Making the decision to independently publish took a lot of thought and research. It wasn’t a decision I reached lightly. If you’re interested in what led me to the decision to change my original game plan and publish independently rather than traditionally, you can read more in my earlier blog post 3 Reasons Why I Self-Published.
I released my first novel in August 2018, and what should have been a relatively easy and straight-forward process ended up being a confusing, frustrating, blind stumble into the publishing world. I made some amateur and completely avoidable mistakes, but I’m not ashamed of that. I learned from them, and I openly discuss my experiences with other authors so they can learn from my mistakes, too. If this post can help you understand the publishing process and avoid any of the pitfalls I fell into, then I’ll consider it a success.
My second novel was published through IngramSpark earlier this month. Several aspiring authors have reached out to ask me questions about independent publishing and my experience with IngramSpark, and I’ve been happy to serve as a resource and a mentor to the best of my abilities. If you’re also contemplating becoming an indie author, I’ve compiled a lot of helpful information for you in this article.
Please note that this post is relevant as of July 2020. Policies are subject to change. This article focuses primarily on publishing through IngramSpark in the United States of America.
Copyright & Registration
Let’s start with the U.S. Copyright Office and Library of Congress. Understand that copyrighting your text is not the same as obtaining a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN). In fact, they aren’t even processed by the same office.
Copyrighting your work is not a requirement. You are the owner of the content once it’s in a tangible form, even if you don’t formally register it. However, submitting the copyright is a good idea for extra security and peace of mind, especially if you’re going to be sending your manuscript out to beta readers and editors you don’t know on a personal basis. In this day in age, it’s easy for people to steal your work, but copyrighting the text will give you an extra legal leg to stand on if you ever find yourself in court. Registration is done through the Electronic Copyright Office (eCo). If you’re not sure about copyrighting, check out the official FAQ page for more information.
On a completely separate note, the Library of Congress assigns catalog numbers to the works that are registered in their database. If you’re registering prior to publication, you’ll be using their Preassigned Control Number (PCN) program. The purpose of the PCN is to enable the Library of Congress to assign the LCCN in advance of publication for titles that may be added to the Library’s collections. Once your book is published, you’ll then need to send a complimentary hard copy to the Library of Congress (don’t worry, they’ll email you instructions after you submit your information for the PCN).
Other copyrights may need to be filed based on your book. I, for example, used a grand total of eight words from an old but popular song in my first novel. When I realized the song was not public domain as I’d originally assumed, I scoured the Internet to find out if I needed to have permission from the copyright holder for a measly eight words of the lyrics. Nobody seemed to have a concrete answer. There’s a “Fair Use” defense for certain works that fall under particular criteria if you’re sued by the copyright holder, but it’s a messy gray area and completely subjective, so if I were to be taken to court, I’d be hard pressed to prove my case with a fiction novel (and for eight words, is it really worth it?).
As far as using music in your book goes, you’re allowed to reference song titles without copyright permission. You can not use lyrics, even a few words if they’re identifiable enough, unless they’re public domain or you have permission from the current copyright holder. There is no standard for copyright permissions, meaning the terms are up to whoever has the rights. They may grant you permission without any charge, or they may charge you a fee upfront, possibly with other conditions. In my case, after some searching, I found the current copyright holder of the song I wanted to use and reached out via email. The Director of Copyright replied back to me and asked me about the book, where I would be selling it, and in what context the lyrics would be used, and then he granted me gratis use of the lyrics at no charge with the expectation that I would contact him once I sold X amount of books, at which point, I would need to receive additional permission.
A good lesson: if you’re not sure about copyrighting music, either remove the lyrics from your work or contact the copyright holder. Better to possibly pay a small fee and have permission upfront than risk being sued for a lot more money down the road.
When I was initially doing my research, the three independent publishing platforms I seriously considered were KDP (Amazon), B&N Press (Barnes & Noble), and IngramSpark. However, I saw a lot of red flags with KDP, which was phasing out CreateSpace at the time. I talked to two separate authors I’d met via a writing group on social media. Both authors (and they were among many I discovered while searching for KDP reviews) had been shocked when their books were unexpectedly pulled from Amazon for violating some obscure clause of the terms and conditions. Amazon refused to pay them the royalties they were owed. These “violations” could be something as simple and innocent as inadvertently having your email address listed on two separate Amazon accounts, even if you forgot about an old account and then created a new one. Now, to be fair, that was two years ago. This may not be as common a problem as it was before, but still… authors not getting paid = red flags. And this wasn’t all just hearsay; I’d conversed with two real people who had experienced this firsthand.
