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KDP Print-on-Demand Quality vs. Quality Control

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


I got called out on one of my videos where I ranted about authors being overly sensitive about what they perceive as KDP print-on-demand quality issues. “You call yourself an advocate for self-publishers?” Ouch.

Out of respect for that author’s concerns, let me address each of them here, though some points might still echo my earlier position.

What's the Complaint?

The author was upset because I stated I haven’t had a problem in all the years I’ve used KDP, which has been since around 2012, saying I shouldn’t play down other authors’ concerns or insinuate that they don’t understand how print-on-demand works, just because I haven’t experienced it.

The argument was that authors have, in all caps, very real problems with KDP printing mistakes that I said were alleged. She said that they were not the fault of what was uploaded to KDP.

She also reported hearing complaints from customers and had ordered some books herself that apparently didn’t meet expectations. Her position was that the final printed book copies must be the same as the proof and that it should not be an unrealistic author expectation.

KDP Print-on-Demand "Quality Control" Issues

I need to make clear that the commenting author and I were talking about two different issues. What she was talking about refers to quality control. Printing problems do happen and need to be corrected. No argument!

That is not what I was talking about in that video. I was talking about product quality, in other words, what quality you can expect for the price paid. Think of that like this. If you have only $10,000 to pay for a car, you cannot expect to purchase a brand-new luxury-level vehicle.

Here is what would qualify as a failure of quality control:

  • Missing, duplicated, or extra pages
  • Pages printed out of order
  • Pages printed upside down
  • Ink smears or blobs on either the cover or pages
  • Torn, cut, or severely scratched covers or pages

All of these can be rectified at the customer level by the customer returning the book for refund, or requesting a replacement from Amazon. When and if the author becomes aware of the issue, the author should bring it to the attention of KDP author support immediately.

KDP Print-on-Demand "Quality" Issues

The following would not qualify as quality control problems in a print-on-demand scenario, and I’ll explain why they don’t.

Slight Variations in Color

The color on covers or interior color pages could be brighter, lighter, or darker than that shown on a proof or from one printing to the next. Amazon has multiple warehouse facilities that fulfill print-on-demand orders. To facilitate fast service to customers, print-on-demand books will be printed at the facility that is closest to the customer or that has the capacity to do the job. Because multiple printing machines may be used, there will be slight variations from printing to printing.

Variations in color can be caused by environmental conditions, ink used, paper stock variations, and more. These conditions could change from day to day. To expect zero variation from one print job to the next is impossible to achieve in a budget-conscious print-on-demand scenario.

A Slightly Different Paper Stock for Cover or Interior Pages

Supply chain woes have challenged printing and publishing for quite a while now. To meet customer demands, Amazon may need to change the paper stocks and inks used in their print-on-demand operations. Even if supply chains are operating smoothly, large organizations like Amazon may quickly and frequently change suppliers and supply choices to optimize profits and meet customer demand.

Minor Scuffing on Gloss Covers that Have Large Areas of Dark Colors

This can happen due to handling during or after the printing, assembly, or packing process. The print-on-demand facility will do its best to handle them carefully. But it will happen. This applies to almost any gloss varnish or coated surface, including flooring. Expecting otherwise is unrealistic.

To avoid these issues, a matte-coated cover is recommended.

Why Does the Proof Appear Different Than the Final Printed Books?

A proof of a KDP author’s print-on-demand book will likely be done at the facility closest to the author’s delivery address. The final printed book will be done at the facility closest to the customer’s delivery address. There will be variations in print output from facility to facility.

If the differences aren’t one of the quality control failures, minor variations in color, ink saturation, and paper stocks would be considered within acceptable limits for this printing method and price level.

Customers Might Not Care That Much

I’ve heard authors gripe about customer complaints about KDP book print quality. Let me explain why I question it.

Again, Amazon will gladly and quickly refund or replace any defective product for a customer. This is part of Amazon’s quality control and customer commitment.

And how—how!—are these authors getting these customer complaints? Because of Amazon’s hassle-free return and replacement policy, it is unlikely that a reader would be so incensed at receiving a defectively printed book that they’d waste their time or effort to contact a KDP author through the author’s website.

Amazon does not have any mechanism that I know of within the Amazon-verse for customers to directly contact KDP authors. KDP authors may never be aware that a refund or replacement situation has occurred . . . unless their friends, family, and fans let them know. Even then, it’s surprising that friends and family would not also request a refund or replacement through Amazon.

Aside from the quality control failures, which are legit, customers aren’t likely to complain about things like color saturation or paper stocks. Nor have they seen the proof or other printed copies for side-by-side comparisons.

The Only Way to Get Better Outcomes From Print-on-Demand

Don't use print-on-demand.

If you want to have more control over the printing process, do not go with print-on-demand and print it commercially on your own. That’s expensive, not only for the printing but for the fulfillment, too.

How much quality and quality control are you willing to pay for as a self-published author? With my Thorne Self-Publishing Surveys in 2016 and 2018 showing almost 3 out of 4 self-published authors making less than $1,000 a year from their books, I think the choice should be obvious.

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.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne