IngramSpark v CreateSpace

A Tale of Good and Terrible User Experience

Summary

In this article I review and compare IngramSpark and CreateSpace.

The conclusion is a drastic difference in user experience, demonstrating how one of these platforms actually tries to understand their users’ needs and cares about their experience.

The lessons are widely applicable to many other companies.


Background

Amazon is disrupting the publishing market — not only by making the buying of books cheaper and easier, but also by breaking open the strangehold of traditional publishers around publishing books themselves. Amazon lets anyone publish a book.

CreateSpace is an Amazon company whose product is a self-publishing, distribution and sales platform. I have two books published via CreateSpace already. Make Your Own Neural Network has been an unexpected success, with translations into six other languages.

IngramSpark is the equivalent platform created by the massive Ingram Content group to compete with CreateSpace.

My latest book, Make Your Own Algorithmic Art, ran over CreateSpace’s 480 page limit so I looked to IngramSpark to publish it.

That gave me an opportunity to compare and contrast the two platforms.

In this article, we’ll sometimes abbreviate CreateSpace to CS, and IngramSpark as IS.


The Long Hunt For Page Count Limits

I was generally happy with CS. The close integration with the commercially powerful Amazon is really helpful. I didn’t really want leave CS. But their page limit of 480 pages was too small for my latest book which came in around 580 pages, so I looked elsewhere.

Starting with Google searches led me to all sorts of opinions, reviews, forums .. and the result of intermittent reseach over a few weeks confirmed that the two major players were CreateSpace and IngramSpark.

A quick Google and you’ll easily find the CS limits shown above. But no Google search seems to lead to the correct IS page showing the page count limits. Have a look at the following Google results:

None of the IS pages were useful. Ironically, the best clues came from the CS forums — yes, the competitor’s forums!

Actually, the CS forums are very useful and helpful even if you’re an IS user. In the end the result was buried in the 35-page (!!) file creation guide hosted on something called hubspot that doesn’t look like IS — should I trust it?

Actually, it’s more complicate than that. The page count is different for different kinds of books. The extract above tells us the page count limit for premium colour books is 899 pages — or is it 900 pages? Confusing.

Nowhere is it actually explained in that document that the page limit for normal colour books is 899/900. You have to dig for a long time to find that the number of pages needs to be an even number — hence the 900 — but that the last page must be blank — hence, the 899 pages of content.

  • This poor findability of clear authoritative and unambiguous information is the first clue about the rest of my experience with IS.

Having spent ages trying to find information on the IS website, it is clear that they know this is a problem. They have lots of big fonts, links for tips, and blog articles trying to help us get around the problem. But there is no sense of navigation and findability — it’s a big messy pot.

  • I want to know where information should be, to be able to successfully search for it, and then I need to logically navigate to related information — and not be left with the feeling that there is some critical information buried somewhere that I can’t find.

The CS website isn’t visually comfortable at all — but information is at least findable, and authoritative when you do.


Mission Impossible: Creating The PDF

CreateSpace simply asked for the content of the book to be uploaded as a PDF. All they ask is that basic things are done right — like making sure the pages are of the right size, and that your margins aren’t too small — reasonable enough.

They have an easy to use online proofing tool which allows you to go through a digital proof and think about the issues it thinks it found. You can, for example, choose to ignore the fact that some images might not have a high enough dots-per-inch resolution. Again, this makes all makes sense.

What you take for granted if you use CS is that they don’t really make any odd or unusual demands on the PDF you create. They also don’t care how yo create the PDF. If it looks fine on your desktop , it’s very likely going to be fine going through their checks.

IngramSpark is a totally different beast.

They have a 35 page— yes, thirty five page — guide to making your PDFs! Nobody is going to read it end to end.

If all that information really was necessary — you’d think it would be organised into more navigable and digestible chunks. But it’s not.

So they created a 1-page summary guide which is hard to locate and even when you do find it, you’re left wondering what’s missing and is in the 35-page guide.

