Category Archives: POD

What's In A Publishing Agreement?

When publishing with a POD company you should look beyond the marketing materials and read the Author Agreement/Publishing Contract, to find out what exactly the deal is. While some companies, like Booklocker, have managed to keep the language simple and direct…

We don’t work with Jerks
We’ll bend over backwards to help authors get published…but we don’t like working with jerks. Life’s too short…So if you are a jerk please go work with one of our competitors

…most companies have let their lawyers go to town on the agreement:

Rights and Guarantees
Whereas, the AUTHOR wishes to publish his/her works (hereinafter to be refferred to…

Having had to revise one of these a couple of times, to try to make it more user friendly, I thought I’d share my the fruits of my translation effort with you.

Please remember I am not a lawyer and that this article is intended to educate you but not replace the advice of a legal professional.
end disclaimer

A publishing agreement from a POD firm normally contains information on four or five things:

  • Rights and exclusivity
  • Pricing and royalties
  • Warranties and Indemnities
  • Termination clause
  • The actual services they will provide.

Rights & Exclusivity

Most POD companies take only a non-exclusive right to produce and distribute your book. This means you grant them the right to make and sell your book but you can also produce the book any way you want at the same time. You can list it with two POD companies, you can do your own printing, sell subsidiary rights to a bookclub and keep all the money yourself, or declaim it from the roof of your house.

This is quite revolutionary and not all POD companies follow this model. Traditionally, publishers invested a lot of time in editing, book production, printing and marketing, so they expected the author to allow them the exclusive right to produce the book. POD firms, however, are more like book packagers or printers – you are buying services from them. Why should they get your rights? It’s a good question and I’m glad some of the POD pioneers thought of it.

You are unlikely to see a deal like this from a traditional publisher – at least, not yet.

If a POD publisher is taking an exclusive right be sure you know

  • How long the term lasts,
  • How and when it renews

How much notice they need to give the rights back to you.

This is important because if Simon & Schuster comes knocking, looking to pick up your book and you still have a year left on your contract with the POD firm, you might have to share the money with the POD company, or risk the publisher getting bored and moving on to the next project.

Pricing and Royalties

Probably dearest to your heart of any matters in the publishing agreement is the question of money – how much will they pay you?

The agreement should spell this out clearly. Now ‘clearly’ doesn’t mean ‘simply’ because royalties are a complicated topic, but it should be there.

Firstly, you should be able to see how much they are going to charge for your book, whether or not you have any say in that pricing, and whether or not they have to ask your permission before changing the prices. Because POD books are supposed to stay in print forever, and because there are so many authors to deal with, many agreements will reserve the right to change the price as production costs and other factors change.

This isn’t outrageous when you consider that your book should still be available long after you’ve shuffled off, as Shakespeare put it. Industry standard prices and the costs of production are bound to change over time and the company doesn’t want to have to poll each of it’s 10,000 authors every time they adjust the prices to meet current standards.

If they offer you the chance to set your own price, be sure you understand their minimums and how your decision to raise or lower the price will affect your receipts.

Ah yes, the receipts.

Some POD companies offer a percentage of the list price. This is nice and easy, because you always know what the list price is and you can know exactly how much you will make on any sale, regardless of bookstore discounts or production costs. The problem with expressing it this way is that the percentage sounds lower than if the company offered a percentage of net receipts, or purchase price.

If a company offers a percentage of list price, that percentage is probably in the region of 25-40%. (Remember that traditional publishing royalties are around 6-10% of list price). If they offer a percentage of the net-receipts or the purchase price, that figure could be anywhere from 40-70%. As exciting as that sounds, it is important to remember that this means you get 40-70% of the POD company’s receipts, after they’ve given the bookstore their 40% discount. A sale of a $12 book could result in a $2.88 royalty even if the agreement says ‘40%’, which seems like it should come out to a lot more. This is because you get 40% of the profit the POD company receives, not 40% of the price of the book.


There should be some description of the services you are buying – either as part of the contract or as an attached document/schedule. Make sure you read these carefully to know what exactly you are and aren’t getting.

Warranties & Indemnities

Possibly the most brain-frying portions of any agreement, these sections tell you what you are responsible for (everything) and what the company will take responsibility for (nothing). Language like “Author represents and warrants the following…” is usually followed by any number of clauses saying you promise that you are the real author, you own the copyright, that you haven’t promised anyone else an exclusive license to the work; that you haven’t included anything illegal, defamatory or that would infringe someone else’s copyright or trademark.

If you an honest operator, this section contains nothing very scary. However it does mean that if you accidentally defame someone and they take you and the POD company to court, the POD company can hold up its hands and say ‘not our fault, the author promised it was OK’.

