The Basics Of Print On Demand (and how POD changed publishing)

Print On Demand

When we talk about print on demand, are we discussing a new kind of book production, or a different kind of book distribution? The answer is: Yes.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts focused on essential book marketing topics for self-published authors in our campaign, 2021: The Year To Find Your Readers. These posts will cover topics in two categories:

1. 100 days before publish. Tasks to accomplish while your book is still in production.

2. 100 days after publish. The latest and greatest book marketing tactics for self-published authors.

The publishing landscape has been radically transformed over the past 20 years. Millions of new, undiscovered books have been put into the marketplace and readers have discovered sensational works by previously unknown authors like Andy Weir, Amanda Hawking, Hugh Howey, and even EL James.

But when future literary historians look back and document how it all came to be, I’m certain they’re going to get it wrong.

It is true that eBooks and digital reading devices like the Kindle and iPad were instrumental in providing a new medium for writers. It’s well documented that Jeff Bezos launched his company on the back of selling books out of his garage. The old-school literary gatekeepers of agents and publishers were suddenly outflanked by thousands — and then millions — of ambitious writers who found a cheap and easy way to upload books on Amazon, Apple Books, and other services. What used to be called “vanity publishing” evolved into “self publishing” and gradually lost the stigma attached to any book not produced, edited, packaged, and sold by the mainstream publishing houses.

Long live the self-publishing revolution!

With the tsunami of new content and authors hitting the market, many tech pundits predicted eBooks would completely dominate the book marketplace by 2020. Sure, the printed-book market might hang on for dear life, supported by a stubborn fringe of traditionalists who insisted upon reading their favorite authors via ink and paper. But, like vinyl records, this would be a tiny fringe minority of luddites and sentimentalists.

Had this newly democratized marketplace of self-published books remained limited to eBooks, I believe this revolution would have been short-lived, or at least massively less significant. Why? Because readers’ love affair with the printed book endures.

preferred mediumsA recent survey asked readers how they preferred to consume works by their favorite authors. The results are clear: Over 70 percent of Americans enjoy reading printed books – and this number has held steady or grown over the past four years.

That’s why I believe that print-on-demand digital book-printing technology deserves a lot more credit for enabling, sustaining, and growing the self-publishing book market. Without this miraculous advancement in printers, most self-published authors couldn’t come close to offering their readers a satisfying printed book.

Print on demand: New, or just different?

First, let’s settle this question: When someone talks about print on demand, are they talking about a new kind of book production, or a different kind of book distribution? The answer is: Yes.

Before the invention of digital printing, it wasn’t feasible to print small lots of books — let alone just one. All the pre-2000 printing methods still had their roots in the first industrial revolution, and like all mass means of production, it hinged on the principle that economic (i.e. affordable) prices hinged on volume of production. Books were printed in an elaborate production process that makes economic sense only if you print thousands of books at a time. And few — if any — self-published authors had the means or interest in ponying up the cash for this kind of up-front investment.

Enter digital printing, which completely upended all the assumptions of the publishing industry. This toner-based technology can produce one book nearly as efficiently as 100 books.

How print-on-demand book distribution works

With these micro book-printing runs now possible, a new means of sales and distribution were born. This new distribution does not involve economies of scale, massive warehouses, and the endless shipping of paper in various stages of production from one part of the country to another.

It required large online retail platforms (ever hear of Amazon?) and a sophisticated book printer that has both the equipment and systems to receive thousands of orders for thousands of books.

For the first time in publishing history, it was the customer – the readers – who determined which books were printed and ultimately shipped directly to their homes.

Your local bookstores have taken advantage of the new technology too. No longer do they need to stock hundreds of boxes of books when they know they can have more delivered within days.

POD is a win-win for everyone.

  • Authors and publishers: No up-front printing costs.
  • Book sellers: No warehousing or accounting for stock.
  • Publishers: No pulping of leftover books and no remainders going to the landfill.
  • Your mom: No piles of your unsold books in her basement.

There’s nothing not to love about those three little letters.

How do self-published authors get into POD?

Here are some of the basics you need to know.

You need to create a cover file and an entire book file for the POD service you choose.

Whatever means you select to bring your self-published work to market, you’ll find various specifications and options exist regarding trim sizes and file formats. I’m going to use the BookBaby process for the purpose of this discussion.

Some of the POD services require you to print test copies.

BookBaby asks you to produce a minimum of 25 books. We require that for two reasons:

  1. It allows us to fine-tune your files so that when your orders come in we can reproduce it to the same exact standards every time.
  2. Every author needs at least 25 copies if not many more for promoting their book.

There are different costs involved with POD platforms.

There are several platforms that are free or low-cost that will take a cut of the sale (read on to find why I think this is a terrible idea). At BookBaby you pay a $399 distribution fee. And that’s it — for all time. We don’t take a cut of your sales from Amazon, B&N, or any other online retailer. This means at BookBaby, you set the price and profit margin. This ensures you cover the costs of printing and make a profit.

Here’s an important note that many authors don’t quite understand regarding BookBaby’s POD. I probably get two emails every weekend from prospective authors who ask about the economics. When a reader orders your book, you (the author) pay (and do) nothing. All the printing and distribution costs are deducted from the sale price. All you do is track your revenue!

Book distribution

When someone purchases your book on Amazon or your own website – or through BookBaby’s BookShop – the printer gets a production order. Your cover and interior files are loaded into separate digital printers and matched up in the bindery process. Your book blocks are cut, bound together, and packed into the retailer’s warehouse or a shipping envelope. Within a few days, they are shipped directly to the reader. It’s as simple as that!

