What Does "Print on Demand" Mean?
An aspect of book production that sometimes causes confusion is that the term “print on demand” can be used to mean different things. At the Choir Press we use the term specifically to mean a service where we fulfil print orders for one or more copies from print ready PDF files we have previously prepared. Delivery of these orders can either be to a consumer who has ordered the book from a bookseller or directly to the self-publishing author or even a third party. What’s more we can offer this service across the globe so that consumers can buy the same book in California as they can buy in Yorkshire. The consumer in California will receive a book printed in the USA and the consumer in Yorkshire will receive a book printed in the UK.
Confusion arises because the term print on demand is also used throughout the printing industry to mean that printed items including books are printed promptly from stored data files when requested by the customer where that customer is the holder of the intellectual property rights but is not a consumer in the generally accepted sense.
If a book has an ISBN and provided the distributor record is correctly maintained the print on demand service enables us provide fulfilment of orders placed by consumers on websites like Amazon and also from bricks and mortar bookshops. It’s worth noting that Amazon is just one of many online booksellers who can supply our titles to consumers and we tend to talk about Amazon when we mean online booksellers generally.
With some rare exceptions bricks and mortar bookshops do not stock print on demand titles because the economics of the print on demand system make it difficult for them to do so. The reason for this is that the cost of a print on demand book is usually much higher than a book that has been printed in volume for stockholding. This is completely logical when you think about it because the cost of printing and binding one book will never be cheaper than the cost of a single book printed as part of a print run of 10000 or 50000 books in a single production run. When a book is produced in a quantity of more than 1000 at a time we would describe that as “long run” printing. So the upshot of this is that a print on demand book may cost say £3.00 to print whereas its “long run” equivalent might only cost say £2.50 or a £1.00 depending on just how long the run is. This differential enables some publishers to offer much bigger discounts and with limited shelf space bookshops are naturally more likely to stock books that give the shop a better margin.
Despite the above, self-publishing authors should be very wary about being drawn into the notion of printing more books purely to secure a cheaper cost per book. Bear in mind that if you print 1000 books letalone 10000 you will have to store them somewhere and have a facility to send books to booksellers. You may have a large house and plenty of space to store them yourself but there is another problem with this route and it isn’t an obvious one. If you are the designated distributor a bookseller may be reluctant to take an order from their customer until they have confidence that you the distributor, can reliably fulfil the order. In the case of Amazon this often results in a book being listed on their website but with the availability described as unknown. You can find quite a lot of books like this on Amazon – they’re often the ones that have no cover image. As a rough rule of thumb I recommend that you should only choose a long run printing route if there is a realistic likelihood of selling at least 50% of the print run to customers you have direct contact with. For example, these could be people who visit your website or who are members of your existing contact sphere. If the website does not exist yet or is a work-in-progress I suggest you discount it when assessing whether to print a long run. When your website gets up and running you can have a long print run then if the visitor traffic is encouraging.
Another reason why self-publishers sometimes choose a long print run is that the technical specification of the book is not available within the print on demand system. Print on demand is a brilliant solution to the age-old publishing dilemma of “how many books should we print” coupled with the problem of distribution. However, the solving of that problem requires consistency of standards, so that the same materials and print quality are used for a book printed in USA or the UK. This limits the paper and binding styles we can offer within the print on demand service.
You will have noticed in this article that we have looked at (i) print on demand where we can print from one book at a time and (ii) long run printing where we envisage the print run will be 1000 or more books. But what about the mid-range quantities between say 200 and 999 books. The answer to the best print route for these mid-range quantities will depend on the specification of each book on a case by case basis. The lithographic technology used in long run printing may in some cases be the best answer for say 400 books and some print on demand titles print 1000s of copies over time. It’s a matter of judgement.