The Downside of Print-on-Demand

The Downside of Print-on-Demand

The Magic of 3,000 Printed Copies of a Book, and Why This Number Matters for Indie Publishers and Self-Publishing Authors

You know it. I know it. Even your grandma knows it. These days, it’s quite easy to publish a book with the barest of pockets. New technologies and platforms bring this creative option into the realm of possibility for nearly everyone, and this has many wonderful upsides that you also already know or can imagine.

But I want to tell you about a different time, not all that long ago, when these options weren’t available, and we indie publishers only published books that we thought—rather, knew—would sell at least 3,000 print copies, ideally in the first year. Speaking very broadly, that’s the amount that would cover our initial productions costs (printing and shipping, editing and proofreading, cover design and interior design, indexing), generically in the $10,000-$12,000 range, and start covering our labor and overhead and inching us towards profit.

It was tough, but it established norms and instituted a sort of discipline. That is, no putting out books for the fun of it or because we really liked them, or the author, a lot. We only bothered to publish the books we firmly believed met these criteria and then some. It was a minimal threshold and a reality check: Don’t put time, effort, resources into books that others won’t buy.

In light of what’s now possible, it’s still worth considering the investment of resources you might make in a book from two angles:

  1. Production values. In other words, what it costs to produce a book that meets industry standards and consumer expectations. It walks, talks, and smells like a duck. A book. It does service to the writing and content in a way the enhances the reading experience. I like to think, for example, that any book that makes its way into the world deserves a professional edit and an attractive cover. Many also require as much pro interior design/layout as you can afford. These things cost real money and, in my mind, should be worth the investment because you have already determined there’s a big enough audience for the work to more than justify those expenses—or, that you will be putting in as much work as needed to create that audience.
  2. Time and opportunity costs. This angle acknowledges a calculation that any book project merits the time and opportunity costs involved. Once you’ve sunk the time and money into producing the book (writing through editing, layout, proofreading, indexing, and design), you will need at least the same amount of resources (or a multiple) to market and sell it. Regardless of what contemporary options make easy for any author or publisher, I still come to the conclusion that all of this is worth it, speaking only from a business standpoint, if you plan to sell thousands of copies. Hundreds won’t cut it.

As it emerged over the years and became dominant in the small press world, print-on-demand (POD) for me has been everything from a hard no to a publishing miracle to a vigorously confused, shoulder-shrugging meh.

It’s not that POD is so inherently problematic, it’s that the 3,000-copy discipline was so important to surviving in this ridiculous business that I just can’t quit the possibilities of this route. [Note: There are other good book publishing, book business formulas and models! I’m currently just praising this one.]

Three thousand bound copies, packed in boxes, piled on pallets, and staring you in the face every single workday underscores: You are in business and your business is making that stack of books disappear as fast as possible for as much money as you can squeeze out of it, so that you have a bit leftover for a paycheck ... and to do it again.

Right unit cost

A 3,000-copy printing from a traditional offset printer (located in the Midwest, which is the U.S.’s sweet spot for affordable book printing) gives you the unit cost you need to make the money you want. That is, it serves as the foundation for making any halfway decent money at all.

You can get the typical 5.5" x 8.5" or 6" x 9" trade book of 120 to 350 pages on white or off-white paper and a full-color glossy or matte cover for something like $1.50 to $3 apiece, often with shipping included (based on my last several dozen orders with the printers I use, info supplied for reference only).

Truth be told, you can get close to these prices on 2,000-copy print runs these days—and I’ve tried that—but moving 2,000 books is not moving 3,000 books and that remains for me the number when things start working out.

Skin-in-the-game commitment

Three thousand books sitting in your garage, basement, or office represent a real skin-in-the-game commitment. You’re backing up your craft with $5,000-$9,000 of your own money (not counting editorial and design labor, misc. fees, etc.) and announcing, if only in the echo chamber of your thumping heart, I’m going to sell these things. One way or the other I will figure out how to do it.

Playing the long game

Most of us don’t get rid of a few thousand books with a wee bit of effort. Purchasing a print run of this size means you’re playing a long game. You’re building a business, you’re learning marketing and distribution, you’re suffering the ups, downs, and indignities of being a highly competent adult splashing around in a new industry. And when, if, you come through it, you will be in a very good place to do it again and again, but better.

Tax break

For what it’s worth, you can write off the space those pallets are sitting on as part of your home-office deduction. Small comfort, but it’s not nothing.

Betting on yourself

If you ever wonder how and why it’s only crackpots running things (it’s not, but still …), here’s your chance to do something your way. As author James Altucher expounds on in his book, Choose Yourself, this is an instance of betting on yourself. Congratulations, your skin is in the long game with 2–3 pallets of books on hand, and you’re in charge of this operation. You are a solid gamble.

Taking yourself seriously

Three thousand books means you’re taking yourself and your writing career seriously. Good. Taking yourself seriously as an author is critical for others taking you seriously and moving meaningfully forward. This isn’t saying to be full of yourself or to not lighten up, it’s saying: I’m not playing dress up here or sitting at the kids’ table. I’m a grown up doing what I’m good at, and I intend to get paid as such.

You are in business

Finally, when you lay down real money to print 3,000 books at a traditional printing plant, there is no pretending this is not a business. You are in business. Time to start learning business.

Further reading on learning business

✔️ Creating a Sustainable, Income-Generating Author Life You Love, Step 5 of 7: Build your business savvy as you go, from where you’re at

✔️ Authors, Make “Business” Your Next Hobby: Something you can learn, develop, and enjoy at your own pace and desired level of intensity

✔️ Authors, About Your Willingness to Learn Business…: You have the capacity and ability to learn entrepreneurship, now choose it

✔️ Find the Path to Your Own Author Business by Copying Others: Mimic to learn, succeed, and discover your own originality

*Feature by nuvolanevicata (Adobe)

Sharon Woodhouse is the owner of Conspire Creative—coaching, consulting, conflict management, project management, book publishing, and editorial services for authors, solo pros, and small businesses.
More posts by Sharon Woodhouse.
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