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Printing Offset vs Print on Demand Self Publishing

They say the Devil is in the details, and for once, they happen to be right. At first glance, almost everything about offset printing looks superior to print on demand; after all, everybody knows that print on demand printing is essentially giant laser printers cranking out page after page on a huge roll, with no stops for tweaking. The experts on self publishing lists say that printing quality is critical to success and dispose of print on demand without a backwards glance. However, self publishing isn't just about printing books, it's a business like any other, where cash flow management, inventory, shipping, distribution and most importantly marketing, all compete with printing technology on the priorities list. A quick review of the pros and cons of these sometimes competing and sometimes complimentary printing methodologies:

Printing Offset

High quality from a good printer
Low unit cost if printing in large quantity - F.O.B.
Tremendous flexibility in cut size, paper weight and color
High storage cost
High distribution cost
High initial investment
High prepress cost, errors extremely expensive

Print on Demand

Low quality relative to offset printing
Uniform unit cost at all quantities
Limited flexibility in cut size and paper
No storage cost
No distribution cost with Lightning Source, Replica or BookSurge
Low initial investment
Low prepress cost, errors easily corrected

From a business perspective, the choice of which printing technology to use in your publishing business depends entirely on what you're trying to accomplish and what you can afford. For example, if you're publishing a full color cook book, there's just no way you can do it with print on demand at this point. The cost is too high and the quality isn't there. Although you'll have to make a big initial investment with offset printing, the amount of prepress work and the cost of preparing a full color cookbook make the big printing investment a reasonable gamble. The cookbook will get a high cover price, you'll give up 60% to 70% of that to get it distributed, but that's the business model.

On the other hand, for a novel or a nonfiction book with limited black and white illustrations, print on demand quality is good enough. Print on demand printing is actually cheaper than a short run of offset (less than 500 or 1000 copies) in most cases, and now we get to the devil in the details. One of the biggest challenges for small publishers is getting their books into distribution, so they'll be available for ordering through bookstores, both online and on Main Street. Self publishing with print on demand using either Lightning Source or Replica means you can get your books stocked by Amazon and available to bookstores through stocking at Ingram or Baker and Taylor, and at a short discount to boot!

As I describe in my case study for a print on demand book printed by Lightning Source, the short discount more than offsets the per unit savings we could have achieved by printing a large quantity of books on an offset press. Plus, you can get started out in self publishing with an initial investment in the low four figures, rather than the low five figures. Save your money and effort for editing, production and marketing, and you'll save your back as well. When I started out self publishing on offset and those first 1,000 books showed up in 55 lb. boxes (40 hardcovers per box), I knew there had to be a better way. Now I never order more than 25 books at a time, and that's only for our small direct-mail business. The rest of our sales take place without our ever taking delivery of the books, they go direct from Lighting Source to Amazon or Ingram, who distributes them to retailers. You have to be realistic about what you're doing. Not every book is an art book, and losing money isn't a business, it's a hobby.

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