Guy Kawasaki’s APE: Offset Printing for Self-Publishers

by | Mar 22, 2013

Guy Kawasaki has been a constant presence at publishing events since launching APE: Author, Publisher, Entrpreneur (featured here along with my interview with Kawasaki: APE-ing Your Book with Guy Kawasaki [Audio]).

After the interview, I forwarded to Guy and his co-author, Shawn Welch, a bunch of suggestions. Guy had solicited feedback on the book all through the development of the manuscript, and told me in the interview he intended to keep improving the book regularly.

So I wasn’t all that surprised at what happened next. I pointed out there was virtually nothing in his book about offset printing. It’s nice to think we can do all our books as Kindle ebooks or CreateSpace paperbacks, but that’s a very limited slice of the publishing pie.

Even today, most books sold in the U.S. are printed offset, and self-publishers have been doing offset books for decades.

After going back and forth, Guy asked me to write a contribution for the book. I really admire his process, which seems open to all legitimate input. That’s pretty unusual.

I highly recommend the book, it’s a valuable resource for any self-publisher. And if you buy it today, you’ll find it includes this primer on offset printing.

Guest Topic: Offset Printing for Self-Publishers, by Joel Friedlander

Guy Kawasaki: Joel Friedlander (@JFBookman) is an award-winning book designer, a blogger, and the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish. He’s been launching the careers of self-publishers since 1994, and he also writes, a popular blog on book design, book marketing and the future of the book. Joel is also the founder of the online training course, The Self-Publishing Roadmap.

When Joel read APE, he pointed out that it did not cover offset printing. My response was, “When would a self-publisher ever use offset printing since print-on-demand (PoD) works so well?” This contribution is his answer.

Joel Friedlander: Digital book printing and print on demand (PoD) started a rush to self-publishing on the part of thousands of writers, memoirists, hobbyists, and home cooks. Guy and Shawn have explained how to use this great technology for print books.

PoD fits the “Amazon model” of book retailing really well, where millions of title are potentially available at any time. When books become files stored on a server, ready for one-off printing and fulfillment, you’ve got a seamless process that takes your book from order to delivery.

self-publishingHowever, print on demand only accounts for a small percentage of all the books sold each year (albeit many self-published titles today do start out as print on demand). Most books are still printed by offset printing, an entirely different technology with different vendors and methods of distribution. In offset, books are printed by huge printing presses on enormous sheets of paper in a factory environment.

While print on demand usually produces one book at a time, offset printing can produce thousands of books in a single print run. Depending on the number of books created, the cost per book is usually cheaper using offset printing. In most cases, offset printing produces a higher quality book (especially with color photos), and there are more options available for paper choices, trim sizes, and cover finishing.

(In fact, Lightning Source automatically switches over to offset printing for softcover books whenever an order is received for more than 1,500 copies. So even POD companies see a benefit in offset printing for large orders.)

At the end of the day, offset printing sounds like a win-win: cheaper unit costs, higher quality, and more options. So why don’t more indie authors start out with offset printing? The simple answer is in order to take advantage of offset printing you need to be prepared to invest in a short print run order of your book. Many offset printers require a minimum order, which means you as the author could spend more than $2,000 printing hundreds of copies of your book before you start selling them. Print on demand allows authors to print books as they’re sold. Offset printing requires you pay for the print costs up front, and sell books out of a fulfillment warehouse, or your garage.

With that said, here are some great scenarios where artisanal publishers often choose offset printing over print on demand:

  1. Art books or cook books. Books that need high quality reproduction of art photography, painting, drawing, or any visual arts. Reproduction quality is outstanding and if you print overseas prices are within reach.
  2. Books with inserts. Many travel, history, and natural science books, among others, use photos to help tell their story. While you can’t easily mix high quality text with high quality photo reproduction in digital printing, with offset, it’s easy. Each part of the book is printed separately on appropriate paper, and is then bound together.
  3. Books with unusual size or paper. CreateSpace allows you to print on any trim size, but custom sizes can only be sold on—Lightning Source only offers industry standards. Offset printing allows you to print on any size paper like CreateSpace, but since you control fulfillment, you can sell them anywhere. Be advised, however, some companies like Barnes and Noble may require books be a certain size to be stocked on shelves[SW1] .
  4. Special Sales. Since offset printing is optimized for print run orders, any time you have an order larger than 200 units you may consider offset printing. For example, if you used a Kickstarter to fund your book and pre-sold 500 copies to backers, using offset printing to fulfill those orders gives you more profit per book than print on demand.
  5. Bestsellers. If you’re lucky enough to have a bestseller with copies flying off the shelves, you’re probably more comfortable with investing $5,000 of your profits so you can have an extra 1,000 copies standing by to fulfill orders. You make more money per book by using offset printing, you fulfill orders faster because books are printed 1,000 at a time, and your risk is lower than a new author because you already know the book is selling.

