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Some Ideas for You: Print-on-Demand

Print-on-demand (sometimes referred to as "POD," "on-demand printing," or "ODP") is any manufacturing method that prints books in very small quantities to avoid excess inventory and large up-front investments. These books can look quite nice if designed well, and they can also look quite bad if they are done on the cheap. Misuse of the technology by vanity presses has given the technology a bad reputation with stores, libraries and consumers, but many legitimate business plans for marketable books also use print-on-demand. If the design is well done, it can be difficult to tell a POD book from a traditional book.

Print-on-demand typically uses toner on paper (like a high-speed, high-temperature laserprinter or photocopier) rather than ink. Depending on the manufacturer, the lettering on interior pages may stand out a little from the page if you run your fingertip over it. Interiors use only one color (black only), and covers use four-color processing but can't incorporate embossing, foil stamping, or special cuts. Covers are usually laminated. Trim sizes of the books and paper quality are usually predetermined and one-size-fits-all. They are trade paperbacks (acid-free paper) rather than mass-market (pulp paper). Viable print-on-demand books are usually:

  • paperbacks rather than hardbacks
  • in the 100-350 page range (around 20,000 to 120,000 words averaging 50 words or more per paragraph, lower high limit if shorter average paragraphs)
  • with fewer than one halftone per twenty pages (and no interior color),
  • having modest needs in terms of cover design,
  • and with a niche marketing appeal.

This model can be varied in almost every respect, but the more you break out of this basic model, the more of an uphill climb for the book. Even major publishers have more books fail than succeed and publishing is never a sure thing, but print-on-demand tends to be more fragile than mainstream publishing in terms of what critics and consumers tolerate.

Notes on this five-point model:

1. POD hardback production is possible but very expensive in terms of manufacturing, and will frequently push retail out of a reasonable price range for the book. Plan to have a paperback if using POD, and add a hardback only if you plan to do extensive library marketing.

2. POD books shorter than 100 pages tend to be floppy and often can't have words on the spines. POD books longer than 350 pages tend to be very heavy to the hand (more than a pound), and do not lie flat, so they require a constant, steady grip, making them a bit uncomfortable as tactile objects.

3. POD halftones (any interior shades of gray) can vary in lightness, darkness, and detail from day to day and machine to machine at each POD print shop. Avoid them, move images to the cover, or use line art (no shades of gray) if possible. If you must use halftones, use a minimum number, and try to use images that have a lot of detail and contrast, avoiding slow gradients (sunsets, for example). If you want a person's face to be recognized it should be at least an inch high.

4. POD covers will vary in hue from daily printing to daily printing, so precise fleshtones, firetones, or other colors intimate to the human eye should be avoided. Favor abstract designs with rich background colors.

5. The best POD books from a business viability standpoint are those with niche market appeal and the promise of steady, ongoing demand.

Why Do Print-on-Demand Publishers Promise Such Different Things?

A typical breakdown for a $20 suggested retail price book in the traditional publishing chain might look like this:

  • $5 cost of manufacturing (and shipping to the warehouses/distributors)
  • $3 to distributor (which pays to ship to the store)
  • $4 to store (which pays to stock the book)
  • $1 to publisher (which pays to promote the book)
  • $1 to author (5% royalty, from which the agent is paid)
  • The consumer pays $14 plus tax or shipping for the book at 30% off. 

If you cut out the middlemen, you can get a higher royalty, but you also limit the book to mail order or internet sales. Some publishers have dual royalty models, one price for purchases directly off their site, one price for sales through the traditional chain. Chances are, if the author is offered more than 5% royalty on a book that sells through a store, the publisher is playing around with the discount structure to raise the effective price to the consumer, which can diminish sales. Authors who are not fully aware of how the numbers work can fall prey to high royalty numbers, which is often a scam. At the same time, some POD publishers are finding legitimate ways to skip one or more of the middlemen without hurting book sales, which is a positive thing; it never hurts to shake things up a bit.

Some POD publishers require an author to pay for all or part of the publishing. Some give a one-price-fits-all service for a book and simply print the manuscript out of MSWord and send that to the printer, with several quality issues. Some pay royalties or acquisition fees to authors with modest-to-robust promotion thereafter. Some charge authors near-retail price for copies of their own books.

It is important to compare apples with apples when comparing POD publishers. Final price to the consumer, royalty to the author, easy availability of the book to stores through major distributors, price of copies an author wants to order directly, quality of the design, etc., should all come into play.

A popular POD publishing pitch involves sneering at the industry at large, which can be a fallacious argument. The industry at large serves the important purpose of getting books into the hands of consumers. Distributors are simply better than stores at handling gaylords of books (boxes of boxes) and stocking hundreds of thousands of titles that can be batched for minimal bulk shipping to suit a specific store's needs. Stores are simply better than publishers and distributors at marketing a wide variety of books.

Another popular POD pitch is to sneer at books that major publishers bring to market without proper editing. "If they don't edit, why should you?" goes the argument. While some major publishers shovel tripe into print, it's not necessarily a good thing to emulate. Assume that readers care about quality. It is possible to get by without having developmental, acquisition, manuscript, and other editors working on a project, but expecting even the best authors to catch all of their mistakes is usually unrealistic. If an author is demanding and can't stand the idea of receiving editorial input on a manuscript, or insists that design be handled by a family member rather than the publisher, it often puts him or her in an unintentional vanity press setting where the publisher does a minimal amount of work.