Print Quality Concerns About Self-Published Books From Kindle Direct Publishing
If you spend any time in the online author forums for self-published authors, you’ll see a variety of questions and concerns on book printing quality, particularly the quality of print on demand (POD) printing done by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). At the heart of the problem is self-published authors’ inexperience with the printing process and technologies.
Let me explain why I feel pretty confident in my opinions on printing concerns. At one time, I was a marketing manager where I was in charge of buying and checking printed marketing materials. On bigger projects of thousands of pieces, I sometimes would have to check test runs of the jobs done on really BIG, high-speed commercial presses. Before a print job would get to that point, I had to work with graphic designers on creating artwork for print production and worked with printers and print brokers on job estimating.
Then I spent over 15 years as the editor and print advertising sales director for a regional trade newspaper. Plus, I studied graphic arts, both for electronic and traditional printing press tech, including 4/color full-color process printing.
Now, back to our discussion.
How Print-On-Demand (POD) Books Get Printed
Do you know how print on demand gets done? It’s really quite amazing. It looks like a giant photocopy machine. Take a look at the following video. I'm not sure if KDP uses this exact machine, but whatever they use will have similar (or maybe superior!) capabilities.
As you'll see, there’s very little human intervention. So you can understand why you need to carefully proof the manuscript you uploaded to KDP in Launch Previewer mode. I strongly suggest ordering a physical proof, too, to make sure it’s all good before making it available for sale.
“Customers Are Getting Damaged Books!”
This author's concern is puzzling to me. Since 2012, I have used KDP (and the former Createspace which merged with KDP) for print books, and I have never, ever had an issue receiving damaged or misprinted copies of my books. Never. And if something went wrong, it was usually due to my own user error.
Something that has popped up occasionally in forums is author reports of customers getting copies that are damaged, scratched, bent, misprinted, etc. The authors are concerned that a damaged book will ruin their reputations. Okay, let’s all calm down here! I have my own personal experience with KDP’s printing which has been positive, though I’m not saying damaged or defective books don’t or can’t happen. But there’s a good chance that authors are overreacting.
First off, how are the authors getting reports of these alleged damaged books? Customer reviews on Amazon? Are they ordering checking copies themselves at retail price? Personal contact from readers which may just be comments from picky, petty family and friends? And how many reports are being received? I’m curious about all that. In all the years I’ve been self-publishing, I’ve never received even one such complaint.
One author said that she had heard about printing “defects” from people “around the world.” Let’s address that here, too.
Books Are Printed at Different Facilities
If you use KDP’s POD program for your paperback books, the books will be printed in a facility that is closest to the buyer’s shipping address. They are not all printed in one place! Nor are they warehoused in one place if they are warehoused at all. That’s what print “on-demand” means. It’s printed when it’s ordered and there is no stack of your books waiting to be sold. However, if you look at your print book’s product page, you might see that X number of copies are left. It’s possible that Amazon/KDP may have a couple of copies on hand if they anticipate there may be more sales coming quickly. But, in general, they would not want to tie up warehouse space for self-published books that may have spotty sales activity.
Why Are Some Books Damaged?
From my experience with printing, I know there can be a variety of factors affecting how a printed piece ultimately turns out. Even such things as humidity can have an impact. And with copies being produced at several locations, each location’s equipment, conditions, and operators could create slight variations in how the final printed output of the same book appears. Some of the variations would not be considered “defects” by printing standards. The defective nature may be the author’s or reader’s opinion of how the look of the book matches their expectations.
I have to wonder, too, if some readers may just not want to pay for the book. So they’ll buy and read it, say it’s damaged and then seek a refund. If indeed a KDP-printed book is received by a reader in a damaged or defective condition, Amazon will handle the return with their usual efficiency, offering either a refund or replacement. Be comforted by the fact that if you use KDP, you have Amazon’s massive support system handling your customer service issues. These things can happen to any print book or product on Amazon.
Expectations of Printing Perfection
It’s interesting how many authors completely freak out when their inexpensively printed POD paperback books don’t look like high-priced books from traditional publishers. It’s like expecting a plated steak dinner from a fast-food restaurant drive-thru.
