The Short-Run Printing Option: Pros and Cons

Image: three hardcover books stacked atop one another on a wooden table.
“Thick encyclopedias with colorful hardcovers” by Horia Varlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is by Colin Keane, marketing director for Gorham Printing (@GorhamPrinting).

Most book printers can be broken down into three main categories:

  • POD
  • Offset
  • Short run

Each category can be defined by the number of books they are best suited to printing. No single form of book printing can claim to be definitively superior to the other two; it all depends on an author’s specific goals. Before we look at the pros and cons of short-run printing, it’s necessary to understand print-on-demand printing (commonly used by self-publishing authors as well as traditional publishers) and offset printing (used primarily by traditional publishers).

POD book printing

Print-on-demand (POD) printing is what self-published authors use when they sell or distribute through IngramSpark and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. The files for the POD book, along with an identifying barcode number, are stored in a database and the book is listed as available and for sale. When a customer buys the book, an automated system prints exactly one copy of the book. In other words, the book does not exist until the customer “demands” it by buying a copy.

POD makes it impossible to order too few or too many books, meaning you’ll never be stuck with a mountain of unsold books, nor will you have to deal with issues of distribution and fulfillment. Amazon and IngramSpark take care of it all.

Pros of POD printing

  • You can never print too many or too few books.
  • You can start selling your book right away.
  • You don’t have to worry about shipping and distribution.
  • You have no inventory costs.

All that automation has its drawbacks. Because a machine handles the printing of the book’s files, there aren’t any humans overseeing the process, which occasionally leads to printing errors. Most POD printers also have limited trim sizes, paper types, and other customization options.

Most importantly, the cost of printing one book at a time will be much higher than printing multiple books. Although print-on-demand is a much less risky venture, especially for new authors, the distributor will charge for the printing and shipping of your book, and take a percentage of the sale price, resulting in a lower profit margin. With IngramSpark, you also potentially have to deal with the cost of returns, assuming you allow them.

Cons of POD printing

  • The quality of your printed book is not checked by a human.
  • Customization options are limited.
  • The unit cost is higher and your profit margin is lower.

Offset Printing

Offset printing is one of the oldest forms of book printing with roots tracing back to early lithographic printing in the 1800s. Most offset printing techniques involve a series of three cylindrical rollers. The first roller, usually made from aluminum, is etched with the print image. The roller comes into contact with the ink and then passes the image to a rubber blanket. This rubber blanket then rolls the image onto the paper, producing the final print image.

Out of the three print techniques, offset printing has the highest setup cost and requires the most preparation. However, once the machines are in motion, offset printing becomes the most economical option. The break point at which this happens is usually around 2,500 books. This makes the method popular among traditional publishers who distribute thousands of copies to bookstores.

Pros of offset printing

  • You’ll have the lowest cost if you are printing 2,500 or more books.
  • You’ll enjoy the highest image quality.
  • Since the plates only need to be etched once, you’ll pay less for reprints.

With offset printing, the books are delivered to the author who is then responsible for finding their own means of distributing, selling, and shipping the copies.

Cons of offset printing

  • Higher setup costs make it inefficient for print runs of less than 2,000.
  • Longer setup times means it may take longer to get your books. (And if there are supply chain problems, wait times can stretch out months.)
  • It is difficult for authors to distribute and sell print books outside of the POD system of IngramSpark and Amazon KDP.

Short-run printing

Until recently, offset printing was the only way reliable way of mass printing books. However, advancements in print technology have made it possible to produce high-quality images using digital printers. Digital printers resemble super-powered versions of the copier printers used in your home or office. They function in very much the same way, too. The printer reads a file and then uses either ink or toner to print the image onto the paper.

Short-run book printing can be described as a happy medium between the two other printing methods. It incurs a higher setup cost than print-on-demand but a much lower overall cost than offset printing. Short-run printing really excels when the author wants to print between 25 and 2,000 books. Any more than that, and it becomes more economical to use offset printing. Any fewer and the setup costs become too high compared to print-on-demand.

You will find all types of books printed using digital printers, including softcover, hardcover, and spiral-bound books. Because short-run printing requires a smaller operating space than offset printing, there are more domestic digital book printers in the United States.

Short run printers will in most cases have technicians in place to oversee the process and check print quality. This results in a higher likelihood that print errors will be caught. Likewise, digital printing opens the doors to a wide range of customization options, including different paper stocks, cover materials, and premium treatments, such as Spot UV and Metallic Printing.

Pros of short-run book printing

  • You’ll get the best price per book when printing between 25 and 2,500 copies.
  • You’ll get quicker turnarounds than offset printing.
  • You’ll have access to higher quality materials than POD printers and a wider range of customization options.

Like offset printing, the books are delivered directly to the author, so managing inventory, distribution and shipping is up to the author and may prove challenging.

Cons of short-run book printing

  • Short-run printing becomes cost ineffective when printing fewer than 25 books.
  • Books are ordered in bulk, so you need to be confident about the quantity you can sell.
  • The author is responsible for sales, distribution, and fulfillment.

Every single printer has its own methods, turnaround times, and quality grades. The unique characteristics of each book make it difficult for printers to offer a universal pricing, but many printers will display ballpark book printing prices so that you can compare a couple scenarios.

If you’re ready to take the next steps towards getting your book printed, take a look at Gorham Printing’s Free Guide to Printing and Publishing. Also check out Andrew Watson’s article, Book Printing 101: What You Need to Know Before Approaching a Printer.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments