Self-published authors have ridden to fame and fortune on the wings of two technologies: e-books, and the hybrid print book production-distribution method known as print on demand.
Each of these technologies reduces the financial risk inherent in book publishing. This is especially important for print books, where print on demand has eliminated the need for inventory, warehousing, shipping, and fulfillment, since it’s a complete automated system.
The ease of use of print on demand sites has also made print book production less intimidating for authors who are mostly neophytes when it comes to getting their books printed.
However, there are real business reasons for successful indie authors to reach beyond easy-to-produce print on demand paperbacks. For one, there are many kinds of books we can profitably publish ourselves.
Most of these books are produced using offset printing, just like most of the print books sold in the United States today.
Offset printing seems so twentieth-century to the digerati, driven as it is by huge, noisy, industrial equipment producing thousands of books at a time. But successful indie authors who want to keep growing will eventually add offset printing to their capabilities.
In a way, you could see a shift to offset printing as the maturation of the indie author phenomenon. Fixated on ebooks and POD paperbacks, many authors have never considered how more engaging physical products can be, and how they might change the way authors visualize, plan, and produce their books.
Varieties of the Print Book Experience
When you think of a book as a consumer product, one that competes with podcasts, streaming video, and all the other ways we entertain ourselves, you understand that the packaging of your book may be as important to your sales as the content itself.
Unfortunately, most indie authors believe that the only print books available to them are basic trade paperbacks from print on demand vendors. There’s nothing wrong with them, and I use them myself, but they fall far short of the totality of books and packaging we can call on to produce our retail products—books.
What’s available outside of print on demand for packaging the work you’ve poured your heart and soul into?
- Trade paperbacks at much lower cost, since offset books will save 25-50% over print on demand
- Landscape formats in many shapes, proportions, and sizes
- Hardcover books at reasonable prices, and with stamped cases
- Lay-flat books with a variety of binding styles
- Archival papers and sewn bindings for longevity
- Casewrap hardcovers for text books and manuals
- Coffee table books in large formats with luscious color printing
- Specialty printing papers in a multitude of colors, weights, and finishes
- Jackets and covers that can be foil stamped, embossed, and die cut
Obviously, with the creative freedom these options make possible, indie authors could produce print books that would grab the attention of their readers in a variety of ways, capitalizing on the exactly right vehicle for their books.
Probably the biggest reason successful indie authors will start looking to offset printing is distribution.
For the last few years I’ve been predicting that authors who were strongly drawn to book publishing—who learned how to systematically create profitable books—would eventually move on to forming small presses and specialty publishing houses. And that’s exactly what has started happening.
This division of labor makes sense. Very few authors, in my experience, can transform themselves into book production and marketing experts, although that’s what successful self-publishing calls for.
Not only that, but if you have a book you believe warrants national distribution, placement in hundreds or thousands of bookstores, or interviews on major media, you have no choice but to produce your book using offset printing.
You’ll need both the bigger profit margins from offset to accommodate the deep discounting it will take to sign with a master distributor—which is how your books will get into all those bookstores—and you’ll be printing 1,000 books at a minimum, a quantity for which print on demand is unsuited.
But venturing into the big world of offset-printed books can be intimidating. Instead of user-friendly websites that bend over backwards to make the publishing process simple and transparent, you’ll be dealing with printing sales reps, estimators, and customer service people unused to talking to individual authors.
This is why, more than ever, successful authors with aspirations to go bigger, wider, or deeper into publishing need education.
How Publishers Think
In talking to authors about how to transition their successful businesses to the next level, I’ve identified two principal educational needs that, if filled, would help them tremendously:
- Personal comprehension of exactly how print books are physically put together
- Understanding how to deal with the offset printing process and its customs
Print books of all kinds require more technical expertise to produce than ebooks simply because the files you prepare will eventually come to life on real machinery using real paper, ink, toner, glue and all the other materials that go into books.
Meeting this educational imperative is the main reason I’ve gathered together the articles I’ve written over the years on how books are put together and, last year, published Book Construction Blueprint: Expert Advice for Creating Industry-Standard Print Books.
In the coming months I’ll be expanding this book and retitling it in a second edition.
The Blueprint provides expert tips and guidance for authors who want to navigate the world of offset printing, and will help any author who wants to create an industry-standard print book, no matter what kind of printing they use.
I regularly meet quite a few entrepreneurial authors at various conferences where I’m speaking, and it’s common for authors to become intrigued with the advantages of offset printed books in achieving wider distribution, creating books that are more compelling as physical objects, and the ability to shape the reading experience.
I expect the more entrepreneurially minded authors to look into offset printing for some of their books because that’s how they will continue to grow as publishers.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Originally published in a slightly different form as “Indie Authors and the Future of Book Production” in 2017 by Writer’s Digest