Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Should you publish your next book with Amazon's CreateSpace?

Marc Taro Holmes is a watercolor artist from Montreal known for his urban sketches. As a correspondent to the Urban Sketchers website and his own Citizen Sketcher site, he has contributed to the field of observational sketching. He sent me a copy of his most recent book, Direct Watercolor, which he published with Amazon's CreateSpace independent publishing platform.

Since Marc has often written on his blog about business opportunities facing artists, I asked him if I could interview him about his new book, focusing less on the contents of the book and more on his decision to publish it the way he did. If you're reading this, and you have a book idea you'd like to see in print, you're facing a lot of choices right now for how to bring your book to market. Here's what Marc has to say about the CreateSpace option.

Gurney: You published your two previous books (The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location(North Light) and Designing Creatures and Characters(North Light) with traditional publishers. Why did you decide to publish Direct Watercolor with Amazon's CreateSpace?
Holmes: I still have a good relationship with my publisher - they're selling plenty of Urban Sketching books! It’s not like I would refuse a good offer from them or any other traditional imprint.

But, on the other hand, I have the skills and a pretty good social media platform - so my thinking is; if it’s within your abilities to make content at a professional level, and you think you can forego the publisher's marketing and distribution, then why not keep the lion’s share of the royalties?

Yes, I have to pay Amazon a fee to distribute - but it’s not even close to what I have to give over to a traditional publisher in exchange for things that, arguably, I'm good at already. (I'll let you know someday if everything I just said was hopelessly romantic. It's early days yet).

But mostly - to be completely honest with you - Direct Watercolor is a ‘best of’ book. The result of five years of teaching at Urban Sketchers events. My publisher passed on that concept. They don’t see it as a match with their audience, or their copyright model (they don't republish old work, they seek to own new work) - but for me, it’s right on target for my fans.

Why did you decide not to go with the Kickstarter model of crowd funding and self publishing?
I can see how some people might be attracted to Kickstarter. It *sounds* great to be paid up front :)

But for me, I’d feel too much pressure. I don't like thinking that I’ve started a ticking clock and I need to deliver on a specific promise. I guess, in that way I’m a real artist :)

How does Amazon CreateSpace work with their authors?
It’s an automated process with zero human interaction. Their site has a deep FAQ with plenty of videos on the mechanics, but it’s up to you to do your research.

Do they provide a graphics template, editorial guidelines, or feedback? 
There are templates for all the book sizes they offer, but I do believe they’re in MS Word? So I didn’t use them.

Do they vet ideas initially or approve them before printing? 
It’s my understanding Amazon doesn't vet anything - beyond an automated flight-check for technical flaws, (e.g.: the software can tell if your image goes off the page) and probably, a staffer does a sanity check for offensive or illegal content.

What, if any, changes did they request?
They'll never request changes or offer advice, only say ‘yes this will print as-is’ (or not).

What does CreateSpace charge for their publishing services? 
It’s completely free up front. There used to be a small setup charge, but now it’s free-to-play.

Do they try to up-sell you on creative services?
They do have professional services, but the sales pitch is very minor - you just skip any assistance you don’t need on the site.

Who designed the book, what software did you use, and what did you deliver (such as JPEGs, PDF file, InDesign file or proprietary CreateSpace file)?
I designed it! Hurrah!:)

I used InDesign for the page layouts, Illustrator for the cover and Photoshop for scanning. I did take graphic design in art school so I have a leg up, but it’s been 15 years, so I took an InDesign course on to brush up.

The cover does require very specific templates. There is a feature on the CreateSpace site to customize the spine-width based on the number of pages in your project - which is very helpful. Doing that yourself requires math. They also put the barcode on for you - as long as you leave a correctly measured white box for them to print into. They also automatically assign you an ISBN number.

I will also mention, the eBook conversion process is much easier these days. I used Amazon's (free tool) Kindle Create to convert a PDF to a KPF, which is the latest proprietary Kindle format. Then you send that through Amazon's other site - Kindle Direct Publishing - and it appears in the Kindle store in 24 hours.

There have been announcements they will be rolling CreateSpace back into Amazon central soon, removing the need for two sites and two accounts.

