What Is Print On Demand?

25 Jul 2001

At its simplest, print on-demand publishing means that whenever a book is demanded (ordered, bought, requested), a copy of the book is printed. To anyone who knows anything about traditional printing methods, this sounds ridiculous. Setting up a book on a traditional printing press is a long, costly process and to print one copy of a book would cost thousands of dollars. The advent of digital technologies, however, has brought changes.

Printing Turns over a New Leaf

Desktop publishing (creating book layouts in computers) has been relatively common since the 1980s. To print a product, however, the finished design was still created as film separations. From these, printers produced plates (one plate for every 16 pages in a book – known as a ‘signature’) that were loaded on to the printing presses. When the press started rolling, it took a while to get the right amount of ink on the plate, so the first impressions printed on paper were always discarded. For full-color pages, the paper must be run through the presses four times, once for each of the colors that form the basis of four-color printing. Once all this work was done, economics demanded that you produce hundreds or thousands of copies of a book at the same time. (By printing hundreds of copies, the initial costs are spread out and the unit price of each book reflects only a tiny percentage of the set-up costs).

The advent of high-quality digital printers in the late 1980s and early 1990s promised to change the economics of printing. Unlike a traditional press, a digital printer lays ink directly onto the pages in a pattern determined by the code sent to it by a computer (think of how your office laser printer works). In this way even color digital printers can produce a good color print without running the paper through the press more than once.

The implications were not lost on printing professionals. They saw that it was becoming easier to print only as many copies of a document as you needed, instead of the standard 500 or 1000 copy minimum runs. The first commercial applications of this technology were in the area of manuals and reports: documents that required small quantities and frequent revisions.

In the late 1990s, a couple of new companies started to apply this technology to the idea of trade book production. There was already a strong self-publishing movement in the US, using traditional printing processes. Using traditional presses, authors had to print hundreds of copies of their book at a time, on spec, at great expense. They then had to store their inventory, and hope they sold the hundreds of copies that would cover their costs. Even when your book costs $2 to print, 1000 copies represents a significant investment – and that doesn’t include marketing costs. Most writers are unable or unwilling to make that investment. Digital printing seemed to offer a practical alternative. But individual authors could not make even digital printing economical enough to print single copies of their book and sell them at regular bookstore prices. Some consolidation was needed, to achieve the savings and discounts that come with bulk manufacturing.

Digital Efficiencies

Print on-demand companies send many titles to their printer at the same time. The content of each book is different, but because they print hundreds of books daily, they are able to minimize waste, time, and costs.

These companies usually create a book ‘container’: one size, on one type of paper. They pour the digital content of each book onto that paper. After the press prints the pages for your neighbor’s novel, it simply starts to lay ink on the next piece of paper in a new pattern – that of the words and pictures in your book. Printing one book at a time has suddenly become a snap.

Therefore, most Print On-Demand books are the same size. Each print on-demand service providers offers standard sizes that their printers are expecting. Thus they achieve economies of scale.

How Does a Digital Printer Work?

When you send a document to your home printer, you will notice a slight delay as the printer’s memory receives and stores the document. The bigger the file, the longer the pause. Commercial digital printers are hooked up to a computer all their own, which processes the document information before feeding it into the printer. The larger the file, the longer this takes, but, compared to setting up plates on a traditional press, and changing them every time you want to print the next 16-page signature, this is a lightning-fast process (probably the reason why one of the first companies to offer digital book production called itself Lightning Print – later Lightning Source, now LSi).

Then the printer lays ink directly onto the pages. Each book body is matched with its cover, bound and trimmed.

The beauty of the process is that the presses, trimmers and binders can print different book content all day, without any extra set-up costs, any need to change settings for different sizes, any need to pause.
Is it really that easy?

No. There are all kinds of wrinkles along the way. Commercial digital printers are professional machines. Getting good results require that you understand how to use them properly. If you or your service provider sends bad data to the printer, you’ll get an ugly book (for example if your fonts are not handled professionally, you could end up with a book printed in courier; if you use low-resolution graphics – that look fine on your 72 dpi screen – they can look terrible when output from a 1600 dpi printer). The paper grain must be correct so that you book doesn’t curl. A proper paper weight must be found, that bends nicely and isn’t transparent, but is not so thick that the spine cracks when readers open the book. The paper must be a color that is easy on the eye, and it must be acid-free if you want libraries to buy your book. Printing and coating the cover are other tricky areas. There are a limited number of really good color digital printers today. The lamination or coating must be right for the kind of cover paper you use, and there is currently no efficient way to laminate just one cover (another economy of scale for the POD service providers).

