Battle of the Self-Publishing Services

If you’re like most cartoonists, a moment you hold dear is holding something tangible in your hands that is an attestation all of your hard work. We’d all like a trophy, yes; however, I am referring to the exhilarating moment of holding the first compilation of your own work. But this is not the easiest process without a publisher, who already knows the ins and outs, to shoulder the workload. Society has reached a point where we no longer wait around to be found- selected out of the herd as “special” and signed to contracts, but do it our %$#@ selves. We’ve seen filmmakers become famous because of their own movie clips on youtube, musicians who made a name for themselves via myspace or facebook, and just like these entrepreneurs, we cartoonists can take the reigns. Again, the lovely internet has bestowed upon us Print-on-Demand services like Creatsespace, Lulu and Ka-Blam.. Where we can create our own books, and sell them ourselves, without having to make a huge investment. Yes, this is more work for us as artists (many of which would rather just draw and let someone else handle the business aspect), but that’s a line we each need to decide if we want to, or can, cross.

If you are one of the many who have decided, “YES.. I’m sick of waiting around, let’s DO this”, then the next step is deciding which printer will work best for you and your product. There are many, more thna I’ll cover here, but these are the ones that are commonly used by our Webcomic Ilk. So, here’s a little info on each of the “Big Three” Print On Demand services, straight from their website:

Createspace is a free online publishing tools and Community can help you complete and sell your work.
Distribute on Amazon.com, your own website, and other retailers without setup fees or inventory.

Lulu.com lets you make, self-publish, print and sell print-on-demand books, e-books, photo books and calendars with free book publishing.

Ka-Blam is a publisher services company.  We offer digital printing (as well as a growing list of other services) for independent comic book publishers.

* There are plenty of other P.O.D. Services, I choose these to breakdown because they are the most popular among the webcomic community. If you have a favorite you wish to share/promote, please tell us about it in a comment!

Still undecided? Yeah, me too. Lets just dive right into the first thing on your mind….

1. Price Point.

No doubt this is our #1 issue… we “starving artists” are not typically rich.  I hear ya friends: “So, how much am I gonna have to spend on a book? How much will I have to charge my readers? Will I get any profit back, if I order small minimum quantities, or do I have to buy 10,000 books and pray I sell them all?”

Of course, it all depends. Things like size of the book, color or B&W interior, how many pages… these all factor into your price… and will obviously be different for each person. And, the good think with Print on Demand is that.. well.. you can print on demand.. no need for huge quantities or making huge investments. Check out the basic quotes I listed for you here, and you’ll get an idea of which service you can best afford. I tried to keep the specs about the same:

  • Perfect bound
  • approx. 8.5″ x 8.5″ (square, or close to square)
  • a quote for color, AND for black and white interior
  • 100 pages

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This pretty much says it all. Color interior really does jack up the cost per book, no matter where you go. So the cheapest route there is via createspace’s “pro plan” (which is basically a no-brainer if you want to purchase more than, say, 20: “Upgrade your book to Pro Plan at any time for $39.00. After your first year, pay just $5.00 annually for each of your Pro Plan titles”.). Even if you choose go B&W on the interior, Createspace wins there as well.

Honestly, that one decision will be the hardest for most creators to make: is color worth it?

The obvious winner of The PRICE POINT Round is: Createspace

 

2. User Interface

Nothing is more frustrating than an interface that sends you around in circles, or is too confusing for you to figure out without a personal guide. The hardest part of getting your book made should be the creation itself, not the uploading process. Therefor, this is an important issue to consider… especially if you’re not a Techie Internet Genius.

I have no experience with Lulu personally, so I’ll defer to my Webcomic Alliance buddy Ken Drab to fill you in on The Lulu Experience:

Both Volumes 1 and 2 of Rick the Stick are done through Lulu. I have many years experience working with traditional print companies so I thought I had a head start with getting everything ready. When I began the process on my first book, I realized it didn’t matter much because of the automation process that they have set up. They walk you through everything and even to a pre-press pro like myself, I didn’t have to relearn anything. It was pretty painless.  One of the great things about these services is that after I made some edits, I was able to resubmit my file and it was ready to go.

