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September 9, 2016
By Allison Schiff and Alex Daniel
Knowing which type of printing service to use depends on authors’ publishing needs – and before any decision is made, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the two types of printing.

Knowing which type of printing service to use depends on authors’ publishing needs – and before any decision is made, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the two types of printing.

While the vast majority of indie authors turn to print-on-demand services when it’s time to take their book public – and for good reason – there are certain cases in which offset printing is the way to go.

Knowing which type of printing service to use depends on authors’ publishing needs – and before any decision is made, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the two types of printing.

[Note: this article was originally published in June 2014 and was updated on Sept. 9, 2016.]

POD was developed more than 15 years ago to help publishers manage the economics of deep backlists; in other words, as a way to keep older titles in print without being forced to print and store piles of physical books, says Kelly Gallagher, VP of content acquisition at Ingram Content Group.

Today, and for a similar reason, self-published writers use print-on-demand as a flexible distribution strategy that allows them to make their work available in markets around the world – without making a significant upfront investment or dealing with the logistics of shipping, distribution, and storage.

Platforms like Smashwords, CreateSpace from Amazon, and IngramSpark allow indie writers to upload their work and sell it in various forms online. Readers can download e-books as desired, and print orders are fulfilled using digital printing technology only after a sale is made. The print-on-demand provider takes care of packaging and postage. Writers receive a percentage of each sale, which can vary depending on the company they’re dealing with.

Considering the ease of print-on-demand distribution, it’s obvious why a large number of self-published titles begin their lives on a POD platform. But POD isn’t a panacea, and there are several cases in which an indie author's needs are better met by offset printing.

What Exactly Is Offset Printing?

Most commonly employed for large print runs, offset lithography is a commercial printing process in which ink is transferred from a plate, generally made of metal, onto a rubber sheet, which in turn is rolled onto paper being fed through a press. The large sheets of printed paper are then cut into book shape and sent to a bindery to be stitched into book form.

It’s how most major publishers print their books, which means the majority of books you see for sale in any brick-and-mortar bookstore were produced using offset.

Why Use Offset?

Whereas digital printing can be done directly from a digital file (generally a PDF), offset requires the creation of new plates for each print job, which requires a higher initial outlay of cash – but that doesn’t mean digital printing is necessarily cheaper. Although prices vary hugely depending on word count, paper size, paper type, binding, and a host of other factors, with offset, the cost-per-unit drops as the print run increases.

Although primarily a POD service provider, Lightning Source and its self-service arm IngramSpark, for example, maintain relationships with several offset printers; if an author enters an order with a high enough print run into the system, the company’s algorithm will generate a competitive offset quote.

According to Gary V. Lacinski, business development director of Circle Press, a full-service print shop located in New York City, offset should enter the decision-making process at print runs of roughly 1,000 or more.

“Today, the difference between offset and digital is basically just quantity,” Lacinski says. “When you’re thinking about how to do a job, the main thing to consider is print run, and if you’re doing a big print run, it’s more financially prudent to do offset.”

Authors should be realistic about their need for print books in bulk. Whether they need copies for a book tour or an event, they’ve drummed up a respectable amount of pre-sales, or they’re planning to sell directly to a wholesaler or local bookstore, authors need to be aware of the actual demand for product—failure to do this will result in unsold inventory.

“If you have a strong author platform and you believe you have a strong chance of selling the units within a six-month time span, then that’s a case where you should probably do offset -- but that shouldn’t be based on speculation or aspirational hopes,” Gallagher says. “A lot of authors unfortunately make investments in printing that either aren’t recouped or are only finally recouped over a long period of time.”

What About Quality?

For many self-published writers, POD works because their product is simple: moderate page count, black-and-white text, regular paper size; the kind of thing a reader is more likely to download as an e-book, in any case.

But if a book has any special considerations – irregular paper size, color images or photos, high-quality reproductions, or inserts, POD most likely won’t provide enough flexibility. If a book is highly visual and includes drawings or photographs, the offset process will offer a better reproduction.

Gallagher, however, is quick to point out how far digital printing technology has come in recent years. The quality of an average black-and-white book printed on demand is nearly indistinguishable from an offset print.

When it comes to deciding between offset and POD, the core question is this: Do you want to act as your own distributor? If the answer is no, then offset probably isn’t the best option.

“If you just want to get your book out there and you’re not interested in getting involved with the distribution, then get someone else to do it for you,” Lacinski says. “But know that you’re going to pay a third-party for that privilege.”