How to Print Books One at a Time

Most books are still printed on offset presses, and even the smaller sheet-fed machines aren't economical for print runs under 500 or so copies. If you ask an offset printer to print one book for you, you'll just get laughed at. Most offset printers can't even determine ahead of time exactly how many books they'll print for an order less than a couple thousand copies, and the contract will be for a target number, plus or minus 5% or 10%. In my experience, you usually get the plus:-)

Ignoring the Ben Franklin method, there are really only two ways to print one book at a time. The first is to do it yourself on your computer printer or the local copy shop, and the second is to use print on demand. The final cost per copy will be higher than the cost from a large offset run, but cheaper than the cost from a short offset run, and it's the only way you can purchase books in quantities less than a hundred or so.

When I started out in publishing and was trying to figure out how to print books only when I had orders to fill, print on demand wasn't available to small publishers. I ended up making a master copy on my laser printer and "printing" copies on a copy machine at Staples. The quality wasn't great, the binding was crude, and it was also extremely labor intensive. My only distribution method was direct mail order, and I had problems processing money from overseas. Not a good solution at all.

Then I heard that Lightning Source was finally providing print on demand services to small publishers. I'd approached them at a trade show just a year or two earlier and was told they would only work with trade publishers who had a real backlist, which was probably as false then as it is now. They'll work with anybody who establishes their own publishing company. The main attraction of Lightning Source over using print on demand service from a local printer with a Xerox Docutech is access to distribution. Lightning Source doesn't only print one book at a time, they'll ship it Amazon, Barnes&Noble or Ingram when they get orders, with no action required on your part. In other words, they allow small publishers to run production and distribution in a completely hands-off manner, and they'll do so at a short discount.

Just because Lightning Source figured out how to print books one at a time in an economical manner doesn't mean that's all they do. I watch the Ingram ordering for my titles, and the average order size is in the tens of books. When I order books to for my direct mail operation, I order 25 at a time, primarily to amortize the shipping and handling cost over a reasonable number of books. I could print my books on offset in quantities over 1,000 and be confident in selling them, but then I'd have to warehouse and ship them, plus give a much larger discount to Amazon and Ingram. At my price points, on the same number of sales, I actually earn more by having Lightning Source do all my printing.

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