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Print on Demand | Inside Publishing


Print on Demand

Chris Holifield 2017

Print on demand is a now widely-used printing technology which delivers, literally, print on demand. It has the power to change the way books are published radically, and even publishers are using it on a very much greater scale. Some writers are still not yet familiar with its possibilities.

What is Print on Demand?

It’s worth therefore starting with a definition. The traditional ‘batch printing’ approach has been used by publishers to print a few thousand books at a time. Print on demand enables the books to be printed one at a time, literally ‘on demand’. The book, including the cover, is set up as a digital file. When an order comes through, the right file is selected by the computer, which then gives the instruction to the print on demand machine to produce it.

There is therefore a set-up cost, which covers setting up the file in the system, and a small annual charge for keeping it there. The actual cost of producing each individual book is rather more than the batch printing cost per unit, but huge economies are made elsewhere. It has also enabled the overall cost of producing a book to be substantially reduced. (See Advantages of Print on Demand)

Permanently in print

Print on demand has revolutionised the way publishing works, although it has not yet been adopted throughout the publishing world. Many of the publishers who are using it see it as a cost-effective way of keeping the backlist going. A book need never go out of print. Instead of lost sales because the book is o/p (out of print), sales which have in the past been gone for good unless the book is reprinted, it can continue in print indefinitely. It is particularly cost-effective for publishers to use POD for their backlist because the setting and cover already exist, and therefore the set-up cost involved is only the comparatively minor one of digitising the existing book. If it already exists in digital form (and nearly all publishers are producing their new books this way) then it costs very little to switch it to print on demand.

Print on demand also offers publishers two other extremely valuable advantages. Books are printed to order, so there are no storage or warehousing costs, and no money tied up in stock. The system also reduces returns, since books are only printed to order. Stock write-offs and remaindering, which are the bane of a publisher’s life, can be avoided entirely. A slightly higher cost of goods can be factored into the equation and still leave a more profitable outcome when all these other possibilities have been factored out.

What about the quality?

The actual technology of POD has improved immensely over the last fifteen years. There is still a feeling in some circles that the resulting books are inferior in quality, but this is no longer the case. The big IBM and Xerox POD machines are an amazing sight. Controlled completely by computer, the latest presses at one of the biggest POD printers, Lightning Source, can produce up to four books a minute.

To date the POD printers have concentrated on ‘trade’ paperbacks, i.e. larger than A or B format, or what is known as ‘rack-sized’ in the States, but now they can tackle the smaller paperback formats effectively. They are already able to produce hardbacks, although the binding is mostly currently done elsewhere. POD technology is most widely adopted in the USA, where Lightning Source, one of the biggest players, is now operating 24 hours, seven days a week, and producing more than 500,000 books a month, with a new plant in Australia to complement their printworks in the US and the UK.

Transforming the economics of publishing

What is perhaps less immediately apparent are the other opportunities that Print on Demand offers. For publishers it is a cost-effective way of keeping the slower-moving backlist in print. But it also potentially transforms the economics of publishing, allowing books to be published with very much less initial investment and ongoing cost. This represents a real opportunity for small start-ups in the publishing world.

The advantages for authors

For authors the benefits are two-fold. Firstly, published authors are far more likely to have their books kept in print. The disadvantage of this, which is already causing some anxiety amongst agents, is the difficulty of defining whether a POD book is actually in print, as defined in the contract, especially if you might actually prefer to have the rights back. Mostly this has now been overcome with clauses relating to minimum sales per annum.


The second benefit is that because the upfront costs of POD are so much lower, it brings publishing within the range of a great many more people, including writers. Fuelling the huge growth in self-publishing or indie publishing, POD makes this possible at a far more realistic cost. It is remarkable how it has transformed the possibilities, giving the opportunity for writers to consider self-publishing as a realistic alternative to finding a publisher. Increasingly, over the years, more and more authors have taken advantage of this, leading to a real revolution in the way books are produced and sold, and giving writers far more control.

What next?

The death of batch printing has been widely foretold. Perhaps we can look forward to a time when each book can be produced to order for the customer in the bookshop. At the moment the economics of batch printing and the high cost of the POD machines makes this seem a distant possibility. But technology can bring rapid change and it has been possible to get a book printed on demand in a bookshop for soem time.


Chris Holifield