Finding and Working With Offset Printers

If you find you have one of those books that needs to be printed offset, your best move is to get a professional on your team. Book designers are familiar with the excellent short-run book printers in the United States. Many of these printers have also started to add digital printing equipment so they can offer the best of both worlds.

Here are some tips for working with offset printers.

  • Hire a professional book designer. Safeguard your investment by having an expert handle the technical side and suggest book printers for you. She can also communicate with the printer and guide the project through press. This is especially true for books that demand high-quality reproduction.
  • Get help from local publishing groups. If you want to do the job yourself, you can still get lots of help from local publishing groups in your area or from the Independent Book Publishers Association.
  • Don’t print your book at a local commercial printer. Use a book printer, not a local commercial printer. Although your local printer may tell you they know how to print books, you’re going to get a better-quality book at a lower price from one of the excellent short-run book manufacturers in the U.S. [SW2]
  • Create a “Request for Quotation” (RFQ) and get prices from at least three printers. The RFQ will thoroughly describe the book you want to create and the information on it will form the basis for the printers’ bids. This is an important exercise because it forces you to create a description of your book and communicate that information to the printer. Some printers will allow you to do this right on their website by simply filling out a form, but you’ll still need to know the specialized language that printers and publishers use to create specifications for book manufacturing. For more information about estimates, be sure to read “Understanding Book Printing Estimates for Self-Publishers, Part 1.”
  • Include shipping and storage charges. The lower cost of offset-printed books comes with added responsibilities. Now you’ll have to have your books shipped to you, and you need to store them to.

Working with an author-services company like CreateSpace, or a print-on-demand company like Lightning Source, is much easier than putting together a team and finding an offset printer that is right for you. But, as we’ve highlighted there are times when you need to deal with offset printing to get the most out of your project. The simple truth is that print on demand isn’t for everyone. (But then, neither is offset printing!)

An additional great resource on book printing including an annotated list of printers is “Top 101 Book Printers.”

Photo: Amazon links use my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Chris Schelin

    I believe in the 80/20 rule. you know, where 80% of all reward comes from 20% of the effort? Well, I believe your blog is that 20%. I’ve added you to the list of sites that I frequent. Thank you for the in depth and detailed blog posts. Not many people are willing to do that anymore.

  2. Jan

    Hi Joel,

    I’m about to self-publish and I’m trying to determine which Publishing Services company to use. I believe I can generate a few thousand advance orders on my author site, although I know I’ll have to fulfill those myself since most Publishing Service Companies will not fulfill those orders. My question is, how quickly can a company such as CREATESPACE fulfill my 5000 or 10,000+ “author order” once the book is ready for print, assuming I choose such a company?

  3. Martin

    Thanks Joel – are there any that you have used that you would recommend? When spending over $10k it’s always prudent to get more than one quote…

  4. Martin

    Thanks for the interesting article Joel. I fall into both Ann Marie and Kub’s camps in as much as I am not in the US, and I have been searching some time for a specific recommendation.

    I am a photographer looking to publish a very high quality coffee table book on Mauritius. It’s easy to get recommendations on POD photo book publishers – Asuka seem most recommended, but to find a comparison or even just a recommendation on off-set book printers seems much harder.

    You mention in your Art Books section that “overseas prices are within reach”. Are there any recommendations on high quality overseas (or even US) off-set printers for exceptionally picky photographers?

    • Joel Friedlander


      You won’t be able to get the quality you’re looking for from POD vendors, you’ll need to print offset. This will also allow you much more latitude in terms of trim size, paper, and binding options. Two printers you should query are Thomson-Shore in Michigan and Hemlock Printers in Vancouver.

      • Martin

        Thanks for the recommendations Joel, I have requested quotes from both, and so far have head back from Thomson-Shore first who can print books up to 9×12″.

        Do you have any experience with brokers? I also found Star Print Brokers on John Kremer’s 101 Book Printers list that you recommended. I subsequently found that they had printed one of Damien Lovegrove’s books – an old friend and mentor. He seemed pretty impressed with their service.

        • Joel Friedlander

          Brokers are really important if you’re planning on printing in Asia, and I’ve used several, although I don’t know Star Print. But a recommendation does help.

  5. Mary DeEditor

    I’m working with an author on a series of four books with a niche market that we know how to reach. At first we leaned to PoD, but with more information and discussion, we’re now pretty much decided on offset with local order fulfillment, and cheap e-book versions.

