Publishing on Amazon’s KDP and IngramSpark

As you may have seen on the front page or my ongoing forum thread, I published a book recently! It’s something that I’ve vaguely wanted to do for a while, but never actually attempted until this year. Although I’ve written about the book’s content, I have not really discussed much of the actual publishing experience. While I was working on the book, I didn’t actually tell anyone but my wife for a long time because I thought the process might be too cumbersome for a novice to navigate alone, and so I assumed it might become an abandoned project.

Fortunately, nowadays it’s relatively straightforward and inexpensive for any author to self-publish! Of course, it is time-consuming and demands significant effort and patience. But it doesn’t require any special education or institutional knowledge to accomplish. So if you’re willing to learn and do a little work, the barrier of entry to the publishing world isn’t very high. And there are tons of free (or almost free) tools out there to help ease the way.

My first book, Pencils and Process! It’s still strange to realize it’s actually published.

In this post, I am going to go over of my experiences learning about book publishing. I’ll review pros and cons of some of the options available to authors and some helpful tips I learned along the way. I’ll also share what some of the printed results look like – the books themselves do have some differences depending on which company prints them.

Traditional Publishers, Vanity Publishers, Self-publishing

A good way to start is with a discussion on what the primary options are for publishing. I think most people are generally aware of traditional publishing; a publishing company handles most of the work, and in exchange takes a large chunk of the revenue for itself. Often, traditional publishers will pay the author an advance on future royalties. There are also “vanity publishers,” which should be avoided completely. Vanity publishers basically pretend they are traditional publishers, but demand extremely high fees to set up and distribute books. Essentially, if a company isn’t willing to invest in your book itself, then it’s not a traditional publisher.

Vanity publishing violates something called “Yog’s Law“, which states that “money should always flow toward the author.” Traditional publishing follows this tenant, as does a third option: Self-publishing. In this model, you do all the work yourself…but the trade-off is that monetary costs are minimal and the author retains all rights.

Traditional Publisher Pros:

  • Help with editing, layout, cover design, and other technical aspects
  • Possibility for an advance on future royalties
  • Assistance marketing and promoting (to varying degrees)

Traditional Publisher Cons:

  • Effectively a middle-man between the author and retailers (they get a percentage of the revenue)
  • Very difficult (or near impossible) for new authors to get a book published
  • Only bestselling authors get significant attention and marketing

Vanity Publisher Pros:

  • None really. This looks like a swindle to me.
  • I guess you could consider the fact that they will do some of the work traditional publishers do (design/layout) a positive…but it’s so outrageously expensive, you’d be much better off hiring a freelancer. If you are rich and just want to get a book out there with minimal effort, this option could work. But you probably won’t be able to take it anywhere else (see item #3 in cons).

Vanity Publisher Cons:

  • Very expensive for the author
  • May engage in deceptive business practices and prey on authors worn down by rejections from traditional publishers.
  • May assert control over the rights to published works (ISBNs are under their name)
  • Any work they will (expensively) do for you is often of very poor quality.
  • Print quality of books is also typically poor.
  • They also have no relationships with retailers, with some outright refusing to sell books from vanity publishers

Self-Publishing Pros:

  • Maintain control over publication and distribution rights (buy your own ISBNs directly from Bowker).
  • Direct access to retailers if you use right tool (through Ingram’s retailer distribution network or to Amazon via KDP). So, no middle-man.
  • Anyone can do it! No one is going to reject you – the only arbiter of your book’s quality is the consumer.

Self-Publishing Cons:

  • Everything is up to you to put the book together, from design to editing to layouts. You can hire freelancers or businesses to help, but all those costs eat into your profits. Amazon, Ingram, and other sites have some tools to help, but ultimately it’s up to you to do the work.
  • Advertising and promotion are also entirely up to you. Without it, new books from unknown authors probably will not get any attention.