What’s important to understand about publishing solely through Amazon is that the overall quality as far as bookstores is concerned is very low. In fact, I recently was filling out an online form for a Chicago bookstore to carry my novel, and this disclaimer was prominently displayed on their website:
“We do not order Createspace or any Amazon affiliated printers. Honestly, we don’t even take Createspace printed books. The ONLY rare exception is for regular customers/neighbors/books specifically about our neighborhood. Even then, we will probably lecture you on life choices and point you towards IngramSpark for your future printing.”
This is not the first time I’ve come across this disclaimer when reaching out to bookstores. If you publish only through Amazon, you’re likely to be turned down, even if your book is amazing. Bookstores have been burned too many times by bad books coming from Amazon’s free publishing service. That, and Amazon isn’t exactly helping small businesses, so an indie bookstore is understandably not likely to help their competitor by stocking a book printed by an Amazon company.
I ended up choosing B&N Press with the intention to use them as my starting point and then add IngramSpark as a supplemental distributor to reach other retailers beyond Barnes & Noble. This was a huge mistake. Let me explain why.
First, I had a terrible experience with B&N Press, which I’ve talked about before in an earlier blog post: Self-Publishing: B&N Press vs. IngramSpark. Everything from unhelpful customer service, no phone number to speak directly with anyone (email was the only option), B&N putting my dust jacket on the wrong book and shipping it to customers (not once, but three times, and there may be more that I don’t know about), and no reasonable way to sell your book to other bookstores outside of Barnes & Noble, it was a nightmare. But the first big mistake I made was not understanding International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs.
ISBNs & Barcodes
First lesson: you can get a free ISBN from the platform you’re using. However, if you use the free ISBN, that distributor is then listed as the publisher. If you want to be listed as the publisher and have full control, you need to purchase the ISBN(s) from Bowker.
Second lesson: every book format (hardcover, paperback, ebook, etc.) needs its own ISBN. I understood this, which is why I purchased the 10-pack deal with Bowker since I was writing a series and would use the other ISBNs eventually. It was a much cheaper deal per ISBN. However, what I didn’t understand was that each book format on each platform needs its own ISBN. Which means that because I assigned an ISBN to my paperback through B&N Press, I could not use that same ISBN to register my paperback through IngramSpark, even though it was exactly the same book. In all my research, this information was never clearly conveyed, which resulted in me wasting two perfectly good ISBNs and losing money.
I had my hardcover, paperback, and ebook all on B&N Press, but those books were available only on Barnes & Noble. Whether you publish with KDP or not, Amazon is definitely the place to be. My assumption was that I could let B&N handle the Barnes & Noble distribution and let IngramSpark pick up the slack and reach Amazon as well as Ingram’s broad international range of bookstores and libraries. But when I tried to register the paperback and ebook with IngramSpark, they bounced back with an error stating the ISBNs were already in use. Confused, I called their customer service (amazing, they have a phone number so you can talk to a real person!), and they explained to me that if the ISBN was registered with B&N Press, it couldn’t be registered with IngramSpark. I had to use new ISBNs.
Confusingly, I saw that Bowker offered barcodes to purchase, and so I bought one for the hardcover and one for the paperback, assuming I would need them. To my surprise, I learned that I’d once again wasted my money. Both B&N Press and IngramSpark printed their own barcodes onto my back cover. Don’t waste your money buying barcodes!
To show you what I mean, here is what the digital file of my cover submitted to IngramSpark looks like:
You can see the blank space I left on the bottom of the back cover. Here is what IngramSpark prints on the actual books:
Again: do not waste your money buying a barcode! They’re unnecessary, and I don’t understand why this isn’t clearly communicated.
Back to the B&N Press fiasco. Now, at the time, I was under the false impression that I would have enough control with IngramSpark to decide where they put my book. Meaning, I thought I could specify to not distribute it through Barnes & Noble since B&N Press still had their versions online. This is not the case. You can’t pick and choose where your book goes; it’s basically all or nothing. When first registering, you can select whether or not IngramSpark distributes your book to Amazon, but that’s it. Once you’ve registered, you either enable or disable distribution at the flip of a switch.
