Print-on-Demand 101 for Indie Authors

Saul Bottcher,—Posted 12 December 2014

What is print-on-demand?

Print on demand (POD) is a method for producing and distributing printed books.

When a retailer or customer places an order, the POD provider prints the exact number of copies ordered and ships them directly to the recipient.

POD has different advantages and economics from traditional press printing. To understand the differences, we first need to talk about how books were printed before POD.

How were books printed before POD?

Prior to POD, commercial books were printed on a printing press. Before a book could be printed for the first time, the operator of the press would need to prepare plates containing the contents of the book, then load these plates into the press. This added a setup cost to each printing of the book, especially the first.

These setup costs shaped the economics of printing prior to POD. Print-to-order was simply not feasible. Instead, books would be printed in large print runs of many copies. This would spread the setup costs across more copies of the book, which would lower the effective cost to produce each individual copy.

To know the right number of copies for a print run, the publisher would need to estimate future demand for the book—even if the book was being sold for the first time. Extra copies would be stored in a warehouse until needed, which meant the publisher and retailers would need to track inventory and deal with shipments, returns, and other stocking issues.

These economic effects rippled out even further, touching both authors and readers. A full discussion is outside the scope of this article, but suffice to say, the nature of press printing affected everything about the publishing industry: which books were able to be published, when they were printed and when they went out-of-print, how they were marketed and sold, and even how authors were compensated.

How is POD different from traditional printing?

Print-on-demand is different from press printing because it uses digital printers, which receive the contents of the book directly from a computer system rather than using plates. This eliminates the setup costs associated with press printing.

As a result, almost all of the economic ripple effects created by the printing press are eliminated as well. Because of the negligible setup cost, the price-per-copy does not vary much with the quantity of books printed. There is no reason to avoid printing small numbers of copies, the concept of a "print run" is unnecessary, and books can simply be printed to order.

This means that extra copies need never be printed, nothing needs to be warehoused, and no stock-keeping system is required. This results in fewer unnecessary costs and less environmental impact.

All of this makes publishing much more accessible to indie authors. As long as an author is willing to bear the cost of preparing the book (editing and laying it out), there is no longer any need to partner with a publisher to fund the printing. Retailers also become less important, as the author can sell directly to the reader, without losing the option of dealing with retailers if they choose to.

Overall, the author has greater control, greater opportunity to publish, and the financial risks are lower.

Is POD right for my book?

If you are an independent author who wants to publish in small or moderate quantities, the answer is likely yes. POD offers you very favourable business conditions: initial costs are low, there is no need to estimate demand, you can proceed without the backing of a publisher, you retain control over marketing, and you can sell directly to readers.

However, POD is not a complete replacement for press printing. You should be aware of some disadvantages:

For most indie authors, and especially for the initial printing of a book, these limitations are acceptable. If you are printing a book with special requirements (such as a very specific visual design or quality requirements), you should do more research before you commit to POD.

How can I publish a book using POD?

To publish a book using POD, you need to plan four steps of the publishing process:

Planning a POD book involves a significant amount of research and decision-making. Fellow authors can share their past experiences, and service providers can give you advice tailored to your project.

Are you considering using print-on-demand for your next book project?
Contact us with your questions and we’ll help you find the answers.