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Book Printing FAQ for Self-Publishing

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

What self-published authors need to know about book printing

What self-published authors need to know about book printing

As someone who purchased commercial printing and imprinting as part of my work for many years, I have to say that I’m always concerned when a newbie self-published author has a question about buying printing for their books. With current advances in print on demand (POD) technology and services, I am completely confused as to why they’re even considering this. Are they just unaware of what’s available in POD? Or are they trying to do something impossible or impossibly expensive?

Let’s clarify that almost anything is possible when it comes to book printing if money is no object. If you don’t have that kind of cash, and you want to have a profitable book, then you need to consider your book printing options carefully.

So I’ve collected and will provide insight on some frequently asked questions and comments about book printing for self-publishing.

What’s the Difference Between Print on Demand and Book Printing?

Print on demand (POD) is the cheapest way to print self-published books. As the name suggests, printing of the book is “on demand.” There is no investment in printing until someone buys a copy. This reduces costs for printing, distribution, and warehousing for both the author/publisher and distribution partners.

A POD machine looks like a huge photocopy machine. The process is completely automated from the uploading of your book manuscript document to the final, ready-to-ship book at the end.

Printing books—in other words, buying printing of books from a printing company—is a completely different affair. Not all printing companies print books. So you’ll have to go with a company that specializes in book printing.

Printed books are manufactured prior to any sales being made. For sales that are difficult to predict, such as for self-published books, this can represent a huge loss if more books are printed than can be sold. This results in the “boxes of books taking up space in your garage” scenario.

True, there are some books that cannot be produced using POD methods. But then you have to ask yourself, do you really need to self-publish a book that requires this extra cost and risk?

See How Amazon Prints Books on Demand

Example of a Print on Demand Book Manufacturing Machine in Action

How Many Books Should I Print?

What I find curious is that authors rarely ask about how many books to print but seem concerned about the per book price. A low price per book copy means that you have to buy a large quantity. As just discussed, if you have a low sales volume, this will result in boxes of unsold books taking up space in your garage.

I’ve estimated that only about 1 percent of your author platform, also known as your fan base, actually will buy your book. And that may even be optimistic for new and unknown self-published authors.

Most book printing companies won’t even take on small quantity jobs. It’s just not profitable for them. So they’ll charge you a lot of money to do it. And that makes you unprofitable.

Again, why are you not using print on demand production and distribution for your book?

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Does Anybody Know a Cheap Overseas Printer Who Could Print My Book?

Please, stop right there! Some self-published authors get sticker shock at the price of printing their books domestically with a printing company or with print on demand. They think that if they just get a cheap price offshore, that’ll solve their profitability problem. No, it won’t. Actually, it could dramatically increase your cost, printing complexity, and lead time. And as we just talked about, in order to get the “cheap” price, you usually have to purchase a large quantity.

Let me share a personal story to illustrate how this offshore strategy can go awry.

My client wanted a specially printed promotional product that was new and only available through one U.S. supplier who imported the item from overseas. But the client needed maybe up to thousand pieces of the product, and we were short on time since the item was going to be used for an event. Typically, it would take several weeks. The supplier assured me it would be in the client’s hands before the due date, even though it would be manufactured and printed overseas.

As luck would have it, the printing was done wrong which completely ruined the entire order. That meant it would have to be remanufactured and reprinted. It was unclear what exactly happened. I just got the “I hate to have to tell you this” call.

Because it had to be redone, the completed order had to be shipped from halfway around the world to the U.S. via Federal Express to make it on time. I couldn’t charge the client for this expensive priority shipping. My supplier apologized for giving me lots of “Alka-Seltzer moments” and did absorb the additional shipping cost. Your overseas suppliers may not be that gracious.

This happened after I had been in the promotional printing business for many years. So I understood how this printing and manufacturing business worked and could intelligently discuss a solution to the problem with my supplier contacts. But after that incident, I vowed to print domestically. I can’t imagine why any self-published author with zero print purchasing or business experience would even embark on a risky and expensive overseas printing adventure just to save a few bucks per book copy, especially since they may have no idea of how many books they’ll be able to sell.

