Kobo join the print-on-demand game — but should you play?

KoboPOD

Many Kobo Writing Life authors recently received an invitation to take part in a beta print-on-demand program at Kobo. Not all Kobo authors received this invitation, myself included, because the program is a subcontract to the POD manufacturer Lightning Source International (LSI): if you already have print books distributed by Ingram, the print distributor and parent company of LSI/Ingram Spark, and if your print books’ ISBNs are in Kobo’s system, then there is no point in them contacting you.

For this new POD service, Kobo is charging authors USD $25.00 for file submission. This is the same fee previously charged by CreateSpace for its Expanded Distribution program, which is subcontracted to LSI. Kobo are also offering book and cover design services, which are also subcontracted (“We’re working with select publishing professionals”), with Kobo likely taking a cut (why else would they offer the services?). In fact, POD is merely the latest in Kobo’s move into author services, as they endeavour to offer audio books, editing services, review services (via Publishers Weekly), and even the reselling of ISBNs (Americans only).

If you contract for POD with Kobo, they will earn a portion of each book sale. How much is not revealed, but CreateSpace keep 15% of the list price as their cut for their Expanded Distribution, a hefty surcharge.

Will Kobo’s cut be as large? Again, who knows? Kobo is merely the latest of many players, notably ebook aggregators, who offer the same service and subcontract to LSI, and none of them reveal their cut. I only discovered CreateSpace’s cut inadvertently while chatting with the owner of a local bookstore and finding out my then-Expanded Distribution title was only offered to him at a 25% discount, and consequently investigating.

It is important to understand how that surcharge affects your print book sales.

With CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution, the author/publisher is paid 40% of list price; that is, you are selling the book to CreateSpace at a 60% discount. CreateSpace then keep 15%, selling your book (via LSI) to Ingram at 45% off list. Ingram then take their cut (which depends on the buying power of the bookstore), selling to bookstores for as little as the aforementioned 25% off list. Yet anything less than 40% off list will see your book rejected by most bricks-and-mortar bookstores. The consequence is that your book can be ordered but will likely never be stocked, sold as special order only.

In their email, Kobo tell authors that “Ingram sells titles at a 50-60% discount to bookstores and libraries, and as such, you will see this reflected in your earnings. This is industry standard.” This is patently untrue. If you contract directly with Ingram Spark, you the publisher, through LSI/ Ingram Spark the manufacturer, can sell at a 50–60% discount to the distributor Ingram, who then sell it forward for less; if you contract with Kobo, then both Kobo and Ingram will each take their cut before selling forward to bookstores and libraries. So no matter which way you go, bookstores and libraries will never be offered your book at a 50–60% discount off list. (LSI used to sell directly to select retail giants at the publisher’s discount, bypassing Ingram, but that special relationship ended in 2014.) Also, while publishers have been pressured into increasing the discount to Ingram to the staggering amount of 55% off list, there is no actual industry “standard,” and indie publishers who work directly with LSI/Ingram Spark are free to set whatever discount they choose.

Kobo also offer publishers the option to order print copies for themselves, but at what price?

Are Kobo adding a surcharge to the cost? I would think they do, but you cannot know for certain unless you submit the same file to Kobo that you are considering for Ingram Spark and compare pricing.

The program at Kobo is in the beta stage, and as such the options are severely restricted:

you can only order paperbacks (hardcovers will be offered in future), and only three sizes (out of 26 paperback sizes offered by LSI). Worse still, there is no indication of file requirements: nothing to tell you what size of spine to create for your page count, for example, or that the PDF must be PDF/X-1a:2001 or PDF/X-3:2002. One has to ask why this information is not provided; is it so that Kobo can come back to tell you that the file you submitted does not meet your book requirements and therefore you need to buy Kobo’s design services? Moreover, Kobo make no mention of the cost to change a file once submitted and rejected. (CreateSpace used to charge $25.00 per book interior or cover file, but have since abandoned those charges. Ingram Spark charge $25.00 per file revision.)

Additionally:

  • you can only set one USD price with Kobo, but Ingram Spark allow you to set different currency prices;
  • you don’t know until after you request a quote what your book is likely to cost per unit, so you cannot compare services in advance;
  • there is no mention of ordering a physical proof first. LSI offer digital proofing like CS do (you can “review the proof”), but I never use digital proofing for the first book, only reprints where I’ve fixed a few typos. You simply cannot gauge from a digital proof how a print book will look when printed and bound.

In my opinion, authors are better off contracting directly with Ingram Spark.

It is more expensive ($49 compared to $25), but you have significantly more options, technical help such as a template generator and a file creation guide is provided, you set the discount and price per territory, you can order a physical proof, and if there are issues with your file you can contact Ingram Spark directly rather than trying to work through a middleman. Your books are also offered at a higher discount to bookstores, increasing the chances they might stock your book if it becomes popular, especially since you will also have the option to accept returns.

In closing, special mention must be made to authors already using CreateSpace’s Expanded Distribution: you CANNOT contract with Kobo to sell the same book that you already sell through Expanded Distribution. This is because an ISBN can only have one fulfillment option. If you try to use the same ISBN with your Kobo print book as you do with your Expanded Distribution print book, Kobo will get a warning from LSI that your ISBN is “already spoken for.” Thus you will have to do one of two things: create a new book with a different ISBN, OR cancel your contract with Expanded Distribution and request that CreateSpace transfer ownership of the fulfillment rights to your ISBN to Kobo. The latter option is convoluted, time-consuming, and will disrupt sales: CreateSpace will first cancel your title with LSI, who remove it from their system. Ingram then remove it from their system and inform retailers your title is no longer available. Retailers then remove your title from their catalogues, or change the status to “not available.” Meanwhile, once Kobo receive the transfer from CreateSpace, Kobo then submit your title to LSI, who put it back in their system and send it out to Ingram, who send it out to retailers, who must then update their catalogue to show the title as available again. The process can take up to six weeks.

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