So, what happened when I flipped that switch? Big mistake #2. When the IngramSpark versions of the book went live, it resulted in duplicate product listings on Barnes & Noble. Same book, but different ISBNs and different product pages based on whether someone happened to click on the IngramSpark or B&N Press version. That may not seem like a big deal. In fact, as B&N Press was fraying the last ounce of my patience and I was considering cutting them altogether now that I was with IngramSpark, I emailed them and asked if there were any benefits to continuing with them since IngramSpark had its own listing up. This was their chance to make their case and keep me as a vendor. Instead, they told me (I really wish I could say I was joking) that the benefit was my book would be listed twice.
But that’s not a benefit. I quickly realized that with two separate listings, my product reviews were being divided depending on which page a customer left a review on. That’s not good! Reviews are very important. Having a book show ten reviews is better than having four reviews on one page and six reviews on another.
I also came to a startling conclusion as I was doing book signing events. B&N Press’s version of the novel was not returnable, which meant Barnes & Noble stores refused to buy books printed by B&N Press. Let me repeat that, because it doesn’t seem right, does it? Barnes & Noble stores refused to buy books printed by their own press. They would, however, purchase copies from IngramSpark because those books were returnable. This flabbergasted me.
I decided to stop using B&N Press for the paperback and ebook so there would be only one listing online. By this point, I had not yet registered the hardcover with IngramSpark. I decided, against my better judgment, to leave that version as a Barnes & Noble exclusive. But, as friends and coworkers continued to reach out to me and let me know that they’d received the wrong hardcover with my dust jacket on top, I’d had enough. I discovered that while you can’t register the same ISBN on two different platforms, you can transfer an active ISBN from one to the other, so I transferred my hardcover to IngramSpark at no additional cost.
Now, I’m fully with IngramSpark. While B&N Press had my book exclusively on Barnes & Noble, IngramSpark has put my novel on Goodreads, Amazon/Kindle, Barnes & Noble/Nook, Walmart/Kobo, Apple, Book Depository, and even international listings I’d never heard of, such as Booktopia. I still occasionally stumble upon the book available on new platforms!
The Truth About Royalties
A lot of the platforms like to make it seem as if you’ll be raking in high royalties. But what actually goes into your pocket once the transaction is said and done is a lot lower than you might think.
I’m going to break this down, because I feel it’s very important. Royalties were a factor in my decision to self-publish, and I did not have a clear understanding going into the process like I thought I did.
I’ll used B&N Press as an example since they openly advertise a fixed percentage and, as a former vendor, I have the exact sales numbers to calculate the print cost of my books. B&N Press advertises that you get 55% royalties on your sales. (KDP, in comparison, advertises 60%.) B&N Press’s customer service loves to remind you that your royalty share is higher than their 45% commission. But the print cost is going to take a substantial amount of your share, leaving you with much less.
For my hardcover, after subtracting the print cost from my share, I was actually earning only 13.3% of the selling price on each sale—nowhere near 55%. My paperback was a little better at 18%. That’s comparable to a traditional publishing house that would probably pay you around 10%-15% in comparison (although, don’t forget the agent’s cut). But the big sell about independent publishing is that you’ll supposedly earn much higher royalties than traditional publishing.
In doing my research between traditional and independent publishing several years ago, I remember someone putting it in terms of a pizza. Traditional publishers can sell a lot more books, but you get a smaller cut. So, would you rather have 15% of a whole pizza, or 50% of one slice? But that’s not really how it works after the print costs come out of your share. It’s misleading, and something to think about if high royalties were the driving force behind your decision to self-publish.
Ebooks yield a higher royalty percentage than print books. KDP advertises that you get 70% royalties on ebook sales, which should be pretty straightforward since there’s no print cost to subtract. However… this is also misleading. (Seriously, is there anything straightforward about self-publishing?) KDP is the only platform to charge a “delivery fee” for most ebooks. This fee varies per country and is based on the megabyte size of your file, so you aren’t actually pocketing 70% like they want you to think.
