POD: The Self-Publisher's New Best Friend

Even The Shortest Print Run Is Now Feasible!

POD is the hottest new technology that empowers writers and publishers everywhere. No, it's not some silly little plastic electronic domino with white earbuds, it stands for Print On Demand, and it is the ultimate way to custom-tailor the print run of a book or magazine to eliminate costly overprinting waste.

Offset printing is the traditional way to print almost every publication. We're all familiar with the huge presses stretching over a city block long with the massive rolls of paper placed into position by forklifts. Offset printing is still by far the best solution for most publications as the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) is the most economical available. But there's a catch. It only really kicks in around 25,000 to 50,000 copies. At levels far below that, offset printing's set-up charges are too prohibitive to amortize over a short run.

Modern POD equipment has outgrown its photocopier status to become true printing "presses."
Modern POD equipment has outgrown its photocopier status to become true printing "presses."
Giant Offset Webs like this are best suited for huge print runs.
Giant Offset Webs like this are best suited for huge print runs.

It's a simple equation if we use round figures. Let's say that the make-ready (plates, etc.) charges for Book X are $25,000. Then the offset printing costs (before binding, etc.) are $50,000 based on 25,000 copies. That's a print bill of $75,000 for 25,000 books and that averages out to $3/book. Not bad.

If you're going to run 250,000 books it gets better yet. The make-ready charges stay the same, but the total cost of the print run itself is $475,000. Therefore, the total cost of the run is $500,000 but it's for 250,000 copies so the average is $2/book. Much better!

However, if you were interested in a very short run in the pre-POD days you faced this scenario: $25,000 for 10,000 copies to print, atop the make-ready works out to $50,000, so you're now paying $5/book. Ouch.

Try the math at 1,000 copies. How does about $30/book sound?

(Yes, I know my figures are not spot on, but the more you offset print the less each unit always costs, even on printing costs alone.)

Fortunately, technology now comes to the rescue. It is now possible to layout your entire publication on mainstream software such as Quark Xpress and Adobe Creative Suite and print out exactly the number of copies you want at a nearly fixed unit cost for quantities between 50 to 5,000. The bigger run no longer has the unbeatable advantage in pricing, as POD costs are fairly well set unit per unit and don't significantly change for larger and larger runs.

Modern POD machines are literally enormous and many of them stretch all the way down a long room, much as the smaller 4 and 5 color offset presses do. They are set up to very quickly print and collate enormous amounts of materials, and are quite suitable for print runs of 5,000 or so: A level which up to a few years ago was the exclusive domain of offset.

There are tradeoffs of course. The POD unit cost cannot possibly compete with a long run of an offset print. The technology is really only applicable to fairly short runs, and the shorter the better. The other unfortunate tradeoff is quality.

The days of POD books looking like you just photocopied the pages at the corner store and spiral bound them are long gone. There are many binding and finishing options available today that render your POD book almost indistinguishable from an offset printed one to the untrained eye. Of course it's important to design for the limitations of the print technology. Let's face it, POD is really little more than glorified laser printing. Since it uses toner rather than ink, it's hardly going to be the choice for an expensive coffee-table photo book as ink provides significantly finer quality, resolution and granularity. However, in most basic non-graphical book formats, it provides more than acceptable quality.

There are some design tricks that can be used to make your POD page approximate the look of offset. If a layout is set up in such a way that the direction of the grain in the paper itself runs parallel to the spine and to any folds, it could save the dried toner from cracking. That's because unlike ink that seeps into the paper itself, the toner just sits on top. If the paper is folded against the grain, the toner is likely to crumble.

The advantage to the publisher is that the exact amount of publications can be printed to meet existing sales demand, without having to warehouse extras. When new sales demand arises, another run can easily be accomplished. The advantage to the writer is that the costs of very low run POD are accessible so that the author can act as a self-publisher, with all the benefits (and drawbacks) that presents. For many unpublished authors of niche product, POD may simply be the only way to get at least some books on some shelves somewhere.

It's not hard to find "self-publishing houses" that will offer to print your book for you. Mostly these are best avoided like the plague. They will do nothing that you can't do yourself by dealing with a POD house directly. And they'll charge you twice as much or more.

POD can be your avenue to seeing your words in print as long as you maintain realistic expectations. Don't print more than you can legitimately sell (or better yet, already have firm orders for); study up on the market to see if your POD house is fleecing you; and come up with a business plan that will compensate for the inherent high unit cost of a POD publication. If you can do all that, you can be well on the way to being a PODlisher.

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Comments 4 comments

Joel Heffner 8 years ago

It's good to see someone who has actually explained the POD world. Bravo!


book self publishing 6 years ago

Information was helpful, there is lots to read here, which is always good when you're learning something from it good job.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Really interesting Hal. I've been thinking of going with Amazon's self-publishing scheme, I think it's createspace.com?

Actually I think there's an ad for it on your article here.

I looked it over briefly months ago and it sounded like you can order all the way down to one copy and for as little as $5 per copy. But maybe I'm wrong. Anyway, thanks for the education.


Hal Licino profile image

Hal Licino 6 years ago from Toronto Author

book, thanks. Glad you enjoyed it.

Ben, as in any business you have to make a determination as to whether there is a market for your product. There have been astonishing successes out of self-publishing but there are also hundreds of thousands of other projects that never sold a copy. It's all in the promo and right now, it's extremely difficult to sell a book... any book.

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