Lessons Learned About Print On Demand Publishing

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Lessons Learned About Print On Demand Publishing by Tim Sanders

April 05, 2013

Last year, after a visit to Ingram's Lightning Source facility, we decided to add print format to our mix.  Up until then, we had planned on only releasing eBooks.  After all, we are a digital publishing startup with an eye on scale.  Traditionally published books (offset printing, usually offshore) is not startup stuff, given how wasteful it is and how much money is risked in shipping, storage and disposal of unsold units.  But print-on-demand (POD) publishing breaks that mold, acting as a digital product with a physical output. 

In other words, a POD book is really a digital file that sits on a server until someone buys a copy (usually from an online retailer).  A few minutes after the customer hits the buy button, a process starts where the book is printed, then packed for delivery to the customer.  Think "Just-In-Time" meets the new world of publishing.  Up until recently, the quality of POD books was poor, as they lacked rugged binding and compelling covers (from color quality to texture).  All of that has changed over the last few years as technology has enabled companies like Lightning Source to produce a paperback book via POD that rivals offset printing (which requires a huge print run to be affordable).  The other big advantage to POD is that it is never out of stock and when you are doing a great job marketing your book, your Amazon or BN product page will never say, "None in stock, will be available in two weeks". 

Our first book, Finding the Next Steve Jobs, was our introduction to the POD process and we took note of the finer points to share with our future authors:

1.  Make Every Page Beg For Its Life - The key difference between POD and offset printing is price-point.  With offset, your bulk order dramatically reduces any incremental costs created with blank pages at the front or back or in between chapters.  However, with POD, your cost structure is the cover (flat rate) plus a fixed cost per page (be it blank or printed).  When you add a cover page to each chapter or a blank page after one, it's easy to add a lot of cost to the book.  In some cases, you may decide that this is a worthwhile investment and produces enough reader value to justify.  But in most cases, the extra pages are just extra costs.  So be vigilant about page count to maximize your net proceeds from each book sold.

2. Make Changes, But Not Too Many - The wonderful thing about digital publishing is that you can change the file and re-upload it to create a revised book.  The next copy sold, be it an eBook or POD, contains the corrections or additions.  That's great, because the book will not go obsolete or continue to sell with known mistakes.  With offset printing, you first have to sell through all the books already printed, then maybe, your publisher will authorize changes before the next print run.  With Finding the Next Steve Jobs, we were able to fix some mistakes we missed and add a testimonial from Walter Isaacson.  But that doesn't mean we'll make changes every time we find a single mistake or receive a marketing element.  Why?  The book designer has to create a new file, which can have an incremental expense.  For your eBook, you'll need to do a new conversion to Kindle and ePub formats, which will also bear an expense.  So leverage the ability to be agile, but be mindful of extra costs that it entails.

3. Choose Your Cover Wisely - If you choose matte, the finish is smooth to the touch and feels like a high quality trade paperback.  But as one designer pointed out, it's fragile and easily scuffed.  The alternative, glossy cover, is much more durable, although it doesn't look or feel as expensive.  It's a decision you have to make, based on whether you are looking for durability or tactile quality. 

4. Be Patient With Your Retail Partners - Distributors and manufacturers send out a metadata feed (containing all the vital information about the book, including it's cover) to retailers via an ONIX feed.  Some retailers are quick to update the metadata, making the product pages accurate and effective.  In other cases (like Amazon), it can take a week (or two) for the correct metadata and book cover to populate on the product page.  This means that you shouldn't assume that you can go on-sale as quickly as you can publish.  This is true for either eBook or POD publishing.  They key then, is to build at least two extra weeks into your production cycle to accommodate for the latency of metadata.  After all, if your product page doesn't sing, the prospective readers you drive to it will not convert into buyers.

Do you have any insights?  Please share in comments!

For more, read: Why Print on Demand Is the Hybrid Technology of Publishing


Tim Sanders

About Tim Sanders

Tim is a bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive with a mission to disrupt the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries and share knowledge with authors looking to publish and market high-quality books.

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