I’m a huge fan of automation – especially since I can get everything like prices and digital proofs immediately – not to mention that I can send the files when it’s convenient to me. Not during regular office hours when it might interfere with my day job.

Having been through the process and having my template already set up, my second book was so easy I felt like I had done something wrong!

Of course the drawback is the price. My books were just under $8 per piece, but I also liked the horizontal layout. I thought about using other services – such as CreateSpace, but I was a little worried about the square layout.

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My Z&F collections are done through Createspace, so I have a good feel of the navigation, interface and general usability of the site. The process was pretty self-explanatory, and I was able to set up my first book following their specs with little issue. Mind you, during my FIRST book, I was a nervous wreck… afraid I’d set it up wrong and pay for it in the end. Really though, my anxiety was unnecessary… and my book came out great. You do have to allow time for your PDFs to be approved for print, and then order a proof and wait for that to arrive in the mail (something you can barely wait for!). Then, once you approve the proof, your book can go live, and you can order more! I have to admit, I did have a little confusion when I tried to update a old file with a new one on an already existing book just recently. This issue was resolved, but not without having to wait a day while the wrong PDF was being reviewed!

Also, a huge pet-peeve I had with Createspace has been resolved since my first book: I am happy to say that the maximum size requirement for the interior PDF has been boosted from only 100MB to 400MB. That is HUGE in my book, no pun intended.

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As for Ka-Blam, this specific category is where I think they suffer the most. The site itself feels like a mom-and-pop type company, as opposed to the big corporation feel that Lulu and Createspace exudes as you are lead through the process. Ka-Blam actually has one of the oddest payment and review procedures I have seen. They put you through six steps (per the website, below):

1. Order Submitted Waiting for Files
This means we’ve got your order, but haven’t yet downloaded your files.
2. Validating Files
This means we’ve got your files and are checking them out to make sure they conform to our tech specs and are printable.
3. Waiting for Payment
This means we’ve validated your files as print ready and have sent you an invoice.
4. Ready to Print
This means we’ve received your payment and your order is scheduled for print.
5. Ready to Ship
This means your order has printed and is in the shipping room.
6. Shipped
This means that you’ve been sent tracking numbers and the order is on its way to you.

Yep, you upload your files, wait for approval (which can take weeks), and then you receive a payment invoice link to pay via paypal (ONLY), and once you pay the order can be printed.  It’s just a TAD confusing, but it did work. The first time, anyway. When I tried to reorder with changes, my order was delayed weeks due to miscommunication and payments “being overlooked”. This is critical if you’re trying to get your shipment delivered before a comic con! I’ll go into how they handled this mishap in the “Customer Service” section of this article.

The winner of The User Interface Round is: Lulu

 

3. Quality

We’d all love our books to be top-notch quality, of course. However, when you are weighing the cost of top-notch printers against the price of them… you may decide you can go with the middleman. It all depends on your product itself. If your comic is full color, littered with gradients and textures that you really hope to highlight in print, you may not have a choice. You may also have a comic that works perfectly well in grayscale and flat colors (like Zorphbert and Fred for example).. so the difference in detail and quality may be so minimal that going with the cheaper deal makes more sense.

It has been said in review after review that Lulu is pretty much top-notch in quality. I have seen books printed by Lulu myself, and can testify to the quality. I have heard that Lulu’s paper is not a brilliant white, but an off-white ivory, so if the paper being stark white is important, Createspace’s paper may be more beneficial for you. If you want rich colors and glossy vivid pages, that together give your book the heft that it needs to stand out, Lulu is honestly the way to go. Webcomic Alliance’s own Ken Drab is a very happy customer, as you can see below:

“I ordered a few test samples to see the quality and I couldn’t have been more pleased. They were great quality and exactly how I had set them up.”

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I can speak from experience with Createspace, with both color and grayscale interiors, that they’re pretty decent. Yes, I have seen better… the paper used may not make the colors bounce of the page, but they are pretty true to my computer screen at least. I can account that the grayscale looks better if you link a vector image in InDesign, rather than a raster one… it’s crisper, cleaner. I have kept that in mind as I work on book #2 for Z&F.

