How Print-on-Demand Book Distribution Works

POSTED ON Dec 3, 2009

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Book Printing, Book Production, Self Publishing Basics > How Print-on-Demand Book Distribution Works

A new way of printing and distributing books

A new way of printing
and distributing books

We’ve all heard about it, we talk about it, we call it by the wrong name, but do you really know how print-on-demand book distribution works? You will by the end of this article.

I’ve written in an earlier post about the confusion over the terminology commonly used to describe print on demand book distribution, but let’s describe it briefly before we get to the actual processes involved.

Print on demand is a book distribution method made possible by, and inseparable from, digital printing. It prints books only in response to orders, and only prints the exact amount ordered. Due to the capabilities of digital printing, print on demand is capable of filling an order for one book profitably.

But how does print on demand work?

The Publisher’s Side of the Print on Demand Equation

Print on demand suppliers, like Lightning Source, maintain databases of books on behalf of their publisher clients. Publishers submit books to the print on demand supplier (PODS) in the form of two files for each book: one digital file for the book interior and one digital file for the cover.

When the files first arrive they are logged into the PODS’s system, examined for technical errors, and a proof copy of the book is created for the publisher to review. Once the publisher signs off on the proof, the book is listed by the PODS throughout its distribution channels including booksellers, other offline and online retailers, chain stores, library suppliers, and in some cases exporters.

Advantages for the publishers include:

  • eliminates the need to keep books in inventory;
  • allows books without substantial sales to stay in print;
  • vastly reduces the investment needed to maintain a large backlist;
  • eliminates the waste and expense of pulping thousands of unsold books.

Disadvantages for the publishers are:

  • digitially printed books cost more per unit than books printed offset;
  • digital printing is not efficient for books that will sell in volume;
  • digitial printing’s quality and flexibility of formats is not as good as offset printing.

The Distribution Chain

The title is now listed for sale to all wholesalers and retail outlets. If the book is of sufficient interest it may be stocked in advance of orders. In this case, these “preordered” books do not differ from books produced and distributed by other means. The advantage in the distribution chain is that any number of books, even a very small number, can be ordered for restocking at any time.

However, the title may not be stocked in the distribution chain at all, but remain as a listing available for order.

The Book Buyer

An interested buyer may find the book in an online listing, for instance at an online retailer such as or The buyer places an order and, if the book is not physically stocked at the retailer’s warehouse, the order is sent back up the distribution chain to the PODS.

Computers at the PODS pull the correct files for the book’s cover and interior text block and send them to the appropriate digital printers. The two parts may bear barcodes that allow the PODS printing system to automatically match the cover correctly to the interior.

The two elements come together in the automated binding process, where the back of the book is trimmed and the cover glued onto the spine. The entire book is then trimmed to size and is ready for shipment to the retailer who placed the order, or, in some cases, directly to the customer.

This tightly integrated supply chain is a basic feature of the print on demand book distribution model. It allows books to be printed for a consistent unit cost regardless of how many are ordered.

The Revolution is Live

Commercial digital printing has given us the print on demand book distribution model, and it is in the process of changing the book publishing industry.

Although most books are still printed by offset, print on demand makes it unnecessary to invest thousands of dollars in printed books before a market for the book is established. In some cases this eliminates much of the economic risk involved in book publishing.

If good quality manuscripts—or previously printed books—are available, there is little reason to not put them into distribution. And for small publishers, independent publishers and self publishers, print on demand book distribution has democratized the publishing process. As more book buying moves online, this effect should be more and more pronounced.

Combined with a rapid acceptance of ebooks, print on demand promises to change the book publishing landscape forever.

We’ve now followed a book from publisher to print on demand supplier, through the distribution chain to the final book buyer, and back again. If you have any questions or comments on this process, please leave them in the comments area. I look forward to hearing from you.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

Liked this post? Share it with friends!

More Helpful Articles