    A few advantages I haven’t yet seen mentioned: Offset allows for ecological printing options, such as recycled paper and soy inks. Acid-free paper gives your book (relative) permanence. And offset allows many more design and layout choices. Luckily, there are local Bay Area printers who do book printing, so we’d save on cross-country shipping too.

    I confess I’m almost seduced by the thought of letterpress art books (oh, sigh, so lovely), but saving that dream for poetry.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Those are all great points, Mary, thanks for the contribution.

  6. Nash

    For distribution to large retailers like B&N, would it give me an advantage to have my book on their shelves if I already have inventory of 10,000 copies as opposed to 5,000 copies?

    • Joel Friedlander

      No, it wouldn’t make any difference. Creating demand for the book is far more important, and I would keep a print run for a new book low until it proves itself in the market.

  7. Mark Pitzele

    This is an excellent article and a worthy topic. In the interest of fairness, I should disclose I work for a large commercial book printer. :)

    I think the biggest misnomer out there is that you MUST do POD. There are a lot of advantages to offset. I think Joel points that out, which is why the article is so valuable. Before doing anything, you should educate yourself on both methods of printing and make the best decision for your book.

    There biggest advantage to offset printing is quality. Digital printing has come a long way, but printing one book at a time is not an easy production process. If you compared the quality of the major POD’s and the major commercial book printers, even for a short digital run, it would not be close. That does not mean the POD printers don’t do a good job or serve a need in the marketplace, they do. You just need to be aware of quality issues that may come up with POD.

    Leaving quality out of the equation, it really comes down to the business model you have for your book. If you are going to sell it to friends and relatives, are not worried about making money and don’t have a lot to invest, there can be a lot said for POD. If you have a larger budget, a natural distribution channel (speaking, business consulting, etc.) and have more confidence you can sell the book, then there is no doubt offset is the way to go. The lower the unit cost, the better your margin. Offset will provide a much lower unit cost.

    A lot of offset printers offer distribution, where your book can be listed exactly where the POD people list it. Distribution is a lot different then a sales team though and it is still going to be up to you, the author ,to sell the book. If any distributor out there tells you they will sell your book also, I would take that with a serious grain of salt.

    There are a lot of advantages to printing an inventory and you don’t have to print 20,000 books. If you find the right printer, you can print a run of 500 or more books offset and get a quality book at a competitive price.

    Just like anything, research the issue and choose the best solution for you. The information is out there if you look hard enough. I would be happy to answer any questions any of you have.


    • Robert Siefker

      Mark we have an important book to publish with a large built in target market. We want to go with off-set printing and distribution services. Any suggestions

      • Joel Friedlander

        Robert, there are a number of vendors who can both print and distribute for you. One I’ve used for many years is Thomson-Shore:

  8. kub

    have to say, tho the article is good Joel, Im at a loss. I have NO idea where to look for such a printer locally or nationally. I have no experience, no one I know has any in this area. It would be so helpful when people write articles if they also solicited printers’ names from writers who have used such fine printers and let us know a list say, of ten. This is the ‘connectivity’ age. General info is not enough. Again, not a criticism, just an unfulfilled need to know far more where the maze actually might begin. Otherwise, none of us will attempt this. It’s like saying go to China, try Bejing. No person’s name, no location, no phone.

    • Joel Friedlander

      kub, thanks for your comment and I do appreciate the need to have specific recommendations. However, there are a lot of different kinds of books, and many short run book printers. That’s why I provided a link to John Kremer’s excellent list of top 100 book printers, and why I prefer to offer recommendations to individuals only after I find out something about their project.

      Hope that helps.

  9. Jill

    Question: Createspace and other POD’s offer expanded distribution — getting your book listed with distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor and libraries, etc….How does one do this if you choose an offset printing option?


    • Joel Friedlander

      Jill, if you print offset you either have to distribute your books yourself—as many authors do by supplying books directly to retailers like Amazon—or you need to sign with a proper book distributor. It remains true that many bookstores will not order print on demand books, so again here you run into the absolute necessity to understand who your books are for, where they will buy them, and then creating just the right book for your market.

      • Michael E. Newton

        Forgive me if you already have, but I really want to read a good article about how a self publisher can get a book distributor, what the costs are, etc.

  10. Tracy R. Atkins

    This is an enlightening article for many self-published authors. I think most, especially first time authors; fall into the mindset that offset is only for the major publishing houses. They don’t realize that POD is a relatively new technology for authors to take advantage of, and offset was the default self-publishing method just a few years back.