Likewise the indemnity portion is full of clauses saying you won’t hold the company responsible for anything: basically, if you get sued for any reason, you’re on your own.

Knowing this, you may wish to purchase publisher’s liability insurance from a third party if you are writing about real people or events.


The agreement should give the terms under which you or the company can end your relationship. It should include timelines, if appropriate; the procedure for notifying each other and, ideally, some indication of what they will do with any extra copies of your book that they may happen to have lying around.

Usually, if you don’t give up any rights, you can terminate the agreement at any time. If you’re giving up rights and want to break the agreement, the company will probably retain the right to produce and distribute the book for some time after you notify them.


POD contracts tend to be a lot more generous in terms of rights and royalties than traditional publishing contracts … but that’s just how it should be, since the POD company makes non of the investments made by a traditional publisher.

If your agreement seems too legalistic for you to understand, take it to an intellectual property lawyer for their advice. It is important to know exactly what you are getting into. There is no one model for POD, there is not, as yet, any gold standard.

Which POD Company Is Right For Me?

I should really have called this article ‘It Depends’, because Print On-Demand (the technology and its application to business) is so new that there are not yet any conventions. There is no one right way to do things. Each POD company has a very different business model and idea of its place in the publishing industry. So bear with me, as I give three different answers to every possible question!

One of the main differences between the companies is ideology. Some consider themselves merely a service that helps you with the technical aspects of self-publishing – like a book packager. They are simply a service that you hire, as you self-publish your book, much as you might hire a designer, an editor and a promoter. Others consider themselves full publishers, simply using a new technology. Most of the others fall somewhere in between. Each of these ideologies informs what services the companies offer, what rights they take and what they can do for you. I have referred to these types of companies as ‘publishing services’.

If they take rights they are a publisher (you’ll find more about rights in the next article, ‘What’s in a Publishing Agreement?’). If they are a publisher they should offer all the services a publisher offers: editorial development and editing; funding the full cost of publication; promotion and marketing; marketing any sub rights they take. I have referred to this type of company as ‘POD publishers’.


An advance is the amount of money your publisher thinks you will make during the first print-run or the first few months of your book’s availability. You are paid the advance up-front, but it is just that: an advance against future projected earnings. You do not start earning royalties until your sales surpass this projected number.

It is unlikely that any company offering POD services will offer you an advance. Publishing Services are allowing you to self-publish, so they would not give advances. A publisher using POD to keep costs down, is unlikely to have the spare cash for advances. However, you should start earning royalties (or earnings) as soon as your book starts to sell. If you had received an advance, you would not start earning royalties until you had ‘earned out’ your advance.


Companies operating as publishers and simply using POD technology to make it cost-effective, (POD publishers) will decide whether or not to publish a book based on its content. Some author like this model, because they feel that the reader can then trust the imprint to turn out quality (or at least readable) books.

Other companies, those that work more as book packagers or publishing services, will publish almost anything. Their reasoning is that they are allowing you to self-publish and therefore you should be allowed to publish your book exactly as you want it to be. In these cases you should contract with an editor before you send the book to be printed.


Publishers will probably work with you to edit or at least proof the book. Publishing services, will not. They may offer editorial services for a fee, or they may provide links to editors, but the responsibility still lies with you, the author/self-publisher. There is an advantage in this. If someone else was publishing your book, you would have to work with the editor they chose, even if you did not feel they were sympathetic to your work. When you are self-publishing, you hire the editor and therefore, you are more likely to end up with someone you like.

If the POD company does provide links to editors, or copy-editors, find out whether these are links to people they have tested and approved, or if they are just random links, pulled from a database somewhere.

When contracting with an editor independently, try to find out what professional organizations they are a part of; if they routinely work on books; and get some references from previous clients.

FORMATTING (creating the interior layout)

Some companies format your manuscript for you, some don’t and this can be both good and bad!

If you have a specific look in mind for your book, you probably want to format it yourself or contract with a graphic designer who can prepare the book you want it. If you do not have the skills to do a professional job yourself (and few people do), and if you do not have the money to hire a graphic artist (think $$ thousands) you should look for a company that will do more than simply convert your word-processor file into a format the printer can read.

Companies that offer to create your layout usually charge more than companies that simply convert your file – and rightly so. Even with a template-based system, it takes the companies one skilled worker and a minimum of an hour to create a layout. If they simply convert your layout, it takes about five minutes and a nodding chicken — to peck the button.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can create a professional book layout because you managed to type your manuscript into the computer without losing it too often. Unless you are a professional graphic artist, or a serious hobbyist, consider having a professional create your layout.