Why didn't you include any photos of you or your working setup, or photos of your motif?
I committed to the very short 100-page book for practical reasons. It’s a sweet spot for retail price vs. printing cost vs. download size for the eBook vs. time to design. Once I made the choice that it would be a short book, I knew I would include nothing but art.

The how-I-made-this aspect is so well documented on my website, which is free and well known in the community, I felt I didn’t need the book to cover the same ground.

As well, I frequently update my supplies page on the site ( This always has my current favorite brushes, or what pigments I have on the palette this week. I don’t want this information going stale in a printed book.

How did you shoot your artwork? 
I scan all the artwork on a desktop Epson scanner and stitch it together in Photoshop. This is essentially software-automated now.

For your step-by-steps, did you shoot them in a studio with copy lights or in the field?
For the step-by-steps, they are actually shot on an iPhone5 using a Manfrotto magic arm, so I can get the ‘over the shoulder’ shot. Since I was designing my own pages, I knew the demo images were going to be super-small on the page, so I could get away with it.

The demos are studio work, which is ironic in a plein-air book, but of course, using the same technique and gear as I would on location, and sometimes painted from my own painting, instead of from a photo.

A lot of the field work was done in places like Copacabana beach at midnight, or in the Irish countryside in the pouring rain. Or painted in a stolen half hour before breakfast at a workshop. I feel like I wouldn't have gotten the paintings if I'd also been filming. It's often a direct relationship. How much gear you are carrying subtracts from how much you're painting.

I know you're a master at guerrilla filmmaking! So I suppose if I pushed further into that I could figure it out? But there you have it.

What role did your wife play in creating the book? Did anyone else help on your end?
Laurel absolutely edits everything I write and is a big part of choosing what goes in and what gets cut.

She also shoots all the reference that I do use. She’s a real photographer who would never touch an iPhone. Most of the people who say 'never paint from photos' don't have a modern camera, dual calibrated monitors, and a giant museum quality printer.

She also helps clear the decks around here so I have time to write and paint! Which is a crucial role isn’t it? Not to be underestimated.

Oh, and she handles all the travel planning and the logistics of getting to painting locations. So really, she does a lot to make the books happen.

Why did you choose the square format and the 99-page length?
I mentioned the book's page count above. As for the format - the years this book covers, I was doing a lot of diptychs. Two 1/4 sheets of watercolor, paired horizontally like an open sketchbook. It was how I fit landscape panoramas in a shoulder bag while hiking around a foreign city. The long 2:1 book format suited these images. It’s obvious in the eBook, which is ‘letterboxed’ in two-page spreads.

Are you happy with the print quality and the binding? Did you get a proof stage with the ability to input comments?
You get as many proofs as you like - though you have to pay to ship to yourself (about $30/copy rush, to Montreal. As it's likely less for anyone else. ). I’m happy with the quality of the paper, while I acknowledge it could be better. I think it’s a trade-off. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to re-issue a collectors edition with a superior binding. Or a hardcover! Wouldn’t that be nice?

How was the price established at US $24.95 (list) and US $22.45 (Amazon discount)
The list price is entirely up to the author.

It's ironically not as good a deal for Canadians, as Amazon doesn't price match - they just convert the USD price - so it's $33 here at home!

Also - Indy publishers will be glad to know - Amazon sometimes discounts the price, but does not discount your royalties. The author is not penalized for Amazon's choice to put it on sale.

At the end of the day, I feel this kind of book is primarily for fans and supporters of my work. People will support me because they like my content - or they won't. It's the bloggers' social contract, isn't it? If people love my free website, this is the one thing they can do to tangibly support me.

I'm not pretending The Urban Sketcher isn't better value-for-money. It's currently on sale for $18.76. Just pound for pound there is a lot of information in my first book. But there is a lot of hard-won experience in Direct Watercolor. And it's a beautiful book :)

So that's all the thinking behind that!

Is the digital edition available in any other formats or for any other devices besides the Kindle app and the Kindle Fire? 
Right now, no. As far as I know, there's a kindle app for anything that has a screen. If you're reading this now, you can read the ebook on the same device.

I could put it up on the iBooks store, or Kobo, but honestly, all my research is saying you're better off writing a new book than chasing down alternate sales streams. I could be wrong here, I'm just a guy with a dream. When I'm more organized I'll 'go wide' as the self-publishers call it.

