Printing on Demand: 3 Things You Need to Know

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by Jessica Ruscello at Blurb, Inc.

Whether you’re creating a portfolio, photography monograph, comic book or children’s book, getting your digital work to translate to the physical world takes some insight into the printing process. How the design looks and feels in the hands of the audience, on the pages of a book, matters as much as the quality of the design itself.

There are two ways to print a book you’ve designed—either the traditional offset way, or with the newer technology that’s allowed printing “on demand,” where books are printed as they’re ordered. Your print file is stored at the printer, and an online order will trigger production and order fulfillment of your book, one at a time.

print on demand technology

Print-On-Demand (POD) Technology—What You Need to Know

1. POD is now roughly on par with offset printing.

The last ten years—even the last five—have seen game-changing developments in printing technology. Even if print on demand has been around longer than that, we’re now seeing exquisite quality coming from these digital machines. Advanced inkjet technology now creates pages and covers that are nearly identical to those created with traditional offset printing, offering incredible advantages to self-publishers.

Books printed on-demand are still created by “presses,” but this term is misleading because there are no plates in digital printing that are “pressed” to paper. Digital printing is derived from the Xerox technology developed in the 1950s, which relies on a laser imaging system for transferring image data to the paper. Early digital printing systems suffered from lower resolution (300 dpi or lower), fewer colors and slower machines, but the last 15 years has seen a revolution in equipment—more pages per minute, more colors and up to 2400 dpi.

Designers creating books need to pay attention to parts of the process that influence getting digital files from screen to page, according to their visions. A designer of a novel is going to care most about clear, crisp, dark type, where a comic book creator is going to care most about replicating the colors created on their screens onto printed pages, and the weight and feel of the paper. A photographer is going to care about all of it—sharpness, color and paper texture—but also the price. For photography or image-heavy books, digital printing offers incredible opportunities for presenting your images, but the best image printing and paper might be the most expensive, pricing visual book creators out of the market.

The variation in digital printing depends on three things: how the ink hits the paper, what type of ink hits the paper, and what kind of paper you use. For your book, you may not need to know the technical function of particular printers or ink deposit chemistry, but here are some things to keep in mind as you select your digital printing process:

  • Inkjet or Toner Printing: An ink jet printer and a toner-based printer put ink on the paper differently. With ink jet printers, you’ll likely get more vibrant colors and finer resolution for images. With toner-based printers, like copy machines, you might get richer blacks and sharper edges, which suits books of many pages with lots of type where resolution is less of a concern. As inkjet technology improves, toner printers are being used less. A printing company may not spell out the type of printer they use, but they may offer differences in color or black and white at different price points and quality, and this is why.

  • Type of Ink: Different machines are compatible with different types of ink. Some machines use an ink that’s dry, some use wet ink—this affects resolution and sharpness. Some inks are water resistant or fade resistant; some inks break down more easily than others. If you’re making a children’s book that will be handled a lot, you’ll want to check for ink durability. If you’re making a photo book, you’ll want rich colors and precision. If your book is mostly type, you’ll have fewer concerns and can economize, but you’re looking for deep blacks with sharp edges.

  • Paper Type: Different inks look different on different papers, and paper type often has the highest impact on the base price of your book. Uncoated paper is less expensive, but has a rougher texture and is more absorbent, so colors don’t have the vibrancy of coated papers. Coated papers keep more ink on the surface and reflect the colors back to you. Papers with different coatings can create dramatically different looks, even if they were created on the same press.

2. It’s less expensive up front, and it’s fast.

For book-makers, getting your work into the world used to mean printing 1,000 copies and an expensive proofing copy. If there were errors, you’d pay again to have another proofing copy sent. The proofs alone could cost anywhere between $100–$500, and then there’s the cost of at least 1,000 copies of your book, which can outpace a down payment on a Ford Focus. For print on demand, your only upfront cost is the price of one copy of your book, which could be as low as $15. You’ll see the book in full, and you can do several rounds of proofing for a big order for the same price of one round offset printing.

Digitally printed books are created in the same facility, without having to ship blocks and covers to different sites for assembly. Not to mention, commercial digital printing machines in themselves are incredibly fast, and getting faster. This means even larger orders could be done and in-hand in as fast as a few weeks, not a few months.

3. Distribution is possible with print-on-demand projects.

Distributing with POD might be the easiest way to sell your work, because books are printed as they’re ordered. Order fulfillment and shipping can be done by someone else, and there are no books sitting anywhere waiting to be shipped. Printers like Ingram have relationships with Amazon and (Blurb’s Trade Books are printed and distributed with the help of Ingram.) Amazon commands almost a third of book sales, so listing your book there comes with its own advantages and even credibility. You don’t have to convince customers to go to these sites, and once they do, getting your book into their hands is pretty simple:

  1. Your book is listed on major book-selling sites.

  2. Someone orders your book.

  3. The book is shipped to the retailer, who forwards it to your client.

  4. Your client pays the retailer, who sends net revenue to you.

Distribution through these si
tes doesn’t come free, however. Both Amazon (and localized Amazon sites) and Ingram (for trade books through Amazon and charge distribution fees and do their own markup, referred to as a “Wholesale Discount.” The “discount” is the markup amount distributors add to your book. It’s a percentage of your retail price and any fee.

More than any other time in history, it’s possible to get your work in print, and get your book or magazine into the world. While printing the traditional offset way has its advantages, POD technology has made astonishing gains. You can now print and sell a beautiful, bookstore-quality book, one at a time, with no up-front cost but your time and the price of one book. What are you waiting for?