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Truly Self-Publishing by Dan Marvin

So, you’ve got a book on Lulu and you’re ready to go. You’re just about to sign up for their distribution package, have them assign an ISBN number and get your book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You’re almost an author, right? But wait… there’s a catch.

If Lulu publishes your book, they have the rights to your book. For most people this isn’t a big deal, but for a growing minority of us we still prefer to have our fate in our own hands. Yes, my book is fully available on Lulu as a download and as a book, but I’ve also gone the extra step of buying my own ISBN numbers and putting my book on Amazon myself.

In going through the exercise, I can tell you a few of the things to watch for and might be able to ease the process for you. I call this option “Truly Self- Publishing” because my book is published under my imprint, Marvcorp Publishing.

The advantages are, I control how my book is handled on Amazon and with other retailers. I can allow for returns, for instance which Lulu does not. This is more attractive to brick and mortar retailers who have to buy books to have them in stock. Lulu will let older titles go out of stock on Amazon and there isn’t much you can do about it. I also found a cheaper way of printing my books that got the unit cost down to $3 each instead of $7.

First, a word about ISBN numbers. Every book that is sold commercially needs one of these numbers, they tell the world who published the book and what its number is. Unfortunately, they’re kind of annoying to get. I did a lot of research and didn’t find a good way to buy just one, they usually come bundled as a 10-pack. By buying ten, I’m pretty much covered until I’m 90 at my current pace of book production, but I may decide to publish a few books for friends, you never know. You can’t sell them, once they’re yours you are the publisher for any book that uses that number. 10 ISBN numbers cost about $250 and are available in the US through Bowker (www.bowker.com)

To get set up on Bowker, you need to decide what you want to call your new publishing business and give them an idea of how many and what kind of books you are planning to publish. Then, you need to give them your money and wait about 10 days, it’s not instant (although they did send me mine in about 3 days by email.) Be careful to print out and record everything you get from Bowker, if you need them to send it again it costs more money. Also, have Bowker add your books to Bowkerlink, a free service that lets distributors search for your book. Bowker also provides other fairly costly services like giving you your ISBN in a barcode (other software does this cheaper including Lulu that does it for free) and a SAN number which some retailers require (but I haven’t had any ask me for yet.) One ISBN number is available for $99, but I went ahead and got 10 because it dropped the cost per number by 75% and I had multiple books already that I wanted to publish.

OK, so now you have your 10 ISBN numbers, have set your new book up on Bowker link and figure Amazon will soon be knocking, right? Unfortunately, no. Amazon does want to carry your book, but Bowker doesn’t do that for you, as the publisher you have to do that yourself. I’ll tell you how I did it, and then tell you how I re-did it and you can pick for yourself.

The first option on Amazon is setting up for an Amazon Advantage account. (http://advantage.amazon.com) and set yourself up as a publisher. You will have to fill out a lot of information about your address, contact information, and bank accounts so they can pay you. Then, you have to tell them about your book, the price (be prepared to be disappointed with either your slice or theirs, or both) add some marketing text, some reviews if you have them, and submit the whole thing. Check back often because soon you will have a purchase order from Amazon requesting your book. The Purchase Order will include a shipping label and a piece of paper to include with the book.

With purchase order in hand, you have to mail your book to Amazon’s Kentucky distribution center. I live here and I couldn’t just drop it off, you have to mail it. The day I sent mine in, it cost $2.20 by media mail which is a pretty big hit on your profit margin. In a few days, your book listing will go from “out of stock” to “in stock” and there, NOW you are on Amazon. One thing I didn’t realize I needed to do was to add the cover picture so it would appear on the page. Hunt around for awhile, there’s a link for adding the cover picture through your advantage account, it’s just hard to find.

Barnes and Noble had a 10 page application which I downloaded but have not yet submitted because I decided to go in a different (and I think, easier) direction. In addition to publishing on Lulu, I now have my books set up on LightningSource. This is basically like taking out the middle-man, the same book costs $3 instead of $7. There are others out there, but the nice thing about LightningSource (www.lightningsource.com) is that they also can act as the distributor through Ingram (for an additional $12 per year), one of the biggest book distributors. This is a huge advantage when you are trying to get in your local bookstore or any chain. They also will automatically set your book up on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and 8 other places.

As of this writing, I’m still waiting for my book to show up there, but the wheels are turning. The down side to LightningSource is more cost, to get a book set up there cost me $105. Still, if I factor this into the per book cost of the first 50 books I ordered, it still was cheaper than ordering 50 books from Lulu. Also, LightningSource is a little fussier about file formats than Lulu and any changes you make there cost $40 so you have to make sure everything is perfect. Lulu was handy for this, I could make the 17 revisions to get it how I wanted it without paying $40 17 times. Once I got the cover and the inside how I wanted it, uploading it to LightningSource was easy.

So, my advice is this. Definitely still use Lulu for their online bookstore and ebook feature and to refine your book. If you want to get onto the online book sale sites and make more than a few pennies per book, set up your own publishing company. Buy 10 ISBN numbers from Bowker for $250. Use one of them for your new book and publish and distribute it through LightningSource for around $150. Good luck!

Dan Marvin is a writer and reviewer living in Kentucky.  He is the author of two books, Briefs for the Reading Room and Thomas Granger, both available on Lulu.  He also writes for Bluegrass Dog Magazine and for the LLBR.

7 Responses to “Truly Self-Publishing by Dan Marvin”

  1. You seem to be making a few mistakes.

    (1) If Lightning is printing your books, they’ll be available at Amazon, B&N. Target and maybe two dozen bookseler websites around the world without you doing anything. With all of that exposure, you certainly don’t need to bother with Lulu. How many book buyers will go to Lulu instead of Amazon? Maybe one? Maybe none.