Help! My Printed Book Looks “Horrible!”

Honestly, when I see posts like these pop up in self-published author forums, I just shake my head. Chances are that these authors’ books look just fine and are to “spec” (specifications). The problem is often in the authors’ heads.

Self-publishing profitably is a dance of managing budget, expectations, and competition. Before you become a self-published author, you’re likely exposed to many traditionally published books. These are usually beautifully produced yet are reasonably priced due to economies of scale that come with doing print runs of thousands of books. So your bar of print expectations is set at a high level.

Then after you’ve created your own book manuscript and uploaded it to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or other self-publishing platform, you get the physical proof and... “Yuck! I don’t like the feel of the paper. Shouldn’t the cover be heavier? Aren’t the colors supposed to be brighter?” If I looked at the actual book, I’d probably respond that the book meets spec for the POD printing process and cost paid for printing.

What you need to do is set realistic expectations for what you can afford. Order samples of some other authors’ books that are similar to yours that have been printed by the same self-publishing platform (KDP, IngramSpark, Lulu, BookBaby, etc.). You’ll have a better idea of what’s possible for your book in terms of quality.

Self publishing profitably is a dance of managing budget, expectations, and competition.

— Heidi Thorne

Help! My Book’s Photos and Graphics Look Blurry!

So many self-published authors are disappointed when their photos don't look good when printed using KDP's POD service. And they're right. They might look blurry. There are a few explanations for this.

High-Resolution Photos Weren't Used

To print properly on KDP, your photos need to be 300dpi (dots per inch). This has to be the resolution of the original image file. Some people jigger with the dpi in a photo editing app or program. That doesn't work and will result in blurry, fuzzy photos, even though the dpi would be correct. The original image file needs to genuinely be 300dpi.

It's the Paper, Not the Photo

When I was selling newspaper advertising, I would occasionally get complaints from advertiser clients who thought their photos and graphics looked "blurry." And they would be right. But the reason they looked that way is because of the paper. Printing on newsprint is like printing on a sponge. So edges are a bit fuzzy when compared to printing on smoother, less absorbent paper stock. A good graphic designer—who they rarely had on staff—would have been aware of these limitations and would adjust the design to accommodate.

Similarly, the paper used in KDP's print on demand printing is uncoated stock. Though it produces crisper images than what I experienced with the printing of newspapers, it's not as sharp as when printed on a coated stock. As the name suggests, coated paper stock has a coating on it. This coating helps produce sharper detail in the printed image. Though KDP does not offer coated stock for color POD printing, some of the other self-publishing platforms (including Lulu and BookBaby as of this writing) offer premium coated paper stock that is best for photo printing.

Be aware, though, that premium paper stocks increase your costs and can decrease your profit margin if you don't price your book properly. But then your book might be overpriced compared to competing books in the market—perfect example of that dance of managing budget, expectations, and competition.

If photos and detailed graphics are critical to your book, order printed book samples from the self-publishing platforms you are considering to see if they can fill your needs. Do so even if there's a cost for the samples. Also, if you're not doing it yourself, hire a good graphic designer who understands how to adjust the design to accommodate the paper's limitations. Inexperienced or incompetent designers who don't understand the relationship between paper and ink, design to look good on the screen, but not in the printed physical form.

Has Anybody Used InDesign to Format a Book?

Oh, boy. Do you know what InDesign is? It’s a professional-level graphic design software from Adobe. I used it from way back in the 1990s in its early evolution when it was called PageMaker. InDesign is a “gold standard” professional design software program. But it also has a huge learning curve. And the software, whether you buy the program or a subscription to it, will have a cost.

This question came from an author who had zero experience with using InDesign. Realistically, it could take you several months (or more) to learn the software, especially if you have no experience using professional-level graphic design software.