Are you contractually precluded from releasing it in other formats?
Authors can choose to be exclusive with Amazon, but I did not.

If you do, you can be in their 'all you can read' library called Kindle Unlimited. But I feel that's more for fiction than for art books? (Romance, Fantasy, Thrillers). So I didn't go that route and I'm able to sell it anywhere I choose, as long as it's at price parity with Amazon.

Is Direct Watercolor sold in brick-and-mortar stores, or any online stores besides Amazon?
Again, you can choose to allow bookstores to order and re-sell your print-on-demand book, but I did not.

Amazon has set this up to be as rough as possible on the bookstores. The author has to subsidize the reseller. (Amazon calls this 'Expanded Distribution'). If I were to sign up for it, I'd be giving almost 70% of my royalties to the bookstore. It just didn't make sense for this project.

I apologize to all the independent bookstores out there. And if I was writing a detective novel, I probably would do it, because browsing would be a bigger factor than fan-support. I wish there was a better solution for this. If I lived in the US I would handle shipping books to stores myself. But as a Canadian, I can't manage the shipping costs. (Book rate shipping does not apply cross-border).

There's a note on the back page that the book was printed in South Carolina just four days ago. Does Amazon print on demand and do the shipping for you? 
Yes, it's quite amazing. The book does not exist until it's ordered. When a customer clicks, it's printed, bound and shipped by their system. It's pretty cool. I hear they are developing 'book vending machines' that do this while you watch. They're used in libraries to create copies of books that don't circulate that often - so they aren't taking up shelf space for eternity.

Do they ship internationally?
Amazon also tries not to ship internationally. They print in various countries and try to keep the shipping local. It's not perfect - Australia has to pay for shipping from the US - but I'm sure the plan is to have a robot printer in every city someday.

Does Amazon have foreign translation rights? 
I own the entire copyright package. So they would have to contact me and make a deal.

So, for example, if you were approached by a Japanese publisher who wanted to publish your book in the Japanese language, what would you do?
That's one situation where the traditional publisher is more likely to be successful. The Urban Sketcher is in all sorts of languages from Czech to Chinese. But - as a first-time author at the time of that deal, I didn't have the clout to negotiate those rights, so I don't make more than beer money on translations.

How is the income divided? Does Amazon take a fixed fee per book, or a percentage of the sale price? Do they take any fees off the top in advance of dividing the income?
This is hard to explain. The fees differ based on many variables including where the customer lives - but anyone can go to the CreateSpace website and play with their 'royalties calculator' to see how their own numbers might work. It simplifies things to 'if I charge X, I make Y'.

Try it out here:

Can you order copies for your own online or event sales? If so, what discount do you get?
Authors pay only the fixed costs plus shipping, handling, and tax. So yes, it's feasible to buy boxes of your own book and go to trade shows and book fairs.

How have you promoted the book? 
I have my passion project - my website In a way, I am constantly promoting, and at the same time, I never promote.

I just paint, and talk about how I paint, and it all works out.

What has Amazon done to promote it?
Amazon has their magical 'other customers bought this' recommendations under every listing. That's a very effective promo every author gets automatically, based on search relevance and your Amazon sales rank. I also like their 'look inside' feature, and the downloadable e-sample. It's almost like browsing in a store, but people can do it anywhere they're online.

How do the Kindle sales compare in proportional terms to the print sales?
It is early days, but right now it's about 3:1 paper vs. eBook. Which makes sense to me. It's a nice looking book right :) So if the paper version is affordable to people, they choose that. It does look great on an iPad pro :) And is surprisingly nice on your phone even! But not everyone has that option.

Does Amazon give you analytics about quantities sold, territories, demographics, returns? 
They do give you excellent stats. All the above. Particularly when you consider, you only hear numbers from your traditionally published books two times a year! You can refresh your sales page on Amazon by the hour if you like.

Is there an audit provision?
The audit provision is a very good question. See, that show's your experience. I didn't think to check on that.

What did you give up and what did you gain by going with CreateSpace?
Well, I would not go with any other kind of self-publishing. The old-fashioned self-publishing model is to print books at personal expense, store them in your garage, and sell them out of your car at book fairs. It's a very hard way to make a living, and simply impossible for a Canadian. (Country too big, people too thin on the ground).

