Printing Your Book: Should You Go With Print-On-Demand?

When you’re deciding how to print your book, you have two main options: print-on-demand or printing on an offset press. What do those two options entail exactly? Print-on-demand, or POD, allows you to digitally print a single book at a time, often using a large laser printer. Offset, or “traditional,” printing involves a huge press that transfers the image from an inked plate to a rubber blanket and then to the paper, and usually necessitates a print run of at least 1,000 units to make economic sense. So which is right for your book? It depends on several factors you’ll want to weigh before making a decision.

You might consider POD if…

You’re planning a limited release and just want your book available online or for order.

If you’re not planning on national marketing or distribution, POD is an easy way for interested parties to find your book and order a copy online. This may be the case if you just want the book available for friends and family.

You don’t want to pay for a large print run upfront.

Offset printing requires a comparatively higher investment since you’re essentially buying 1,000 books (or more). If you’re not in a position to pay for a run of that size or don’t want the risk of not selling all the units you print, POD or a smaller digital print run may be a better fit. With POD, you print just the quantity you need, when you need it.

You have content that needs to be frequently updated.

Books on current events or anything technology related will likely require frequently updated content. With print-on-demand you won’t have old stock lying around once you’re ready to release an updated edition, and it’s easy to add or change content.

You might consider offset printing if…

You’re planning a national release and will be widely distributing and marketing your book.

If you already have a strong platform (link to platform article), have direct sales opportunities lined up, or are planning a big publicity push, an offset run might be a better choice because of the lower price per unit and the higher-quality printing required for retail.

You are willing and able to invest in print run of at least 1,000 books.

As mentioned earlier, there is a larger upfront cost when you print offset, since you’re potentially paying for the printing of several thousand books instead of a few dozen. That said, the more books you print at once, the lower the price per unit—1,000 books is typically thought of as the minimum number of books you’d need to print to reap the benefits of an offset run.

You want or need higher-quality printing or flexibility with printing specifications and technology.

POD printing is restrictive when it comes to your choices in trim size, paper weight, color inks, and printing technologies like embossing, debossing, cut-outs, or foil. Offset presses offer the widest variety and highest-quality printing choices if you are planning on a uniquely sized book or a book with color images or photos.

A few additional notes…

  • Shipping and warehousing is something else to consider—with offset printing you’ll need a place to store your books.
  • Technology in digital printing has advanced rapidly and there are more choices now than there were just a year or two ago. Options in digital printing will probably continue to increase.
  • While print-on-demand is a type of digital printing, it’s important to mention “digital printing” as a separate entity all its own. Digital printing is an option for small print runs (around 25–500 copies) and has fewer printing restrictions than POD. Like POD, you will still typically encounter a higher price per unit than offset, but unlike POD, you will have to arrange for shipping and warehousing.
  • POD and digital printing have a quicker turnaround time, usually about 2 weeks, whereas offset printing usually requires 4 to 5 weeks for paperback and 6 to 8 weeks for hardcover.

These are, of course, not necessarily the only points to consider, but they are the most commonly debated issues. As with almost any part of the publishing process, when considering your printing options, one of the most important things you can do is to clarify what your goals are and what resources you’re putting towards your book to help you determine the best option.