Print-On-Demand: A Definition and a Comparison

The purpose of this article is to consider Print-On-Demandpublishing as an alternative for the aspiring author. It has itsstrengths and its weaknesses. You may wonder as you begin readingthis, but in the end I'm going to say some good things about it.

The title explains the technology. The way that literature hastraditionally been printed involves running many copies simul-taneously in order to bring the price per copy down. Smallerprint runs, such as advertising, brochures, or concert programs,cost more per copy because they are small print runs. Untilrecently, printing a single book was all but unthinkable.

In the case of novels, the traditional print publisher begins byprinting several thousand copies. His goal is to run off thesmallest number of copies he can while getting the best possibleprice per copy.

These books are then sent to bookstores, which tend to prefersomething along the lines of what has succeeded before. Theremainder sits in a warehouse somewhere. Perhaps to be shipped asthe orders come in, perhaps to be joined by any "remaindered"copies the bookstores couldn't move.

This represents an investment on the part of that publisher,hence his paranoia about experimenting with new formats or (moreimportantly) new authors.

Print-On-Demand (POD) uses a completely different process. Theend result is, the price per copy on a small run is much lower.How small of a run? Try one book. Zero inventory. The book iseconomically produced when the reader orders it, not before.

This technology was probably invented for sales literature. Thensomeone realized it might be a pretty cool way to get ARCs(Advance Review Copies) out to the book reviewers before the bookwas actually available. Finally, someone decided to get it intothe publishing mainstream.

Why is it so much cheaper to publish a single book via POD? Thereasons really aren't relevant to this article, besides whichthey'd probably bore you. But if you care, the first link belowspells it all out.

I recommend reading (or at least skimming) all five of those, bythe way. It's quite a comprehensive analysis of how. Then comeback to this article to determine why. Or if.

Have you ever heard of the author who self-published and wound upwith a best-seller? They do exist!

Now look at all the self-published authors who couldn't do that.They're the vast majority. The author who uses POD faces similarlongshot odds.

POD has a definite advantage over other self-publishing, in thatyou don't wind up with a few hundred (or more?) copies of a bookin your basement because you can't sell them. Thus, it's cheaper,with no difference in quality unless you hook up with losers.

But neither option will bring you the readership that you'll getfrom a successful book with a traditional print publisher.

I have self published. I went to a local print shop back in thepre-POD days, ran off 80 copies at $3 a copy, and sold them tolocal bookstores for $6 a copy. Lots of fun, and lots oflearning, but I didn't get rich. My wage per hour stunk, but thatwas fine with me because I honestly didn't care. I broke even andgave away the rest. A pleasant way to spend lunch hours duringthe work week.

Most of us, though, just don't have that kind of time. And evenif we do, why bother? Take the money you'd have invested and buysome Microsoft stock, then take the time you'd have invested andwrite more books. You'll be happier and you'll make more money.

Having said all that, why am I recommending POD at all? In mycase, it's because I've written some books that no printpublisher will ever pick up. That's my honest appraisal.

If I were a mercenary type, I'd follow that up with somethinglike "Why'd you even write those books then?" But if you're aREAL writer, you know the answer.

It's always about writing first, marketing second. Two differenthats. I'm assuming you already did the writing and now arewondering what the heck to do with it.

As an example, my EPPIE 2002 finalist is too short. I wrote itback when print publishers wanted 40,000 words. Now they want50,000. But it doesn't take 50,000 words to tell that particularstory, and I'm not padding it. Even if I were willing, it'd stinkand nobody would buy it. Give the publishers some credit. Theyknow padding when they see it. The same goes for the readers.

As another example, consider my short story collection.Critically acclaimed and selling moderately well, but notraditional publisher wants short story collections from unknownauthors. It's just that simple.

So, I simultaneously published these books in e-book format andPOD format. E-books are cheaper and more environmentally friendly,but the paperback option is still there for those who can't orwon't ever read an e-book.

(Daddy is in that group, by the way. How about your family?)

