The pros and cons of POD books. Er – pod what?

I posted a comment the other week on Roger Colby’s blog about print-on-demand book making. POD. A relatively new technology. It’s also an interesting technology, especially for writers – and, for that matter, small publishers.

I thought I’d extend those thoughts a bit. Digital print has been around a while. Basically, it’s photocopying – same tech – coupled with better flexibility in terms of the paper stock. Lately that’s extended into machines that will print to card, collate, guillotine and ‘perfect bind’ – the printing tech term for paperbacks. Which means you can spit out finished paperback books instead of loose sheets.

That’s the economic way to go for smaller publishers – I’m aware of several in New Zealand who use it. All that’s necessary is to print enough stock for first sales and to meet legal deposit requirements. The advantage is that the publisher doesn’t have to carry unsold stock, and a book never goes out of print. This is important for the publishing industry and authors alike.

Down side is the machinery is hideously expensive. This is less an issue for authors than publishers. What both have to consider, though, is that output is usually lower quality. A lot of these machines use the same paper as traditional offset printing (ink, with plates and rollers), but the quality of laser doesn’t come up to offset levels. It can’t – it’s a whole different tech.

What’s more, the running/production costs of POD are linear, whereas with trad print it’s a case of the ‘more the merrier’, up to around 20,000 units, owing to having to amortise the costs of plate-making and machine setup. Linear costs are great if you’re running one-offs or a print run of a few hundred. But if demand jumps, you’d better know where to move to trad print, or you’ll ruin the economics of what you’re doing. That isn’t always obvious if demand is high but comes in dribs-and-drabs.

There are also things that can be done with trad printing – embossing, gloss overprinting, spot colour and tricks such as five-colour printing which go beyond the CMYK colour limits. Those aren’t yet possible with digital POD. And if you want anything other than perfect bound, you still have to go to a bindery.

So – lots of plusses, lots of minuses. Which to me adds up to the usual story with new tech; it won’t completely replace the old. There will be a re-balancing, a shift; and it will take its place alongside offset print and case binding. It will also go alongside pure e-books. I think there’s room for all in the future. Time will show us where the balance point is. Certainly, I think, POD will make a dent in the pulp paperback/Royal Trade end of the market, if it hasn’t already.

What do you think? Would you use POD? Have you used it already? Do tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


23 thoughts on “The pros and cons of POD books. Er – pod what?

  1. Good info there Matthew. There is one BIG downside to POD which you haven’t mentioned and that is unit cost. For instance, my own book is POD on Amazon at $16.99 + P&P, making it quite an expensive book – especially for a new comer like myself. On the other hand the first 1000 copies I had printed conventionally can be bought at £7.99 ($11 approx.) + P&P from my own website. This makes a huge difference in the marketing strategies for both. Thankfully, my day job is running my own print brokerage company and so I know where to get great quality books printed inexpensively – not an advantage 99% of self published authors have. Good post. 🙂

    1. Thank you – and absolutely. I’ve worked in the publishing-print business myself and chasing those low-cost offset jobs is an art. I do wonder about Amazon’s actual costs. Here in NZ the wholesale unit cost of POD is comparable with unit costs on an offset run of maybe 2000-3000 depending on the job spec, but only up to runs of about 300-500.

  2. I’m having a ball with the new digital printing options! Along with many fellow writers here on the North Shore (Auckland NZ), I’m doing local print runs of 200-400 with a nearby printer to fill NZ print sales, and using Createspace to POD for overseas sales. Createspace is also great for those writers who just want a few copies of memoirs or family histories to pass around – even colour books are affordable and look pretty decent. Those of us who are serious get proper editing and design services, and are cheerfully selling our books to libraries and a few open-minded bookstores. It’s perfectly possible to make a few dollars and the satisfaction is beyond price.

    1. Sounds brilliant. That’s the strength of POD – especially in a market the scale of ours. There’s a company in Wellington which offers similar runs and services – catering, it seems, to a lot of the family history market but also available to authors of more creative bent.

  3. Interesting topic. There are obviously downsides which you’ve identified but I also see a number of strengths.

    – It circumnavigates the cost of shipping which I’m guessing won’t make as much difference to places like Europe or the U.S. but would make a noticeable difference in places like NZ
    – It would allow bookshops to cater for niche markets in a way that they can’t presently
    – It might offer a new revenue for professional authors (even their oldest of works would still be ticking away earning a bit of profit in the background)
    – It offers a viable alternative to E-Books (for us old-fashioned sorts that like a physical book but still want the benefit of variety that digital publishing offers)

    I’m sure the setup cost will slowly come down and the technology will improve. Perhaps this could be the savior of the bookstore? Order a book and enjoy a coffee while you wait.

    1. yes, there’s a lot of talk about the POD kiosks where you insert your nickel, go and order a coffee, and out pops a paperback of your choice warm and ready to read! Might be the saviour of many a book shop.

