Self-Publishing Basics: Print on Demand—What Is It?

by | Oct 14, 2009

Do you remember this conversation from your own school days?

“Ms. Murphy, can I go to the boy’s room?”
“Well, Billy, you certainly can go to the boy’s room. You know where it is, and I saw you running after Sally Ketchum today at recess, so I know your legs are working fine.”
“Oh, great, thanks.”
“One moment, Billy. Although you can go to the boy’s room, you may not go right now. Back to your desk, please!”

Yes, we all had to learn the difference between can and may. But in a larger sense, Ms. Murphy was also teaching about the differences in language, and the importance of paying attention to words that are being used even in the most ordinary circumstances.

The Arrival of Print on Demand

When the idea of Print on Demand broke into publishing consciousness, it was to herald a new era in book production. Or was it to herald a new era in book distribution? And this is where the confusion started.

Before digital printing—the marriage of high-end copiers to bindery equipment—it wasn’t feasible to print one copy of a book whenever a customer wanted one. All printing methods were derivatives of the last industrial revolution and, like all mass means of production, worked on the principle that volume production equals low prices.

Books were printed in an elaborate production process that makes economic sense only if you print at least 2,000 books at a time. It takes weeks and requires skills of many kinds along the production path.

And there are many ways to put ink on paper. Offset printing accounts for most reproduction, but there are plenty of other processes, like silk-screen, letterpress printing, rotogravure, and so on. But digital printing upset all those industrial-era assumptions.

Digital Printing Changes the Assumptions

Because the printing technology, which has substituted toner for ink, is just as capable of producing one book as one hundred books, it made possible a new means of distribution. This new distribution did not involve economies of scale, massive warehouses, the endless shipping of paper in various stages of production from one part of the country to another.

It is a distribution system in which the customer determines how many books are printed, and when and where they are delivered.

When I designed book covers for publishers in the offset days, I would send my file to an output bureau and buy a digital proof that cost about $100. A few days ago I received from Lightning Source a digitally-printed book as a proof for a reprint I’m doing. Instead of a proof that would approximate the look of the finished book, they just ran off a copy and sent me the finished book itself. Cost $30.

Now when you hear people talking about Print on Demand you will be able to decipher the intent of the speaker. Printing technology or distribution method? Or the beginning of a change in publishing that will soon dwarf any confusions over language? Time will tell.

Print on Demand is both the name of a digital printing process, and the name of a distribution model that was made possible by that printing process.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. B.B.Shane

    Dear Joel,

    I was ‘really’ pleased to discover your existence. As a first-timer to self
    publishing, I don’t even know how to start a blog, I had many questions to consider. Have now arrived at the serious question of how to convert prose into WORD template – I am by no means tempted to this task – or as an alternative to find a printer who will do this and POD. A difficult decision.There’s such a plethora of printer/publishers on the WEB, but, for instance your previous enquirer was disappointed with Author House. All this preamble, to tell you that I shall look forward to learning confidence from your blog. Perhaps you will also consider giving a list of people who will either do the conversion of prose into templates, as well as printers.
    Best wishes, B.B
    your blog for confidence. confidence, and With your blogs I began
    to gain some self- a miasma o

    • Joel Friedlander

      B.B., you might try You can open an account for free, and they provide (paid) services to convert your book to an interior layout for printing. The books are good and prices are very competitive, and they have good customer support, too.

  2. Dale Wagman

    I did a POD book through LuLu, Now, I want somebody to distribute it for me – not necessarily LuLu. Is that possible? How do I find somebody?


  3. Lily Kayte

    I need some good honest and reallistic advice. I used AuthorHouse to publish my historical fiction and was very unhappy with their work.
    I want to format the book myself and then find a link to a POD arrangement bor printing. Trouble is, I’m not the shiniest spoke on the wheel when it comes to computereze. I need a book formatting program as easy as See Spot Run. My work has been in print for 30 years, but this is my first independant foray into self-publishing. Can you recommend a software that I can use without tearing my hair out? I tried the trial version of InDesign and it’s hopeless. I just don’t get it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Lily, if you can format a Microsoft Word document you might be able to do it that way. But if you want a decent looking book without learning complex software or going nuts trying to make a program do what you want it to do, I would suggest hiring someone to lay out the book for you. It’s a one-time expense and then your book will be in good shape. Think about it. And thanks for your question.

    • Hanny Hernandez

      I am in the same boat. But this is my first book and AuthorHouse made the experience so painful and expensive for no reason. I put my book on hold almost two months ago because I too was unhappy about the work they had done. I was told that it would not be available in 2-4 weeks, but the book with misspelled words is still available on their online distributors, but they keep telling me that if someone tries to place an order, they will get a notification that they book is on hold, but yet I have been able to order more than 5 copies from different websites. So today, I cut my loses and canceled the contract. The sad part about it, they still get paid.No wonder they keep doing this, because one way or the other, they get their money, so why would they care about our reputation? They really make drug dealers look like saints. Thanks for sharing, because for a minute I thought that maybe I was the only one.

  4. Joel Friedlander

    Geary, thanks for visiting. What stage is your book at, are you ready to go to press right away? You can email me at jfbookman(at) and let me know.

  5. Geary Smith

    First, I enjoyed reading your articles. I am new to LSI, and about to publish my first book. Where do I begin?



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