What I’m getting at here, is that there is a lot of research that has been done by the service providers. You, as an individual, would find it hard to duplicate the services they offer, because of the level of knowledge required and the efficiencies of producing many different titles at one time.


So what are the costs, really? Well, in traditional printing thousands of copies of a book can cost as little as around 50 cents a book – but we’re talking tens of thousands of copies. Very few books have a market of tens of thousands. To print a single book traditionally – if you could find someone to do it for you — would cost as much as printing 200, because of the high set-up costs (probably at least $1000).

To print a digital book in single quantities costs POD companies between $4 and $10 per book. Because they are printing so many, their average cost is usually around $6.50. Some companies use this cost to set an average price (losing money on the fattest books, making money on the medium and skinny ones). Other companies charge prices based on page-count, allowing the author to set the price, as long as it does not go below a certain minimum, that guarantees the company its profit.

Print On-Demand books are printed in the higher-quality trade paperback format (larger than a mass-market paperback, and on higher quality paper). They are usually priced a little higher than comparable mass-produced books, because of that $6 average printing cost, which leaves less room for the big discounts demanded by booksellers. They are also usually more profitable in the long run. There are no wasted copies – to be stored, or destroyed when the new edition comes out. There are no speculative printing costs – since the retail price of each book covers the printing costs and profit, and since no book is printed until a sale is guaranteed.

So How Do Readers Find My Book?

Print On-Demand books are not printed until ordered, that kind of goes with the concept of ‘on-demand’. That is not to say that they not available through traditional channels such as bookstores. Most bookstores subscribe to databases of books ‘in print’ – either online databases, CD-Rom editions or the good old-fashioned quarterly catalog. This means that if someone walks into a bookstore and asks for your book, the staff will be able to look up the title, find out how to order the book, and obtain a copy for you. Of course, this whole process is so new (less than five years old) and the book industry is so old and musty, that it’s not always that simple and you will often have to educate store clerks about the ‘on-demand’ principle.

Other ways to obtain the books include:

  • Directly from the producer. Most service providers have an online bookstore and toll-free number. This is the best way, because it cuts out most of the middlemen and generates the highest profits for you.
  • From online bookstores such as Amazon.com. Since these stores routinely list books even if they don’t have them in a warehouse, they are great places to direct your customers. It costs the online bookstore next to nothing to list the book, and they can obtain it at any time.
  • From you. This is probably the least preferable option. Why should you have to pay for and store copies, when you can just send your readers to an online bookstore or toll-free number, and spend none of your own money building a stock?

Of course, you are quite justified in asking how readers will know about your book if it’s not on bookstore shelves.

You have to tell them.

This is not any different from how a publisher works even when producing vast quantities of books. The publisher is still responsible for promoting and marketing the books. If you are the publisher, then you must promote and market the books.

And be honest, how often have you walked into a bookstore and bought a book just because you saw it on the shelf, even if you know nothing about it? Come on, honestly…even if you like the cover of a book you’ve never heard of, you at least read the cover blurb, don’t you?

Well, since your book isn’t available to casual bookstore browsers, you need to get that blurb in front of people who are casually browsing in other places – newsgroups, chatrooms, online stores, society newsletters, local newspapers and so on. Without promotion, even a book on a bookstore shelf will not sell many copies.

And don’t forget, books do not stay on a bookstore shelf for ever. Even if you get your book into a bookstore, the store may return it at any time. Generally stores rotate their stock for the three different book selling seasons, meaning that your book could be taken off the shelves and returned to the publisher (you) in a few short weeks.

So don’t think that not being in physical bookstores is a crippling handicap.

Out of Print No More

The final indignity for the traditionally published author is the concept of your book going out of print. This can happen within the first year. If the response to the first printing of your book (usually 5000 copies for a first novel) is not rapturous and immediate, the publisher’s accountants will happily demonstrate that your book is not worth a second printing. Even if 300 people call the publisher in the first year after your book comes out, that will not convince them to reprint the book and it simply becomes unavailable.

With digital print on-demand, there is no need for your book to go out of print, since there is no need for a minimum print run and all the costs that go along with it. Your book is stored as a digital file. Even with a fabulous color cover, your book won’t take up more than 10 MB on a hard-drive somewhere, making it virtually free to store. As long as companies are still printing digital books, putting your content on the page will cost no more than printing a copy of the latest book that came into their stable. This means that your book never goes out of print. 15 years from now, when your disrespectful grandchildren want a copy of ‘that goofy book grandma wrote’, they’ll be able to get it.


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