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My experiences with Ka-Blam yielded good results. I had 2 orders of a Z&F minibook printed through them, and the colors were very rich (almost darker than I expected), and I was happy with the quality considering it was for a cheap $5 con-exclusive book. They do offer more than traditional comic books now, so I’m curious how their perfect-bound paperbacks hold up.

The clear winner in The QUALITY Round, from what I have seen, is: Lulu.

 

4. Customer Service

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. And in those times, with your book in the hands of a publishing service, you may need their help. Or, you may simply have questions during your process and need assistance sooner than later. A good customer service base is a must!

Again, I was going to defer to Ken, on his experience with Lulu…. however, it turns out the interface walked him through the process so efficiently that he never needed to contact their customer service department. So, we do not have first-hand experiences for this particular P.O.D. service. I did scrounge up a variety of reviews from different sources on the internet. The Good: this customer MUCH preferred Lulu to Createspace for many reasons, including their customer service. The BAD: are the 171 (as of 3/8/11) comments on their “Improvements to Customer Service” blog post… mostly very disgruntled… tells me Ken should be happy he didn’t have to contact them. Also, poor review from your potential customers isn’t a good sign either. It seems like Lulu has tried to spruce up their overall service, but the shocking discrepancy between the positive and negative reviews, when you google: “Lulu, customer service”, leaves a bad taste in my mouth, at least.

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I have only dealt with Createspace’s customer support once, in reference to the issue I had when revising an existing book. Right in the sidebar of their site is a “Call Me” button, and yes.. if you click it they will call you immediately (within 30 seconds, for me). I was on hold for only a minute when a rep took my call. He answered my questions and was very friendly. As stated earlier, nothing could be done once the files were submitted for review, but less than a day later they were approved, and I could go back in and upload my new revisions properly. All in all, a reliable and courteous support base, ready and willing to answer my questions with the usual motto of “customer is always right”. I feel more confident in calling them in the future with any concerns.

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As I explained earlier, there was a mishap in my reorder of Ka-Blam books. It honestly could have been handled a little better. There was a lot of blame and “whose fault was it” that went around first… but they were very quick to respond, especially via twitter. Mention Ka-Blam on twitter, and man are they on top of things! Only being able to send an email, no phone number like Createspace offered, can be frustrating… so if you want immediate service (during working hours) try twitter first, as silly as that seems. As for the mishap with my order, the books were a day late for the convention (even with the free expedited mail)… but since it was local, I simply brought the books with me on the second day.

It’s close, but the winner of The Customer Service Round is: Createspace

5. Bonus Points

Just a few more bullet points to ponder, when deciding which service best fits your needs.

  • Lulu is the only service that offers that coveted landscape 9″ x 7″ (great format for comic strips!), as well as hardcover books! (Ka-Blam offers hard cover books now too, but it’s had issues in the past)
  • Having your book on amazon.com may seem like a great deal, but keep in mind amazon keeps a lot of the money. It’s always more cost-effective to order and ship the book yourself, from your own storefront.
  • If you are not ready to get your own store set up, Createspace does offer a private user E-Store for your books.
  • You can save money with Ka-Blam if you don’t mind their ad on the back, or inside-back, of your book! You can also earn credits through contests or promotion of Ka-Blam on your website.
  • As opposed to amazon.com, which takes a good chunk of your money, Lulu’s storefront (though not as well known), leaves you with 80% profit.
  • Both Lulu and Createspace have extensive forums you can sift through with questions. Ka-Blam only has a F.A.Q. section, which is a bit clunky and hard to find what you need.
  • a great Createspace vs. Lulu article HERE
  • a forum discussion on Lulu vs. Ka-Blam HERE

 

So, as always with these type of decisions, there’s not one end-all-be-all answer. I have found Createspace works for me and I’ll probably stick with them. But I would love to hear about others’ experiences with all 3 of these services, or any others you have found… please, feel free to give a review in the comments! What did I forget? What do you agree or disagree with? Who have you decided will get the honor of printing that compilation of your hard work and passion…. and place it tangibly in your own hands?

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60 Comments

  1. Great round up Dawn and Ken.

    Any thoughts on which is best at either digital prints for ereaders/ipads, best marketplace, or best at getting your book distributed (ie Amazon)??

