Is Offset Printing the Future for Indie Authors?

by | Feb 12, 2018

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.

Distribution Rules

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:

  1. Personal comprehension of exactly how print books are physically put together
  2. 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.

book productionMeeting 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

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

13 Comments

  1. Sharon Goldinger

    Cy, you can certainly try to approach Ingram on your own as an independent publisher (review their submission guidelines first). I just haven’t heard of any publisher doing business with them unless they had a certain number of books and sales and no drop off. Ingram is a wholesaler (not a fulfillment company). POD through IngramSpark is the only way for a small publisher to do so.

    Reply
  2. Sharon Goldinger

    Hi, CY,

    You have run into the issue that many small publishers have run into–that Ingram typically will do business only with larger publishers (more than 10 books with a sales track record). So your only choice is to go with a distributor that will represent small presses–and there are less than a handful. You might want to check out Small Press United (part of IPG) and BCH (Book Clearing House the distribution side, not the fulfillment side).

    Reply
    • CY

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for getting back to me on this… I will look into those
      places…but technically you are saying that there is no way to go with
      Ingram as a distribution/fullfillment company at all unless i go with
      POD and not have my end pages printed? The reason we want to go with
      Ingram is because it seems thats where the schools get their books from.

      When i spoke to them, they gave me the impression that publishers were
      able to drop off their books to their distribution-fullfillment
      warehouse and all, which is what i wanted to do…but when i email them,
      it seems like this is not the case. Would you know why there is such a
      discrepancy?

      thanks you in advance
      -C

      Reply
  3. C Y

    Dear Joel,

    Thank you for all your great advice and hard work in getting information out to authors.

    I came across your website/blog because Im at a cross-roads and when i read this i thought you might be able to give me some advice.
    I am a small company that normally works in the independent film industry. One of the crew member has been writing a childrens picture book and we are publishing it.
    The illustrator and author that have gone the route of off-set printing because they wanted the end pages of their hardcover book printed in 4-color, which is something POD can not do. They have decided to go with Ingram because their main objective is to get the books into school system, libraries and brick and mortars.
    Ingrams website indicates that authors with 1 title should use Ingram Spark for distribution, but that is POD. I contacted Ingrams Book Buyer division for information about distribution and bringing the books to their warehouse, but they are still pushing POD.
    They dont need any editing, graphic or service on how to set up create a book, its already finished.
    We found a printer, did a small run and are currently at the distribution phase.
    Is there any company out there that does wholesale distribution that work with small imprints that go with traditional printing? Or are their any magic words that i can put in my email to Ingram to help the author get their book taken on by Ingram.

    Thank you for your time and consideration
    Charlt

    Reply
  4. Donna D. Vaal

    Great article. Thanks for your hard work.

    Reply
  5. Wendy Raebeck

    Thanks Joel for looking forward. Interesting article I suspect will definitely intrigue and attract certain indie publishers ready to go bigger. My personal reservations, with only 4 books published but more to follow, would be storage, committing to owning so many physical books, and the scare-factor in investing large sums. I guess all that is obvious! Probably, as in Ernie’s case, it’s a more organic transition, when one is selling such quantities that it’s the sensible next step.

    Reply
  6. A.M. Rycroft

    It is my goal to move my publishing from POD to offset in the future, but Ernie hit the nail on the head as to why the majority of indie authors and small presses don’t do offset: the enormous up front cost. Once you have a title that is selling solidly, it’s a great idea to explore offset options to give the existing customer base a prettier product. In the meantime, although I understand that the limitations of POD machines prevents options like embossing and die-cut, I’d like to see Ingram start to offer some more advanced options through their service. Even if it’s nicer inks and slightly thinner paper. The current paper used by Ingram is much thicker than offset printers use. Durable, but expensive to use and ship. The paper used by CreateSpace and KDP Print is even worse on that front.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      A.M. of course you are right that indie authors are scared away by the necessity of fronting a lot of money for books that have no track record yet, but that’s not the end of the story.