  4. I can see the book-on-demand-store happening, definitely. And yeah, I’m old-fashoned too when it comes to books. Nothing like holding one. I expect all sorts of advantages will come as the technology improves. This is particularly true in NZ where – though I hate to say it – just about every book market classes as ‘niche’. Problems of scale.

  5. I can see why publishers still use printers. I don’t use a printing machine anymore. They’re so uneconomic I find it cheaper to use the machine at the library. I don’t print off much, of course.

    1. Trad printing is horrendously uneconomic for anything less than about 1000 – and that’s including the fact that they’ve been revolutionised by the computer revolution too, and that companies in Hong Kong are leveraging labour costs to offer hugely competitive offset prices. I still marvel at how publishers do it, when you add in the costs of their reps plus the 40 percent retail markup. Though that’s why authors only get 10% on nett retail… (sigh)…

  6. I don’t have a problem with POD itself , for it’s a pretty revolutionary technology. However , there are a lot of POD scams out there. I would check out Writer’s Beware, Preditors & Editors, and Absolute Write before choosing a service. .

    1. Great advice – thanks for sharing. It’s dismal to think that some people in the business don’t much worry who they rip off. Sad indictment on the human reality. I’ve heard a few horror stories myself.

  7. My first foray into print was POD and my UK publisher at the time used Lightning Source UK. The quality was superlative. Matched trad books easily.

    I am now with a new imprint in Australia (first book due for release in June) who is also using Lightning Source and my books will retail for $A14.99. The publisher is ordering matt quality covers and the paper is beautiful. The retailers will order as per demand, so the downside is the amount of PR and marketing I must engender with the media to secure public interest. Other than that, ecologically, POD is the ONLY way forward in my opinion.

    1. Good luck with your book. The eco-side of POD is an interesting question which deserves study. POD by definition involves using lasers to weld carbon dust, often coloured with toxic inks, into paper. A by-product is fine carbon dust dumped into the environment. Trad printers have turned to using vegetable inks and papers from renewable sources – in New Zealand there is a gold certification – which includes the environmental impact of their paper sources, and brings them well ahead in an environmental sense. On the other hand, POD print runs are much shorter, so the net impact may well be less.

  8. Matthew, you gave me some good insights on POD. I’ve self published 3 books but I had them all printed by professional printers in small lots. I’ve often thought of POD but hadn’t thought about the fact that the print quality would suffer.

    Thanks Don

    1. Glad to be of help. Yeah, the issue is the different tech – ink vs welded-on carbon. Laser printing has got very good indeed lately, but it still doesn’t quite measure up.

      1. Totally, agree – POD is only comparable to standard type only books. Once you need good colour litho is the only way still to get top quality. 🙂

    2. To be honest, I have a quantity of litho printed books and a POD copy from Amazon and the quality is spot on with both. POD is as good as litho now but the unit cost is prohibitive. Then again, printing a few hundred copies ties up a lump of cash initially which many might not be able to afford.

      1. It’s true that the latest gen POD is getting up there with offset. No question that when it comes to trade paperbacks, they’re very close indeed. (I’m not sure about the Amazon costing; there’s something odd there.) That said, I still wouldn’t use it for a picture or illustrated book. The subtleties of of offset – especially when running to 5 or 6 colours, or applying rich black – simply can’t be reproduced by 4-colour carbon layering. A lot also depends on the paper quality, and offset can use papers which digital can’t. Of course, all that has to be paid for!

  9. What an informative post, Matthew! As I get closer to considering self-publishing options–I have one small book that seems appropriate–I have been wondering about POD. Thanks to this post I am much better informed and thanks to your readers, I have additional links to research. It seems as if POD is suited to small runs and is complementary to e-books–is this an accurate assumption?

    As always, thank you.


  10. Yes, absolutely. POD works very well these days for black text and line drawings on short print runs and small books. May pay to shop around, I think there is something funny about Amazon pricing (others may illuminate this more). I know in NZ there’s a tip-over point of about 300 copies where offset print gets more cost-effective. But much depends on the size of the book too.

  11. I’m a young commercial publisher based in the UK. I’m not a vanity press – authors don’t pay me a penny – and I am so glad I discovered POD. Without it, I could not have built a publishing business at all because I don’t have thousands of pounds at my disposal to print thousands of books. I almost gave up in fact, until I discovered it. The unit cost is actually lower with POD, than with the printers I used to go with, the quality is the same, lead time is faster, the exposure is global and the sales are consistent, month in, month out. It is most definitely environmentally and economically the way forward – all we have to do is get past the snobbery and stigma from the older and wider areas of the publishing industry which is pretty dusty, musty and behind the times. Gone are the days when you weren’t a real publisher unless you showed off a (mostly useless….) print run of 5,000 books, and said ‘Golly Gosh, Sebastian, what kudos for these!’. Now we print only what we need and what actually sells, saving the rainforests and our cash-flow in the process. Oh and I love the idea of a coffee while you wait for a book to be printed in a bookshop – I have an Espresso machine deal with the POD company I use, and I hope that catches on! It’s 2014, people – time publishing got with the 21st Century 😉

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