As with formatting, some companies will create a cover for you. Some will allow you to choose from templates and supply a photo or drawing for the front. Others will dictate the cover in-house. Still others may allow you to supply a completed digital cover file, yourself. Again, if you do not have experience preparing graphics for professional printing, you should consult a professional designer who does have this experience (and not all designers do). The company can probably supply you with detailed specifications that the cover design must meet.

The POD company will probably create the bar-code artwork too, and drop it into your cover design.


The POD company will probably assign an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from their stock of numbers. Since the POD company is acting as your fulfillment agent it is easier if people see their ISBN and contact them with orders. (Bookstores use the ISBN to locate the book in databases such as Books In Print. The first few numbers of the ISBN are associated with the publisher).

Some POD companies allow you to get and assign your own ISBNs. In these cases you can end up taking orders from bookstores and readers yourself, and passing them on to the POD company. To minimize this, you can designate the POD company as your exclusive distributor, on the form that is sent to the Books In Print database. Then, bookstores will know to contact the POD company. Some companies may accommodate this. Others, for ease of record-keeping, may not.


If you want your books in bookstores, your POD company should incorporate a Bookland/EAN barcode on the back of the book. This barcode should have the ISBN printed above it, in machine-readable type. The POD company has probably invested in a piece of software to generate barcodes, so you should not have to generate the bar-code yourself. Even if you are assigning your own ISBN, the POD company can generate the bar-code. Since this is digital printing, you do not have to buy film representations of your barcode, as you would have had to with traditional printing.


Each company offers different amounts to you as the author/publisher, when a book is sold. The percentages range from single digits up to 35% of the net or gross price. Net price is the amount the company actually receives after deducting the cost of production and any discounts. Percentages factored on ‘gross’, ‘retail’, or ‘list’ price, are a simple percentage of the cover price of the book. These are the simplest to work out, because you always know what the cover price is.

When you look at the small amount that you end up earning, don’t jump to the conclusion that the POD company is being unnecessarily greedy. Remember that the cost of the book and any applicable discounts (such as wholesaler and bookstore discounts) are being deducted from the retail price. Of course, if the number looks really small (under 10%) then you should start thinking hard about whether the company deserves such a big cut (if they are a POD publisher, putting a lot of work into the book, they may).

Also remember that typical royalties in traditional publishing are around 6-10%, AFTER you have earned out your advance (which most books don’t).


The POD company should have a toll-free number to allow customers to call and order your book directly. It is unlikely that the number is staffed around the clock, since most POD companies are relatively small, as yet.

The company should also make it easy for your customers to order on or off-line. They should supply a mailing address that orders and checks can be sent to and they should provide some way for your book to be ordered on the Internet. Most companies supply a page for your book in their own online bookstore. Many also list your book with the major online booksellers, such as If they are listing the book with the online booksellers, ask whether or not they will supply supplementary materials, such as cover art, excerpts, descriptions and author bio, or if you will have to take care of these things yourself.


If your book is to be ordered in bookstores, it will need to be listed in the industry’s standard database: Books In Print. This is a list of all books that are currently in print, along with their ISBN, publisher name and a contact point for orders. If your company assigns ISBNs it should list the books with this database. It may also list the book with wholesalers such as Lightning Source and Baker & Taylor, making it even easier for book stores to order. If you supply your own ISBN, you may find that these listings become your responsibility.

Some POD companies simply make books available directly from the company. While this means the company and the author make greater profits, it severely limits the availability of the book.
If the POD company is publishing your book, worked on it editorially, and takes some rights, you should expect them to do some promotion and marketing. You should still be prepared to do a lot of promotion and marketing yourself. Few authors, even those at big publishing houses, get the kind of attention they would like – unless they are in the Stephen King league.

If you are self-publishing, no matter what services your publishing service says it provides, you are still responsible for all marketing and promotion. They company may offer to send out 200 press releases about your book, or send you 500 postcards imprinted with the cover art, but this does not replace a true promotional campaign. A company that is publishing books for hundreds of authors every year, on the kind of business model most POD companies use, simply cannot devote time to promoting every copy. Yes, the company makes money on every sale and so it seems to make sense that they would want to promote your book, but in reality they cannot invest in promoting every book that comes to them.

You should think of anything that the company does as a bonus, but not very important. No one else will ever be able to talk about your book with the passion and knowledge that you will.

Having said that, you may want to consider hiring a book publicist to help you promote your book – if you know you are too close to your book to talk objectively about it.


The standard discount in the industry is 40%. This is practical for mass-produced books that achieve a low unit cost. It is less practical for the relatively expensive per-unit POD book. Some POD companies may not offer the full 40% discount on their books – especially if they offer hardback books, which are more expensive still to produce.


