Print on Demand – “There’s No Spoon”

Remember the “there’s no spoon” scene in The Matrix? Yes, Print on Demand (POD) is somehow like that: “There’s no book.” Well, okay, there’s a book in the cloud. But it’s not printed yet.

Wait a minute. No book? So how do people buy my book?

  • You upload a print-ready PDF to a POD provider.
  • If everything is OK with the files according to their guidelines, the provider approves your PDF.
  • They list your book with online retailers, as if it’s a printed, ready-to-ship book.
  • Someone buys your book.
  • Your POD provider prints only one copy and sends it to the buyer. They make it really fast.

There are heaps of advantages to the POD system.

  • First of all, you can print just one book, unlike with traditional offset printing. In offset printing, you need to print at least 1,000* copies to keep the unit (per book) cost reasonable. This means lots of up-front payment to the printers. Some POD providers charge a small, up-front listing/distributing fee, but it’s usually less than a hundred dollars.
  • Let’s say you printed 1,000 books. How do you know you’ll sell them all? I have a friend who is using 800 copies of her book as a TV stand. Looks nice though.
  • Let’s say you are definitely sure that you are able to sell 1,000 copies of your book in a year (in which case offset is cheaper than POD). And one of your friends told you there’s a huge mistake on page 8. What are you gonna do? With POD, you can edit your book. Whenever you want.
  • When we are talking about POD providers, we are talking huge brands like Amazon and Lightning Source/Ingram Spark. They also offer distribution channels when you publish your book with them. Do you know who else uses their distribution channels? (Spoiler: That traditional publisher who rejected your book last year.)
  • We live on a small planet. People are not buying only from local bookstores anymore. Let’s say you have 1,000 printed books sitting in your garage. Let’s say you also have a “Buy my book” page on your website. Let’s say again, a guy from London bought your book. Unfortunately, your garage is in Australia. How long does it take your book to get to Europe? If you leave it to Amazon UK, they will deliver your book much faster than you could, including printing time.
  • Even if you go with POD, you can still bulk-order your book.
  • No stock means no need for storage (so you can park your car in your garage). Also no need to keep track of your inventory. Less time for handling, more time for writing.
  • It’s way faster than offset printing. For an offset print, your printer will need at least two weeks to fill your order. If you find a printer in China (to keep your printing cost lower) add at least a month for shipping. With POD, it only takes minutes to produce one single copy. It’s not very common today, but I believe in the near future, we will see more of these weird book machines. (What machines?)
  • By the way it’s not only self-publishers who use the POD system. Small traditional publishers and lots of universities use it as well.

So, why on earth doesn’t everybody use POD?

Unfortunately there are some disadvantages to POD, too.
  • First of all, POD unit price is expensive compared to offset printing – but only if we are talking about 1,000 or more copies.
  • Maybe only the pickiest eye can realise the difference, but the print quality of POD is not as good as that of offset. It’s getting better and better every day, though.
  • Creative barcode design by Steve Simpson

    Creative barcode design by Steve Simpson

    Your POD provider has strict guidelines, and you have to follow their rules. It’s understandable; after all, they can’t change their system for every single project. But it still doesn’t make any sense to me how using a rounded-corner barcode instead of a machine-generated ugly one can hurt a system. So don’t even think about adding a bit fun to your barcodes.

  • Paper quality is good. But not great. 105 gsm is the thickest paper you can find on the market for POD for now. With your offset printer, you could triple that thickness. With lots of matte, glossy, and textured paper stock options. Going thicker and thicker means more bucks for printing, but at least it’s possible. You have a choice.
  • You can’t use special offset tricks on POD. Things like spot colours, UV varnishes (partly glossy areas on the cover), fluorescent or metallic inks, embossing/debossing, and foils–none of these elements will be accepted by a POD provider. It’s the main dilemma of POD produced picture books, I think.
  • With POD, you cannot have spine text unless your book has more than 48 pages (100 for Amazon). And as you know, spine is what we see on the shelf. [After we published this article, there has been a change. Ingram now offers spine text for hardcover books even if the page count is less than 48.]

Too much info. Cut to the chase and tell me what to do!

I can’t know your situation for sure. But if I were a first time-publisher, I would consider POD. Less risk, less cost up front.

However, if you are planning to make lots of school visits, book launches, and that kind of stuff, 1,000 copies may not be a problem at all. So why not get a better quality at less cost per unit?

If you are really serious about what you are doing, do both! Why not? You already have the manuscript, illustrations, design, everything. Make a print run of 1,000 offset for local sales. Plus, put it on Amazon or Lightning Source to use their very convenient distribution channels. It can’t hurt after you’ve put lots of bucks toward offset printing.

* Remember I said at least 1,000 copies are necessary to go with offset printing? It’s not totally true. If you want to confuse yourself with more info, wait until next month to read my offset printing post. Otherwise just accept that 1,000 is the minimum number for offset to keep your unit cost reasonable.

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