How to choose your POD platforms

Not all Print On Demand providers are the same. I’ve already mentioned the difference in fees. That’s just a starting point for your decision. Here are the key issues you should consider:

  • Do they offer the kinds of trim size or print options you want for your books? Some POD companies only offer a few standard sizes — US Trade, for instance — in B&W type. If you’re doing a children’s book, that’s not the format for you.
  • Do they offer hard and softcover books? This narrows the field considerably. BookBaby is one of the few companies offering hardcover POD options.
  • Where do they distribute? Everyone knows that Amazon is the place to be. But it’s not the ONLY place. B&N, Books-A-Million, Powells, and other outlets move a lot of books. And if you want to be in bookstores, it’s almost mandatory that your find a POD company that supplies files in the Ingram Bookstore program. That’s how almost every independent bookstore in the US orders its books.
  • How much can I make in royalties? Unlike eBooks, where authors can make 70 percent of the net sales price, printed books have more associated costs. Ink, paper, binding, labor, shipping, distribution fees — they all add up. When you sell a book through Amazon or B&N, the typical royalty for a POD book is around 10-12 percent. But there’s another option. The retailer rakes in a big chunk of the book sale dollars. So what if you sold books directly to your readers? BookBaby’s BookShop allows you do to just that. It’s a free selling page provided to every author in our distribution system. And the numbers look much better for authors. Here’s an example: Say your hardcover printed book memoir retails for $20. If your book is purchased through Amazon, you’ll probably get a check for maybe $3 (about three months after the sale takes place). If, instead, you directed your reader to buy the book through your BookShop page, your payment would be $10 — we pay a 50 percent royalty to books that we print, bind, and ship directly to your readers — and you get paid within a week.
  • Are your POD books returnable? It’s not a pleasant subject to think about, but the reality is every author gets books returned from stores. Even J.K. Rowling! But very few POD providers have this option in their distribution. I can’t emphasize how important this is if you hope for any kind of bookstore distribution. Retailers must be assured that putting your book on the shelf is pretty much risk-free for them. BookBaby’s POD service allows for returns. This is one of the reasons for our one-time charge of $399 for our POD distribution. It’s a huge benefit for authors who want to elbow their way onto bookstore shelves!

The miracle that is POD

Back to my first question: Is print on demand a digital printing process, or is it a distribution model made possible by that printing process?

My answer: POD is the most significant development in printing since Johannes Gutenberg introduced the metal movable-type printing press in 1450, and self-published authors are the main beneficiaries.

Read the entire series!
Step #1 To Finding Your Readers: Make The Best Book You Can
Start Promoting Your Book Now!
Planning And Capitalizing On Your Book’s Pre-Sale
The Basics Of Print On Demand (and how POD changed publishing)
The “Do’s” Of Planning A Book Launch
10 Book Launch Don’ts
Harness Social Media To Sell Books

5 Steps to Self-Publishing 
Free Guide

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Steven Spatz is a writer, marketer, and President Emeritus of BookBaby, the nation’s leading self-publishing service provider. After a successful career with companies including Mattel, Hasbro, and Pinnacle Orchards, Steven joined AVL Digital in 2004 as Chief Marketing Officer, leading the direct-to-consumer marketing teams for music industry-leading brands Disc Makers, Oasis, and CD Baby. The native Oregonian was tapped to lead BookBaby, the company’s new publishing division, in late 2014. BookBaby’s growing book-printing operation is located outside Philadelphia, PA, and employs over 100 book-publishing experts across the United States to meet the printed and eBook needs of thousands of self-publishing authors around the globe. Steven retired as brand President in 2022 and continues to contribute via weekly emails, industry guides, and posts on the BookBaby blog. He’s in the process of relocating full-time to southern France in early 2023. Steven loves to hear from authors, editors, and publishers in the BookBaby community with tales of publishing trials and triumphs. To tell him your story, write to


  1. Outstanding! This really cleared my understanding of POD. I am a self-publisher and did experience the evolution you rightfully explained. I started 22 years ago writing my first book and completed a trilogy with three different publishing companies. I do have several leftover books in my attic. They have a date with the landfill. The printers have all gone out of business and the revisions of the trilogy (Blain Hawk U.S. Marshal The Complete Trilogy) have rendered the single copies obsolete. A very expensive lesson of mass production I am glad to never repeat. I recently published (The Promise Keepers) with Bookbaby and have immediately seen the difference from previous publishers. I am writing a new murder mystery to release in the spring of 2022. I will be using BookBaby for this too. I look forward to having this work. Because of your tested and proven concept for self-publishers, I will avail myself of more of the services. Thank You, Steven.

  2. Greetings, I am Rick Church Native American author and I have three books out there that are self published by Page Publishing and another book published by Bookvine Publishing. Both publishers claim that my sales go through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the others. I have seen revenue from my sales through Page Publishing but the rest of my sales have been book signing events. I would like to publish my fifth book Bear Child with a publisher who can also generate some sales. My first book White Doe received praise from Thomas Cobb, the author of Academy Award Winning Movie Crazy Heart. My fourth book Drums along the Fox was named the Book of the month for November 2020 by White Bison Inc. the Native American Non-profit Wellbriety Movement organization. I am a few month away from selecting my publisher for my fifth book and would like to know what Baby books can do for me.

  3. I had a book published by Lagaia Books. I know more than fifty people who bought my self help book from Amazon and I have received no royalty money. I have tried to work with attorneys with no success. KDP recently e-mailed me to get help from an attorney to log a copyright infringement claim to retrieve my book. So far, I have not found an attorney who can do this. They all say that they cannot find Lagaia Books so my question is: where is Amazon sending money to the publisher? My first book, “Peace at Any Price: How to Overcome the Please Disease” sold over four thousand books. I think my second, “Beyond Reason: How To Deal With Difficult Loved Ones” will do well too if I (we?) can get over these hurdles. Can you help me?


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