    • That is an area I have no experience in yet. Maybe Ken or Byron can shed some light on it… it’s a good shoot-off from traditional print books that we have to adapt to nowadays. I know those 2 have done some apps and e-books.

      Thanks Bearman!

    • Thanks Bearman, but Dawn deserves ALL the credit for this post. She put together a lot of great information. I’ve bookmarked this page for some of the resources to make sure I don’t forget where it is!

    • Sorry, I should have replied to the second part of your post too.

      As far as digital publication, I think it’s still a “wild west” with so much technology and avenues of accessibility being developed.

      Regardless, I’m using Oxicomics.com for my iPhone/iPad app and iSites.us for the Android.

      What’s interesting is that Oxicomics is a full functioning app where the iSites is just a RSS reader of sorts. The Oxicomics app also allows me to create pay versions (right now I just have the Free Sample. It also has panel-by-panel display which is best for phones. I think the iPad version is hands down flat-out awesome, but obviously I’m biased.

      As far as getting distribution on Amazon, I think with Lulu and CreateSpace if you get an ISBN number, you can distribute on Amazon through them.

      • Thanks Ken. Whenever I end up doing a collection, it will probably be an app or iBooks/kindle and forego the printed version except maybe a couple for me. Might be too hard to get a decent priced book since all my stuff is color and 90% done in Photoshop express so it is RGB

  2. A WELL researched and very much needed article. I am easily a year away from my first book of any kind and this info is extremely invaluable. Your first hand knowledge and assessments of the different companies is invaluable.

  3. I used Lulu for my first two books (I also had my first book printed by an indie printing house at first but have since switched to Lulu) and plan to have the third done by them (hopefully) this year. The quality of a Lulu printed book is amazing. It looks like any of the paperbacks that you could get at Barnes and Noble. So I just want to toss a ring in Lulu’s hat.

    Thanks for another great article!

  4. Great stuff here.

    I’d do a follow up, though for “floppies”…you’re standard 24 page comic book. You might find there’s a different winner winner chicken dinner.

    🙂

    • definitely! You should post it on ComixTribe and then a little excerpt over here that then links to your site. You cover the other half of us cartoonists… we generally cover the comic-strip/gag-a-day type of comics. We should team up ;0)

  5. Kam passed this along — great article!

    We’re rapidly approaching our first print volume, and so far are leaning toward Createspace as they’re tightly integrated with Amazon and seem to offer higher profit margins.

    The downside?

    Well, ideally I’d like to publish our book in a wide format, as the strip itself is “widescreen” because we were taking mobile readers into account.

    The problem here is that Createspace doesn’t offer the ability to bind the book on the short side. So the workaround seems to be to publish the book larger than standard comic book size and plop two webcomic strips per page.

    Now, will that make it too hard to read? I don’t *think* so, as we use a larger font than many comics… again taking those mobile readers into account. But will this be a turnoff for some potential buyers? (“Yeah, it’s a 56 page book, but you’re actually getting 100 ‘pages’ of the comic and some bonus material in there.”)

    Print quality is also important, as our comic is all “painty” and I’m not sure how that’s going to reproduce vs. higher contrast comics with flat colors.

    Open to suggestions…?

  6. This is a great comparison, but I would have preferred to see something that tried to use a single standardized size. What you have above is really apples and oranges, and the sizes seem almost random. How do they compare with standard modern-age comic book sizes?

    • Yes, I selected a common size for comic strip collections (square or almost square). Each service offers different sizes, so I couldn’t get a standard size for “square”.. so I went with the closest match. The traditional comic book size, with less pages, will obviously be less overall for B&W and color. But you can get a good idea how these 3 POD service charge per book.

      Most of these services give you immediate quotes pretty easily, so go ahead and plug in your specs!

    • yes, it’s awfully tough to have a full color book printed when you are just starting out. I went with grayscale (converted some of my color comics) for my big collection, and a small color mini-book (25 pages) that I could sell for cheap. Gives potential readers a choice at conventions.

  7. I’m not shilling for these folks, but ComixPress is conspicuously absent. I’ve had books from two of the three listed here and ComixPress blew them both away in print quality. And not by a small margin. Did ComixPress stop taking orders or did they simply fly under your radar?

