Here are the major choices that self publishers have for getting their books into print. Only black-and-white printing is discussed, as color inside the book is still too costly for most self publishing. Though I’ve divided everything into neat categories, in practice there are many hybrids, with many print suppliers offering more than one kind of service.
Some suppliers offer more support and guidance than others—but remember that you can always hire freelance professionals to assist you. Example: The Writers’ Collective, www.writerscollective.org.
Laser Printing or Photocopying
For short books for family and friends, there’s nothing wrong with running off pages on your own laser printer or at your local copy shop. Also at the copy shop, you can often get comb binding or VeloBinding—or you can buy the equipment to do this at home.
Offset printing is printing with ink that is applied by rollers. It is still the most common kind of commercial printing and can give the highest quality—which is important especially for books with photographs or fine art. Also, offset printing can give the lowest cost per copy. But press setup is time-consuming and expensive, so offset is economical only for large quantities—say, a thousand copies or more. Example: Thomson-Shore, www.tshore.com.
A newer kind of press works with carbon-based toner in place of ink—the same as in a photocopier or laser printer. It generally works fine for text and drawings, less well for photos and paintings. The cost per copy is much higher than with offset, but the press setup is quick and cheap, so small quantities can be printed economically. This means your total cost can be much lower, and you don’t have to store a lot of books. “Short-run digital printing” has in these ways brought commercial book printing within reach of almost anyone. Example: Fidlar Doubleday, www.fidlardoubleday.com.
Print on Demand
Rather than a printing process, print on demand is a new publishing strategy made possible by digital printing. It means that books are printed only as needed to fill customer orders—as few as one copy at a time. Digital presses and print on demand have spawned numerous services for authors and publishers, with ever-growing variety. (Note, though, that some commercial printers misuse the term “print on demand” to mean short-run digital printing.)
Print on Demand—Instant Publishing
This is the simplest, cheapest, and newest way to take advantage of print on demand. It is offered by Web-based services that take your uploaded computer files, start selling your book on a Web site within days, hours, or even seconds, then print and ship the book as it’s ordered. Setup fees can be little or nothing, especially if you supply files in needed formats. Example: Lulu, www.lulu.com.
Print on Demand—Author Services
Businesses like iUniverse, Xlibris, and AuthorHouse—commonly but loosely called “print-on-demand publishers”—have become almost synonymous with print on demand due to their high profile. After optionally helping prepare your work and files, they have your book listed in industry resources, then have it printed and shipped in response to bookseller orders. The most effective ones will get your book listed and sold by Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Ingram Book Company, the largest U.S. book wholesaler. Using a service of this kind is more expensive than most other approaches, but more is done for you. Unfortunately, many self publishers have unrealistic expectations. These services will make your book available, but getting anyone to buy it is still mostly up to you.
Print on Demand—Publisher Services
Self publishers usually believe that the “print-on-demand publishers” print and distribute the books they sell—but in most cases, those functions are performed by a larger, outside service. To reduce costs and increase profit, you can cut out the middleman and work with such a service yourself. The catch is that you must set yourself up as a publishing company—with purchased “ISBNs” to identify your books, and probably a state sales tax license—and generally come across as professional. Example: Lightning Source (a division of Ingram), www.lightningsource.com. (For the lowdown on working with Lightning Source, see my book Aiming at Amazon: The NEW Business of Self Publishing.)