The world is abuzz with how ebooks have revolutionised self-publishing. However, their “comrades” in the publishing revolution — print-on-demand paperbacks — are the often-overlooked Quiet Achievers.
Someone working in their pyjamas can now supply a professional-standard paperback to a global audience, without spending the kids’ inheritance or becoming a slave to the post office.
We’ll get onto how that works in a moment, but first, let’s ask the big question.
Do I need a print book?
The answer is: That depends.
Ebooks are very popular for fiction, but it seems many still enjoy reading a novel on paper, too. A survey conducted in August 2013 showed that over 50% of respondents like to read a paperback. It’s probably not really possible for a survey like that to give a clear representation of “all” the readers in the world, but it did have nearly 3000 respondents and so it’s interesting just the same.
In early 2012, British author and self-publishing guru Joanna Penn decided to go ebook-only on her novels, and suggested print books might be becoming the new “vanity publishing”. A year later she had decided to go back into print to help book groups and libraries. She recommends indies do the ebook first and wait for it to “settle in” and iron out all its problems, then do the print book later.
So there is a case to be made for self-publishing a novel in print.
I would do so, myself, but I think that would be mostly for the satisfaction of holding a print book in my hands, with the side benefit that readers would have more format options to suit them. However, with my background I can do the whole process myself. The only significant cost is my time.
For someone who has to hire people to pull the printing files together, there’s more to weigh up, and it should be approached with care and forethought. And patience! 🙂
Print is still popular in non-fiction. This is because many people find print more user-friendly for books where the reader flicks around from chapter to chapter looking for the piece of information they need right now. (Narrative non-fiction such as memoir is more like a novel that people read from beginning to tend, and so works well on an e-reader.)
I know that I sometimes buy a non-fiction book in ebook first, to give it a test drive. Then if it becomes a solid favourite, I’ll buy the paperback (and I know of other people who do this). Not only do I have the convenience of flicking around chapters, and sticking post-it notes in favourite passages, but there’s a visual reminder that I even HAVE the book. E-reader archives can tend to become a bit like that cupboard up the back of the garage… who knows what’s down the bottom of that thing??? 😉
In my professional life I work with authors producing non-fiction informational books. Print-on-demand has been a game-changer for these authors.
To understand why, let’s look at what we’ve come from.
The old model for self-publishing print books
Wa-a-ay back when I first began working with self-publishers (2001! — yes, there’s been a lot of change in a short time), this was the system:
- Write, edit, design and typeset your book.
- Look for printers who do books, check their quality, work out the specifications of the book you want (paper weights? 2-colour cover? 4-colour cover? matte or gloss? cello or varnish? etc etc etc etc) and get quotes. Then decide which of these printers is going to do a quality job at the best-value price.
- Place a sizeable order, usually 4000 books as that tended to be the tipping point at which the cost per copy became reasonable.
- Pay for this order (anywhere between $8000 to $12,000).
- Store 4000 books in the garage. That can be dozens of boxes of books. (100 books per box = 40 boxes. 50 books per box = 80 boxes.)
- Cart boxes of books all round the country to speaking engagements, work on persuading bookstores to stock them, look for distributors with decent deals who might be open to a startup publisher, create order forms, negotiate discounts, promote promote promote.
- Advertise the book on a website, take orders, set up business facilities so you can process payments, buy mailing supplies, work out package weights, create address labels, make regular trips to the post office, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.
So, what exactly is print-on-demand?
This is the shiny new system:
- Write, edit, design and typeset your book (same as before — these processes don’t change much).
- Upload printing files in PDF format to an online print-on-demand service. There are a number of these, and the two I use are Lightning Source (connected with Ingram book distributors) and CreateSpace (connected with Amazon).
- These services use digital book printing machines that are a bit like a high-quality photocopier on steroids, which can print, bind and trim one book at a time from the printing files of thousands of authors and publishers that are stored in its system.