Here are just two indicative delights from those guides — which also threaten to reject your PDF if it isn’t compliant:

  1. You’re not allowed to use Microsoft Word. I’m not a fan of Microsoft, but this requirement is wrong on so many levels. Why PDFs created by Word are not acceptable is not explained. Secondly, they shouldn’t care which program you use to create your PDFs. Thirdly, they’re wrong — Word can create publication ready PDF/X files. My own book used Word as a step in the workflow and it worked fine. (I used Word and Libreoffice to create PDFs because Google Docs, where the source content was, wouldn’t export a large content, but that’s another story)

2. Barcodes? Mandatory? CS never asked for barcodes? Why do I have to create a barcode .. and if I get it wrong, will my book be rejected? Or even worse, mess up all the barcode scanners used by shops and warehouses? You have to search far and wide, to find that they actually give you a template cover which has a barcode already created on it. They certainly know how to scare the hell out of you!

3. Images must be CMYK. How many people know what that means? How many people know how to create CMYK images? How many know how to convert all the many images in your carefully crafted book into CMYK .. without affecting the perceived colours? And what is “Registration”? And what if your file has a “density” higher than 240% — whatever that means? You risk rejection! There is no guidance on what this means, and how to create PDFs that meet these mysterious requirements. Deep searching reveals that these requirements can only really be met if you use very expensive software like Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Acrobat Pro. So much for democratising book publishing. Even for seasoned printers, getting the TIC — the total ink coverage — below a specific limit is not a trivial task at all.

  • The point of showing this small sampling of requirements is to illustrate how unsuitable they are for almost all users of IS. Customers of IS are not typically experts in image formats and the intricacies of professional printing processes. Worse is that all these disparate requirements are not even necessary — I successfully published the book without creating images in CMYK.

A very stark point is that CreateSpace has no such requirements and their process works really well. So it is possible, even if IS protest that it’s not.


No Product Design, No User Research, No User Testing

It’s clear that what IS have done is lazily take the dirty nuts and bolts of the industrial printing process, and turned each one into a requirement in a 35-page document imposed on normal users. There has been no effort to craft an abstraction around the nuts and bolts that better matches what users can and should expect to be able to do.

If CS can do it — so can IS.

It’s very clear that IS didn’t undertake user research — they didn’t make the effort to understand who their users are, what their user needs are, what they wanted to achieve, and also importantly, what level of expertise and capability those users typically have.

Worse — it is clear that IS didn’t test their product with users. They didn’t observe how users experienced their product. If they had, they would have quickly realised that their product was scary and confusing.

  • Given the size and resources behind IS and Ingram Content Group, this lack of user reseach, actual product design, and user testing is inexcusable. It’s a disease that effects not just IS, but so many large enterprises.

Slow Publication

When you publish a book with CreateSpace, the whole process from initial upload to beign available to buy on the massive Amazon platform can completed in about 48 hours.

With IngramSpark the process takes over a week, from initial upload to approving a digital proof. After that, it can take weeks for the book to appear on Amazon.

Any subsequent changes, like metadata or content, again takes a long time to filter through.

It could be that Amazon is giving preferential treatment to its own CreateSpace. But given the really poor product design and slow proofing processes that have nothing to do with Amazon, I can’t easily lay the blame with Amazon.


Not Really Print-On-Demand

There is one thing that’s really annoying. The whole point of print-on-demand is that a user clicks to purchase, and a message is sent to a printer to print and ship a book. The whole point is to avoid the risk of printing lots of books in the hope they sell. You only print and ship what is ordered. The only downside is that the per-book cost is higher, but often acceptable to authors.

Great idea! And it seems to work just like that with CreateSpace.

But it seems that’s not really how it works with IngramSpark.

Amazon will often indicate that IS titles are out of stock, or will take 2–3 weeks to deliver, both of which are unacceptable to many customers. Chasing IS support, I eventually extracted out of them that Amazon orders a bunch of books and keeps them in stock. They won’t do that unless customers want the book. And if they sell out, it takes ages to replenish the stock.

  • …. which is direct contradiction of what print-on-demand is all about. Grrr!

Reports Hell

Many modern digital platforms allow users real-time and fluid insights into their business. Amazon’s Kindle platform allows me to see sales almost to the minute. Based on 2 years of frequent watching I’m guessing CreateSpace is updated several times a day, if not every minute.