Topping that, you need to have a thorough understanding of printing layout requirements so that you can even set up your manuscript files correctly. Though InDesign is a miraculous feat of software engineering, it’s not magic.

Note that InDesign would typically be used for only the print version of your book. The layouts are used to create PDF files for printing production. That means it cannot create the reflowable text needed for Kindle or Kindle apps that adapt book content to the user’s screen and device. You may need to create separate book manuscript files for print and Kindle eBook editions.

If your book requires a more complex layout than the likes of Microsoft Word, Kindle Create, Google Docs, or Scrivener can provide, hire a pro to do it for you. You’ll save yourself time and avoid aggravation, even though it may cost you in hard dollars.

I’m Doing a Children’s Book…

I've ranted on the extreme challenges of self-publishing children's books before. Everybody thinks they can write and self-publish a children's book. But they just don't know what they're doing. To get solutions to the inevitable obstacles, they post a bunch of questions in the author forums.

The biggest printing issue for these children's book author wannabes is with illustrations and the associated costs. What these authors don't realize is that not all children's books need pictures. The need for them depends on the age and reading level. But these naive authors plow on, spending boatloads of money on illustrations.

In addition to illustrations, children's picture books may need special graphic design layout skills that can include bleeds (printing that goes to the edge of the page). As discussed earlier, if you don't have illustration or graphic design book layout skills, this will not be an easy DIY (do it yourself) project. You might need to hire both an illustrator and graphic designer, though many designers can provide both services. Whether you use multiple artists or just one, good illustration and layout services are expensive.

Actually, what you really need to do first is determine the grade reading level you want to write for. That will dictate what illustrations need to be included, if any. Consult a children's book editor for insight. This will help avoid spending on these expensive services if they're not needed.

What Book Size Should I Use?

The physical size of your printed book is often referred to as its trim size. Even though a book could technically be printed in whatever size you want if you have a lot of money to spend, book printers usually limit you to standard trim sizes. These sizes optimize paper use to minimize waste, as well as maximize warehouse space and efficiency for book sellers and distributors.

Currently, KDP offers 16 different, industry-standard trim sizes for your self-published print on demand book, ranging from 5” X 8” up to about 8.5” X 11”. Your choice will depend on what’s appropriate for your genre and niche market. But pick a standard trim size.

I Want to Include Some Color Pictures in My Book

The cost of full-color printing has dropped dramatically over the years. And when you self-publish your print book on KDP, a full-color cover is included at no extra charge, even if the book has black & white pages. Yay!

Where color printing will cost you on KDP, or other self-publishing platforms, is for the interior pages of the book. Even if you use just one color picture or graphic in the book you produce on KDP, you have to do color printing for the whole book. It's all or nothing. This increases the cost to produce the book, which can lower your royalties and profits.

As with almost everything else in this discussion, do you really need color printing? Many text-based self-published books don't. Another instance where your market and genre standards can help guide your decision.

How Much Does It Cost to Do a Hardcover Book?

Following the path of the big traditional publishing houses, many self-published authors want to create a hardcover (case bound) edition of their books. Aside from their traditional publishing envy, I have to ask why they want to do this.

There are some markets where hardcovers are the most practical and durable choice. For example, children's books which can get a lot of handling and wear are prime candidates.

However, for most self-published authors, the choice is more ego driven. A hardcover edition looks and feels like a "real" book, putting self-published books on par with the best-selling titles these authors see displayed at the bookstores. It becomes a trophy of self-publishing accomplishment.

Realize, though, that hardcover printing is expensive. As a self-published author, a hardcover edition is likely to have few sales. But there is a print on demand option.

In researching this article, I priced a print on demand hardcover edition on one of the popular self-publishing platforms that offers them. The print cost was $16.50 for a 250-page book, black & white interior pages, with a dust jacket. The site recommended a price of $33 to cover the printing cost plus all the fees associated with it to make, wait for it, $0.