Places who publish only POD began by accepting anything senttheir way. Pay your money, and do your own editing and marketing.This gave POD a credibility problem. There are POD outfits whodon't operate this way, but the credibility problem will taketime to heal.

As an author, your goal is to write what's in your heart, findpeople who like to read what you like to write, and get it out tothem. (That's my goal, anyway.) If your name happens to be TomClancy, that equals many readers. But that's simply luck of thedraw.

Many of us don't have such mass appeal. Possibly you're the sortof writer who knows exactly where you stand in that respect. Butmany don't, and they're flooding the POD market with stuff thatmost readers just plain don't want. Add to that the badly editedstuff, and the credibility problem with POD is understandable.

Ideally, what you want is for your e-publisher to simultaneouslyrelease your book in both formats without charging a POD setupfee. That way, you can direct all your promotional efforts tothat single URL. However, these e-publishers have a real problemwith backlog now, so if you want to travel the road I did, you'llneed much more patience than I did.

Taking advantage of a free POD option with your e-book will alsohelp your promotional efforts. Many reviewers just plain won'ttouch an e-book. If you've done the POD bit, in addition to beingable to tell all your friends and family, "Look at this, I'm areal author because here's the paperback," you'll be able to sendreview copies via POD to those book reviewers.

If you find yourself with an e-publisher who doesn't offer freePOD, you may wish to shop around for a POD publisher. As you dothis, remember the business model. If a publisher makes all itsmoney from writers, it doesn't need to sell a single book to asingle reader to stay in business.

No matter how much praise they send your way, that's the bottomline. Writing is a calling, but publishing is a business. Thoseauthors who can't distinguish between the two are what keep theopportunists in business. I was such an author for most of mylife.

Some POD places are no more than thinly veiled vanity (orsubsidy) presses. They have a role to serve, but let's behonest. Most do no editing, and they don't care. They may not bemaking a massive profit from your setup fees, but they're makingenough to stay in business. Even if you don't sell any books toanyone except your Gramma.

Earlier, I recommended e-publishing before print publishing forthe free editing you'll receive. If you're going with POD,consider it mandatory. Either that, or pay an editor. The authorwho can write a mistake-free manuscript does not exist.

Still interested in POD publishing? Here are the questions youshould ask yourself when you select a POD publisher:

A) Sale price of each book

1) Who decides what it is?

2) Will readers pay that much?

B) Profit per sale vs. your setup cost

1) How many copies must you sell to break even?

2) Can you do it?

3) If not, do you care? How big of a financial hit are youwilling to take just to see your name in print?

As a rule, US$100 or less setup cost is good and US$1000 is verybad. The latter, no matter how much publicity they promise you,is only a thinly disguised vanity publisher. You won't sell enoughbooks to recoup that $1000 unless you're a real marketing machine.Even then you shouldn't pay the $1000. It won't get you anythingthat $100 won't.

If the POD place only prints "trade paperbacks," which are thelarger ones, your cost per book (and sale price per book) will behigher than if you can print "mass-market paperbacks." The choiceis yours, but whatever you decide, visit the local bookstores andprice similar-sized books. If you write like Stephen King butcharge twice as much per book, readers are going to buy theauthor they've heard of, and that's probably not you. Yet...

A comprehensive list of POD publishers, along with descriptions,can be found on-line at

It fails to mention Booksurge (, alsoknown as Digitz ( US$99. I have noexperience with them, but I've heard only good things about them.

Another that isn't mentioned is Digital Print Australia at I've used them. My setupcost was AUD$35 (roughly US$18 back then), which compares ratherfavorably to those listed.

Their price per copy is also excellent. The quality equals whatyou'll find in the bookstores. If you've ever bought a paperbackfrom Writers Exchange, you've seen it. If not, Digital Print willsend you a free sample. They sent mine to China.

Two problems you may have with them, though, are shipping chargesfrom Australia if that's not where your readers are located, andthe fact that they don't offer a way to sell the books on theirsite.

Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?

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