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
Thanks Belinda – will let you know how it goes. I’m on the first steps of a new learning curve here. Thanks for the encouragement. : )
I’m just investigating POD for a non-fiction novelty (for want of a better word) gift book, and am wondering about the user end price of such a book. As each POD book is a one-off item do they usually end up very/relatively expensive and therefore prohibitive?
I’ve seen physical self-pubbed books being touted at high prices, eg £16-£20.
Just wondering if you can send me in any direction to investigate this cost-to-consumer question?
My book would work best (physically) at under £8 retail, I wonder if this is achievable with POD? – It won’t contain dense text like a novel.
I’m loving everything I’m reading on your site by the way. So helpful, and as others have said your writing style is wonderfully friendly. You are taking down barriers. Good work!
Belinda Pollard says
Hi Andrew, thanks for the kind words. 🙂
Is your book full colour throughout? If so, that tends to push the price up. Density of text doesn’t really affect the price. And how many pages is it? It’s hard to give a ballpark figure, without knowing a few more details about the book. My 328 page novel is currently selling for £10.22 on Amazon UK. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Poison-Bay-Belinda-Pollard/dp/0994209800
POD books are indeed more expensive per copy to print than offset printed books–but you’d need to print several thousand for the economies of scale to really kick in for offset printing. Hope that helps a little. Feel free to ask more!
thanks so much for you reply.
I’m quickly noticing that the self publishing people are a very friendly and helpful bunch, which is wonderful. Thanks for the info – and your own book looks great by the way!
The book I have in mind has no colour/illustrations inside, just text, and will be composed of a few short paragraphs on each page. And I expect it will be around 250-300 pages.
Without revealing current idea, as it’s still being written, I had a similar format book published traditionally ages ago (in a quite different market).. It bombed. But there weren’t the same opportunities then to reach the wider world.
My thinking back then – way back in 1999 (yes, really) was that I realised that a lot of people would be trying to give up smoking on New Year’s day 2000.
I thought I’d do a ‘Little Book of Calm’ type thing aimed at that market. So I wrote book, wrote proposal, got agent, got publishing deal, got in shops, did marketing …in my naive and nervous way at the time. All pre proper internet.
Sadly the book came out far too late and in the wrong size, missing New Year and even national no-smoking day and it quickly faded from sight. Here it is though:
My current project, though entirely different, is along those lines, being a mass market non-fiction idea that this time I want to be in control of. The previous book was for sale at £4.99. I doubt that a print on demand today could be brought to market so cheaply. My concern is that a book that contains a lot of space can’t carry a high price without seeming to be a rip-off. My other book was a little too large for the content and suffered that way I think.
I’m wondering if perhaps it is wise generally to release a book initially only in E-book form before physical, though I would ideally like to release both together. Hope this isn’t too much of a ramble. I’m really just trying to get an idea of cost/profit for such a book.
Thanks for listening Belinda : )
Belinda Pollard says
Yes I see your problem, Andrew. With POD (as with any other form of printing) you pay by the page. And with POD (UNLIKE any other form of printing), up to the US Letter sized paper you pay the same per page. So even if you had tiny pages in your book, you’d be up for the same printing cost as for a much bigger page size. (You don’t actually pay for the printing out of your pocket; it’s deducted from your royalties.)
Lots of people test the market with an ebook, so that’s always something to consider. Although, those little books are still so often in print. The sort of thing that people give as a gift, put in a pocket or handbag, etc.
The best thing to do is probably to get a sense of your market. Have a look at the books already available in the area you are targeting, both in physical bookstores and on Amazon et al. What are other people doing? Amazon shows product dimensions, and you can use the “look inside” feature to see how they’ve laid out the pages. See what is out there and think hard about how you can position your book differently.
The other thing to think about if you want to pursue POD, is the idea of having 3 or 4 thoughts to a page, and separating them by the use of graphic features. That way you could bring your book down to 100 pages or so, and potentially have a chance at a viable price point nearer £4.99.
Thanks so much for your advice Belinda. That is all so helpful, and of course makes perfect sense.
Once I’m ready to go I think I’ll go all out, as you rightly say these books do work best as a gift, or purchase for the handbag or pocket etc, and, (as you also say) they are created on demand without printing costs up front, so it makes sense to make the physical book available.
The self publishing world can seem quite daunting, but it also seems rather exciting, so I’ll investigate further and fine-tune my idea for it.
Thanks again for your wisdom. : )
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Andrew. Let me know how it all goes! It might be a good interview topic. 🙂
I did a print run of my book (here in Ireland) but now that I’m getting some press coverage with it abroad, I’m getting it ready for print on demand at the moment. In some ways, I’m wondering why I waited so long but it was one of those ‘put on the long finger’ jobs.
I’ll be interested to see the difference in quality to compare both.
Belinda Pollard says
I’ll be interested to see how you find the comparison, Lorna. Don’t forget to blog about it! 🙂
Well written and full of good advice. As a former small press regional publisher of non-fiction, I agree with just about everything you say (and what I don’t is insignificant – LOL). You have given great advice to potential self publishers.