A $33 price on a book from an unknown or new self-published author is completely out of line with other books on the market in many genres. As I looked on Amazon while writing this, prices for new release hardcovers from famous authors and big publishers were in the $15 to $20 range. So to price it competitively, you'd sustain a loss.

Using a self-publishing platform that offers print on demand for hardcovers (Lulu and BookBaby offer it as of this writing) is the way to go if you must have a hardcover edition. You can offer them at no upfront cost to you. You can also order a copy or two for gifts or for your trophy shelf. Just don't expect it to be a big seller with your real customers.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

Flourish, yes, this is for the self publishing babes in the woods for sure! :) I agree that these newbies probably didn't understand what they were asking for with overseas printing. They think everything works like Amazon. Not!

Oh my, I can even imagine how they clear out a paper jam in that print on demand machine! Glad I don't have to do it. I remember the days of clearing out the photocopy machines. Ugh!

Anyway, thanks, as always, for adding your perspective to the conversation! Have a great weekend and if I don't connect sooner, Happy Thanksgiving!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

You're welcome, Liz! I remember the days when I had so many questions about these things and it was hard to find genuine information. So I'm glad to share.

Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

Mary, you make an important point about local printers. When I was purchasing print, I occasionally had to go on print proof visits (sometimes in the middle of the night for 24-hour operations). So I was glad they were local. And if you develop a relationship with one that understands your needs, that's ideal. I just don't think that authors who have no experience have the ability to create and evaluate those relationships.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us! Have a beautiful weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

Hi Donna! Print on demand, for books, printed T-shirts (like RedBubble and Printful), and more is becoming more and more of a force in online commerce. It is pretty amazing to see it in action like in the video!

Thanks for stopping by and Happy Holidays to you, too!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

Like you, Bill, I tell it like it is. I realize that I don't have a bigger following because of that. I see too many "dream sellers" for self publishing and writing, and I just can't be like them for the sake of numbers.

It's been beautiful the past couple of days here in Chicago. But the weather people promise a return to regular November weather tomorrow.

Happy Weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

You're welcome, Peggy! I appreciate your support, as always. Have a lovely weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on November 20, 2020:

Hi Linda! There is a LOT of information to absorb when you self publish. Just sharing what I've experienced. Thanks for chiming in, as always! Have a great weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 20, 2020:

What a remarkably well-informed article for all of the babe in the woods authors with so many questions. I like how you have stepped through the thought process and your experience-based examples. That overseas printing example -- they probably didn't recognize what they were truly asking. The video was excellent. Can you imagine trying to clear a paper jam in that thing?

Liz Westwood from UK on November 19, 2020:

This is a very detailed and helpful article for anyone planning on self publishing a printed book. I really appreciate you taking the time to put your experience to good use in helping others.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 19, 2020:

You have again given us important points to consider when printing a book. Unless you live in another country for a few months and know the printers well, it will be a challenge to have your book printed in another country. It is not worth the hassle, even with all the ways of communication we have now. I had a few printing jobs in an outfit close to me in Canada, and the price was fine, especially because I found it so easy to work with them. I could easily go and see the layout and suggest a few changes.

Donna Herron from USA on November 19, 2020:

Thanks for this great article, Heidi! I had a number of questions when you mentioned printing on demand, but you addressed each concern in your article. I didn't even know this option existed. Thanks for including the video. It's very helpful. Thanks again and best wishes for the upcoming holidays!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 19, 2020:

You do know your stuff, my friend. Spot on, to the heart of the matter, no fooling around, no sugar-coating, which I love. Excellent advice. You need a bigger following. I know quite a few writers who would do well to follow your articles.

And with that I will wish you a brilliant Thursday, filled with successes.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 18, 2020:

You offer so much good advice to people who wish to author books. I know several people who will want to read this. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 18, 2020:

Thanks for sharing all the useful details, Heidi. There's a lot of information to think about when creating a self-published book, but you're an excellent guide!

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