Print on Demand

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What Is Print-on-Demand (POD)?

Print-on-demand (POD) refers to the technology and the business of printing books made to order. This means the printing company prints books (or other materials for that matter) based on the order quantity received. If you’re an author or a writer and you have brainstormed the idea of publishing, you have no doubt come across the term Print-on-Demand (or POD for short). Even outside of the publishing realm, the concept of print-on-demand is more and more common these days. Custom shirts, hats, pens, pencils…basically custom anything can be created through different kinds of on-demand printing. For authors though, it’s a little different. We’re going to jump into what it really means, how it has evolved, and why it’s the best way to create and publish your book.

Saddle up.

Print-on-Demand, who, what?

If we’re going to look at the way print-on-demand has changed publishing, we first need to clearly define this procedure. Thankfully, the name alone does a pretty good job. POD is quite simply printing done on demand. Historically, printing of books happened in large print runs, through a method called offset printing. Offset used presses set to the text of the book and printed thousands upon thousands of copies. Offset is efficient in that it controls cost by printing a large volume of books in a single run. This efficiency is also a deterrent. Because printing at large quantities was the only game in town, authors had just two options:

  • Authors could get an agent to pick up their book, then the agent gets them a contract with a publisher. Now, this author could happily write with a cash advance in their pockets and earn a small profit margin from every book that eventually sells.
  • The other option was to go directly to a small press and buy a print run out of pocket. This option bypasses the publishing company, so the author gets to hold on to their profits. But it trades ownership of the book at a steep cost. The author here will do all of the legwork to write, edit, design, make a cover, and purchase the large number of printed books.

In the first case, the author earns very little, must get lucky enough to be seen or discovered, and gives up control of their work. In the second case, the author retains all control and profits, but has to pay out for all aspects of creating the book and shoulder all marketing efforts.

Technology changes all that.

Rather than printing a multitude of books in a single print run, print-on-demand produces books in response to an order. Working with PDF files and printing digitally, POD slashes the upfront cost to print and enables authors to publish without maintaining a stock of books on hand that quite possibly may not sell. The true catalyst for this shift is digital printing. Because the technology now exists to produce books at the same quality as offset printing with digital devices, book printers can offer any writer or author the opportunity to create their books. Yes, POD does normally carry with it a slightly higher unit cost per book to print, but because authors are printing only the books they need and profiting from their books directly without sharing a huge cut with publishers.

Changing Technology, Changing Economy

On-demand printing ushered in a major change in the way books are created and sold. Year over year, the number of POD titles for sale grows, but there is little chance it will ever supplant offset entirely. Even today, big publishers still make a better profit margin from offset, and their “sure fire” authors will still sell huge runs of books, justifying the old offset print method. What POD does is reflect the broader change in how we produce and sell products. Print-on-demand is the natural adaptation for book creators. This isn’t just limited to authors—many different types of businesses use books and manuals or look-books and photobooks. Educators at all levels create workbooks or custom curriculum. And because these can all be created on-demand at reasonable costs, the opportunity to create and share has never been greater.

Books in the On-Demand market

Before the advent of this new way of selling, books were created as part of a huge process as stated earlier. From the moment an author finished writing to the first actual sale, dozens of different hands would be involved in any given book. Thanks to the connectivity of the web, an author can get all those services without having to work through a publisher. Cover designers and editors can freelance from the around the globe, offering author’s the services at reasonable costs. Or an author could do it all themselves! Two crucial elements are coinciding here. The ability to find highly skilled individuals to do specific design tasks and the ability to print and ship affordably. Creators have always been able to hire contractors to do design work. The web just made it easier to find them and even more importantly, easier to find skilled designers at good rates. Motivated creators have always been able to create independently. Now they can do so more efficiently.

The major change is Print-on-Demand.

Twenty years ago, you could write a book, edit it thoroughly, get it proofread, hire a designer to lay it out, and commission a cover. Once all that was done, you’d still need thousands of dollars to buy a print run. Then you’d be on the hook for that cost (and storage) until you sold all those books. Now you can take your perfected interior and cover files and publish them through one of many online self-publishers (I recommend Hillprintsolutions.com, but I am a bit biased). Once published, you can sell books online and print them on-demand for readers.

It just keeps getting better…

No really, it does. Self-publishing introduced print-on-demand, but it didn’t introduce online retail. Or online promotion. Or the social media tools necessary to disseminate your content. Those tools have all developed independently over the last two decades. Ask any author the hardest part of self-publishing. I bet you a nickel they say, “selling my book.” You’ve got to attract readers and convince them to buy your book out of all the other options they have online. Social media plays a huge role in how you communicate with and attract new customers. The options here span from the ever-present Facebook or Twitter to other more specialized options. Because the web is so versatile and growing ever more versatile, savvy readers can dial in with a laser focus on the kind of content they enjoy the most and find or form communities around that content. Likewise, authors no longer need to put their book out there and hope readers find it among thousands of other options. You can go in search of readers on the various web forums and groups that focus on the genre you’re writing in.

POD versus the World

Alright, we’ve looked briefly at the history and evolution of technology as it pertains to publishing a book. We’ve also touched on the ways this technology enables you to create your way. The one unique factor for authors in all this technological growth and change is print-on-demand. POD is enabling authors to take advantage of eCommerce because they can print their books without spending a fortune. Some authors will still get picked up by a publishing house. They’ll get to sit back and focus on writing while a company edits and designs and sells for them. And the product that publishing house sells will have that author’s name on it. Taking the “traditional” route is always going to be right for some authors. But they’ll be giving up something in the process too. You don’t have to do that. Authors and creators can take advantage of simplified book creation tools thanks in no small part to Print-on-Demand (POD).