Book Publisher vs Book Printer

Authors new to self publishing often confuse the role of a book publisher with that of a printer. In fact, these two businesses have about as much in common as farming and running a restaurant. Yes, both publishers and printers deal in books, but publishers don't own printing presses and printers don't file for copyrights. To put it as crudely as possible, printing books is essentially a value-added paper business. Printers take two commodities, paper and ink, and add value by putting the two together. The more books you buy from an offset printer, the cheaper they get, until the price starts to approach the value of the paper, ink, amortization of the press and labor. Below that they'd be selling at a loss. Publishers, at the lowest common denominator, are intellectual property holding companies. If you want an unflattering characterization of a big trade publisher, think of an opportunistic law firm with a large marketing department attached.

The main reason it's now easier than ever to confuse a book publisher with a book printer is that a huge market has crept up for middlemen who in truth are neither one nor the other. In the old publishing world of offset printing, packaged subsidy publishing deals for authors and so-called "self publishing companies" existed, but their prices started in the thousands of dollars due to the high printing costs involved. Equally important, those traditional subsidy publishers (also called vanity presses though I don't think it's a good description) couldn't do much to make their authors’ books available through distribution. Thus, authors who did their homework could quickly figure out that they were throwing their money away on a dream, with practically zero chance of selling books.

In the past decade, print on demand and internet bookselling have changed the game for authors, whether they set out to make a living through self publishing or they just want to see their book in print. By allowing the books to be printed one at a time, print on demand changed the minimum cost to get a book "into print" from over a thousand dollars to less than a hundred. At the very same time print on demand technology was becoming a reality, the internet opened up a whole new way to market and sell books that could completely bypass traditional book distribution and retail outlets. Like them or hate them, Amazon is now the worlds largest bookstore, and every book publisher can get their books listed by Amazon.

The 800 lb gorilla of the print on demand industry is Lightning Source, a sister company of Ingram Books, the largest book distributor in the America. Lightning Source is a book printer, not a book publisher. Lightning Source prints books for publishers, both large and small, but unlike traditional offset printers, Lightning Source also handles order fulfillment into distribution for their publisher customers. Any publisher using this service, which is free with the cost printing the books, will see their titles available through Amazon and Ingram Books, which makes them available to over 90% of bookshops in the country. If the publisher is successful at marketing the titles and creating orders, both Amazon and Ingram will end up ordering reasonable quantities for stock, so the books will be available for 24 hour shipping.

A whole new crop of subsidy publishers, companies which charge an author a fee to get their book in print, have sprung up to take advantage of the Lightning Source business model. These companies are all middlemen, and for the authors who merely want to see their books in print and available through Amazon and distribution, the better ones offer a low cost way of doing this. However, it's important to understand that apart from charging authors a fee rather than paying an advance, subsidy publishers differ from traditional book publishers in one critical way. They lack a marketing department, which means, unless the author does all of the marketing, there won't be any sales to speak of. Some subsidy publishers offer marketing services, for which they charge, but I've never seen any evidence that those marketing services can generate enough sales to pay back a significant fraction of their costs. It's money thrown away. Even worse, some subsidy publishers emulate traditional book publishers and they take the intellectual rights to the book by contract. Whatever you do, never sign a contract with a subsidy publisher who claims any rights at all to your book. Charging you to take ownership of your intellectual property is just adding insult to injury.

Print on demand has been a tremendous boon to both subsidy published authors, who can now get their books in print for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars, and for self publishers. True self publishers can now cut out the middleman and start earning significant money on every book they sell without having to invest in a garage full of books and a shipping and handling operation. All that's required to become a book publisher today is a typeset manuscript and cover in PDF format, an on demand book printer with distribution, and an ISBN block. Of course, if you want to make a living publishing books, you need to market them, because nobody is going to beat a path to your door. I'm a huge advocate of Internet marketing for self publishers, because with a little web savvy, many non-fiction titles make terrific web content that will draw visitors and buyers to a website. I was so taken by the new model that I stopped selling my manuscripts to trade publishers and started publishing them myself, including my latest title, "Print on Demand Book Publishing - a New Approach to Printing and Marketing Books for Publishers and Authors."

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