For example, authors who are not familiar with printing processes may have expectations that their glossy book covers through POD should be mirror-surface perfect. That’s unrealistic. POD produces a really good quality printing job at a very reasonable price and will keep getting better all the time. But it probably won’t rival a book published and printed by a big traditional publishing house. Maybe what these authors really want is a trophy book to show off to their friends. Get your ego out of the equation! Be realistic about what quality you can obtain to keep within your budget and keep your book at a competitive price point.
Scratches on Glossy Covers
Admittedly, minuscule scratches on a glossy printed cover can happen. A glossy varnish (that’s what they call the protective coating that goes on your book cover) is highly susceptible to scratching from handling, packing, etc. So some minor scratches are inevitable due to the more fragile nature of the surface. And where it really shows is on covers that are solid black or a dark color. I’ve seen in on some of my own dark covers, but it wasn’t unacceptable.
If this is a big concern, you might want to opt for the matte coated cover which is varnished with a dull finish that is less prone to showing scratches, fingerprints, etc. Or choose a cover design that doesn’t include large areas of solid black or dark colors.
Another thing that happens with books that have large areas of solid black or dark colors is that the ink coverage may appear lighter in some areas. True, if the variance is significant, it’s obvious and unacceptable. However, a slight variance would not be considered defective.
Print and Book Quality Issues With Kindle Create
One area where book quality is currently having some issues on Kindle Direct Publishing is with the new Kindle Create tool that is still in beta mode as of this writing. The tool is truly amazing and will help many self-published authors avoid the high cost and hassle of formatting print books for POD.
However, the main problem that still needs to be worked out is how the equipment and software handle hyphenation and widow/orphan control (single words being left at the end of paragraphs or at tops of pages). I explain in the following video.
Authors need to decide if they're okay with these issues while this tool is still in development. I'm using Kindle Create and leaving the books I created with it as is so I can monitor the tool's development and progress over time. If you feel it's too unacceptable, then you need to format manually (or hire a designer) to get it perfect.
Should I Just Print It on My Own and Offer Through My Website or Fulfillment?
Whether they’re unrealistic with their print quality demands or spooked by potential or real complaints about print problems, some self-published authors think that contracting printing of their books with a commercial printing company will help them get the perfection they hope for.
First-Time Self-Published Authors
If you’re a first-time self-published author, I would strongly discourage you from getting your books printed on your own. The learning curve for buying printing is huge. You’ll make rookie mistakes that could cost you up to thousands of dollars or more, depending on the project. If the mistake is due to your error, you’ll be paying to redo it because printing companies suffer no newbies.
Plus, you usually have to meet a printing minimum for them to even work with you. Remember that self-published books may only sell a couple hundred copies in their entire lifetime. You may never recoup your printing investment, and you could be stuck with boxes of books in your garage.
Also, if you print on your own, you’ll have to use a fulfillment program such as Amazon Advantage to sell through Amazon. That means more cost to you, on top of the cost of the actual book printing. Ouch. You may end up making very little profit, compared to self-publishing and selling through KDP.
Think selling your book direct to customers will give you more control over the print quality and shipping care issues? That can be even worse than using a fulfillment program such as Amazon Advantage! Sure, you’ll be able to handle and control every aspect of the printing, order, and fulfillment. But do you want to? Plus, you’ll have the added hassle of handling sales taxes (which is getting more and more complicated and costly) and shipping.
Other authors seem enamored with the printed product they’ve received by self-publishing with other non-Amazon, non-KDP platforms such as IngramSpark. That’s possible. But I have to question why authors are publishing on multiple self-publishing platforms in addition to KDP. That’s a hassle to manage. And programs such as IngramSpark can do everything that KDP can do, plus hardcover. So why are they even messing with KDP?
Select Your Self-Publishing Partners Carefully
Understand the publishing and printing services each one can provide. When considering self-publishing companies, I’d suggest ordering a copy of another author’s self-published book that’s been produced by the company, and that’s very similar to the one you’re working on. That could help you determine which one might be a good fit for your work.
Just remember that the more perfection-prone and demanding you are, the less profitable you’ll be. Also, learn about the printing and production process with a smaller, less demanding book project before you dive into producing your “masterpiece.”
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.
© 2019 Heidi Thorne