This review of Amazon’s CreateSpace came out of emails I sent when setting up some books for someone else. You don’t need my experience in setting up bulk runs of documents for corporates on bespoke data-processing systems. But determination is a must. I’ve used CreateSpace for my own work, and it strikes me that once a typical user gets past a few obstacles, they can use it with (relative) ease.
What I mean by a typical user is based on the Amazon KDP newsletter: someone with little or no print design experience who wants to publish their novel as a print book. What follows is therefore based on simple requirements. There’s enough here to help a lot of novelists deal with the standard issues that can arise when preparing for print on CreateSpace. As an aside, readers of this review may wish to compare CreateSpace with Blurb and Bookwright, which I have also reviewed.
Part 1: Overview
There are 4 parts to this review: Overview (you are here!), Browsers, Interior Design & Reviewer, and Cover Design & Reviewer. Don’t be tempted to skip the notes on Browsers. In fact, I recommend a test run of your book with a dummy text and cover just to be sure you have a browser that cooperates fully with CreateSpace.
I assume at the outset that you already know what CreateSpace is for. This review is not an advert or a tutorial. What you’ll learn here is some basic considerations that can help you a) to decide if CS is for you, and b) to overcome the not-so-obvious pitfalls that will discourage many unfamiliar and inexperienced self-publishers.
The most basic introductory comment is about the CreateSpace service itself. Users of Amazon KDP who have already published e-Books will have noticed that they now have an option to make print books with CreateSpace from their usual interface. This is the path I used for my own work. Non-KDP people may have come to CS through the CreateSpace site directly. It doesn’t matter how you arrived at CS. The interface is the same.
Before we get to browsers, if I could only give one warning about CreateSpace, it would be this: you’ll do most or all of your preparation offline and then upload it for preview in the Reviewers, so bear in mind that the Reviewers take ages to process your files. Amazon has clearly slanted CreateSpace towards people who are decisive. If you’re used to regularly uploading, viewing, and making endless changes to your digital creations, then CS will drive you mad. You’ll need to get more decisive and make all your changes in one go.
Part 2: Browsers
You may need to bear in mind that Adobe Flash must be enabled in your browser to use the CreateSpace reviewers. I’d avoided using Flash ever since someone tried to hack me through it and hold my machine to ransom. If you refuse to use the Flash plugin for security reasons then you’ll not be able to review anything in your CreateSpace account. That’s your call. What you can do is make a fresh backup of your hard drive before your first use of CreateSpace. Then you can enable the plugin before using CS, and then disable it once done.
Not All Browsers Work
The online reviewers on the CS website don’t work at all on Mac OSX Chrome; at least not on mine – there are several versions of both – but you’ll see that there are comments about this online. I downloaded Firefox. CS works fine on it (except for in list view). So consider using an unfamiliar browser.
Part 3: Interior Design & Reviewer
Unless you have professional publishing software such as InDesign, and you’re the typical user I cited above, then you’re likely to have a manuscript as a Word file. Before you upload your masterpiece, and if you haven’t already done so, have a look at some print books to consider what ‘front matter’ you want to include. It’s a chew on your time to forget something and then have to go through all those new uploads. And remember that odd pages are to the right, even to the left.
CreateSpace will give you errors wherever you have used fonts it doesn’t support. The way around this is to save your Word file with embedded fonts. Where the option is to do this depends on which version of Word you’re using – just look it up in your Help. I only use supported fonts in order to avoid any trouble.
Alignment on Headings
Don’t be tempted to use a different typeface or size for your chapter headings. This includes inserting a large or highly decorative first letter. Flourishes like these in any word processor will nearly always cause the body text on your facing pages to run out of alignment, unless, of course, you’re using professional DTP software that can keep text in line through containers. Fixing this can take a lot of experimentation with sizes. The upload times only make matters worse.
Remember that word processors normally handle either simplex or duplex A4 documents, not books with facing pages. Depending on the age of your WP, you may not have the option to make page numbering appear alternately on the outsteps of pages. CreateSpace can’t rectify this either. A simple fix is to centre-justify.
