Digital print on demand – what it is and how to avoid stepping in it

Reports of the death of the print book seem to have been considerably exaggerated of late.

One of my bookshelves…

It’s been the usual thing: we suppose the ‘new’ – in this case, digital distribution – will totally replace the ‘old’. Actually, and as usual, they simply complement each other and print books have been rebounding.

One difference, though, is that back in the old days – you know, the early 2000s – book production was an expensive business because it involved offset printing, the standard tech for large-scale print production. The high setup costs per job for an offset printing machine meant that print runs had to be at least 1500 or 2000 to be efficient. The higher the run, the more the setup costs can be amortised across the whole job.

Fast-forward to 2016, and that offset calculation still holds good. But these machines have been joined by new tech – digital ‘print on demand’ (POD). This is basically photocopying, but of far higher quality and on better paper and a wider range of sizes, including SRA sizes which are over-size to allow for ‘full bleed’ printing (more on that another time).

Digital POD has a different cost-curve from offset. It’s effectively linear, meaning you can produce books one at a time – and that is exactly the service that digital print companies, including Amazon’s CreateSpace, offer.

What this does is make it possible to produce books with runs that wouldn’t be economic in offset. But – and there’s always a but – there are a couple of pitfalls.

First, the publishing costs – the cost of editing, proofing, typesetting, storing, distributing and promoting and so forth – still have to be amortised across all sales. This means that some books still won’t be effective on very short runs, because those costs will never be properly recovered without ballooning the cover price.

Second, it’s fine and dandy to run (say) 150 or 200 copies digitally – at a linear price per book – but what say sales take off? As soon as the print run kicks up over a few hundred, depending on the specifications of the job, offset print gets to be more efficient.

You see the dilemma publishers have? Often they know a book might be marginal, but never quite know. And it might take off. Make the wrong decision and the economics of that title are a wreck – you veer from digital to offset at the wrong point, pay top dollar for both, and still end up with stock in the warehouse that won’t shift.

The point being that in this digital day and age, when authors can also be their own publishers, that’s a question that authors need to tackle too.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


2 thoughts on “Digital print on demand – what it is and how to avoid stepping in it

  1. True enough. In the past, writers (once published) just had to concentrate on writing more. Today’s indie author has to do all the stuff publishers took care of in the old days, and some of us would rather not do that or aren’t very good at it. But when the choice is between self-pubbing and remaining unpublished, it’s not surprising that many choose to self publish, and deal with all the consequences.

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