Bookstores expect to be able to return books at any time, in any condition, for any (or no) reason. Because POD books are printed, well, on demand, most POD companies do not expect returns. This may cause some resistance on the part of the bookstore.


Bookstores customarily buy books on consignment, meaning they only send payment to the publisher when and if the book sells. Otherwise, they can hang on to them forever or return them. POD companies, like some smaller publishers, may require pre-payment, payment in 30 days, or other payment terms. While not completely unusual, this may cause some bookstores to resist ordering.


In most cases you should not expect your POD company to act like a publisher. Most do not look at the content and simply allow you to self-publish your book through them. You should expect to take part in some of the pre-publication preparation of your book and all of the post-publication work –apart from actually fulfilling orders. You are promoter, marketer and sales rep, as well as author and, of course, publisher.

Is POD Right For Me – Sales Goals

Print On-Demand publishing offers relief from handling all the orders and sales transactions that you would have to handle if you printed 5000 copies of your book, stored them in your garage and handled all the order fulfillment yourself. Print on-demand companies usually arrange for the book to be listed with bookstores and databases under their name. When someone orders the book, the order goes to the POD company. The company processes the check or credit card, prints the book and fulfills it.


Many marketing books suggest that each ad or promotional piece you do should contain a code somewhere, that allows you to track which campaign your customer responded to. This helps you to track your marketing efforts, select the most effective, and build on it. This only works, however, if you are taking every order for your product. If your POD company is receiving orders it is unlikely that they will collect this kind of information for you. This means that your ability to track the effectiveness of your marketing is limited. You can, of course, still check the dates of a sale and, in some cases, the geographical location. This helps you to see that the talk you gave in Poughkeepsie in January, was probably the reason that 12 people from Upstate New York ordered your book at the start of the year.


One of the most powerful ways to encourage people to buy a product is to offer them a discount and to put a time limit on it. (‘Save 20%, this weekend only!’). Self-publishers often offer discounts at book signings and events, or if someone buys more than one copy. It is important to remember that, with books printed on-demand, the profit margin is usually smaller than with volume-printed books. This means that you have less room for offering discounts. You may be buying author copies at a 20-40% discount off the retail price. If you sell the book at even a 10% discount, you will cut into your earnings significantly.

In addition, any discounts you offer will be valid only for books the reader buys directly from you. Just as you cannot force a bookseller to offer the book at a lower price, you cannot force your POD company to keep track of this month’s promotional offer on your book and the 10,000 other titles they produce. (With technological advances this may be possible in time, but for now the POD companies are simply not sophisticated enough to do this).

You may add value by inviting people to come to a web-page with more information about the book – free to purchasers. You may invite them to request a free booklet or workbook associated with your book.


Do you long to see your book on the shelves in bookstores? Why?

Print on-demand book, by their very nature, are not printed in large quantities, warehoused or displayed in bookstores. They are printed when they are ordered. You are unlikely to ship large quantities of a print on-demand book to bookstores for display. It is important to remember, however, that bookstores are not a promotional vehicle for books, they are simply somewhere people go to buy books. Most readers buy books that they have read something about or have had recommended to them, or that seem to be on a subject they are interested in. It is also important to remember that most books do not stay on bookstore shelves for more than 6-18 months, unless they are consistently good sellers.

It is certainly a nice boost to the ego to see your book on a bookstore shelf, but it does not necessarily boost sales. In addition, bookstores take a 40% discount, cutting into your profits, dramatically.

It may help to think of your book as a mail-order product and market it accordingly. Identify your audience and ways that you can communicate with them. Direct targeted mailings at them. Encourage them to order your book directly from the POD provider (and yes, they can do that by mail, with a check).

Placing a book on a bookstore shelf is a very passive, very ineffective method of marketing your book. With the advent of online stores, readers are increasingly accustomed to ordering a book and waiting a few days for it to arrive. Take advantage of this.


You must be willing to promote your book everywhere you go. Without the power of a publishing house behind you, you are responsible for all the marketing and promotion. If you hope to sell any books you must be willing to tell people about your book. You must also – and here’s the hard part – be willing to tell people how good the book is. If you can use other people’s comments, so much the better, but you will have to swallow your modesty at some point and stand behind your product.

Are you willing to:

  • Carry business cards with information about your book?
  • Talk about your book with the stranger sitting next to you on the plane?
  • Carry order forms for your book?
  • Tell people that you have created a great product which they would really enjoy?
  • Think about where to find your audience?
  • Invest time and money promoting the book – possibly forever?
  • Learn about the Internet?
  • Learn about marketing and promotion techniques?

If not, do not expect to sell many self-published books.


