How to Start a Publishing Company with Print-on-Demand

The Internet has brought writers an indispensable new way to reach vast audiences and promote self-published books. This has much greater impact on the book business than technological advances in publisher workflow, but has been largely ignored by most authors and publishers. The new pre-press software allows a skilled operator working on a home PC to produce the electronic files for printing books that are indistinguishable from the best the trades have to offer. On-demand publishing allows publishers to print commercially competitive books a single copy at a time, a true revolution in the basic publishing model. The very newness of these innovations ensures that no one is currently using them all to the best possible effect. This means there is more opportunity than ever for both new and established authors to start a publishing company.

Anybody who prints a bunch of pages on their PC printer, punches holes in the margin and arranges them in a three-ring binder is perfectly free to write "A Book - Published by Me" on the cover and call themselves a self-publisher. If they keep track of their expenses, sell these books, and file Federal and State taxes as a publisher, then they really are a publisher. But that's not the definition we're going to use in this book, and it's not the definition book stores, distributors or printers use. As far as the industry is concerned, a publisher is a person or business entity who has purchased at least one ISBN (International Standard Book Number) block.

We'll examine print on demand self publishing in the context of traditional publishing models and as a unique new model which has come into its own with the Internet. While the processes followed in preparing new titles for traditional publication on offset presses can also be applied to POD, it's critical to realize that there are other paths. The traditional publishing process evolved over hundreds of years, dedicated to making the peculiar economics of that industry feasible. POD does not obey the economics of traditional offset publishing, though many publishers have been slow to realize this. If you're thinking about starting a publishing company, know that you can publish books and make them available through 90% of US bookstores and Amazon, etc, for well under $500 in up-front costs. That doesn't include writing, editing, proofreading or marketing, but it does include the cost of an ISBN block and print-on-demand title setup with Lightning Source, in place of the $10,000 or more new publishers often spend on their first run of books. This book is written for both authors and self-publishers who are starting their own publishing company and wish to take advantage of the unique possibilities of POD, as opposed to simply using it to keep old books in print.

Print-On-Demand Myths

Myth #1 - The most prevalent myth about print-on-demand is that books published with on-demand technology are unwelcome in bookstores and libraries. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the world's major academic presses are some of the heaviest users of print-on-demand. The factors that keep any new book from gaining a place on bookstore shelves are: lack of marketing, lack of demand, the publisher's refusal to accept returns, the publisher's refusal to grant the trade discount, or an unprofessional appearance.

Myth #2 - The second widely believed myth about on-demand books is that they are amateur productions put out by subsidy publishers. The technology used to print a book has no bearing on the production values, which result from a combination of writing, editing, proofreading and design. The quality of the paper stock and cover printing for POD books varies with the provider, just as it does with offset printed books.

Myth #3 - The third myth says that a self-publisher would choose print-on-demand book publishing only if they planned to print less than a hundred books a year. As we showed in our case study, on-demand printing can actually be cheaper for publishing books in quantities up to 500 or more copies at a time, and allows an order turn-around time of days rather than weeks. A book that only sells 100 copies a year is not a compelling commercial product for any publishing company, unless the cover price is astronomically high.

Myth #4 - Print-on-demand book publishing equals vanity publishing. The truth is that practically every major publishing company in the country is starting to utilize POD for some portion of their backlist. This myth is probably the most damaging to "On Demand Publishing" as a branding expression, since it has become associated with the vanity press business in the minds of most people working in the book industry. However, there's no reason for a customer to care about the technology used to create a book, unless the publisher wants to make the argument that on-demand book publishing is "tree friendly."

Subsidy publishing, sometimes called vanity publishing since the author pays a fee to get a book published, has always been a profitable business for subsidy publishers. They do fill an important function in the book publishing world, however, and I've often recommended them to authors, depending on the circumstances. If you're an author who wants to start a publishing company just because you can't get a trade publisher to print your book, consider a subsidy press. The adoption of print-on-demand by subsidy presses has allowed them to lower their charges to as little as $200 to have a no-frills book published. Many subsidy publishers use Lighting Source, ensuring that the book will be available through the Ingram distribution network and thus available through over 90% of U.S. bookstores, in addition to online booksellers. Lightning Source also supplies Baker&Taylor, and they appear to be moving in the direction of directly supplying the chains. The best reason for an author to turn to a subsidy publisher is if the author has written a book that isn't commercially viable, and lacks the desire, skills, or financing to take the self-publishing route.

Authors should be careful about the contracts offered by subsidy publishing companies and should retain all rights to their book with the option to end the relationship at any time. Authors shouldn't rely on a subsidy press to edit, proofread or otherwise contribute to the quality of a manuscript, whatever the price charged, and should obtain these services directly from local freelancers. The reason I wrote the book was to explain the economics of publishing and how Print-on-Demand has changed the rules for both publishers and authors. The one thing that remains the same is that you'll never sell books (outside of your family and friends) unless you spend as much effort on marketing your books as on writing and publishing them.


william the lesser said...

With POD publishing, must the author first establish his own publishing company and name?

Also . . . who takes care of copyrighting the material?

Morris Rosenthal said...

It depends entirely on what you are trying to accomplish. If you just want to get a book to be available on Amazon and you have no intention of going into business (or making serious money) then you can use a subsidy publisher. The subsidy publisher will provide the ISBN number, they will be the publisher of record, your relationship with them depends on the contract you sign. The easiest to understand contract I've seen is Booklocker ( and they are also pretty inexpensive. None of the subsidy publishers provide real editing services, even for pay. Your manuscript has to be polished when you give it to them if you want the book read well.

If you want to go into business as a publisher, then you must obtain an ISBN block from Bowker, a block of 10 numbers costs less than $250. Then you have to design and layout your book, hire an editor, proofreaders etc. That's the easy part. The hard part of publishing is marketing your books, and as I suggested in today's post, a great place to start is with a blog-based website.

For copyright information

Registering a copyright only costs $30, and you have copyright protection even if you don't register. I always pay to register my copyrights, but my understanding is the only thing that really gets me is the right to sue for damages, and maybe a simpler job proving in court that the work is mine.

Anonymous said...

Do I need a US company to buy ISBN nrs in the US and to be a client of Lightning Source, or can I be a private individual (or foreign company) (live in London currently)?

Morris Rosenthal said...

Since you live in London, it would probably make more sense to sign up with Lightning Source UK and have them make the arrangements with Lightning Source US. Besides, I'm sure you'd rather be paid in pounds than dollars:-)