As a writer, former editor for a lit mag and wanna-be best seller (fiction of course – we all have a novel in us, right?) I can’t say it strongly enough – so I am going to shout at you in all caps. IF YOU ARE GOING TO SELF PUBLISH, PLEASE DO NOT TRY TO SAVE MONEY ON EDITING, AND COVER ART! If you don’t have a few professionals in your circle of friends, pay for it. It makes all the difference in the world.
Belinda Pollard says
So very true, Judith. People think editing is just spelling and punctuation, but a good editor is SO much more than that! I’ve been a book editor for nearly 20 years, but I’ll still have my own books professionally edited by someone else. Need I say more??? 🙂
Norah Colvin says
Thanks for all the wonderful information in this great post Belinda. I really appreciate the opportunity of learning from your experience. Your free Ebook “Should I Self-Publish” is also very helpful. I love the question/checklist format which makes the information very accessible. Thank you for it. At the moment I have a few picture books ready to take to the next step. I am interested in both ebook format and print on demand. I think it is wonderful for young children to be able to hold the book in their hands, curl up on a lap, and read together. They can do this on a tablet or ereader, but turning pages does not have quite the same tactile delight as with a printed book. I was interested to see that you mentioned picture books in your article. They are often omitted from other articles I have researched about making ebooks. I wondered if you could make a suggestion about my next step or if you would be able to offer individual advice. Thanks for your help.
Belinda Pollard says
Norah, thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement. I’m really glad the post was helpful.
I agree with you about the tactile pleasures of reading on paper. I often read on an e-reader these days for convenience, and they are wonderfully portable, but if I really want to relax and “wallow” in a book, nothing beats paper, for me. I hope print never actually dies. 😉
Print-on-demand would surely be a great way for you to get your picture books into the world and test the market. I have not yet helped anyone through the process of creating a full-colour print-on-demand book, but I’ve got a blog post planned where I’ll be interviewing several people who’ve done it… so stay tuned!!
Norah Colvin says
Thanks Belinda. I look forward to reading that post. I’m sure there’ll be lots for me to learn.
Skye Lotus says
Great post. It really confirms what I’ve read elsewhere. Having very recently released my first POD book via IngramSpark (associated with Lightning Source) I’m seeing the book everywhere now.
Time will tell if this translates into sales.
What doesn’t change is the need to manually get the attention of physical book stores. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this?
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Skye, and it’s good to hear your experiences with Spark. It seems to be LS’s attempt to become more user-friendly for self-publishers, which is helpful.
I know you’ve seen my comments over on thebookdesigner.com, so you are aware I’m not entirely thrilled with the bookstore discounts they’re enforcing, resulting according to my sums in less royalty to the author than is available via CreateSpace. (For some discussion of how Spark varies from LS, other readers might find this post by Joel Friedlander useful: http://www.thebookdesigner.com/2014/01/breaking-news-new-ingram-spark-discounts-for-indie-publishers/ )
In terms of getting your book into physical bookstores, most indies who have success with that seem to do it by having a relationship with a bookstore owner/manager/book buyer. Or knowing someone who does. “Make friends” would be my best suggestion. Followed by “ask questions”… ask them how you could make stocking your book an attractive proposition for them.
There are a lot of other issues surrounding it, related to how bookstores like to order books, and how they like to relate to distributors… too many to write in this comment! 🙂 Sounds like I’d better write another blog post.
Skye Lotus says
Yes I’ve started the process of establishing contact with the buyers behind the ‘local’ stores.
I look forward to your next post. So much to learn.
Rich Leder says
Once again, I enjoyed your post, this one because it re-confirmed what I’ve been reading and hearing and thinking about print-on-demand. I’m going with CreateSpace for the three funny books I’m self-publishing in August with my Laugh Riot Press imprint. But I especially enjoyed your reply to Ryan’s comment: “I was too busy today to make mine any shorter.” Exactly. Back in the Dark Ages, when I was in college, a professor assigned the class a 10-page paper. I handed in 20 pages with a note that read: “Sorry, I ran out of time.” Smart, clear, clean, concise writing takes time. Thanks for reminding us about that little detail.
Belinda Pollard says
Oh Rich, it’s so true. Capturing a message that is content-rich and reflects subtleties of the purpose, and yet uses as few words as possible… a big task!
Looking forward to hearing how your adventure with CreateSpace goes. I’ve tended to favour Lightning Source for a variety of reasons, but since they made recent changes, CreateSpace is looking like a stronger option. And they definitely seem best for Amazon.
Hey Belina, very well written – I love your style! Informative, yet causal and fun. You strike a nice balance.
Thanks for this info. Now, as a published author, I am considering this option in addition to having a few printed by my local printer so I have some copies on hand when I need them for events and such. Their turn around is normally within the week – and I am a last minute kinda guy at times.
You’re awesome, thanks again! When I grow up, I want to write blog posts like YOU. Though as a typical Gen Y, I write for very short attention spans.
Belinda Pollard says
Ryan, if you’ve got a good arrangement with your local printer, don’t change it! My policy: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But for reaching a whole new audience worldwide… well, that’s where print-on-demand comes into its own for someone in your position.
Thanks for the lovely comments on my blogging. *blushes* This post is too long, however, and your “short attention span” policy works for more than just Gen Y. I was too busy today to make mine any shorter. 😉 It takes MORE effort to write something concise – just ask an editor. Oh, that would be me. haha, oops!
Best wishes for your publishing career.