It is important to have realistic sales goals. Do not expect to earn money from this venture. Expect to break even, at best.

This statement holds true for almost all kinds of publishing, traditional, self-publishing, vanity, or print on-demand. Most books in traditional publishing do not earn out their advance. This means that the publisher has calculated how many copies it thinks the book can sell, and paid the author an advance equal to the royalties on that number of books. Most books do not reach their projected goals, do not go into a second print-run and do not earn the author any further royalties. And these are books with the power of a major publishing house behind them.

But this is not all bad news. Chances are you are not writing to get rich – if you were, you’d be writing dull financial documentation for a bank. You are writing because you have to, because you want to be read, or because you want to build a reputation as an expert in your field. In this case, the more books you can get out into the world, the better, whether or not you make a profit in the long run. Remember this when deciding how much money to invest in setting up your POD book and promoting it.

If you are wildly successful you may make a profit, but remember: only an estimated 6% of all writers earn their living solely from their writings. Writing, especially fiction writing, is an avocation, not an occupation. Print on-demand offers an inexpensive way for you to share those writings, in book form, with a wider audience. If this is your main goal, print on-demand may offer the best solution and the least risk, and a safe way to test the waters of self-publishing.

In this article I have attempted to cover a lot of ground, quickly, and have not tried to give all the answers thoroughly. If I have raised questions and you want a more thorough answer, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to clarify, expand on any point in this article, or address new questions.

Will POD Work For Me? Technical Considerations

Desktop publishing has made producing a publication much easier than it ever was. It is a mistake, however, to think that ‘easier’ means ‘easy’. There are still many technical considerations when dealing with digital printing and with specific print on-demand companies. This article does not aim to answer every technical question about POD, but it does aim to help you ask some of the right questions of yourself and of the POD companies you are considering using. As always, if you have any questions, please email me at  .

The most important questions concern your book itself.

General issues

Print on-Demand books are usually produced in one of two sizes: 5.5” x 8.5” or 6” x 9”. By producing books of the same size, the POD companies can print many titles at the same time, with the minimum set-up time.

Although these formats are increasingly common they are not the perfect format for all types of content. In these sizes, the text width is only 4.5”-5” on each page. If your book is a technical or non-fiction book it may contain columns, sidebars or forms. This kind of book may require a wider page, if it is to have the layout you want. If you still want to proceed with Print On-Demand and this book format, you could rework your book to present the sidebar information as in-line text – perhaps at the end of a chapter, or separated from the main text by a line separator or different font.

If your book is too short or too long it may not be possible to bind using the POD company’s standard methods. POD books are usually cut pages, glue-bound. This method does not work well with fewer than 100 pages and more than around 600 pages.

You should also consider the kind of binding you want for your book. Most POD companies offer ‘perfect binding’ only. Even hardback POD books are glued, rather than sewn or stapled. If you want a staple-bound chapbook or children’s book, or if you want a spiral or comb-bound cookbook, you will probably not be able to use a POD company – yet. In future companies may offer more binding options.

Digital printing makes printing more flexible and affordable in some ways, but less so, in others. For example, today, color digital printing is still prohibitively expensive. Although a color cover can be produced, printing in color inside the book would make it impossible to sell the book at bookstore prices. Therefore, most POD companies do not offer color inside the books…yet.

In addition, interior graphics may be produced at lower quality than if you were producing them as traditionally printed ‘plates’. Most digital printers will reproduce your graphics more like art in a magazine than art in a glossy art book. For most illustrations and most people photographs, this is sufficient – and it is certainly more economical. The high-quality prints in coffee table books are what make these books so pricey.

One final point about the manufacture of Print On-Demand books: they generally do not allow for glossy separations to be printed and bound into the book. Your art will be printed on the same paper as the rest of your book. This means that you can sprinkle the art throughout the book, with no need to send it to a ghetto in the middle of the book.


If your book was previously printed it may seem that you should have fewer problems. After all, you already have a book, can’t they just reproduce it? Unfortunately there are many questions to ask about a previously published book.

The first thing you must do when planning to bring your book back into print is establish that you have the right to reproduce your text. Consult the publisher’s contract to find out when the rights revert to you. Even if you think the rights have reverted to you, you should contact the original publisher and request written confirmation of that fact. Also check that you have the right to produce any other formats that your POD company produces (electronic editions, audio editions, etc.). Sometimes publishing contracts cover different editions in different ways.