- Once you’ve received a proof and approved it, your book can be listed on the big online bookstores such as Amazon and Book Depository, using book and author descriptions supplied by you, and sold at a price set by you.
- Each time someone orders your book, one copy is printed, bound, trimmed, packaged and shipped. Without you ever having to touch it, or even know that it’s happening.
- If the person orders it in Europe, it might be printed on a machine in Europe. If the buyer is in Australia (where I am), maybe it will be printed here. And this global publishing empire of yours might be running from the laptop on your kitchen bench!
- The cost of printing, advertising and shipping that book is deducted from the cover price you have set, and what’s left over is paid to you, usually monthly when your earnings exceed a certain level.
- You still promote your book on a website and via social media etc, but instead of having to fulfil those website orders yourself, you can simply link buyers to your Amazon page (or other preferred online bookstore). Then the bookstore can handle all the logistics of taking payments and weighing packages and making mailing labels, while you walk the dog or have dinner with loved ones (or write the next book!). 😉
- If you’d like to have some books in stock yourself, you can order them through your account with the print-on-demand printer. Maybe you want to have 25 in the house — you can order that many. Or maybe you want just one. You can order that too. Or 500. Lightning Source has discounts once you get over 100 copies; I’m not sure when it kicks in with CreateSpace.
- The cost per copy is higher than if you’d had your book printed in, say, China. But you don’t have the huge upfront outlay, you don’t have to wait three months for the books to arrive and then get a shipping agent to process them through customs for you, you don’t have to store them, and you are saved from haunting the post office, so on a cost-benefit analysis, you may actually be doing better financially.
- Your editing and design costs are the same as they’d have been under the old system, if you use pros for these tasks. Or there are ways to do it yourself as well. So that is a separate cost that continues to be much the same under either system.
- Your overall upfront cost for printing and global distribution, however — the amount you have to pay out of your own pocket to get a book up and running on, for example, Lightning Source — will likely be no more than $100 – $200 (compare that to the $8000 – $12,000 paid upfront under the old system!)
But is the quality any good?
I have one client who began with print-on-demand to test the market, and then had some offset printing runs done once his book took off. (He mostly sells face-to-face or through bookstore orders, rather than online, so that was a good model for him.) This means I have a copy of his book from Lightning Source and another from a traditional offset printer, which creates a perfect opportunity for comparison.
I showed them to an author recently who was just learning about these new technologies. I said, “This one is print-on-demand, and this one was done on a printing press.”
He took them from me eagerly and turned them over, flicked through the pages, then looked at me, puzzled. “Am I meant to be seeing a difference?”
Yep, they’re that good. Even I can’t tell at a glance — I need to check the back page to be sure. (Print-on-demand books usually have a barcode on the last page. I think it may be used by the machine to match the pages to the correct cover, but don’t quote me on it.)
When I compare very closely, I can see that the dot size in illustrations is slightly larger on the print-on-demand version. Tints tend to come up slightly darker too. But digital printing technology is very, very good these days, and the vast majority of readers will never notice any difference between this book and all the others on their shelves.
This is not because they lack discernment, but because they are more interested in the words on those pages, and there is nothing about the quality of the digital print production to distract them from that important focus.
You can even create hardcover books with slipcovers and full-colour picture books via print-on-demand!
The take-home message
For authors whose books have the potential to sell globally and are mostly sold online, print-on-demand is a great invention.
For authors whose books have a more local flavour or a face-to-face marketing model, print-on-demand can be a good way to test the market without a huge outlay. Then if the book takes off, you have the option to reconsider later whether to get an offset print run done — and hopefully the earnings by then can cover the printing cost.
For more tips on developing a strategy for whether and when to include print in your publishing plan, you can check out the three publishing models mentioned on pp 21–23 of my free ebook, Should I Self-Publish?. It’s different for everyone, but it’s good to be aware of the possibilities that are open to you.
What is your experience? Have you created a print-on-demand book yet? Do you think you might do it in the future?
Featured image via Bigstock/Viorel Sima