    • I have not used ComixPress, no.. so yes they flew under my radar. I have heard of them however. Most webcomic people I know use 1 of these three, but I am all ears for other established and reliable POD services!
      That’s basically the point of this website… we do not claim to know everything, just sharing our experiences. So, please… a little recap about Comixpress would be great to post here! You say the quality is top notch.. how about the pricing, customer service, interface? Any constructive criticism?

      Thanks Richard!

      • I had to say something on this part of the post regarding ComiXpress. I’m doing my first book through them due to price but the turn around time from payment to product is crazy! Their customer service also swings from really awesome to horrible.

        When trying to get my proof copy from them, they were 2 weeks late from when they estimated it would get to me and I couldn’t get a peep out of them to find out what was going on. But once I had the proof and asked them technical questions regarding tweeks/edits, they were on the ball.

        Printing quality was good (a bit on the dark side) but that’s easy to fix on your original files. Stock is nice and the perfect bind looks good too.

        I’d recommend them if you don’t mind waiting/wondering when your books will get to you.

      • I’m actually just about to drop Comixpress for another printer (which made this article a perfectly-timed read for me!).

        In all my dealings with them, I’ve constantly had to chase them up for information. THAT’S been my biggest problem with them; their sheer lack of proactive behaviour.Every time I’ve had something printed with them, it’s been late. And the lateness really doesn’t bother me. It’s the fact that I’ve always learnt about my prints coming late, AFTER I’ve spent a week of emailing them asking what happened.

        When they’re going to miss a deadline, all it takes is a quick email out to customers telling them that there has been a delay. That little bit of information shared puts my mind in a space where I know what’s going on and then I can deal with the matters on my end comfortably.

        The print quality is fantastic. I’ll certainly pay that. But the customer service is so poor, it completely detracts from that positive.

  8. Again, not wanting to shill for these folks. I find their print quality and quality of book-binding the best of the POD’s I’ve used by far. Crisper square binding and much, much truer color calibration.

    To balance the scales, here’re some aspects I found less than pleasing:

    I’m not at all keen on their User Interface as it’s ridiculously difficult to get a project calculator going. (Ka-Blam! has it all over ComixPress for launching projects).

    Their turnaround is quickest of the three I’ve encountered, but Ka-Blam! will work with individual creators on a one-on-one basis far more readily. Ka-Blam! has the best response and interface for customer service in my experience, but if a creator has his/her ducks in a row regarding file preparation and doesn’t require any hand-holding, I’d suggest ComixPress as the best solution for P.O.D.

    My experience and 2¢.

    Thanks for inviting me to flesh out my post!

    • Good stuff Richard!

      You definitely piqued my interest so I took a quick glance and I saw ComixPress doesn’t offer landscape (I roll with 10″ wide by 8″ tall) and you’re right – that user interface is definitely circa 1999!

      The price wasn’t much better than CreateSpace.

      But again, that was just a quick look. Thanks for sharing!

  9. So glad to see that CS has boosted the size allotment! Oi, the frustration of getting the book interior file down to under 100mb! Not that I am planning on putting out book 2 any time soon (sales of vol 1 have been abysmal (thus my current “no-haircut until 1000 are sold” sales campaign)so I don’t think a volume 2 would do any better at this time…just sayin’) but it is good to know I won’t have to crunch it if and when I do a volume 2.

    I must say, although it was a bear to get the format right, once I got it, (I kept the template in InDesign)the process with CS was a no-brainer. It’s just that first bit of a learning curve you have to get over. Out of the 3, I think CS also was the only one where I could use the size I needed. My book was more the traditional graphic novel/manga size and CS had the best/closest fit for that.

    • That is a great find, Rachel! Man.. where was THAT when I was deciding between Lulu and Createspace? Thanks so much, I’m sure it’ll help a bunch of people who want to compare pricing.

  10. Great article. I went with Createspace as well. My decision was based mostly on pricing for full color books (with Pro Plan) but also so the book can be listed on Amazon. Just in case someone randomly stumbles across them. I’ve been super happy with the quality so far and their 8.25″X8.25″ option lets me keep the strips big enough the dialog balloons are legible.

