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News for January
Self-Publishing: Press Run or Print-on-Demand?by Layla Lawlor
Maybe you've tried to publish your book through normal channels, and either couldn't find a publisher, or weren't willing to make the changes that they wanted. Maybe you don't want to give up control of your baby, and would be willing to deal with some extra hassles in exchange for having complete control over every aspect of the content and design of your book. Maybe you're unwilling to turn over most of the profits from your book to a publisher. Or maybe you just aren't interested in printing a lot of copies of your book -- perhaps it's a niche product or you simply want to produce a few dozen copies for friends and family.
Whatever the reason, if you're thinking about self-publishing and are actually crazy enough to try it, there has never been a better time. The rise of the Internet and digital printing has made self-publishing easier and more affordable than ever before.
I've self-published two graphic novels, one in 2002 and the latest in 2005. The first book was done as a traditional press run of 3,000 copies, while the second was a print-on-demand (POD) run of a couple hundred. I'm currently in the early planning stages for another book that I'll be producing sometime in 2007, and I am definitely doing POD for this one as well.
Self-publishing is a topic that you could write a book about -- in fact, quite a few books have been. For this article, I'll focus on one of the key decisions for today's self-publisher: whether to do a press run for your book, or to go with print-on-demand.
Two Kinds of Printing
Up until recently, whether you were a big publishing house or a small self-publisher, your printing options were essentially the same. Unless you had the knowledge, time, and equipment to print and bind books by hand, your book would be printed on an offset press, with high startup costs and a necessarily large press run. While the cost per book for an offset press run is pretty low, there's no way to just do a few books. You would be looking at several thousand dollars and at least a thousand or so books at the very minimum.
But the rise of digital typesetting and new advances in printing technology have made it possible to print copies of a book one at a time. Rather than using a large offset press, print-on-demand businesses use a compact and relatively inexpensive digital press that is capable of incredibly short press runs. The cost per book is, usually, considerably higher than for a regular offset press run, but books can be printed in exactly the numbers that they are needed.
Pros and Cons of POD
At first glance, POD looks very attractive to the small publisher. There is no need for several thousand dollars to finance a press run of a thousand copies when you may only sell fifty. You can print only the books that you expect to sell, and when you've sold those, you can go back and print some more. There is no need to worry about storing and selling thousands of books just to have a few on hand to sell.
So, as a self-publisher, why wouldn't you do print-on-demand? The main reason is because the per-unit cost of your books will be much, much higher than with a traditional press run. Per-unit cost is simply the amount that it costs you to print each individual book. On a large press run, the per-unit cost is very low because once you have the press already set up, it's very cheap to run off each additional copy. With POD, each individual copy of a book is printed separately, using small-scale digital printing equipment rather than the large, high-speed presses that are used for traditional offset printing.
On my books, the per-unit cost of the first book, using traditional printing methods, was about $1.72. On the second, POD book, it was about $8.80. Quite a difference!
No matter which printing method you choose, it's important to know the per-unit cost of your book because that will determine what your price must be. In order to make a profit, the price of your book must be higher than what it costs you to print it. And don't forget that the printing costs are not the only costs that you need to consider. In order to avoid losing money, you must also consider shipping costs (in my case, being in Alaska, this adds considerably to the per-unit cost of the book) and perhaps other costs as well, such as advertising or the cost of attending conventions to promote your book.
Once you know the cost of printing your book, then you can set your price as high above cost as you think you can sell. The difference between your cost and the book's price is your profit. For example, if your book costs you $8 per copy to print, and you sell them for $12, then you'll be making a profit of $4 per book.
That sounds pretty good, right? Well, maybe not so much -- because you still can't sell your book through bookstores without losing money. Retailers only make money if they sell the books for more than they pay for them. This means that publishers (like you) get considerably less than the cover price of the book when they sell them to stores. In my experience you'll generally get anywhere between 50% to 70% of the cover price of the book when you sell it directly to stores yourself, or 40% (or less) if you have a distributor do it for you.
Distributors are exactly what they sound like: professional middlemen who take care of shopping your book around to bookstores. Doing it yourself might sound like a better deal ... until you realize that you have to contact every single one of those stores or chains in order to find the ones who want to carry your book, and then you still have to ship the book to them. Postage on one or two books at a time can easily eat away any money you save on the home-distributor game ... and chip away at your remaining profit besides!
So suddenly, in order just to break even on your $8 POD book, you'll have to set its retail price at $20 per copy! And in order to make a profit, you'd have to charge even more than that. The only way to avoid this is to sell the books directly to your customers yourself, either from a website or at conventions and craft fairs. But in both cases, you still have additional costs that must be considered. At craft fairs, there are table fees and transportation costs; for web sales, you will have to consider the cost of postage and mailing materials. And, most importantly, the number of customers that you can reach from a website or craft-fair table is extremely limited.
