channel in the industry in both the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Founded in 1997, with its headquarters in La Vergne, Tennessee, Lightning Source is a subsidiary of Ingram Industries Inc., and a sister company of U.S. book wholesaler, Ingram Book Group. Lightning Source quickly established itself as the global leader for print-on-demand book printing and fulfilment services with massive operations in their La Vergne base and their plant in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. The Lightning Source digital library database holds over 750,000 books and has built lasting partnerships with Ingram, Baker & Taylor,, Barnes & Noble and Gardners. LSI’s strength is the flexibility to print and ship a single copy of a print-on-demand book or several thousand copies.
LSI has become so synonymous with POD (print-on-demand) that authors often lump the global print solutions provider in with so-called self-publishing companies like Lulu and CreateSpace. LSI is neither a POD publisher nor an author solutions service. They are a global digital printer for the publishing industry, but due to the explosion in self-publishing, they now deal directly with authors wishing to utilize their services. However, dealing with LSI directly requires a new account holder to verify that they have registered blocks of ISBN’s under a publishing imprint name and they provide an accessible bank account and sign a commercial contract with them.
Working with LSI as a publisher or author does require a reasonable hands-on knowledge of book creation software and the proficiency to provide and load-up print ready files to industry print standards directly to their website. This is not a service that should be used by the faint-hearted or novice author and I would strongly suggest that previous experience in self-publishing and book design is required, or contracted out to a professional prior to attempting to submit a book file to LSI’s database. My own experience with LSI reveals a company laden with online tutorials and guidance, a strong commercial customer focus, but a professionalism that means they are not available for hand-holding. This is one of the reasons their website is packed with the necessary information an author might need; from technical book specifications, a spine width calculator, and a step-by-step manual. The actual process of loading up a book file to LSI can be mastered with a degree of study, patience and attention to detail—by no means beyond any computer-savvy author.

Lightning Source, in the following section below, explain the Print to Order and Print to Publish programs they offer – meaning the author or small press operator has the option to utilize LSI’s print and distribution services or simply use their print facilities.
Print to Order
With this service the publisher sets the retail price, wholesale discount and return policy.
We send the data out to our Distribution partners (including leading distributors such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Barnes & Noble, and others).
They capture the demand from booksellers, libraries and consumers and we print to fill the order.
We collect the wholesale price, deduct the print cost and pay the publisher the balance.
The price for this service is $12.00 a year per title. Just one dollar a month.
B&N purchases through Ingram Book Group.
As you know Lightning Source titles are listed in the Print-to-Order program – an exclusive service that allows Ingram to display 100 copies on hand at all times. As part of this arrangement, and to avoid book buyers from having to backorder, we at Lightning Source guarantee books ordered by Ingram will be printed and returned to their shipping dock within 8 – 12 hours, generally in time to be included in the book buyer’s regular order.
Print to Publisher
With this program we fill orders placed by the publisher and ship them in any quantity to any location. That can be one book to a reviewer or 5,000 to a warehouse.
As part of that service we offer Offset printing on paperback quantities of over 2,000 or hardback quantities of over 750.
Turn around time on digital printing is days, turn around time of offset is about 7-10 days depending on the books specifics.
Offset printing
Offset printing isn’t a component of Print to Order.
We also offer traditional printing services for titles that require large print orders.
In effect, dealing directly with LSI, is simply cutting out the middle-man—or in this case the author solutions services who use LSI, like Lulu, Outskirts Press, Xulon, Xlibris, and hundreds of others. The difference is—the author will pay $75 for title set-up ($37.50 each for interior and cover files). You are also required to purchase a proof copy and you are charged $12 per year to keep the title in LSI’s database. One important detail authors should be wary of is the LSI submission load-up fee of $40. This does not apply to the first submission load-up, but does apply on any subsequent file revisions after the proof is delivered. This is why I believe LSI is really only for the seasoned self-publisher, familiar with working with print ready PDF files. Print charges for POD books are set out below, and  taking our normal 200 page colour cover and black and white interior as an example, her is how it plays out:
$0.90 per unit $0.90
+ 200 pages x $0.013 per page $2.60
Total print charge per unit $3.50
Authors buying copies of their book directly from LSI only pay for the book at print cost—there are no mark-ups or built in fees imposed by LSI. The author, when setting up a title, decides what retail discount should be given, but LSI advises not to go below 20%. However, some retailers may expect far more discount (up to 55% – Amazon) before they will even consider stocking your book.
In light of the above costs – pause for a moment – and just consider what fees other POD publishers/printers will try to charge authors. Yes, sometimes the fees charged by other author solutions services can be in the thousands, and often, the author is getting little more than a printed book made available online.
When it comes to royalties—LSI don’t do a ‘Mill City Press’. You really do get 100% profit following the subtraction of print cost and retailer discount.

Operating Manual

Returns Program
The decision to make a book returnable lies with the author/publisher, and significantly, LSI do not charge a fee for this service. Why should they? Returned books will be subtracted off author/publisher payments. This is one area which should really highlight to authors using author solutions services, and paying anything up to $500 for a returns program, just how much authors can be gouged on profits when the POD publishing middle-men muscle in on the business of publishing.
Online Distribution and Availability
Provided an author ensures their book is listed with Nielsens Books in Print, using LSI, who are owned by Ingram in the US, you are, for the most part, getting exactly the same promised distribution that you get with Lulu, CreateSpace’s Pro-Plan or AuthorHouse, or most other POD author solutions services.
Yes, you will have to look after all the promotion and marketing of your book, but the reality is, many POD publishers actually use their affiliation with LSI/Ingram as if that in itself was the gateway to heaven. It is not—but it is no more or no less than you as an author are getting from most other author solutions services.
Lightning Source may be a bridge too far for some authors, unfamiliar with preparing book files for a printer, but for the charges and gouging practices engaged by some author solutions services, it may actually be worth the effort to pause and contemplate crossing that bridge.
Frankly, LSI’s reputation as a digital printer and fulfilment service is not in question—they are also used by the world’s leading mainstream publishers just as much by author solutions service providers. Bluntly, if you are not using a service like LSI, Lulu or CreateSpace for printing and making your book available—you must think beyond the production of your book—and ask what exactly it is any other company is providing you with, beyond what the above companies do economically.
RATING: 8.0/10

UPDATE: January, 2011 (Set-up fees waived for promotional period)

UPDATE: June, 2011 (LSI open plant in Australia)


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