    (2) If you use Amazon Advantage you waste money. Stay away from it. Let Lightning ship books to and for Amazon. Get out of the warehousing and shipping business. Lightning will even supply cover artwork and your product description to Amazon.

    (3) There is no need to order 50 books from Lightning or anywhere else, except for gifts or review copies or if you want to sell some in person or from a website. Lightning specializes in Print On Demand. Let them handle the logistics for you. You don’t even pay for shipping on orders from Amazon customers.

    (4) You said you’re still waiting for a book to show up on Amazon. Something is very wrong. I’ve self-pubbed three books with Lightning, and have never waited more than about 30 hours for a book to be available on Amazon after I approved it with Lightning.

    (5) You said it cost you $105 to set up a title with Lightning. You must have spent some extra money somewhere, because the proper price (for a paperback and a digital file) is just $75.

    (6) You said it takes Bowker 10 days to send ISBNs, but you got yours in three days. You can pay for extra-fast service, but I paid the regular rate and got mine in three days like you did.

    You really should do better research before you give advice. You seem to be wasting time and money.

  2. Hi Dan, I agree with you that publishing yourself is a better idea. But for those of us who want to publish on Amazon.com in the US, but are not US residents, we have to use an intermediary like “Published by Lulu”. If you know of any way round this, I would be interested to hear about it!
    Thanks, Joanna

    • Hmm, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned CreateSpace. Their rates are competitive with Lightning Source if you pay their $39 annual fee to get discounted per copy rates - which pays for itself after ten copies. And since CreateSpace is owned by Amazon, it’s the easiest way to get a book on Amazon AND Amazon only takes 40% for CreateSpace books. Like Lulu, you can provide your own ISBN or get one from them and they will be considered the publisher.

      As near as I can tell, if I expected the majority of sales, or even a significant number of sales through brick and mortar stores (pretty unrealistic for 99% of self-published works) , I’d go with Lightning Source, because of their distribution.

      if I expected the the majority of sales to be handled in person or on my own web site, I’d look at LightningSource and CreateSpace and figure out the best deal - probably Lightning Source, but it depends on the specifics.

      If I expected most of my sales to be through Amazon - and this is the reality for the vast majority of self-published works - then CreateSpace is a no-brainer because this is the scenario where Amazon takes the smallest cut.

      The only scenario under which Lulu makes sense financially as far as I can tell is if for some reason you want to print without an ISBN, which the other two do not allow.

      Now, I should note that CreateSpace customer service has some mixed reviews, while Lightning Source does little or no hand-holding. Possibly that are non-financial reasons to use Lulu, or to make choices for different reasons than I have outlined above. I have heard varied opinions about print quality, but nothing definitive. And of course I have outlined three distinct scenarios, while yours may some combination of the above. But you will not sell enough more books by being on the Lulu store to make up for the major price difference, so if you’re going with lulu, you need to have a different reason.

  3. Michael-

    Dan didn’t give misinformation. He simply stated the steps he took to publish his own book. The six steps you list don’t “correct” any of his info; they simply restate different options to the same scenarios.


  4. Thanks for your comments! Michael, I’m giving advice exactly because this whole journey has been a learning experience and I was hoping to save others time and money. The $105 covered the $75 setup fee and the $30 first copy they overnight to you to approve which is mandatory for your first book.

    Since I wrote this, my books have indeed shown up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other sites. I have also placed copies in 6 local bookstores which would not have happened had they not been available through Ingram. When I was talking about the lag with Amazon, that was when I was trying to distribute them myself, with LightningSource it was automatic and quick.

    Bowker says it takes 10 days, it took me 3 but it may take you more.

    Joanna, LightningSource has distribution in the UK as well, they should be able to distribute your book depending on where you live. However, you would use a different source for your ISBN numbers as it varies by country. It may be that Lulu is a better bet in your situation.

    Best of luck with your books!


  5. Hi Dan,
    Very interesting article and I’m sure of benefit to those who wish to be their own publisher. But I am puzzled by your statement “If Lulu publishes your book, they have the rights to your book.”

    According to Lulu: “Lulu holds no rights or copyright on your work and makes no claims or restrictions on the ownership of your work. Rights and copyrights remain with you as the author and creator. You continue to own the rights in your name or, if you have arrangements, on behalf of others. Your purchase and use of any Lulu services does not undermine your rights or copyright. ”

    My understanding is that Lulu owns the ISBN and will be listed as publisher, but does not own the rights to the book. An author can publsh the same book with a different ISBN if they wish. In fact, I’ve seen this on Amazon.


  6. Hi Linda,

    Also a valid point, perhaps I over-simplified it. Anything you write, as soon as you write it, becomes yours and you own the copywrite. What would have been more accurate to state is that once Lulu publishes your work, they act as a third party between you and the stores that sell it. Their policies dictate things like percent markup (55% which is standard), returns (none allowed, big oops), and if stores like Amazon have an actual book in inventory or sell it only as a special order.

    Seriously, I’m not knocking Lulu, they offer a great service, letting you get your book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble without investing any money. Still, I wanted to walk into my local bookstore and find my book on the shelf and I couldn’t do that through Lulu. Also, the price I had to charge and still make $1 a copy made it very expensive through Lulu. Remember, they make their money off of your work. You don’t have to pay them their cut if you do the publishing yourself.

    Good discussions, and important clarifications from everyone. Feel free to post more comments or questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.



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