Self-Publishing With IngramSpark: An Indie Author’s First Impressions

After four years of purely digital publishing, I’m taking the plunge into print. Hundreds of blog posts compare the two dominant print-on-demand (POD) services, Amazon’s KDP Print and IngramSpark (IS), so I won’t attempt to recreate any arguments here. Suffice to say that I chose IS because of its greater exposure. Libraries and bookstores, unlikely to buy from Amazon and thus support a competitor, often buy from Ingram already since it’s one of the largest book distributors in the industry. I particularly want library availability for my 2015 YA book Blue Karma (BK). Using that debut novel as my debut paperback, my IS quest began. Read on for a pixel-to-page review of my initial IS experience, and some insider tips in bold to help aspiring self-publishers navigate the process successfully.

The Process

Once you set up an IS account with your business and financial information, get your wallet ready. IS charges a $49 “setup fee” per title for simultaneous print and ebook versions (ebook alone is $25). I used a coupon code that waived this fee, but IS got their money out of me anyway, since each updated print file costs an additional $25. My print proof (more on that below) revealed a formatting error in the text and a typo on the back cover copy. Correcting the files cost $50. An expensive lesson! Scrutinize your pre-upload files or pay the price, literally.

The setup process is nothing onerous, just screen after screen of data entry. I recommend compiling all of your book’s metadata before you start, including:

  • ISBNs (separate for print and ebook versions)
  • Author/publisher info
  • Book blurbs (long and short versions)
  • Pricing. IS lets you set retail prices for both formats independently across a number of international markets. Rather than frantically tab-hopping in your browser to convert currencies, like I did, calculate these in advance. You’ll need US, Australian, and Canadian dollars; British pounds; and Euros.
  • Book Industry Study Group (BISAC) subject codes. There’s an easy-to-use lookup embedded in the form, but you may want to browse them beforehand, especially if you’re publishing a YA title, since tagging your book as YA restricts you to only those genre codes:
Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 6.35.56 PM

I’d never heard of BISAC subject codes until I set up a book on IngramSpark.

Once you’ve entered all the supporting data, upload your book files. Electronic and print versions each have two components, the content and the cover. For ebooks, you’ll need an .epub file and an image of the front cover. Print versions require a content PDF formatted to the dimensions of your book, and a front-and-back cover on a custom IS template. This is where things get sticky.

The PDF Problem

IS requires that all PDF files be CMYK-compliant. This refers to Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key [Black], a chromatic scale traditionally used in printing. The problem? The more vibrant RGB (red, green, blue) standard is now much more common for digital platforms, thus most graphics software defaults to that mode and doesn’t enable export of the compliant PDF/X-1a:2001 or PDF/X-3:2002 file types. The only programs I’ve found that support this function are high-end Adobe products that cost upwards of $500. I don’t know any indie authors willing or able to drop that kind of dough on a program they’ll use maybe once a year! (Interestingly, KDP accepts regular PDF and jpg files, making me suspect that IS is in cahoots with Adobe to sell pricey software.)

Ever thrifty, I found a partial solution in a browser-based CMYK converter. It handled my page content smoothly, and the IS upload interface accepted it without complaint. The cover, however, caused me days of agony. Despite the fact that my original jpg was four feet long–I could make a BK throw blanket!–IS’s technical review repeatedly rejected my template on grounds that it was too small or too low-resolution. No matter how I fiddled with the file, it wouldn’t pass muster. I scoured the internet for affordable software alternatives that produce the required format, but found none (at least not for Mac).

Finally I resorted to Fiverr, where a helpful gentleman who runs a print shop tweaked and converted the image for me with advanced software. But the whole episode left a bitter stain on my IS experience. A service that declaims its support for indie authors shouldn’t retain an outmoded process that prevents those very authors from managing their files…well…independently. PDF compliance won’t present an issue to authors who outsource cover design, but for indies like me who do their own, it can be a massive headache.

The Proof

If all the files are compliant, they undergo “technical review”. A few days later IS dispatches an automated email either rejecting them (as with the first few versions of my cover) or providing a link to the digital proof of the book. Instructions for ordering a physical proof copy are not posted in the guidance materials, so I had to ask a customer service rep directly. Here’s the steps:

  • Review and approve the digital proof
  • In the distro window, check the box for publisher distro only. This means only you are allowed to order copies. It won’t be released for retail yet.
  • Order a single copy. BK cost me around $10 between printing and shipping, a small price to evaluate the final product before disseminating it across the globe. I got the cheapest shipping and it only took about a week to arrive.

The Product

Book display of "Blue Karma" copies

When the small cardboard package appeared on my doorstep, I almost made my Laddie open it instead. The PDF ordeal had left me sickened by the whole process, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t like what I found inside. The parcel sat on the kitchen table for two days before I mustered enough courage to peel back the flap. A soft, slim paperback slid out into my hand. After such a long existence in ether—a decade in my head and four years as an ebook exclusive—my debut novel had finally materialized. I could finger the pages and smell the ink. In terms of quality, it seemed comparable to other commercial books I’ve purchased recently. The clean blue text on the spine didn’t look out of place on my bookshelf beside its sci-fi sisters.

Satisfied with the proof (other than the minor text errors noted above, easily but expensively fixed), I ordered a box of 20 promotional copies. Imagine my dismay when 7 of those 20 copies were defective! Two had glossy covers instead of matte; four had skewed covers with the text hanging off the spine; and one had a ragged cover edge as though it had been cut with a blunt blade. Incensed, I contacted IS customer service. They eventually mailed me replacements at cost, but I’m still concerned as a business owner. If more than a third of this sample set displayed poor quality control, will a third of my readers receive similarly wonky copies? I pride myself on writing quality books, and I’d like the physical product to match. Guess I’ll have to wait and see whether complaints flood my reviews.

Although I can’t yet vouch for print consistency, the distribution appeared quite seamless. BK magically appeared across retail platforms on release day. The only minor adjustment I had to make was asking Amazon to link the print book page with the ebook page, since I’d kept my KDP distribution separate (you can disable Amazon ebook distribution through IS, and with ebook royalties at 70% and 40% respectively, it seemed like a no-brainer). Some authors have complained about Amazon not stocking IS books, but that hasn’t been a problem for me yet. Last I checked, BK ships through Prime in 1-2 days, and I’ve sold several already.

The Pronouncement

My IS experience so far has been mixed. Setup is straightforward, book quality is decent (when the QC guy isn’t taking a nap), and customer service has been fairly responsive in addressing my questions. On the downside, PDF conversion is a major annoyance for auteur self-publishers, and the lack of quality control appalled me. In the end, however, I accomplished my goal of printing BK and expanding my book distribution. IS may not be the perfect business partner, but let’s be brutally honest: there aren’t many reputable POD services to choose from. The indie author revolution is still young, and our tools for reaching bookshelves are still limited. But that won’t stop us! I plan to release Syzygy in print this summer, and will update this post with any new observations about IS. Hopefully I’ve overcome the steepest part of the learning curve, and future titles will go more smoothly.

Which POD services have you used, and how was the experience? Any questions about the IS process? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

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