DIY: Print-on-Demand 101
Here’s a breakdown of some of the major POD players and the attributes that make each service unique.
E-books may be the future of publishing, but print editions continue to make up a large portion of book sales, and, for many indie authors, printing remains a crucial aspect of the self-publishing process.
One of the most popular ways indie authors print physical books is through POD—or print-on-demand—services. The clearest benefit of using a POD service is that authors don’t have to spend money printing large quantities of physical books that customers may or may not end up buying; with POD, authors only have to print as many books as they sell.
Most services also ship to customers directly, which cuts down on delivery time and allows authors to attend to the many other tasks and responsibilities that come with self-publishing. And, because books are always ready to be printed (assuming the contract with the service remains active), titles are never out of stock. Finally, many POD providers offer ancillary services, such as cover design and copy editing, which can be of tremendous help to indie authors who lack the contacts or expertise to manage these aspects of the process on their own.
Beyond these features, which are common to most services, POD providers vary widely in the benefits they provide, the business models they follow, and the fees they charge. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major POD players and the attributes that make each service unique.
[Note: this article was originally published in June 2014 and was updated on April 10, 2020; March 4, 2021; and March 8,2022.]
Kindle Direct Publishing
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program (formerly CreateSpace) is one of the few POD providers that doesn’t charge a set-up fee, and its roster of additional services—which includes copy editing, cover design, interior design, and marketing—is one of the more robust. The service lets authors set the price of books and also offers two distribution plans: Standard Distribution, through which authors can make books available on Amazon and Kindle Direct and Expanded Distribution, through which authors can make books available to libraries, bookstores, and academic institutions. (Be aware that the Expanded Distribution plan involves a significantly higher “sales channel” deduction, and thus lower royalties.) KDP's main selling point—its sheer abundance of options—can also prove somewhat bewildering. Fortunately, the service provides some guidance in the form of community message boards, customer service, and instructional videos.
IngramSpark, a POD service operated by the book wholesaler Ingram, offers an impressively streamlined process for publishing, producing, and distributing both electronic and physical indie books. Though printing with the service requires some setup expenses and legwork—authors will need to secure an ISBN as well as compile metadata and stipulate territory rights—the benefits of publishing with Ingram are clear. As the site states, it has “Access to over 39,000 retailers, libraries, schools and universities—online and in stores.” This also includes “E-book distribution from more than 70 online partners serving readers across the globe.” In addition, the service boasts that it offers the a wide range of paper options, trim sizes, and bindings, making it a potentially good choice for authors with particular printing needs.
According to its website, Lulu has printed more than 2 million books in more than 225 countries and territories since its inception in 2002. The service charges no set-up fee, and provides a book cost calculator that lets authors estimate per-book printing fee, which is dependent upon factors such as trim size, binding type, and page count. Assuming a book meets the distribution requirements, Lulu will make authors’ titles available on Amazon.com and BN.com, among other retailers, at no cost. The site also offers estimates of royalties from each sales channel. Volume discounts kick in starting at 15 copies, and increase up to 20% off for orders of over 1,200 copies. Lulu also offers add-on services, such as copy editing and book video production, but these tend to be significantly more expensive than those offered by other POD services. Lulu is an especially good option for authors printing books for personal use that they don’t plan to sell via retail, in which case an ISBN is not required.
iUniverse offers five packages for indie authors, ranging in price from $999 to $7,499. Features of the most basic option include ISBN assignment, custom cover, author copy discounts, e-publication, and up to 25 black-and-white inserts. The offerings included in the more expensive packages consist largely of eligibility for iUniverse author programs and upgraded versions of the more basic services, such as an “elite” custom cover. In addition to offering a range of binding sizes and paper types for both soft- and hardcover books, the site also allows authors to create their own audiobooks. The cost of that service is $999.
AuthorHouse caters to authors who’d like help with all aspects of the self-publishing process. For a fee of $899, authors can get the basic Discovery package, which includes ISBN assignment, custom cover and interior design, digital proofs of books, availability in print and e-book format, marketing consultation, and distribution to online retailers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Other packages include the Book to Network package ($1,799), which includes a radio interview, and the Book to Hollywood package ($1,599), which includes a free “industry-standard synopsis” (presumably intended for the eyes of producers). Be aware that AuthorHouse charges separate fees for many other important, even crucial, services, such as post-production revisions. While the site’s one-stop-shop model will certainly appeal to some indie authors, others—especially those who are taking care of editing and marketing on their own—may find the prices a bit steep.
BookBaby POD helps authors print and sell books as they are ordered in the biggest bookstores around the world, starting at just $99. With BookBaby, there are low upfront costs: No inventory is needed so you can avoid having to purchase and store hundreds of books. You can simply add Print On Demand to any printed book order (of 25 or more), and they'll take care of everything—managing your book production, shipping, and—most importantly—paying your royalties. They'll help you reach millions of readers: Your printed books will be available to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, and thousands of other stores and wholesale bookstore catalogs like Ingram and Baker & Taylor, around the world. BookBaby’s Print On Demand is available for all the most popular trim sizes, including Digest, US Trade, Square, Landscape, and US Letter.
[Note: as of the March 2021 article update, Dog Ear Publishing's services are no longer available]
Dog Ear Publishing’s services start at $1,498 (for the Basic Package), and run up to $7,999 (for the Ultimate Package). All packages include an ISBN assignment, a Library of Congress number, paperback and hardcover formats, custom cover and interior design options, free author copies, and inclusion in Google Book search. The more expensive packages include copy editing services, extensive marketing materials, and the creation of an author website with a domain of the author’s choosing. Dog Ear’s retail partners include Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million; the site also allows authors to set their own prices and offer competitive printing costs. Perhaps what really sets Dog Ear apart, though, is that they provide an extensive—not to mention refreshingly honest—comparison between their services and those of other POD providers.