    • That’s exactly what I did, Joe… for both my kids books and the first (and soon to be 2nd_ Z&F collection. Came out pretty good! I have a con exclusive mini book I made thru Ka-Blam, but looking to switch to createspace, have everything together.

      I have not sold a book via amazon.com. Fine by me, they take SO much outta the pot for it, I’d rather ppl come to MY site and buy it through me.

      • Yeah, they take a crazy amount. I wouldn’t promote that it’s on Amazon so much as it’s there if someone searches and accidentally finds it.

  11. I’ve been using BLURB due to their ease of service (for me anyway). They’re slightly more expensive in the long run, but I love their quality, it’s easy to upload my images, and I get my books back within 8 days almost guaranteed. I’ve never had a problem with them yet. I just wish I could get it a bit cheaper. I will definitely look into the other services you’ve mentioned.

    • Yeah, but that’s what you’re paying for with them. Speed and quality. I used Blurb for a book once and it was nice and quick but the price tag was huge. Luckily I just did a one off but I couldn’t see them being a profitable option for comics.

    • Yup, color is probably the biggest issue, Jerry! Good luck, let us know what you decide & how it works out. It was great to meet you at Philly Comic Con!

  12. I’ve used Ka-Blam exclusively for my previous books, and I’ve never had a problem with either the quality or the service. I do like them BECAUSE they are a small group, and because they absolutely love comics. When I was wondering if my book was being printed (it had been a little while), I asked them on Twitter. They not only told me where it was in the process, but Barry also commented that he liked the cover, without me asking about it. I don’t think I would ever get that from Lulu or Createspace.

    • that’s an interesting counter-point. I guess I did not need the printer to care about comics, just care about getting my books to me on time, looking pretty, and at a decent price.
      But yes, Ka-Blam is on top of things on twitter! It is kind of cool to not feel as though they are “above you”. or “above comics”.

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  14. As of 1/18/2012, Creatspace has killed the Pro-Plan. You now get the Pro-Plan prices for NUTHIN. This makes Createspace even more of a power-house in this arena. I cannot see the downfall from this change, yet.
    https://www.createspace.com/Help/Index.jsp?orgId=00D300000001Sh9&id=50170000000jJd9

    There is an Expended Distribution option for $25… if you so wish to use it. Considering I buy my books for cost and sell them at 600%+ for profit, it seems silly to pay for this and earn a lot less from selling through their channels. Exposure, sure… but why not point people to your site and earn more instead?

    Opinions, anyone?

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  17. ComiXpress beats all of these companies on quality, service and price. Ka-Blam act as if you’re doing them a favor and not as if you’re a client.

  18. any recent followups? had been looking at comixpress for single issue b&w but up for advice/suggestions

    thanks!

    • Hi, great question. This article is slightly outdated and we should do a new one. I don’t think any of us have used comixpress yet, but it’s on my own to-do list, to put out digital books wherever I can for free. Once I get through that process, I’ll have to do a recap!

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  20. For create space I had to pay about $7 a page set up and extra per page for color. Of course each square/rectangle was different size and I was not able to upload for lack of skill to their very specific specs.Seems their manufacturing cost was $10 a book for 100 pages which was the cheapest manufacture price of over a dozen producers researched so the prices listed are under estimated by 60% for createspace shown in above chart. Most publishers wanted $30 per book with their basic package !

    • Hi Carl. This article is about 2-3 years old, so some prices may have changed. I did not have to pay set-up fees as I am a designer and my skillset with Indesign and Acrobat aids me well for my books. These numbers reflect that. It may help if you pay a designer friend (if you have one) a small fee to help set up your files properly for createspace, so you don’t have to pay extra and can just upload and approve your proof. Maybe this friend could also teach you to use these programs, if you can afford to purchase them. In this business, we have to learn how to put on a ton of hats– including pre-press, editor, and technology coordinator! Best of luck to you.

      • Appreciate your response. At my age – still a pen and gimp color guy but perhaps I could meet the challenge. I will look into it. Createspace did have a reduced price self help uplaod to their specs with some generous over the phone coaching but I kinda felt they led you to points of frustration wherein you’d give up and shell out the $ but of course someone trained would probably succeed. I will look into your suggestion and appreciate the personal reply.

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