designing ebooks and other fun things


Ask a designer: Print on Demand Book Services


This post is part of the Ask a Designer series. You ask me questions, I answer them to the best of my ability. The questions can be about design process, branding, software, technical things – or even completely unrelated. Want to play? Leave me a comment here, or use the contact form.



Which POD (Print on Demand) service should I use for my ebook/book?

by Matthew Stillman


As I have hinted on Twitter, the answer really depends on what your objectives are. But even I didn’t realize just how many POD providers are out there! My head is still spinning from the sheer amount of sites I have looked through.

For the sake of simplicity, I will only talk about a few of them, the ones that seem the best in their category. I don’t have direct experience with any of them, so this is mostly based on what I have found on their sites — as well as various forums and blogs that talk about the process and relate personal experiences.

First of all, there are two kinds of print on demand setups.

The first one is the setup that Lulu uses — the no upfront cost one that most internet users will likely be familiar with. All printing costs are absorbed by the cost of the printed book. While this is the easiest way for most new authors to get started, it can make for very pricey books — especially when the book is to be printed in full color, or on better-than-standard paper.

The second kind of setup is a more traditional one, with an initial setup fee and a (much) lower cost for printing a copy of a book. This approach is geared more toward professional authors and publishers. The services offered here are printing and distribution. There are no visual put-your-book-together tools, and I would not recommend it to anyone who is putting the book together all by him or herself and has no understanding of prepress. However, if you are working with a designer who has experience with print, and if you are serious about getting your book out there and maybe even considering writing more, this can be an excellent option.

There are a myriad of providers that offer this kind of approach. However, it isn’t easy to compare many of these without going through the registration process and submitting a manuscript. I did find one that is straightforward enough, and it also seems to be a more popular one judging by various posts on the topic:

Lightning Source

Lightning Source is Ingram’s POD vendor. Including your book title in their distribution catalogs can be a great benefit if the title is suitable for most book vendors. The setup cost is  $75. There is an $12 annual listing fee, and an $30 proof fee. They also require you to get an ISBN, so that is an additional cost of at least $125. (Providers like Lulu and CreateSpace offer a free ISBN with your order, BUT they own that ISBN. I am told that is not a good thing.)

To see the exact costs for printing the book, you have to register an account with Lightning Source, however, after lots of browsing, I did find some numbers: a fixed cost for the cover of $0.90(paperback) or $ 6(hard cover), and $0.015/pg for the inside of the book. I am sure there are variations based on paper and trim size, and I am not certain if the per-page price is for color or black and white, but that is something that can be explored further if you were to create an account with them.

Again, this is a much more involved option than the other category of POD. Here is a good summary from Self Publishing Review of what is involved:

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that Lightning Source is not a path for those who don’t know how or aren’t willing to do all the in-depth pre-press work. This company is geared toward working with publishers who have technical people working the nuts and bolts of getting a book to press. They’re willing to work with authors, as well, as long as you really understand what you’re getting into. (read the rest of the post)


If this is only a test drive of the book, if you want to see how it does before getting more involved — or if you are not interested in reaching that kind of a market, then the other category of POD is probably enough. So let’s talk about the POD providers most of us are familiar with, those with no-upfront-cost setup.



The first company to offer print on demand books is still going strong. The advantage of Lulu is that its main focus is on book printing – and quality printing at that. Lulu offers full-color printing, various binding options, a vast choice of formats from both standard and non-standard ones – as well as makes selling your book easy by letting you assign an ISBN as you submit it to their database.*

*Lulu officially owns the ISBN, but this would be the case with others who offer it as part of the package as well. If you want to own your ISBN, purchasing your own is always an option.

I have found some articles about Lulu partnership with Borders – I have not found very many facts about this on Lulu’s own website, but I assume that if you actually open an account those options will be offered. If having your book featured in a Borders concept store is something that appeals, it’s worth a bit more research.



CreateSpace is Amazon’s very own POD provider, and the strongest advantage of going through CreateSpace is the automatic inclusion of your book in the Amazon marketplace*.

*Lulu also promises to feature your book in Amazon, but the purchase would still have to be completed through Lulu. According to authors’ comments in various forums, this makes a difference.

Sure, the Amazon marketplace a fairly crowded one, and chances are you would still mostly have to rely on your own marketing, but if someone happens to search for your subject matter, it would come up.

The main disadvantage is the actual printing. CreateSpace does not offer hard cover binding (not as part of no-upfront-cost offering, in any case), or various paper and cover options. Though I have not seeing the actual examples of their printed books, I think it is safe to assume the quality it is not quite in the same league as Lulu. (I could be wrong of course. If someone reading this has direct experience with their printing, I would love to hear about it!)

ISBN is also offered as part of the package, and, of course, this would still be owned by the publisher.

The process seems pretty straightforward, and the cost per book is lower than Lulu. Overall, I would say CreateSpace is an excellent option for paperback books that are not too image-heavy.




I had not come across Blurb before, but their luxury paper options and end sheets had me salivating at first click. The per-book cost is somewhat higher than the others, but it is instantly obvious why. If I was producing a book with a lot of photos and a very high-end look, this is the one I would go with. (And for your specific book, I am also leaning towards this choice if you want to have as much visual impact as possible.)

They do not offer ISBN as part of the package, but you can purchase and add your own. Like Lulu, Blurb has its own bookstore where you can sell the book with no ISBN required. If your main marketing efforts will be through your own site or blog, then these kinds of stores can be enough. While if you do plan to make it available through more sources – such as Amazon – an ISBN purchase would be in order.



There are also plenty of sites that offer black and white printing only on the inside — I did not research these in detail, as I know your particular book will need color printing. The b&w printing is suitable for works of fiction, but the general opinion seems to be that Amazon’s CreateSpace is the easiest option for this as well.


The verdict

As for your specific book, it depends on what is most important for you. If it’s the easiest widest availability and lower per-book printing cost; I’d go with CreateSpace. If it is excellent prinitng, Blurb is probably the way to go. Lulu would be the middle of the ground option, with somewhat less choices in printing, but more options to feature your book (and that elusive Borders concept store option which I will keep searching for).

There is also no reason why you can’t do both: making a paperback available through CreateSpace (and by extension, Amazon); and a high-end hard cover version through Blurb. In either case, there are no upfront costs.

(And possibly upgrade to Lightning Source once you have sold a few copies, though I’d definitely recommend getting your own ISBN beforehand if this is a future possibility.)


I hope this helps. If I forgot something, or if you need more advice or have any specific questions, let me know in the comments!