      Ernie, who can predict his sales, is not taking any risks, but other authors should think about having an actual marketing plan, an email list large enough to suggest they will be able to recover their investment at the launch, and the marketing savvy to think of ways to defray all or some of the printer’s bill before the books arrive.

      For instance, I just wrapped up a pre-sale on my new writer’s journals, which were pretty expensive to develop, and that helped pay almost half of the bill before the books even arrived.

      Also, you don’t have to spend $10,000 to get into offset, a modest first printing of a paperback might well be under $2,000, something much more feasible for authors.

      Reply
      • Ernie Zelinski

        Joel: If you email me your address I will send you a
        complimentary autographed copy of the Leather Edition of
        “Life’s Secret Handbook.” I think that you may find it
        interesting and may even want to use it as a sample to have some of your clients publish a similar book. I would venture to say that even best-selling authors such as Brendon Burchard, Tony Robbins, and Tim Ferris don’t have a special leather edition of a book of their own proverbs and sayings. But they may want one once they see mine.

        Just a note that I used the special Leather Edition of “Life’s Secret Handbook” to my advantage this morning. I am in Honolulu right now and staying at the Ala Moana Hotel. I am leaving late tomorrow and asked the desk clerk Barbara if I could check out late. She contacted someone and then said that my room would be taken early tomorrow and I would have to check out at the regular check-out time of 11 AM. I was disappointed but decided to give Barbara an autographed copy of “Life’s Secret Handbook” anyway. As I was telling Barbara how special the Leather Edition was and the fact that it had a price of $97 US / $127 Canadian on it, a supervisor happened to overhear me. The supervisor then came over said that I could check out at 2 PM instead of 11 AM and that I could later in the day use a hospitality room for a half hour to rest and have a shower before heading for the airport. Of course, the supervisor also wanted a copy of “Life’s Secret Handbook” which I gladly gave to her. This I know: I will create a lot more favors in the future from hotels, airlines, etc. with this special leather bound edition of “Life’s Secret Handbook.” And as I mentioned before, it works as a cool expensive business card that really stands out. Even if I don’t sell any foreign rights or get any premium sales for this book, I will still get $10,000 worth of favors and enjoyment from giving it away.

        Reply
  7. Michael W. Perry

    Another factor is that POD doesn’t scale up well. If demands for a book explodes, that one-at-a-time printing won’t be able to keep up. I’m not sure if CreateSpace offers move-to-web-press, but Lightning Source does and it’s a good reason to always release your print edition through LSI/Ingram Spark as well as CreateSpace. Here are some of the details.

    https://www.inkworldmagazine.com/contents/view_breaking-news/2017-09-13/lightning-source-to-deploy-24-pagewide-web-presses

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Good tip, Michael. My old rule of thumb was that if an author felt they were likely to sell at least 500 copies in the next 6 months, to go offset. And that’s about the volume at which LSI will switch you from POD to offset.

      Reply
  8. Ernie Zelinski

    First, I just had the twenty-eighth print run of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free” done via offset printing. I had 17,392 copies printed at a cost of $1.67 per copy Canadian or about $1.33 US per copy. Cost using POD would likely be at least $4 Canadian a copy.

    Second, I just had my latest book “Life’s Secret Handbook (Reminders for Adventurous Souls Who Want to Make a Big Difference in This World)” done in offset printing as well. This book, however, was done in a PU-Leather Edition. I had only 1,000 copies printed in South Korea and the total cost was around $10,000 Canadian. This works out to $10 Canadian a copy or $7.94 US a copy. Given that I put a suggested retail price of $97 US / $127 CAN on the book, it has swagger and works great as an expensive business card. What’s more, I intend to recover my $10,000 Canadian from this book and even make an extra $10,000 to $20,000 in profits. More about this later.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Very interesting, Ernie, and great examples of exactly the kind of advantages offset gives you that I was trying to emphasize in the article. Good luck with that leather edition.

      Reply

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