IngramSpark isn’t as clear about breaking down its royalties, which is why I recently crunched my own numbers to see how it compared. I’m going to be fully transparent: for my ebooks at their current retail price points, I’m earning just under 50% royalties. This percentage goes up or down based on what price you set and how big your file is, so it’s not set in stone (which is likely why it’s so hard to find the breakdown from IngramSpark). If my calculations are correct, KDP’s actual royalty for me would be about 58% after the delivery fee is subtracted based on the size of my ebook file. While that’s more than IngramSpark when it comes to Kindle downloads, it’s also considerably less than the 70% advertised. I can’t personally attest if Amazon finds other ways to nickel and dime its authors with extra fees, but that’s just one more red flag that made me uneasy about trusting KDP with my book.
It’s important to note that IngramSpark has a higher printing cost. But, they also produce a higher quality book, so that’s something to keep in mind. For me, quality was important. My royalties went down a bit when switching from B&N Press to IngramSpark, but my distribution network massively improved. That being said, all IngramSpark does is make your book available on those networks. The marketing is all on you.
IngramSpark offers hardcover, paperback, and ebook options. Overall, it’s fairly self-explanatory, and they have help bubbles you can click on if you need more information about a step. I’ll be honest; IngramSpark is in the process of updating their website, and I personally find the new site layout to be much less user-friendly than the old one. Their customer service is available via phone, email, or live chat. I’ve generally found their customer service team to be very helpful (certainly much more helpful than B&N Press was). However, the pandemic seems to have hit Ingram hard with high volume, and their CX Team is a lot harder to reach than it used to be. This has been very frustrating as the months go by and Ingram still hasn’t seemed to find a way to compensate for the high volume.
IngramSpark, unlike KDP or B&N Press, charges a registration fee. Pro tip: you can often find a promo code to waive the fee. IngramSpark is very supportive of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, which is November), and they almost always run a promotion that usually lasts from November through March to encourage NaNoWriMo participants to spend a few months editing their work before publishing. This is the best time to hunt for a code, as there’s usually one available that’s easy to find with a quick online search. They usually have other codes available throughout the rest of the year as well; you just have to look for them.
IngramSpark also charges revision fees. This is one of my biggest complaints about this platform. I’m a perfectionist, and if I find a typo in my book, I wanted it fixed as soon as possible so the best version of my book is out in the world. But that’s $25 USD per new file upload, which means if that typo was in my hardcover, paperback, and ebook, I’m out $75 to fix it. Ouch! (But would you be surprised if I were to say I’ve become rather adept at finding promo codes that waive said fees?)
If you’re uploading your own files, IngramSpark has some handy tools. Under the Help tab, you’ll find various calculators for width/spine, publisher compensation, and printing/shipping, as well as some helpful guides and checklists. My favorite tool is the Cover Template Generator. Simply put in your ISBN, and it will email you a custom template with the exact margin lines based on the page count of your book. I design my own covers, and this tool has taken out the guesswork for trim lines and margins; I simply overlay the pdf over my Photoshop document and set my guides, and voila!
Troubleshooting File Uploads
I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating than submitting your files, holding your breath, and then pulling your hair out when an error message pops up.
ICC profile errors were my most common issue when trying to upload my files to IngramSpark. To solve this for my cover in Photoshop, I had to uncheck the ICC profile box in the Save As command, then verify that the output settings said “No Color Conversion” and “Don’t Include Profile.” This caused the pdf file to have a strange sepia-like tone to it in my Windows previewer, which made me nervous. But the cover looked fine in Photoshop and in a web browser, and IngramSpark accepted the file after that fix (and yes, it printed just fine).
For the interior file, my problems were usually resolved once I’d embedded my fonts and saved my document as a PDF/A compliant document (Save As > PDF > Options > check the PDF/A compliant box).
Okay, But How Does IngramSpark Actually Work?
How, you might be asking, do people find and buy your book? How do bookstores and libraries buy your book? How do you order copies of your own book?
Ingram has, hands down, the best global distribution of all the independent publishing platforms that I researched. I have not been turned down yet by a bookstore that said they can’t order from Ingram. When you upload the information about your book and enable it for distribution, it becomes available to online retailers (Amazon, B&N, etc.), who are notified of the new title and usually make it available for their customers right away. Your book is a print-on-demand, or POD, which means it doesn’t actually exist until somebody places an order. This is what makes independent publishing affordable for authors; you don’t have to invest in an upfront cost for a large-scale print run of thousands of books and then risk those books not selling. It’s a completely different model from traditional publishing.