With Amazon’s Kindle and CS you log in and straight away you’re taken to what most users wanted to see — recent overall sales. After that, we can refine the reports and charts. This shows an understanding of what most users want to do when they visit the reporting websites.

IngramSpark — you guessed it — is not as fluid and friendly. You log in, and click Reports, and then from a long set of apparently similar options you click Print Sales Report (not Publisher Compensation Payments Report) before you arrive at this page:

(yes, you didn’t click Publisher Compensation, but that’s what the report page says at the top)

Not only did it take too many clicks and mental choices to get here, and we still don’t have a nice chart showing overall recent sales, we have to now contend with a huge page of options — every single time we want to log in and see a report. Forget real-time insights.

How could IS make this worse? They’d impose crazy logic like not being able to select 2 or more currencies. That requires an email report apparently. In fact you get several hard to decode emails.

What on earth is Operating Unit? What is Global Connect? Do I care why this is different to CoreSource? Wait — what about CoreSource Agency? What the hell is BSIG XML?

  • The IS reporting platform is a disaster. Ingramspark have shown no understanding of their users, nor their needs. They’ve clearly not done user research, and unforgivably, they’ve not done user testing.

Charges, Charges, Everywhere!

Amazon’s CreateSpace is extremely simple and transparent with money.

  • You pay nothing up-front.
  • You get money based on what you sell.

Simple.

IngramSpark makes even this complicated and unfriendly.

  • You pay $49 dollars when you create a book. Before you’ve even sold a copy.
  • You pay $25 for any and every change you make after the initial publication. That means fixing typos or image issues will cost you $25 … each time! That’s a very very expensive pricing structure.

With CS there have been times I’ve uploaded corrected content 5 times a week! That would have cost me $125 with IS.

  • IngramSpark does not understand the idea of minimising, or even removing, barriers for users. This is the core philosophy of Amazon that has enabled it to completely flatten any competition.

There’s more.

If we want to know how to price our books, so we know how much profit there will be per book … you’re in for a ride. There are at least three calculators on the IS website. Three!

CS manages to keep the pricing selection so simple, how on earth did IS get it so complicated? And because informaiton is scattered all over the site, you worry that there may be more calculators that you’re missing.

And you’d be right. There are more calculations that you shouldn’t miss — like calculating the % that some retailers might get as a discount, and what you’ll be charged if they return your books unsold. Yes — you can get a nasty surprise many days after an apparent sale if and you didn’t calculate your numbers right, you’d be effectively paying out more than you earn.

Given that choices around money are important, especially as you don’t want to be making a negative profit, I contacted IS support to ask them a very simple question — please tell me all the points and items that I might be charged for — because I wanted to avoid any surprises, and go into this relationshionship with IS with my eyes fully open. Guess what — the initial reply wasn’t complete. This is shocking. I asked because I wanted to leave no doubt about finances, and their official answer wasn’t complete. For example, they forgot to tell me that I will need to pay for ISBN numbers … something I don’t need to do or even think about with CS.

  • IngramSpark needs to take the issue of money as seriously as their users. They need to gain the trust of users by avoiding surprises and simplifying the pricing calculations.

Conclusion

At one level this article is a review of my experiences with Amazon CreateSpace and IngramSpark. The abundant evidence is that:

  • IS doesn’t understand its users.
  • IS doesn’t understand its users’ needs.
  • IS didn’t design a product to meet those needs efficiently.
  • IS didn’t undertake user testing of its product and service end-to-end.
  • IS doesn’t understand the broader context of an market where the winners are minimising barriers to entry, have frictionless operation, support the insatiable demand for real-time insights.

In comparison, Amazon’s CreateSpace has a product that works much better — because it is designed to meet the needs of users that it has made the effort to understand, with a view to the strategic trends of the wider market. It’s not a perfect product, but it is far ahead of any competition.

But at another level, this article is simply highlighting the fact that many well-resourced organisations trying to compete in today’s markets have failed to understand their users, meet their needs efficiently, and verify that this is actually happening. This affliction is not an accident, but a common sympton of the illness of being an enterprise — trapped by internal processes and blinded by inward looking decisisons.

  • This is why Amazon keeps winning in markets it enters — it does what the incumbents have failed to do — design products around users, not force users aruond its products.