My original vision for my first children's book was to do a touch-and-feel board book. (By the way, if you want to do this, know that it’s super expensive and you have to sell a ton to make it profitable…one day I’ll do a post on this.) When I first had this idea, I started to look online for how I would print and publish a board book. I came across Print Ninja, a pretty popular printer for self-published authors in the US.
I put in my book requirements: # of pages, quantity, other specs that I didn't understand at all (glossy, matte, page weight… whettt?) I ultimately found myself in a situation where I knew that I didn't understand this part of publishing and I was terrified to make a major commitment. The idea of printing 500 copies (their minimum) just wasn't about to happen for me.
With that, I searched for simpler options, that were a little more new-user friendly. Eventually I stumbled upon print on demand.
What is print on demand (POD)?
Print-on-demand is exactly what the title suggests. A customer demands, or wants, a book and the printer prints it. You only print what is needed, opposed to printing a lot of books and figuring out sales later.
In contrast, a print run refers to printing a large quantity of books (usually 500 books up to 10’s of thousands) and then selling them later. If you’re familiar with any other form of commerce, like t-shirts, coffee or coffee mugs, the concept is the same. This low upfront cost makes POD a great option for newer authors or those that are not ready to take on the risk of a large print run.
I have heard a lot of success stories where authors took a chance on themselves and did a print run. They invested in a few thousand books and had great success in selling them. I have also heard the stories of many self-published authors that have several thousand copies of their books sitting in their basement or garage and they can't sell them. So both have their risks, but POD is usually considered to be less risky.
How much does print-on-demand cost?
In terms of upfront investment, POD is significantly less expensive than doing a print run. On a per-book basis, POD is more expensive than a print run. The cost per book for POD usually ranges between $2-8 per book, opposed to a print run where you can print books for $1-4 and make a higher margin per book. The cost range for both options has to do with a few variables. The most common are:
black and white vs. color
small and standard sizes vs. larger sizes
lower quality vs. premium paper
and page count
Amazon KDP has a nice calculator where you can estimate the cost of printing.
Initial set-up costs for POD are anywhere from around $0 - $60. On Amazon, for example, you can literally publish a book without paying a dime. Some other services charge a small fee. Keep in mind, these costs that fall outside of costs to produce your book like illustration and editing.
Who are the POD companies?
The big two are Amazon KDP and Ingram Spark. Both of these companies offer competitive pricing, have decent books, and offer some form of customer distribution once your book is uploaded. With both of these channels, you can list your book on Amazon + other stores like Barnes & Noble, Target.com, and indie bookstores. There are nuances that make one better than the other for different purposes. We’ll get into those later.
There are other print-on-demand options outside of the “Big 2.” These are companies like Lulu, Book Baby, and Barnes & Noble print-on demand. These other channels are typically either more expensive or do not offer a platform where you will be able to distribute your books to new audiences, and honestly, I don’t know many self-published authors that use them. So I don’t typically recommend them.
The economics of print-on-demand
Using that Amazon KDP calculator that I mentioned earlier, the royalties (royalties = profits by the way) on most children’s picture books is $3.54. So before any marketing or administrative costs, you make $3.54 in profit per book.
Just for reference for you novel/long-text writers, this same calculator shows a 300 page black & white book is $2.74.
Depending on your marketing spend you should expect somewhere between $1-4 in profit per book for customers that buy from Amazon or other retailers. Keep in mind I am a picture book author so I'm more familiar with costs and revenues as they relate to the printing costs and price point for children's picture books. It’s very different for e-books, especially if you’re selling through Amazon Unlimited. You won’t print as many (or any) physical books so all of your assumptions are very different.
That being said, POD is clearly a numbers game. You need to sell a lot of books in order to create a decent total revenue from book sales, assuming most of your sales come from places like Amazon, big box retailers, small bookstores, and other websites.
So what should you do and who should you use?
I am not a big "it depends" type of person. I like answers, even if they aren't perfect. So, I believe there is an answer to this question that is going to apply to the overwhelming majority of us.
The answer: Go with Amazon KDP
This is particularly true for first-time authors.