So - versus traditional publishing? I gained: a significantly advantageous royalty deal, control over the theme and content, a book out in the world much faster than trad pub can produce, and I'd say a better-looking art book (no knock on my previous designers, but it's a labor of love here, and they have deadlines and workloads).

What did I lose? I'm not sure I lost anything. I'll let you know. We can do the article 'Why did I ever try self-publishing!?' if we need to next year.

I will say, I turned down an offer for a third traditional publishing deal - they would have paid me to not do this book at all, and instead do a book on watercolor sketching for beginners - but I wanted to make THIS book, not a different book, which would have taken me another year to complete, and them six to nine months to get to market. This way fans get a book today, and probably a book next year too!

Would you publish your next book this way? 
It's my hope that I'll continue to do both. I know I'll self-publish again because I've already started a project :) (Too soon to say what!)

Would you ever go back to doing a book with a traditional publisher?
I'd love to sign another traditional deal - if the offer is sound. The question is, can someone like me get them to be competitive? Do they even care about mid-listers like myself? Perhaps they plan to thrive with a superstar model where they exist solely to publish the top 1% of authors. The average publisher advance is shrinking for new authors, but the highest advances are bigger than ever. So it's getting less and less equitable.

It's possible, doing well with self-publishing might be the way to gain a better negotiating position. So, I think it will be back and forth, a bit of both :)
Check out Marc's book Direct Watercolor on Amazon.


Susan Krzywicki said...

Wow, this article was fascinating. I have no plans to publish - did two crafts books in the 90s, and that was enough...but this caught my eye and I learned a lot that got me thinking about how commerce around the globe is changing.

Sometimes I resist technology and sometimes I gobble it right up. But the key point is that the world keeps evolving and just learning about new technologies makes us more able to adapt to change.

Joel Fletcher said...

This is an excellent in-depth article, of interest to anyone considering the print on demand market. I would think that doing this through Amazon would be far more successful than some of the other companies that offer a similar service.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

I've used CreateSpace for all of my books in the last several years. Initially, they had some production issues (e.g. missing pages) but that has been fixed. I think it's perfect for the writer/artist who wants to have full control over the look-and-feel of the book; and this is especially true if the writer/artist has a book concept that doesn't fit any of categories used by traditional publishing houses. One tip: the more Photoshop and layout skills you have, the better!

David Webb said...

This is a very interesting, and honest, interview. Having been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to write a few books on watercolour painting, with traditional publishers, I have been thinking of trying this out. A lot of questions have been answered here.
Thank you James and Marc.

Unknown said...

Fascinating conversation... Lots to think about. Thanks guys.

Capt Elaine Magliacane said...

Fascinating interview... I have this book on Kindle, it's well worth the price. I'm a big fan of Marc's work, and have his other books, in paperback form. I'm trying to cut down on printed books... and going digital is great and allows me to zoom in on the details that just isn't possible with a printed book.

Anonymous said...

I published a children's book through CreateSpace, and I found it to be mixed results. I obtained copies from various printing locations, and the print quality and color matching is not consistent, the page trimming is occasionally slightly off (and one time it was REALLY off). The covers tend to be flimsy and are ever-so-slightly blurry.

On the positive side, it does allow a lot of freedom, and it's nice not having to put down a lot of money on something experimental.

Unknown said...

Well done Marc and I totally agree with all you say. I am a published author (craft books) and have worked with major publishers in the UK and US. 15 major books, then I tried Create Space and it is great. I make a lot more than with conventional royalties. BUT I think you need to be a “name” in your field already to get decent sales - and as you say, have a following. You also need good graphic design skills.

I also agree with rotm81 - the print quality is not as good as conventional publishing. Hope they improve that in the future.

Unknown said...

I received my copy from Amazon yesterday and it's a beautiful book and I love how Marc has shown several paintings in a detailed step-by-step process. I've been following his blog for many years and was excited to purchase his latest book.