    Maybe one reason that many people shy away of offset is the general lack of knowledge and understand of what offset is, since POD is the predominant topic for the self-pub blogosphere too. Great articles like this one will open many eyes to other options that may fit in with self-publishing business strategies that don’t simply target Amazon as the only means of making a sale. In fact, if you approach it right, it may OPEN UP opportunities for sales that you never considered.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Exactly right, Tracy. It all depends on what kind of book best suits your purposes and your market, and then figuring out how to produce that book.

      • Abdurrahman

        Once you have entered your unuqie measurements and clicked to download, the pattern will appear in your downloads, or immediately open as a PDF (depending on your computer settings). On the menu of the PDF reader you are using, go to File and select print, or just click the printer icon.Remember to set the scaling as None .The pattern will print on regular letter paper. Just tape the pages together, matching the triangles on each edge.Then cut out the pattern and sew.Thanks for using our patterns!

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Tracy, one reason I’ve avoided offset in favor of POD and ebooks is that I don’t want to produce 1,000 or more books with embarrassing errors in them.

    • Michael N. Marcus

      Tracy, one reason I’ve avoided offset in favor of POD and ebooks is that I don’t want to produce 1,000 or more books with embarrassing errors in them, or material that should be updated.

  11. Alexander M Zoltai

    It’s very commendable that he accepts such contributions :-)

    I do, though, have a bit of trouble with the media coverage of his book—making it seem like something brand new…

    He has been a high-profile “curator” of information that many folks may not have taken the effort to search out………

    • Joel Friedlander

      Alexander, thanks for your comment. It seems that depending on the subject, we all fall either into the “I’ll do it myself” camp, or the “Rather have it done for me” camp. Seems like there’s plenty of room for both.

  12. Ann Marie Thomas

    An important topic to include in any discussion of self-publishing, thank you. A couple of points though:
    You need to remember that the internet reaches more than America – a lot of advice is different here in the UK.
    You say not to use local commercial printers: I worked with one and, because they want your business and return business, they were extremely helpful. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, as it was my first book, and took the file on a memory stick for advice. The boss looked at it with me there and then and advised me about my layout etc. They were willing to print any quantity, and quoted me per hundred on the initial run and per ten on further runs. This kept my costs to a minimum and didn’t leave me with boxes lying round the house. Also there were no shipping costs – I just collected.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for your input, Ann Marie. You are correct that this article is oriented toward US book printing only, since I am not knowledgeable about practices in other countries. And I’m glad you had a good experience at a local printer. In most cases, these printers are quick to tell you they can do the job, but often have little to no experience at book production. My advise is designed to ensure that most people get a high-quality book by using a dedicated book printer.

  13. Michael N. Marcus

    Another advantage of offset printing is lost online but becomes apparent on the shelves of terrestrial booksellers: a wide choice of covers and dust jackets.

    If you want special cloth or paper, embossing, see-through cut-outs, foil, metallic ink, glued-on holograms, leather, fur or feathers (well, maybe not fur or feathers), POD is not for you.

    Also, if you want fancy endpapers, go offset.

    Also also, another kind of insert to consider is a perforated postcard that can be used to place orders or get on a mailing list.

    Michael N. Marcus

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good points, Michael. On the cards, the perforated type are mostly used in my experience in magazines, where they stub is bound in. It’s more typical in books to use “blow-in” cards which are randomly inserted during the binding process but not affixed to the book.

      • Michael N. Marcus

        Maybe there’s a difference between east coast and west coast card inserts. [grin] I don’t recall any books with blow-ins.

        Almost every mag I receive has blow-in cards, but I have at least two books within arm’s reach with bound-in perfed cards, including Jon Kremer’s “1001 Ways to Market Your Books.”

        My 2008 edition of “Writer’s Market” has a bound-in card-stock page with advertising and a perfed bookmark. Some “For Dummies” paperbacks have bound-in card-stock “cheat sheets.” Dan Poynter has used bound-in order forms on ordinary paper stock with no perfs.

        Best inserts may have been done about fifty years ago by MAD magazine: bound-in flexible phonograph records (what an archaic term!). One was “She Got a Nose Job” and there were at least two Tom Lehrer songs including “The Hunting Song.” I still remember the lyrics.

        The U. S. Postal Service is not happy about blow-ins, because they can become loose and jam the sorting machines. For perfect-bound mags, they ask that the cards be inserted firmly into the spine. For saddle-stitched mags, they recommend bound-in, glued-in or tipped-on cards.

        The blow-in cards are effective advertising because they often plop onto a table, desk, lap or floor and get noticed. Because of the mess, there have been complaints to publishers and the USPS.



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