Self-Publishing Options

There are several options out there for authors interested in self-publishing, and many articles out there reviewing them. I would strongly recommend doing some online research before deciding. One of the most useful write-ups I found on the topic was on the Reedsy Blog. It’s definitely worth a read because the writer covers some of the most popular tools/services available and explains positives and negatives about using each. They even had books printed using each of them and compares the final products.

For my purposes, I opted to follow the Reedsy recommendations and went with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for Amazon distribution and IngramSpark for distribution to all other retailers (Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, other U.S. and international retailers). Although I was worried about how multiple versions would work together, it was actually pretty seamless. For example, since KDP does not offer a hardcover, Ingram’s hardcover would be distributed to Amazon. But KDP’s how would Ingram and KDP’s paperback version affect each other? There were really no issues though, as KDP took priority on Amazon, and Ingram covered everything else.

There are some interesting differences that popped up between the two. Since it is possible to just use one service for everything, instead of both as I did, I thought I’d highlight some things I noticed.

  • The baseline printing cost (what you pay for author copies) for Ingram was less expensive than KDP. When I set the paperback price at $24.99 on both systems, my royalty cut was a bit higher on Ingram.
  • The standard color print on KDP is significantly brighter and clearer than Ingram’s standard color. Ingram has a “premium” color print, but in my experience, it took my royalty from a bit more than $3 to -$4 (about a $7 swing per book print). After seeing the prints, I see why KDP baseline printing is a bit more expensive.
  • Amazon’s cut in KDP cannot be changed. With Ingram, you can change the retailer discount (their cut) from the recommended 55%. They say leaving it at 55% incentivizes retailers to start selling your book, which in my experience is true. Within a week or two of publishing, 11 retailers were selling my book without me even having to contact them – they simply found it in Ingram’s catalog.
  • KDP has MS Word templates you can start your manuscript from, which is extremely useful. The margins and gutters for alternating pages, designed for whatever book size you select, are already set up in these templates. KDP also has a basic cover designer, which I found to be a helpful jumping off point. IngramSpark has help pages, but otherwise you’re on your own to format.
  • It can be frustrating to get a manuscript approved via KDP. They have some quality control, which is hit or miss, so it may take several attempts to finalize a manuscript. The positive side is that it’s always free to upload a new manuscript. Ingram seems to approve anything; getting it right is totally up to the author, and they will let you finalize something that is messed up. Ingram is sometimes free to upload (due to promotions), but occasionally their regular price of $49 per upload is in effect. $49 for a revision can be a tough pill to swallow.
  • KDP’s customer service is a mixed bag…sometimes it’s pretty bad. On the other hand, Ingram’s customer service has always been exceptional. I’ve never had an issue getting in touch, and I’ve never left a conversation with Ingram lacking a resolution. I can’t say that for KDP.

I would recommend starting the process with KDP, mostly because of the templates and cover builder. Once you’ve constructed a manuscript and cover you are happy with, then you can try uploading finished .pdf files to Ingram. Ingram will send you a final proof that you have to approve, so review it very carefully… as I said, they will let you approve, print, and sell messed up books.

How to Price a Book

This is one of the most difficult questions I faced towards the end of writing; how do I price this book? This is where you run into the biggest disadvantage a self-published author has versus traditional publishing. With traditional publishers, they will usually utilize offset printing to batch produce many copies of your book. For most self-published authors, the best method is “print-on-demand” (POD), which allows a customer to buy a copy and receive an almost immediate custom print. This POD method is simply more expensive, which means self-published books either must have smaller profit margins or higher overall prices.

As with most data-driven questions, I immediately took this problem to an Excel spreadsheet. I browsed on Amazon under the Drawing, Portrait, and Painting sections and selected 25 popular books listed. Then, I calculated the total raw content area (page length times width, multiplied by the number of pages). Then I divided the retail price by content area to determine a book’s cost per square inch of content. I used this value to try to estimate how appropriately I could price my book.

Comparison of 25 popular drawing/painting books on Amazon. Although I included the book and author’s names in the original, for this post I decided to withhold them. I used conditional formatting data bars and icon sets for the high, medium, and low indicators.

