Print on demand or short-run printing?
The rise of print on demand has revolutionised independent publishing for authors. For years they have been able to print their books with little financial risk, making print on demand an attractive option.
But increasingly traditional printers are offering short-run printing. This relatively new development is worth indie authors considering. Read on for a comparison of the key advantages and disadvantages of each option.
At the end of this article, you'll find a handy checklist to help you choose the option that's right for you.
What are the options?
Print on demand (POD) does what is says on the tin. Printers don’t print a traditional print run of a certain number of books to keep in stock. Instead they only print books as customers order them. This means no books are held in stock. And customers must wait for the book to printed – which can happen in a matter of days – and shipped to receive their copy.
By contrast, short-run printing is producing a small number of copies to hold in stock. A short-run could be as few as 100 copies. These books must then be held in stock somewhere – with the printer, in a warehouse or perhaps with the publisher/author. These copies are available for customers to buy in the same manner as traditionally published books.
Bearing these definitions in mind, let’s consider some of the key factors that could impact an author’s decision about which printing method to use.
Consideration 1: Cost and risk
One major benefit to POD is that there is no upfront cost of printing to the author (excluding a small upload fee that most POD printers charge). Whereas, an author placing an order for a short run of copies must pay in advance for every copy printed. So far, it sounds like POD is the clear winner, right?
But. On a per unit cost, it is substantially cheaper to use short-run printing over POD. I did a cost comparison of printing methods in December 2021. I compared the cost of printing 200 copies of a standard size paperback with a POD printer and with a short-run printer. The cost for POD was £825. A short run was £525. That’s 36% cheaper.
It would be much easier to make profit on a short-run copy than a POD copy. A POD book had a production cost of £4.12, vs a short-run cost per copy of £2.62. It is also worth remembering that printing costs change over time as the price of paper fluctuates. Once a short-run has been paid for and printed, there are no further increases in costs. Whereas the cost of production on a POD copy could rise over time, meaning the profitability of a book could decline over its lifetime.
The flipside is that there is little to no risk involved in POD. There are only as many copies printed as there are orders. There is no risk of the author being left with unwanted stock.
Short-run printing leaves the author open to over- and under-printing. The author could be left with copies that they can’t sell, therefore reducing their profit margins. Or they may have to reprint quickly if orders exceed the printed stock.
Consideration 2: Preparing files for print
Another reason why POD has become such a great option for indie authors is the ease of preparing files for printing. Manuscripts can be typeset in Word, for which there are a wealth of existing resources online to guide authors in the process. They also don’t need to pay for additional software or designers and typesetters.
On the other hand, short-run printing uses a type of printer that requires crop marks to be added to the print-ready files. It's not possible to add the necessary crop marks in Word. This means that specialist software, such as InDesign, must be used to typeset the manuscript.
InDesign can be purchased as a monthly subscription for £30 per month. The cost isn’t onerous. But for those inexperienced in this software package, it can be difficult to get to grips with.
Authors could engage a typesetter to prepare their files for print. However, this cost could run into hundreds of pounds, greatly adding to the overall cost of production and reducing their profit margins. Of course, it can give peace of mind that the book has been set up correctly for print. And there is a greater choice of printing specifications, meaning the final printed product can be produced to a higher quality.
Consideration 3: Wholesale discounts
The wholesale discount of a book is the discount amount a retailer purchases copies at. These retailers include Amazon, Waterstones and Barnes & Noble. For the book industry, 35–55% is a standard wholesale discount.
In order to persuade retailers to stock your book, your discount has to be set at a reasonable rate within that range.
With POD, it isn’t possible to control your wholesale discount. The printer sets it and some of them alter it without notifying you. Their discounts can be as little as 10%, making it unlikely that bookshops will stock your book (though online retailers are more forgiving).
Whereas many short-run printers, including Clays and CPI, have deals with Gardners, where the wholesale discount is transparent and reasonable. Bookshops can order the book through Gardners and get a reasonable discount, so there are no impediments to them taking stock of your book.
With all that in mind, which option is right for you? I've written a handy checklist to help you decide.
Short-run printing is for authors who:
Have people (including family and friends) clamouring to buy their book
Do school visits; having stock is great for hand-selling at events
Have some disposable cash to invest
Have a healthy appetite for risk; are prepared to go big (but obviously in a small way, we’re only authors after all)
Would feel the same way about having fifty unsold books lying around their house as they would about taking in fifty old stray cats with varying degrees of incurable and expensive-to-manage health problems: warm, fuzzy and deeply fulfilled.
POD is for authors who:
Are publishing their first book as a sort of trial run, to see how it goes
Would rather spend their limited budget on a great cover design and effective marketing
Are risk averse and prefer to trial ideas gently before investing
Don't have the time or money to typeset in complicated software programmes
Would look at fifty unsold books lying around their house and be constantly haunted by the image of that one curmudgeonly grandparent/teacher/town cynic sitting in the corner say, ‘I told you so.'