In one book I set up for someone, I tried inserting cross-references to page numbers for chapters into their contents page. Cross-references are a little-known feature in Word. Using them meant that when I updated all fields before saving, I knew that the page numbers would be updated on the contents page. Clever stuff, but clever stuff that I eventually removed. I felt that it was potentially risky. Amazon probably outsources printing to companies that are closest to the delivery addresses. There is always the risk that future changes to the Amazon software could cause problems with embedded fields – for example, making your nice page numbers appear as #REF not found, or with a similar warning. Better safe than sorry. I would advise not using any fields if you can avoid them. They do, incidentally, trigger warnings in the Interior Reviewer.
Page breaks and other anomalies
You may find that what you see in Word (or alternative WP) isn’t what you get in CS. I’ve had trouble with page breaks at the ends of chapters. CS can turn double paragraph marks into additional page breaks. You may also find the last line of a flush justified paragraph stretches across the page – i.e. instead of being left justified, as the last line of a flush justified paragraph normally is. If you get problems like these even when you’re using the same font and size throughout your chapters, then you may find you need an additional page break between chapters to clear up formatting errors. I’m not a representative of Amazon, so all I can suggest is that you remember they do offer paid support for users. It’s not cheap. But it is there.
No self-publishing platform is perfect. For example, here’s a picture of the gutter (the space between the left and right page text blocks) in Highcastle by the sci-fi author, Stanislaw Lem, which was published on CreateSpace. You may notice that the text on the left page runs tight against the inside spine. This is because the publisher used the Word template supplied on the CS website. Compare this with the gutter in my book:
The reason mine has equal spacing is because I adjusted the CS settings in the supplied Word document. I strongly recommend this. You get an indication of the spacing in the reviewer:
Part 4: Cover Design & Reviewer
There is a selection of cover templates that you can use from within the CreateSpace editor. As with any templates, the range is limited, and your book will look like any other books designed with them. The template editor is easy enough to use. I tried one that enabled me to get an all-white cover by making a large JPG in Photoshop in which I added my cover text. Unfortunately, CS added a grey line down 2/3 of the front part of the spine. I’ve no idea why. Sure enough, the line appeared on the printed sample. I recommend making your own cover PDF outside of CS. It’s easier than you’d imagine …
Designing your own cover from scratch is possible with anything that can output a printable PDF. I use the now ancient Photoshop Elements 6. If you are used to making covers for e-Books, the thing to get used to is that you will be designing for front and back, plus the spine, and flaps if applicable. The dimensions you need to design for depend upon the thickness of your book. This is determined by the number of pages and the type of paper. Fortunately, Amazon has a template generator. If you cannot find the link (which is here at the time of this post), just search Google for ‘CreateSpace cover templates’.
The dimensions template is an image file that you can add as a layer to your design in whatever application you’re using. It contains guidelines for the safe areas for your cover images and text. This way you can see where to place your spine text, how to avoid the barcode, etc. You simply adjust its transparency when doing your design to see how close you are to edges and so on. The example above shows the template mixed with the design.
This picture shows the how the design appears when imported into CreateSpace. Point 1 shows the edge of the cover. You can get a free KDP ISBN – this appears on the barcode on the rear of your cover – see point 3.
Most interestingly, point 2 shows a curious warning (click to enlarge and read). Despite the fact that I used an Amazon-generated template for the cover dimensions, I got a warning about the cover size. Oddly, there was no visible suggestion on the preview that anything would be cut-off, or that, conversely, the cover would end up with a white margin around the edges. The print copy I ordered was fine. I suspect that there can be mis-matches that are so minuscule that they don’t affect the results.
In summary, it’s a good idea to reserve a lot of time to get used to CreateSpace. It’s not essential to have years of technical experience, but if you haven’t, you should be able to put a book together with a bit of patience: as long as you keep your design simple. The obvious appeal of CS is that it’s an all-in-one solution. You can do everything in one place, while your customers use a familiar interface for a book that’s printed to order.