After a thorough evaluation, I determined I couldn’t quite match the lower prices some of the top authors sold their books for. Although this evaluation doesn’t take quality of content into consideration, I could see the most cost-effective books per square inch were all released by major publishing companies. They have the ability to produce at a scale I simply can’t beat. After significant wrestling with the question of price, I decided on a few things:

  • Set the retail price the same across all retailers (individual sellers still have the ability to further discount if they want to cut into their own profit).
  • Provide the recommended retailer discount to encourage stores and sites to carry the book.
  • Make U.S. and Canada-based retailer purchases of the book returnable to further encourage stock.
  • Set the paperback and hardcover prices to generate a minimum $3 net profit from each sale.
  • Use the Kindle version as a loss leader, discounting or giving away to help sales rankings for the book.
  • Make the eBook version exclusive to Kindle to take advantage of Amazon’s promotional capabilities with their “KDP Select” program.

End Product Comparison

As I mentioned above, there was definitely a difference between Amazon KDP’s and IngramSpark’s print quality. I doubt it would be especially noticeable for a text-only book, but since mine was extremely image heavy, the differences were pronounced. I’m going to provide a few examples below. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

For clarity’s sake, here were the parameters for these photos. The Amazon KDP version is always either on the left or top. The IngramSpark version is on the right or bottom. They were taken using a Pixel 3 smartphone’s camera in a room brightly illuminated by daylight. Both books are printed with the most economical color options available. These were my author copies, order after publication.

The covers. KDP’s (left) was cut the closest to my design. Ingram’s (right) had a white bar at the top that I was not expecting. I’ve since adjusted the Ingram cover files to compensate, but it was tricky to get right. The colors are similarly vivid and bright on both covers, but the navy and black seemed a bit darker on the KDP version.
Pages about a self-portrait. The KDP (top) version is brighter and more true-to-life. The Ingram (bottom) version is grayer and shows less of the pink/peach hues I expected to see. The Ingram version doesn’t look bad necessarily, it’s just different.
A new chapter with lots of images. KDP (top) once again provides more vivid images and more accurate colors. Ingram’s (bottom) images were skewed towards duller tones.
Photo taken with bright and direct sunlight behind the paper, KDP on the left and Ingram on the right. The pages seem to be of similar thickness.

Other Considerations

I don’t exactly have the expertise to speak with authority on the subject of advertising and marketing, but it seems like most articles about self-publishing make a point to mention how important these things are. I have done some bargain-level advertising so far on Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon to see if anything helps get word of the book out into cyberspace. My budget is dreadfully low ($10 on each platform), but so far I’ve gotten really excellent results with Amazon. Although I have a tendency to trash Facebook at any opportunity, their ad results have been decent.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve read it’s good to create author profiles (not the basic reader/consumer versions) on book-centered sites like Goodreads, Book Bub, and Author Central. While I don’t plan to participate in any of their paid/sponsored features (they are super expensive), it does seem good to have a presence in those places as an author. And to make sure your book is listed there.

If you have the Kindle App or Device, here’s a freebie

I imagine many readers have bailed on this post – to be fair, it’s pretty long. But if you stuck with it, help yourself to a free book! The book I’ve been talking about in this post, Pencils and Process, is currently free on Amazon in eBook/Kindle format. The promotion continues until Saturday (April 20th) at midnight, so enjoy! And if you have time, I’d love to hear what you think.

Here’s a link:

Disregard where it says $25 there, that’s listing the paperback. Just click “Buy on Amazon” and it should take you to where you can choose the Kindle version which is zero dollars.

Generally, when you are getting free eBooks from Amazon avoid the “Read for Free” button (unless you have Kindle Unlimited). You should use “Buy Now” while the kindle price is $0.00, which will permanently add the book to your library. “Read for Free” is Kindle Unlimited which requires a subscription/payment.

Thanks for reading!

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