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Print on Demand Explained

If you’re considering publishing a manuscript through non-traditional methods (i.e. self- or hybrid- publishing), now’s a good time to understand how print on demand (POD) works. POD dominates the self-publishing industry. Without the heavy costs of traditional printing, it is often the only way for independent authors to see their work in print.

So what is POD? Print on demand is exactly that: a method of printing that allows books to be printed and shipped in tiny quantities (often a single book) on an as-needed basis. This means that your favorite self-published novel is created only after you’ve paid for it.

Up until the creation of POD printers, traditional printing and distribution was the only method available. With a few exceptions, books were printed in huge quantities and held in warehouses by the publisher. Bookstores then ordered often-large quantities and were able to return any unsold books to the publisher. Books in good condition were resold, often at discounted prices, or destroyed to reduce warehousing costs.

Essentially publishers were forced to take on all of the risk and financial burden by having to cover the cost of printing, warehousing, and distribution.

POD does away with that system. Only the exact number of books needed are created and, since the cost of keeping a book in print is so low, they very rarely go out of print. Overall, POD is more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional printing. While it does increase the cost of printing per book (from about $2 per book to about $4) the overall cost of printing and distribution is far lower.

The one caveat is that at the moment, brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores often don’t carry POD books. This is because B&M stores will only stock items that are listed as “returnable”. Although this is possible for self-publishing authors (through an annual “return insurance” fee), the cost of doing so is too high for it to make financial sense for most titles.

So where does this leave the indie author? Most writers and independent publishers can’t take on the cost of traditional distribution. POD has the wonderful advantage of having a very low barrier-to-entry. This means that with the current state of things, the only way such authors can sell their books in a B&M store is by offering small quantities of their books to the store on consignment (which often involves hitting the pavement). Instead, writers will often focus on selling their POD books in person through conferences, workshops, book fairs, and (of course) online.

Are there any other publishing concepts you want to see explained? Leave a note in the comments and we’ll consider it for a future post!