Before getting into details, I want to warn off those self-publishers who have already mortgaged the house and are ready to invest $100,000 in their first book. You’re so far beyond where I’m coming from that any advice I give just won’t match the business model you’re trying. For the record, the most I’ve ever invested (obviously not including my time) in self publishing a book was a little over $2,000; the least was about $350. I don’t self publish books as a hobby. I need them to pay for the effort by the end of the first year. Keeping costs down is a good way to avoid digging a bigger hole than you can climb out of without a bestseller.
Self publishers today are faced with two basic choices when choosing a book printing company. First, can they get by with print-on-demand quality or does the book absolutely have to be printed on an offset press? There are exactly three print on demand companies at the moment that can provide their publishers with hands-off access to distribution at a short discount. They are: Lightning Source, Replica and BookSurge (BookSurge only direct with Amazon for the time being, but that’s a large chunk of the typical self publishers’ marketplace). The discount off the cover price is what determines how much money comes back to the publisher for each book sold. The shorter the discount, the more money returns to the publisher. Despite the higher cost per copy that printing on demand entails, the availability of short discount distribution from these three companies means that the publisher earns more than if the books were printed on offset for free and then supplied into distribution at the standard trade discount.
Second, does the book absolutely require access to distribution or will all of the sales be done directly from the author to the customer? If the publisher plans on fulfilling all orders directly and storing the books in the garage or the back bedroom, then the short discount distribution advantage of print on demand becomes meaningless. However, absolute price per unit is still not the only factor to decide which book printing company is best for you, since the location of the printer and their ability to produce short runs is critical as well. The location is important for two reasons. For your first book, if you’re committing to an offset run of hundreds or more copies, you want to get it right the first time. That’s a lot easier to do if you can visit a local printer, talk to their setup people to find out exactly what they need, and be able to exchange materials without incurring a huge FedX bill. The second factor in location should be obvious. Books are heavy and not particularly cheap to ship. If you can drive to a local printer and pick up a few hundred books, you’ll save yourself as much as a couple hundred dollars on shipping and handling. In other words, if you think you’re saving 40 cents a book by ordering from some place
Finally, even if you’ve decided to forego distribution and do all of your own fulfillment (which means foregoing sales to some retailers who will only buy through distribution), you still have to have a place to put the books and money to pay for them. You’ll find that the cost per book drops rapidly with the number of books printed on an offset press, but for very short runs (under a couple hundred books) it’s usually cheaper to chose a book printing company that uses print on demand equipment for the short runs. If you fall into this category, you should really rethink whether you can get by with the quality of one of the print on demand companies that can give you short discount distribution as well. At large quantities, offset is always cheaper for books you’ll be taking possession of, but the cost of money and the risk become a factor. You can get books very inexpensively by ordering a run of 10,000, but that represents several years sales for a successful self publisher, and the odds of you’re getting there on your first outing are quite low.