Artwork and graphics that were included in the original edition may need special attention when you are clarifying copyright issues. Look closely at any book with artwork, particularly photos, and you will see artist/photographer credits. On the copyright page, you will see copyright information for any quoted poems, essays or reports. This permission to reprint probably existed only for the original edition. In order to reproduce the book, you must obtain these reprint permissions again, from the copyright holder, or omit the copyrighted material. You may find you can use the original cover art or some interior graphics, free of charge, but you should consult an Intellectual Property or Copyright lawyer to be sure of where you stand.

Re-publication also raises the questions about the format. Do you want it in the same format? Will the originally formatting work in the 5.5” x 8.5” or 6” x 9” formats used by Print On-Demand companies?
Getting Your Previously-Published Book Into Digital Form

There are three main ways to convert your printed book into a file that can be sent to a digital printer. Simple scanning, Scanning to Optical Character Recognition software (OCR), or retyping.

Simple scanning a book essentially photographs each page and creates an image of it.  This means that you cannot easily make changes to the text or layout. It also means that the text quality will be a little fuzzier than it was in the original when reprinted (compare a photocopied document to its original and you will see this effect). If your original book was a different size from the new edition, it is possible to resize the scanned pages or to increase or decrease the margin around the edges of the text. Neither of these is a perfect solution, though. Resizing the text can render it unreadable: the original designer chose the font, font size and spacing to work together. Scaling a layout up or down can interfere with these relationships.

It is possible to scan a book and process it with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. This method creates a word-processor file from your printed document. This word-processor file can then be changed, updated, and prepared for a new layout. Unfortunately OCR is not perfect – and even a error rate as low as 2% yieldsup to 2000 errors in a 100,000 word book. This error rate increases as the quality of the original declines (in other words, if the original copies are in small, close-set type on frayed or yellowing pages, the software will not be able to ‘read’ it as accurately).

The final option is to have your text re-typed. This creates a new, word-processor document that can be changed, updated and prepared for a new layout. If you decide to have the book retyped professionally, try to find a service that uses ‘double-keying’. This means that the book is actually entered twice. Computer software eliminates errors by comparing the two versions. This is a little more expensive than having your granddaughter type it as a summer project, but may end up saving you money in the long-run.

Artwork and republication

The final issue to consider when copying a previously published book is the quality of the artwork. If you do not have the original artwork, the art in your book must be scanned. As with the text, scanning reduces the quality of the final product. If you are using photographs or other ‘half-tones’ you will find that the quality of a scan from a previously-printed version decreases dramatically. Line art will reproduce better. If possible, supply the original art to your printer.

Preparing a manuscript for layout

[this section assumes that you are not simply scanning a previously-published book]

The world of word-processors and desktop publishing have made it relatively easy to produce a professional publication economically. This does not mean, however, that anyone who can use a word-processing program can necessarily handle the complexities of manuscript preparation and book design. This is why some Print On-Demand companies handle the layout of the book in-house. Others rely on the author to produce a good-looking layout by providing detailed specifications that the author must follow.

Preparing for a professional layout

If you are preparing your text for a professional layout, you may need to follow very explicit instructions (unless you are paying for highly customized work – unlikely with print on-demand companies — you may find they are not willing to spend time coaching you through the preparation process). If you do not follow the instructions exactly, you may creating difficulties with the layout. Difficulties and corrections usually translate into additional cost.

If you find lists of word-processing instructions hard to understand, if you do not know how to combine all your files into one master file and transfer it to a floppy disk, or if you do not know how to re-format your existing file to different specifications efficiently, consider hiring someone who does.

If you have an index, you will probably have to learn how to use the tagging feature in your word-processor, so that the index can be imported into the new layout and retain its integrity.

If you have graphics you will have to ensure you can provide them in the correct size and resolution for best results on the digital press (a resolution that looks good on your computer screen, at 72 dots per inch, will not necessarily look so good output from a high resolution printer).

Doing it yourself

Artistic considerations

Word processors are wonderful inventions, but they do not replace a good artistic eye and experience. Knowing where and when to use features like underline, bold, italics, shadow boxes and columns, comes with study and practice – things a designer has, things that the average writer does not have. Even a good artistic eye cannot replace the help of someone trained to know what font size goes with which spacing; just how much white space is enough; and where to put the chapter titles for best effect. Unless you have design experience – and book design experience at that – be very wary of designing your book without expert help.

Technical considerations

You must be sure how the Print On-Demand company wants to receive the file. Will they accept a word-processor file or do they need something more ‘high end’? If you are concerned about your book looking ‘real’ you may want to use high end graphics tools. A book expert can usually tell the difference between something designed by a designer and something created in Microsoft Word. If you are not experienced in using Quark Xpress or Adobe PageMaker, it will take time to learn them. Then, once you have mastered the program, you must master the the temptation to use all the new bells and whistles you’ve discovered. Less is more.