J. R. Stremikis said...

Fascinating interview, equally great comments. I have admired Marc's work for some time, also have his books/epubs. Have been using CreateSpace as creative outlet - for about 10 years. No issues with cover quality or blurriness in my experience. Never had issues with pages falling out, glue bindings, or print registration. Yes, as noted above, does not compete with conventional publishing. At least not yet. Interior pages do need to be improved, as noted. But hey, great to print on demand for workshops or to sell out of your briefcase, at a weekend football game, or to your fellow students. Print in advance, with no need to distribute thru Amazon. Wonderful option for limited run books in niche markets. James, would really appreciate a similar article on "NookBooks" - Barnes & Nobel's equivalent to CreateSpace. B&N offers hardcovers options, and perhaps use of B&N in-store facilities for marketing purposes, book talks, local bookstore stocking, etc. InDesign is a great tool, as is Pages from Apple. And you do need the basic skills - and tools.

Matt Dicke said...

Great interview. I have been debating about taking a book to kickstarter or self publishing lately so this has been very helpful. One question I have is why Create Space over other self publishing companies? Is it the Amazon access and the ease of sales with them? I know they have a very low cost per book for the quality. I just wish they had hard cover options. Thanks for another fantastic post.

Carole Pivarnik said...

I've designed and published two books full of watercolor paintings and sketches through CreateSpace (one my own, and one for someone else) and had excellent results. I plan to do another book this year and will use CreateSpace yet again. I concur with everything Marc said. I work on an iMac and used different tools that offer the same functionality as those he lists but at far less or no cost, mainly Scribus for book design/layout (it's free but very feature-rich, although a little quirky to learn to use) and Pixelmator for image editing. And of course my Epson Workforce WF-7620 printer for scanning art, and Yiynova tablet monitor for digital editing.

A word of advice: Always buy and use your own ISBN number if you think you might someday want to publish your book through another printer or even publisher. The free ISBN number that CreateSpace provides is THEIRS and imposes some restrictions on your ability to publish your book as the same version elsewhere. This is well explained in their forums and also in their User Guide, I believe. ISBNs are obtained individually or in sets of 10 from Bowker, who are the gatekeepers for ISBN numbers in the U.S.

Now I gotta go buy Marc's new book!

Carole Mayne said...

You are MOST generous, posting all the information you do! Thank you! I published a book, ''What Color is the Light?" on Blurb some years ago and want to re publish it on CreateSpace. I will have to start over completely, as I used Blurb's templates, but you have motivated me to try. I did find Blurb pretty easy, good quality, but pricey. Shortly after making my booklet, CreateSpace came along, and I found it very confusing and complicated to do without graphic designer skills and programs. Hopefully, it's been simplified as your interview seems to indicate. Again, Thank you James and Marc for taking so much time to share your wealth of experience and expertise. (-:

My Pen Name said...

While I think this is a great opportunity for niche books and, perhaps books that publishers may turn down for 'other' reasons, given the recent political censoring by Twitter, Facebook, Google and Youtube, I am little leary of giving Amazon the ability to capture/dominate a market - and then resort to similar behavior.

Amazon has a lot of cash from wall street - they don't often make a profit they are really driven by wall street - so they can take losses on markets for YEARS and take other publishers out of business.

You can say 'well you can always set up your own lulu' - the reality is the exposure and distribution are controlled too (and colluded by google and others as numerous EU and other government fines for anti trust have shown (except the US where there has been little interest since they cozied up to the Democratic party, and republicans aren't interested because of the 'free market' fetish)

Ok cautionary rant over ! It looks like a great book! and I agree a very interesting interview.

Robyn said...

Very informative interview. Thanks to you both.

Janet Oliver said...

Thank you for this post. So much to think about.

Mary Aslin said...

Excellent, comprehensive, informative interview. Thanks!

Side Hustle Trades said...

Very insightful share ! Thank you James and Marc.

Meera Rao said...

Thank you James and Marc! I have followed your blogs for years. I own books by both of you and appreciate all that you share so generously. Thank you very much and wish you all the best!

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Roxanne Steed said...

Thanks for a great, insightful article! I've recently bought this book & love it! Well done!

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Know it Now said...

Everything you need to know to create, proof, publish and list your children’s book in print on Amazon for free.

Laura Solis said...

Your article provided valuable insights and I'm grateful for the knowledge I've gained from it. Thank you!
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