Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have had to struggle with the question of “printing on demand” with a short-run digital printer like Blurb or Lightnening Source–versus printing on a traditional web or sheetfed press–because there really wasn’t any “print on demand” (POD) suppliers. However, as digital printing (think fancy Xerox machine) and small scale binding equipment have improved in quality and price, the print-on-demand suppliers really have created a wonderful niche market that can be very helpful for micro publishers to keep costs low and books in stock.

The pros of using a POD printer are pretty easy to quantity. If you want to print a black, all-text (or fairly sparely illustrated) paperback book and you need it fast, they can make that happen in a matter of weeks in the US. A hardcover generally takes a bit longer as the binding is a more rigorous process. If the quantity you need is less than 750 copies, POD suppliers are likely going to be cheaper to use than a traditional printer as well. In fact, publishers use POD printers all the time for the manufacturing of Bound Galleys (see BLOG # 2) for sales and promotion. POD printers have access to a wide variety of paper stocks and cover laminations, and they can pretty nearly replicate a traditionally printed all-text book. What they cannot do very well are things like foil stamping, embossing, or spot gloss varnishing on covers . . . but they are getting there. POD suppliers do seem to struggle with hardcover binding cost and quality, whereas they have paperback binding wired. POD supplier’s economies of scale tend to run out as you approach 750 to 1000 copies on a bulk run, at which point a traditional printer becomes more affordable. They really are a good fit for micro runs or just-in-time inventory solutions, but not the larger printings. If you want to print 250 copies of your fiction novel, they are the right guys to use.

Some book distributors have relationships with POD printers (or own them) and offer their publishing distribution clients “instant reprints” or “continuous inventory” as orders come in using their POD resource. For example, there may be a book that you have on your backlist that needs 10 to 20 copies printed and fulfilled every other month or as orders come in. You will pay a high per unit cost for that service, but for you it may be more advantageous than doing a larger run and having to store inventory. This is a great fit for certain publishers, even if the per unit price feels high.

If you have a full-color illustrated book, a POD printer can probably tackle that as well, but they become less affordable than a traditional printer at about the 500-copy mark . . . and the quality difference in this instance will be more noticeable than with an all-text title in Steelhead’s opinion. I recently heard of a design firm paying $140 per unit for a POD full-color hardcover book that they ordered fairly regularly, and it made me cringe. I knew that I could get that client a MUCH better product for a fraction–and by “fraction I mean likely 15% of what they were paying–of the price if they inventoried 500 copies. Ugh! POD can make great sense for certain product types and quantities, or it can be a very poor use of your limited capital in other instances. It depends. Fortunately, Steelhead can price out a project as POD versus traditional print—if that comparison makes sense–and help you navigate the various issues of price, quality, and speed of delivery to help you make an informed decision on your investment.