With POD, it's extremely difficult to sell enough books to make a reasonable profit, let alone a living if that's what you're trying to do. On the other hand, if you only anticipate selling a small number of books, or if you want to test the waters to see if a larger press run might be worth it, then it's your best option by far. It's also an excellent way to bring old books back into print.
Pros and Cons of Offset Printing
Almost every book you see in the bookstore is produced in mass quantities on a printing press. As advanced as digital printing has become, it's still nowhere near able to match the speed and low cost of offset printing.
If you anticipate selling a few hundred books, or more, and if you have space to store them and the ability to pay for a large press run, having your book printed on an offset press run is by far your best option. Even though your out-of-pocket cost at the beginning will be high, you'll make much more profit because each book will cost so much less to print.
But for a small publisher, those are some pretty big "ifs". I used up almost every penny in my savings account for the press run on my first book, and I ended up with far more copies than I could sell. When I moved across the country in 2004, I ended up destroying a thousand books because I couldn't bring them and I couldn't sell them.
Offset is probably the way to go if you're serious about trying to make a living at self-publishing. But if you're looking at taking out a business loan to cover the cost of your first print run, you'd better be sure that these books are going to sell. Again, POD can help you there, either to produce samples that you can send out to stores and reviewers ahead of time, or to create a small press run and test-sell them.
You may hear that POD quality is poorer than you would get on an offset job. Is that true? The answer is, yes and no. Different print shops have highly variable quality; the same is true of individual jobs at the same print shop. It also depends tremendously on the various options that you choose for your job -- the kind of paper, binding and so forth. My first book was printed through Quebecor World, Inc., a very large print shop in Canada that's one of the main locations in North America for comic-book printing. Trying to save money, I used the cheapest possible paper and cover stock. On my second book, the paper used by the digital printer was much heavier and brighter white than the paper I chose at Quebecor, and the difference is amazing. Comparing the two, the POD book is by far the more professional-looking, due mainly to paper choice. However, I have also heard secondhand stories of POD books that used cheap glue for the binding, causing cracking and loose pages.
Most of the larger print shops will supply printing samples that you can look at. Quebecor was happy to send me a package of samples. POD printing places, being smaller and usually run by one or two individuals, may or may not be willing to send you free samples. Even if they're not, usually they will allow you to order a single copy of your book to preview it. Usually you'll have to pay for this (anywhere from a few bucks to $25 or so) but I highly recommend it, because not only can you look at the quality of the paper and binding, but if they don't give you proofs, it's the only way that you can check to make sure that none of your files were garbled when you sent them. Keep in mind that POD places may not supply all of the services that larger print shops will -- for example, you may have to typeset the book yourself (in which case, pay careful attention to their technical specs, and don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand something).
Finding a Printer
My experience in this area is entirely specific to printing black-and-white graphic novels in North America. While most printers will print just about anything that their equipment can handle, your needs will be very different if you're looking to print a 64-page black-and-white comic versus an archival-quality art book. Your experiences in other countries may also be quite different from mine. However, the Internet is a great research tool for the beginning self-publisher.
Since most printers and -- one assumes -- nearly all POD places have websites, you can begin by doing a simple Google search; some useful keywords (depending on the nature of your book) might be "comics printers" or "print on demand". Message boards are a useful source of information. As you narrow your search, it's wise to do as much research as possible; if you can locate current or former customers of the company you're interested in -- message boards are good for this -- you can ask them if they're happy with their experiences with that printer. Don't just go with the first printer that looks good. There is a huge variety in pricing between different printers, especially with POD. And don't forget the yellow pages in your hometown, either. Even if they haven't done your sort of book before, many local digital printers may be willing to try POD, and you might get a better deal from them than if you go through an online service on the other side of the country.
I've been using Lulu.com for my POD printing and, so far, have been very happy with them. Their turnaround time is incredibly quick -- last year I received my order of 100 books literally within a week of ordering them, and this was during the busy holiday season. You can either order your books from them and sell them yourself, or have Lulu sell them for you, and -- like many POD printers -- they have an easy-to-use cost calculator on their website so you can do pricing comparisons.
So - POD or Press Run?
In summary, POD is probably the better option if any of the following are true:
An offset printer may be better if:
Having done both, I think I'm going to be sticking with POD for the near future. However, I also view POD as a stepping stone to more ambitious print projects later. For me, it's a way of getting my work out there without having to commit to a large press run, while I build up a readership and test the waters for different sorts of projects. I'm living proof that there's absolutely no reason why you have to stick with one or the other, even on the same project. The most important thing is to weigh your options and choose the printing method that works best for your particular project and level of experience.
Layla Lawlor a 30-year-old newspaper graphic designer and independent comics artist. She lives in Fox, Alaska, with her husband, two dogs, and a rather annoying cat.
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