In this article I have attempted to cover a lot of ground, quickly, and have not tried to give all the answers thoroughly. If I have raised questions and you want a more thorough answer, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to clarify, expand on any point in this article, or address new questions.

What Is Print On Demand?

25 Jul 2001

At its simplest, print on-demand publishing means that whenever a book is demanded (ordered, bought, requested), a copy of the book is printed. To anyone who knows anything about traditional printing methods, this sounds ridiculous. Setting up a book on a traditional printing press is a long, costly process and to print one copy of a book would cost thousands of dollars. The advent of digital technologies, however, has brought changes.

Printing Turns over a New Leaf

Desktop publishing (creating book layouts in computers) has been relatively common since the 1980s. To print a product, however, the finished design was still created as film separations. From these, printers produced plates (one plate for every 16 pages in a book – known as a ‘signature’) that were loaded on to the printing presses. When the press started rolling, it took a while to get the right amount of ink on the plate, so the first impressions printed on paper were always discarded. For full-color pages, the paper must be run through the presses four times, once for each of the colors that form the basis of four-color printing. Once all this work was done, economics demanded that you produce hundreds or thousands of copies of a book at the same time. (By printing hundreds of copies, the initial costs are spread out and the unit price of each book reflects only a tiny percentage of the set-up costs).

The advent of high-quality digital printers in the late 1980s and early 1990s promised to change the economics of printing. Unlike a traditional press, a digital printer lays ink directly onto the pages in a pattern determined by the code sent to it by a computer (think of how your office laser printer works). In this way even color digital printers can produce a good color print without running the paper through the press more than once.

The implications were not lost on printing professionals. They saw that it was becoming easier to print only as many copies of a document as you needed, instead of the standard 500 or 1000 copy minimum runs. The first commercial applications of this technology were in the area of manuals and reports: documents that required small quantities and frequent revisions.

In the late 1990s, a couple of new companies started to apply this technology to the idea of trade book production. There was already a strong self-publishing movement in the US, using traditional printing processes. Using traditional presses, authors had to print hundreds of copies of their book at a time, on spec, at great expense. They then had to store their inventory, and hope they sold the hundreds of copies that would cover their costs. Even when your book costs $2 to print, 1000 copies represents a significant investment – and that doesn’t include marketing costs. Most writers are unable or unwilling to make that investment. Digital printing seemed to offer a practical alternative. But individual authors could not make even digital printing economical enough to print single copies of their book and sell them at regular bookstore prices. Some consolidation was needed, to achieve the savings and discounts that come with bulk manufacturing.

Digital Efficiencies

Print on-demand companies send many titles to their printer at the same time. The content of each book is different, but because they print hundreds of books daily, they are able to minimize waste, time, and costs.

These companies usually create a book ‘container’: one size, on one type of paper. They pour the digital content of each book onto that paper. After the press prints the pages for your neighbor’s novel, it simply starts to lay ink on the next piece of paper in a new pattern – that of the words and pictures in your book. Printing one book at a time has suddenly become a snap.

Therefore, most Print On-Demand books are the same size. Each print on-demand service providers offers standard sizes that their printers are expecting. Thus they achieve economies of scale.

How Does a Digital Printer Work?

When you send a document to your home printer, you will notice a slight delay as the printer’s memory receives and stores the document. The bigger the file, the longer the pause. Commercial digital printers are hooked up to a computer all their own, which processes the document information before feeding it into the printer. The larger the file, the longer this takes, but, compared to setting up plates on a traditional press, and changing them every time you want to print the next 16-page signature, this is a lightning-fast process (probably the reason why one of the first companies to offer digital book production called itself Lightning Print – later Lightning Source, now LSi).

Then the printer lays ink directly onto the pages. Each book body is matched with its cover, bound and trimmed.

The beauty of the process is that the presses, trimmers and binders can print different book content all day, without any extra set-up costs, any need to change settings for different sizes, any need to pause.
Is it really that easy?

No. There are all kinds of wrinkles along the way. Commercial digital printers are professional machines. Getting good results require that you understand how to use them properly. If you or your service provider sends bad data to the printer, you’ll get an ugly book (for example if your fonts are not handled professionally, you could end up with a book printed in courier; if you use low-resolution graphics – that look fine on your 72 dpi screen – they can look terrible when output from a 1600 dpi printer). The paper grain must be correct so that you book doesn’t curl. A proper paper weight must be found, that bends nicely and isn’t transparent, but is not so thick that the spine cracks when readers open the book. The paper must be a color that is easy on the eye, and it must be acid-free if you want libraries to buy your book. Printing and coating the cover are other tricky areas. There are a limited number of really good color digital printers today. The lamination or coating must be right for the kind of cover paper you use, and there is currently no efficient way to laminate just one cover (another economy of scale for the POD service providers).

