The Real Deal: What is Print-on-Demand?

8 min read

Print-on-demand (POD) refers to the technology and the business of printing books to order. This means the printing company prints books (or other materials) based on the order quantity received, allowing for single copy printing.

If you’re an author or a writer and you’ve even toyed with the idea of publishing, you’ve no doubt encountered the term Print-on-Demand (or POD for short).

Even outside of writing, the concept of print-on-demand is pretty common these days. Custom t-shirts, stickers, coffee mugs…basically custom anything can be created through different kinds of on-demand printing. Here’s the thing: for authors, it’s a little different. We’re going to dive into what it really means, how it has evolved, how it relates to the knowledge economy, and why it’s the best way to create your book.

Buckle up.

Print on what?

If we’re going to look at the way print-on-demand has changed publishing, we first need to clearly define this mechanism. Thankfully, the name alone does a pretty good job. POD is quite literally printing done on demand.

Historically, printing of books happened in large print runs—think Guttenberg Press—through a method called offset printing. Offset used presses set to the text of the book and ran off thousands upon thousands of copies in short order.

Offset is efficient in that it controls cost by printing a huge number of books in a single run. This efficiency is also a handicap. Because printing at quantity was the only printing game in town, authors had just two options:

  1. They 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 an advance in their pockets and earn a small profit margin from every book sale.
  2. The other option was to go to a small press (also called Vanity press) and buy out of pocket a print run. This option circumvents the publisher 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 have to write, edit, design, make a cover, and purchase the bulk of printed books.

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

Technology changes all that.

Rather than printing a multitude of books in a single 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.

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 means, book printers can offer any author the opportunity to create their books. Yes, POD does normally carry with it a slightly higher 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, that cost is more than offset (see what I did there?).

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. Big publishers still make a better margin from offset, and their “sure thing” authors will still sell huge runs of books, justifying the old print method.

What POD does is reflect the broader change in how we produce and sell products.

Let’s take a small step back and review a couple of Internet concepts central to understanding how POD is reshaping publishing.

  • Web 1.0 – When the Internet first began taking over our media, it was through large organizations providing information and data to groups of people. The Internet worked in much the same way as Television. It was a static means for corporations and organizations to disseminate data and sell products and services.
  • Web 2.0 – The next generation of the Internet, Web 2.0, ushered in the modern era of social connectivity. The Internet evolved from static pages to dynamic pages. People began interacting directly, rather than individually connecting with large organized companies. Web 2.0 fostered an online environment of person to person connections.

In the first version (Web 1.0) companies connected directly to people through static web pages. During the second phase, we have companies facilitating connections between people through dynamic web pages. Currently, we’re approaching Web 3.0. This third phase of the Internet is sometimes referred to as the “Semantic Web.” What is changing now is the framework. Individuals are sharing and borrowing design, making much of the web’s content largely interchangeable.

Okay, let’s get away from this super technical stuff before I get in over my head. The point here is that the newest evolution of the web is built on the idea that you can piece together the tools you need online from existing frameworks.

It has never been easier to create online.

With this creator-friendly environment comes a change in how people buy online. Yes, Amazon is still massive and useful for buying tons of things. When you need a lamp or a computer monitor or a bag of dog food, Amazon is there. But what about when you need something unique? Personalized gifts. Indie music. Books.

Print-on-demand is the natural adaptation for book creators. This needn’t be limited to authors—businesses use books and manuals, or look-books and photobooks. Non-profits might sell calendars to raise money. 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

Back in the first paragraph, I mentioned the “knowledge economy.” Let me start by saying I hate this term. Saying it aloud makes me feel like a pompous talking head. But there is a grain of useful information in the term.

What is a knowledge economy?

It’s a marketplace driven by information more than products. The Internet brought with it unprecedented communication and connectivity. Anyone in the connected world can get any product. But information and knowledge remain limited. And as such becomes a commodity.

Books are uniquely suited to a knowledge economy (I’m not going to say it again, I promise). By their nature, books convey information.

Again, the major change here is how books get to readers. POD fosters a more inclusive and open environment for books, one in which anyone with something to share and the willingness to create can do so.

Before the advent of this new way of selling, books were created as part of a huge process. An author created a book, which then an agent had to pick up. The agent has to drum up interest from a publisher. Once the book made it into the publisher’s hands, a team would go to work editing and revise the content. Then layout. Cover design. Building the actual book. Parallel to the actual work of building the book, marketing would have to kick in to start generating buzz so the book might turn a profit for all involved.

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 Lulu, 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…

Seriously, 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. Web 3.0 is going to focus on individual creators connecting through shared Internet tools at very reasonable costs. Paying a margin to retailers to sell your product is no longer the only or even the best way to sell.

Just look at these companies revolutionizing online commerce:

Logos

And that’s literally just four of the more common ones today. By tomorrow a half-dozen new tools will exist to help sell products and ideas on the web.

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 more specialized options like Goodreads. Because the web is so versatile and growing ever more versatile, savvy readers can hone 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 creators. We’ve also touched on the ways this technology enables you to create your way (in case you never noticed, one of Lulu’s favorite taglines is “your book, your way”).

The one unique factor for authors in all of this technological growth and change is print-on-demand. We’re enabling authors to take advantage of eCommerce because they can actually 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.

9 thoughts on “The Real Deal: What is Print-on-Demand?

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  1. To follow up Augustine’s post and Paul’s reply, I do think it is a pity that Lulu doesn’t provide more marketing tools. I would love to be able to tell my online customers that they get a discount if they buy more than one of my books at a time. Or a 3 for the price of 2. More importantly, I would like to be able to give my friends and colleagues and even agents a personalised Coupon code that they could use when they promote my books at conferences, workshops and anywhere. They might even use this in their own publications, catalogues, fliers, etc. Any books bought with that code would share some of the profit with the promoter. This is not rocket science for Lulu’s programmers, but I’ve suggested it several times and there hasn’t been the slightest interest. I feel certain that it would motivate enough people to promote each other’s material.

  2. This was a useful post, but left out one issue: pubicity. I have published academic books with Oxford Univ. Press, Penn State Univ. Press, Catholic Univ. of America Press, and Cornell Univ. Press. Yes, they do all the set-up etc., but most importantly, they advertize their books, sell them at conventions and conferences, and have the “status” to get them reviewed in journals and magazines. Recently I published another book with in “in-house” press—because I wrote it for the organization. The production aspect too more of my time and I doubt the publicity will be very great. But the ultimate market was the organization.

    That said, I have, as “Dominican Liturgy Publication” published some score of books through Lulu. These are books for which there is a “captive audience” of people who want them: mostly they are Gregorian chant or litrugical texts. Yes, this cuts out the publisher and is fast and “what I want.” But the major sacrifice is having someone market the book. I love Lulu, but their “marketing package” is nothing like the marketing of a commercial or academic press.

    So, what is best depends on your audience and what is necessary to get the book before the public.

    1. Hi Augustine,

      You’re absolutely right on all accounts. For the most part, self-publishing is a means to either target a niche market or get something out there if you already have a substantial follower base to market to. It is unlikely self-publishing will offer comparable marketing efforts to a big publisher anytime soon. At least not at a price a self-published author is likely to want to pay.

      Thanks for you comment!

  3. Before I discovered POD publishing, I ended up with boxes of books I didn’t even want to sell because my work had advanced. I’ve donated quite a bit of work published this way. POD and ebook publishing allow me to make my work available with almost no overhead.

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