Print On Demand Made The Self-Publishing Revolution Possible

self-publishing revolution

In our ongoing BookBaby Live series, Steven Spatz addresses the real reason self-published authors can find major success in today’s publishing marketplace: print on demand.

Print on demand technology is not just part of the self-publishing revolution, I believe it is the primary reason it has made self-publishing a viable option for authors to compete in the publishing marketplace.

From a historical perspective, you could argue it all started with the Gutenberg Press, the movable type machine that really allowed books to be distributed to the masses.

Of course, with any offset print machine, for the economics to work, you need to print lots and lots of books to make it a profitable venture, which is why a lot of people point to things like the Kindle, pioneered by Amazon 15 years ago, and the iPad when they talk about the origins of the self-publishing revolution.

There’s no question that the eBook opened the doors for millions of independent authors to out-flank traditional publishing gatekeepers and make their work available in the marketplace. I don’t question that the revolution was started by the Kindle, but I don’t think that’s the real story about why self-publishing has sustained and grown and become a real viable option for authors to build a career.

But I believe there’s another part of the story that needs to be credited for why this revolution is continuing and growing (and was not just a short-lived digital thing).

My three favorite letters: P.O.D.

Print On Demand is an elegant technology in which book copies aren’t printed until the printer gets an order. This allows for print runs of very small quantities — even just one book — in a perfectly cut, bound, and trimmed product that is shipped directly to to the customer. It really is the gamechanger.

HP 10000 Indigo Digital pressThis machine is an HP Indigo 10000 Digital Press, we’ve got a few of these at work in our plant in New Jersey, and we also now have an HP 100000 Digital Press. These truly are incredible machines.

Industry stats

It’s important that self-published authors have this kind of access to printed books — just look at some of these industry numbers.

A recent study asked readers how they like to read books — what medium they prefer. 49 percent of people said they only read printed books. This number has held for the past decade or so — it has wavered between 47 and 51 percent, but basically, half the reading audience says, “I love my ink, I love my paper.” That’s not going away.

I was going through some files recently, articles from 2015, proclaiming that eBooks would overtake the marketplace by 2020, print was dead, and no one was going to want physical books. Well, that’s obviously not the case, because print remains the standard, especially here in the US.

27 percent of people prefer just reading eBooks. Not an insignificant number, but that never has gone much higher than 30 percent or so, so that figure has also held steady.

Then there’s this other group of people who enjoy both print and eBooks, which is where I fall. I’ve got my beloved classics, and every once in a while, I’ll turn to my eBook reader. There’s nothing like having a whole library of books at your disposal with the click of some buttons.

But when you do the math, 73 percent of the potential US reading marketplace involves printed books, which is why I submit my argument that, without print on demand, the self-publishing revolution would not be nearly the force that it is and that self-published authors would not have the potential to be so successful. Print on demand is what made this possible.

How does print on demand work?

First, just as if you were printing a thousand books, you need file prep. Every print-on-demand facility is going to need you to supply print-ready PDF files.

Next, your title will be made available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and dozens of retailers through the Ingram feed. You need to make your book available in the marketplace.

And… that’s it. Basically an author’s job is pretty much done. Well, of course, there’s the massive endeavor of marketing and promotion, but from a production and fulfillment standpoint, your work is finished.

What happens next? Your readers find your title and order it through these retailers or through your own proprietary website (like BookBaby’s Bookshop). At this point, you, the author, pay nothing and do nothing. The reader has purchased a book, but you don’t need to pay a printer or anybody else — you just sit back and let the process happen.

I get a ton of questions from new authors asking, “How much will I have to pay for each print-on-demand copy?” You don’t have to pay anything.

The third step is, the store orders a book from the printer. So if the order is through Amazon, and they have your finished book in a warehouse, they’ll ship it from there. Or, Amazon will contract the POD out to one of its sources to produce and ship the book.

If you have a print-on-demand partner, like BookBaby, and your book is sold through your website, the printer will produce, package, and ship the book directly to your reader.

POD magic

It’s amazing to watch these single orders come out of these HP printers looking just as good as if they were part of an offset run of 100,000 books. It’s really technology at its best.

So when an order is made, you don’t have to lift a finger for the POD magic to take place. You just sit back, collect money, and find ways to send more people to your web pages to order your book.

There are so many advantages with POD. There’s great quality control with digital printing — particularly with the top-line digital printing presses. Book number one is going to look exactly like book number 1,001 because it’s a digital file and it’s very precise.

There aren’t a ton of up-front costs, which means you don’t have to pay $10,000 for a big run of books and have potentially wasted inventory. You’re going to be happy, and your mother’s going to be happy because you don’t have to store a hundred boxes of books in her basement. So Happy Mother’s Day.

You get to target almost 75 percent of the reading marketplace because you have printed books available, along with your eBooks.

And it’s good for the environment, because you’re not producing unused books and then shredding up a whole library of unsold goods. So Happy Earth Day.

Catch up on all of our BookBaby Live presentations.

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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 steven@bookbaby.com.

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