What I’m getting at here, is that there is a lot of research that has been done by the service providers. You, as an individual, would find it hard to duplicate the services they offer, because of the level of knowledge required and the efficiencies of producing many different titles at one time.


So what are the costs, really? Well, in traditional printing thousands of copies of a book can cost as little as around 50 cents a book – but we’re talking tens of thousands of copies. Very few books have a market of tens of thousands. To print a single book traditionally – if you could find someone to do it for you — would cost as much as printing 200, because of the high set-up costs (probably at least $1000).

To print a digital book in single quantities costs POD companies between $4 and $10 per book. Because they are printing so many, their average cost is usually around $6.50. Some companies use this cost to set an average price (losing money on the fattest books, making money on the medium and skinny ones). Other companies charge prices based on page-count, allowing the author to set the price, as long as it does not go below a certain minimum, that guarantees the company its profit.

Print On-Demand books are printed in the higher-quality trade paperback format (larger than a mass-market paperback, and on higher quality paper). They are usually priced a little higher than comparable mass-produced books, because of that $6 average printing cost, which leaves less room for the big discounts demanded by booksellers. They are also usually more profitable in the long run. There are no wasted copies – to be stored, or destroyed when the new edition comes out. There are no speculative printing costs – since the retail price of each book covers the printing costs and profit, and since no book is printed until a sale is guaranteed.

So How Do Readers Find My Book?

Print On-Demand books are not printed until ordered, that kind of goes with the concept of ‘on-demand’. That is not to say that they not available through traditional channels such as bookstores. Most bookstores subscribe to databases of books ‘in print’ – either online databases, CD-Rom editions or the good old-fashioned quarterly catalog. This means that if someone walks into a bookstore and asks for your book, the staff will be able to look up the title, find out how to order the book, and obtain a copy for you. Of course, this whole process is so new (less than five years old) and the book industry is so old and musty, that it’s not always that simple and you will often have to educate store clerks about the ‘on-demand’ principle.

Other ways to obtain the books include:

  • Directly from the producer. Most service providers have an online bookstore and toll-free number. This is the best way, because it cuts out most of the middlemen and generates the highest profits for you.
  • From online bookstores such as Since these stores routinely list books even if they don’t have them in a warehouse, they are great places to direct your customers. It costs the online bookstore next to nothing to list the book, and they can obtain it at any time.
  • From you. This is probably the least preferable option. Why should you have to pay for and store copies, when you can just send your readers to an online bookstore or toll-free number, and spend none of your own money building a stock?

Of course, you are quite justified in asking how readers will know about your book if it’s not on bookstore shelves.

You have to tell them.

This is not any different from how a publisher works even when producing vast quantities of books. The publisher is still responsible for promoting and marketing the books. If you are the publisher, then you must promote and market the books.

And be honest, how often have you walked into a bookstore and bought a book just because you saw it on the shelf, even if you know nothing about it? Come on, honestly…even if you like the cover of a book you’ve never heard of, you at least read the cover blurb, don’t you?

Well, since your book isn’t available to casual bookstore browsers, you need to get that blurb in front of people who are casually browsing in other places – newsgroups, chatrooms, online stores, society newsletters, local newspapers and so on. Without promotion, even a book on a bookstore shelf will not sell many copies.

And don’t forget, books do not stay on a bookstore shelf for ever. Even if you get your book into a bookstore, the store may return it at any time. Generally stores rotate their stock for the three different book selling seasons, meaning that your book could be taken off the shelves and returned to the publisher (you) in a few short weeks.

So don’t think that not being in physical bookstores is a crippling handicap.

Out of Print No More

The final indignity for the traditionally published author is the concept of your book going out of print. This can happen within the first year. If the response to the first printing of your book (usually 5000 copies for a first novel) is not rapturous and immediate, the publisher’s accountants will happily demonstrate that your book is not worth a second printing. Even if 300 people call the publisher in the first year after your book comes out, that will not convince them to reprint the book and it simply becomes unavailable.

With digital print on-demand, there is no need for your book to go out of print, since there is no need for a minimum print run and all the costs that go along with it. Your book is stored as a digital file. Even with a fabulous color cover, your book won’t take up more than 10 MB on a hard-drive somewhere, making it virtually free to store. As long as companies are still printing digital books, putting your content on the page will cost no more than printing a copy of the latest book that came into their stable. This means that your book never goes out of print. 15 years from now, when your disrespectful grandchildren want a copy of ‘that goofy book grandma wrote’, they’ll be able to get it.