The reason. Amazon sells so many books! According this article they sell 64% of all books online. If you are not on the Amazon platform you are missing out on a big audience.
Sure, they are going to take a nice chunk of your money – and it hurts. It really hurts. Ugh. But given the same amount of effort, would you rather sell 2 books and profit $16 or sell 20 books and make $40? (Hint: don’t overthink it. You want the second one.) Big margins are nice, but your total in the end is what will matter most.
Also, you can always choose to have Amazon print your book and you order author copies. An author copy is when the printer, Amazon in this case, sends you a box of books at a discounted price that you sell on your own. So you technically don't even have to put your book on the Amazon marketplace if you choose to have Amazon print it. My profit when I go this route is as high as $8/book 9for in-person sells with no shipping) and often around $5 (with shipping, or considering bundling or discounts).
Also put your book on Ingram Spark
If you were to print your books through Amazon KDP alone, this could be enough. At the time of writing this, that is all I’ve done with most of my books. This is not intentional - just a long-neglected item on my to-do list. Don’t be me.
The best thing to do is to publish your book on both Amazon AND Ingram Spark. Now, the advantage to publishing on Ingram Spark is that their distribution channels are broader. So your book has a better chance in getting into libraries and on the websites of places like Target and Walmart. Amazon offers this as well through expanded distribution, however the general consensus it is not very thorough. Also, Ingram Spark offers the option to print hardcover books POD. Amazon does too, but the book has to be like 70 pages, and unless you have a cookbook or something I have no idea why you would do this.
The reason most people don’t just to Ingram Spark, and not Amazon for POD, is because you’ll make more per book on Amazon when you print through Amazon KDP, and as I’ve said many times, the Amazon marketplace can’t be beat.
What if I hate Amazon?
Of course, the entire recommendation is invalid if you don’t rock with Amazon for one reason or another. And this sentiment is definitely growing in popularity.
In that case, you’ll want to have a well-defined plan for how you want to distribute your book. I would still make the case for doing print-on-demand simply because you don’t know whether you’re creating a book that people will like, and you can choose one of the other printers. This may be where some of the other print-on-demand options become more interesting so Lulu, Bookbaby, and others may be worth exploring.
Doesn’t the quality suck for print-on-demand books?
If we’re talking paperbacks, the quality of a print-on-demand book is actually pretty nice. You usually have a choice of standard and premium paper, and this is usually in reference to the thickness of the pages. (Note: For IngramSpark, choose the premium paper. I hear the standard is awful.)
For hardcovers, IngramSpark is the only option between the two and the quality is decent. However, offset printers (the printers that do print runs) can provide more premium options like foil wrapping, decorative insde pages, and even higher quality paper. If these things are important to you, you may find that you should do a print run.
In my experience and from observation of other authors, the typical online customer doesn’t place a huge priority on this quality difference. They aren’t touching the books and considering how the book feels in their hands. If you’re looking to get into big-box or higher-end indie stores where customers are picking up physical copies of books, you’ll need to do an offset print run. Keep in mind, however, unless you have special connections, the road to being in a big box store is a long one and is heavily dominated by traditional publishers. So I wouldn’t suggest this as a major factor for a new author.
It's the flexibility for me
The super dope thing about POD that I haven’t even mentioned yet, is that you are not stuck with the first version of the book that you publish. You get unlimited chances to make it right!
Here's what that looked like for my first book, “What Should I Do Today?”.
And that’s just the cover. Lots of changes on the inside too. Do you knw what would suck? Having 1,000 copies of that first version to the left sitting in my house. Since it was my first book, I was a new writer, illustrator, designer, idea-generator. There was so much to learn and Amazon KDP gave me a chance to practice my craft.
I have probably updated this book alone 20 times since it's been published. This, for me, is the true beauty of POD.
So, in summary, do print-on-demand and do it through Amazon KDP.
I am a strong advocate of minimizing risk when you are just starting out. Publishing your first book is as much of a learning experience as it is an accomplishment. POD allows you to learn and create something at the same time. It allows you to keep your upfront costs low so that you can work on the next project. It allows you to get started without the financial burden of money to hold you back. It allows you to be the author that you are surely destined to be.