People will be able to buy your book online just like they would a book that came from a publishing house. Customers don’t purchase through IngramSpark’s website; they’ll go to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. and place their order, taking advantage of any discounts or specials that particular site is offering. Or, they can go into a local bookstore and, in most cases, request a copy to be ordered in if the bookstore isn’t already carrying your book. Not every single bookstore is affiliated with Ingram, but many are.
IngramSpark’s website is for you to place orders. You have to pay the print cost, tax, and shipping, but you can buy your own books in bulk without having to pay the full retail price. Bookstores and libraries can also purchase directly from Ingram at a wholesale discount, which you have control over and can set within a certain range. IngramSpark recommends giving retailers a 55% discount as the industry standard, but you can set it as low as 35% if you choose. Just keep in mind that retailers might not buy your book if they aren’t getting a big enough discount.
I’ve seen warnings of Amazon sabotaging IngramSpark books; the claim is that Amazon will show your book as being out of stock or having a ridiculously far future delivery date. People cite this as a reason to use both IngramSpark and KDP to avoid that issue. However, I have never experienced that problem. In fact, when Amazon has copies of my book in their distribution center (they tend to place small, periodic orders to keep copies on hand), the novel is available for Prime’s two-day shipping. The only time Amazon ever showed the book as out of stock was after I’d updated both the interior and exterior files, which were still pending in IngramSpark’s system. Once the files finished processing, the book was back in stock on Amazon.
It’s important to note that Amazon will likely sell your book at a lower retail price than what you set with IngramSpark. No, there’s nothing you can do about it, but you don’t need to worry that Amazon is trying to get rid of your book because it’s not selling and they want to free up space in their distribution center. Amazon is very competitive and wants to make sure it has the best deal, so if other booksellers are offering your book at the regular price, Amazon will most likely drop the price to try and win the sale. This doesn’t affect your royalties at all; Amazon already paid the wholesale price for your books. They could give the books away for free, and you’d still get the same amount of money.
Pro tip: even if you don’t publish with KDP, you can still create an Amazon Author Central account to claim your titles. This will give you a little more control over the books and let you track your Amazon sales, update a bio, link to your blog, and more.
Returnable POD Books
Remember earlier when I mentioned that Barnes & Noble stores wouldn’t purchase books from their own press because they weren’t returnable? IngramSpark gives you the option to make your books returnable or nonreturnable. MAKE THEM RETURNABLE! I can’t stress that enough! Otherwise, bookstores are very likely to refuse your book. Some bookstores are leery about ordering POD novels, but if you tell them your books are returnable, they’ll often say okay and be willing to place an order.
Book returns are deducted from your publisher’s compensation for sales in the month the return was received. You have two options when it comes to making your book(s) returnable with IngramSpark.
Option One: Yes – Deliver
This option is available only for books sold in the U.S. or Canada. If a bookstore returns one or more of the books, the copies will be sent to you. However, in addition to being charged the wholesale price for the returned books, you’ll also be charged the shipping and handling fees, and there’s no guarantee the books will be in good enough condition to resell. This option can be costly.
Option Two: Yes – Destroy
This option is much more economical. The returned copies are sent back to Ingram’s facility and destroyed, and you are charged only the wholesale cost for the books. No shipping/handling fees.
For me, simplifying the process by streamlining my ISBNs through one well-rounded and respected platform made the most sense. If you’re going to pick a single distributor, IngramSpark is your best option, as it allows you to reach Amazon and Barnes & Noble in addition to a global network of bookstores and libraries. There’s a noticeable difference in the print quality between IngramSpark and KDP, which was another factor that influenced my decision. I wanted a high-quality book. The downside is that the higher quality affects your print cost, which in turn affects your royalties. All factors that you should consider when weighing your options.
I hope this information will help you on your publishing journey! I know it’s a lot to take in, and it can be very confusing on your first book. But as an author who just independently published her second novel, and I can tell you from experience that it does get easier once you have a grasp on the steps you need to take. I was fortunate enough to encounter a few indie authors who helped guide me and answer my questions two years ago when this was all new and unfamiliar territory, and so I’m paying the kindness forward.
Please feel free to connect with me on social media or send me an email through the contact form! I’m happy to answer additional questions to the best of my ability based on my own experiences, and I’d love to hear if any authors had a good experience utilizing both KDP and IngramSpark simultaneously. I believe indie authors should build each other up and help one another succeed. There’s a lot of competition out there, and we can go a lot farther if we work together rather than against each other.