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Print-on-demand basics

Print-on-demand (POD) is a broad term often used to refer to a particular printing technology, a sales process, and a kind of publishing. Basically, print-on-demand is just what it says: when a customer wants a book, you print it for them. You don’t print a whole lot of copies of the book and then wait for customers to buy them.

The printing technology behind POD was realised several years ago when black-and-white photocopying became almost as good as traditional lithographic printing. Since then, many machines have been developed to make it possible to print and bind small runs of books fairly cheaply, to a quality almost indistinguishable from litho printing. These machines are often referred to as digital presses, because they take digital (i.e. electronic) information and print more-or-less straight onto the book paper, with no need for lithographic plates. Per copy, digital printing is still more expensive than printing, say, 1000 copies or more on a traditional lithographic press. But then you’re not printing 1000 copies, so your initial financial risk is far lower.

As a sales process, POD is used to refer to the behind-the-scenes mechanism for printing and getting a book to a customer only once they’ve ordered it. The customer usually doesn’t even know that the physical book doesn’t yet exist when they place their order. In the most sophisticated systems, when a customer buys a book, the printer is informed automatically and prints and dispatches the book to the customer within a matter of days. Usually the publisher, the printer, and the bookseller are three separate organisations working together, and each takes a piece of the selling price of the book.

As a kind of publishing, POD is often used to refer to the way that books with a small, niche market can be published, or how mainstream books can be kept in print once the strong initial demand for them has worn off. This means, firstly, that publishers with very little capital can publish without having to pay for a large print run and warehousing costs; and secondly, that publishers can keep books in print long after their first big print runs have been sold off.

Many of the advantages offered by POD principles are clear. There are also limitations to consider when choosing a POD-based publishing model for your book.

The advantages of POD publishing

  • There is far less financial risk in POD publishing than in conventional, large-print-run publishing.
  • Because a book can be printed anywhere in the world, there are very few geographical limitations to its distribution.
  • You and your customers are never stuck without stock, waiting for a reprint.
  • Books can remain in print indefinitely. This brings in occasional sales long after the fanfare of a book’s initial release is over.

The limitations of POD publishing

  • While the quality of digital printing in black and white is indistinguishable from lithographic printing, greys and colours do not usually come out as well.
  • Digital presses and POD printing processes are streamlined for speed, and therefore your choices of page sizes, papers, finishes, and binding options are limited.
  • Some booksellers do not accept POD-based books, except from POD printers they have a pre-arranged supply agreement with. This is often because they fear problems with processing returns, a standard feature of the bookselling industry, and with delivery times.

As a result of these advantages and limitations, POD publishing suits some books better than others.

Arthur Attwell 2 July 2011
This information is more than two years old, and may no longer be accurate.