When Print on Demand Fails: 6 Scenarios for Offset Printing

by | Sep 23, 2010

Digital book production and print on demand distribution started a rush to self-publishing on the part of thousands of writers and memoirists, hobbyists and home cooks, fundraisers and charity drives.

In the online world, print on demand fit perfectly into the Amazon model of book retailing, 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, there is a seamless series of steps from order to delivery. No bookstore can hope to match the inventory of print on demand books.

Sometimes it’s even possible to forget that print on demand does not account for a majority of the books sold every year. Although its percentage is growing, it’s still a minority.

The Crucial Importance of Publication Planning

Ideally, self-publishers ought to gather a book designer and a marketing advisor together before they even write their nonfiction book. Since this almost never happens, they ought to aim to at least plan their book before heading off into the production process.

It’s vital to consider the marketing side first. Identifying the market for your book immediately gives you important information. What other books are selling to that market? Where will your book fit in? What pressing problem does it solve for these buyers? Where do they shop, what do they read, how much will they pay for your book?

These are all questions for the self-publisher as book marketer to answer. There’s no point in starting to create a book that’s wrong for your intended audience.

And in many cases you’ll find that digital printing and print on demand distribution are not the best solution. Here are five scenarios where offset printing will help you meet goals that are clearly out of reach of print on demand:

  1. Art books—Books that need high quality reproduction of art photography, painting, drawing, or any visual arts, will fail with print on demand. Paper choices, trim sizes and binding options are severely limited. Reproduction quality can be far less than offset, and the high-end books from companies like Blurb.com are simply too expensive to be practical in the marketplace. A hardcover 8 x 10 full color book of 96 pages cost over $40.00 each at Blurb. Great for a memento, hopeless for sales.
  2. Gift books—Those little keepsake books sitting in a box on the counter next to the register are precious, full color books with inspirational messages or poetry. Sometimes they have little bookmarks of cloth sewn to the binding. Most of these books are in sizes unavailable from the main PoD suppliers, and the same problems of reproduction quality and cost make them impractical.
  3. Books with inserts—Sometimes a book needs a section of photos to be complete. Many travel and adventure books have photos that help tell the story. Inserting one type of printing into another type of printing is unfeasible in PoD, where automated equipment can’t handle this scenario. In offset printing, it’s easy. The separately printed pieces, each on an appropriate paper stock, are simply bound together at the end of the printing process.
  4. Books with unusual size or paper—PoD companies only offer specific trim sizes. If you want a square book, you can’t get one from Lightning Source, for instance. They simply don’t offer them. And almost all PoD suppliers offer only two choices of paper—white or cream. Offset printers can print virtually any size or shape book on any one of dozens of book papers.
  5. Very long books—Because of the capacity of the machinery used for PoD books, there is a maximum page length for all PoD suppliers. For instance, at CreateSpace the maximum page length of a book is 740 pages. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is 784 pages, by the way.
  6. Special sales—Many special sales opportunities involve selling a large number of books at once, for instance to corporations for promotion or for training purposes. Any time you are ordering over 500-1000 books, you are likely to get a much lower price—and therefore a much higher profit—from offset printing. In a recent survey, a 200-page 6 x 9 trade paperback cost $3.50 from a PoD supplier, while a web offset printer could print the same book for under $1.00 each. That’s quite a difference.

Settling your production method at the beginning of the process will make your whole publication more focused and efficient. Understanding your market is the single most important part of ensuring a successful publication. When you know the book your market wants, you’ll know the best way to produce it.

Takeaway: Consider the marketing of your book as early as possible in your process. This will tell you the best way to produce it.

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Elie Bellama, https://www.flickr.com/photos/eliebellama/

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Barbara

    Dear Joel,

    Can you recommend any good offset press book printers? I have a book ready to go to CreateSpace, but my client saw the proof and said it just looked cheap. It’s been years since I’ve dealt with ‘real’ printers.

    Thanks ahead!

  2. Maggie

    So there is no way out for an affordable photo book……..:?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Not at this time from digital printers, sorry. But there’s a huge demand, and that means someone will solve this problem eventually.

  3. Elie

    This is a great shot of the newprint.ca Heidelberg Press it’s a 4 colour + the AQ Coater.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Awesome, it’s a beautiful piece of equipment. Is the photo yours?

  4. Lisa Egle

    I’m going to be self-publishing in a few months–first an e-book on Kindle, then a PoD version on CreateSpace. What I’m wondering is how I can get a couple hundred copies printed economically so that if I have a launch party/book signing, etc., I’ll have something for people who want the book at that time.

    If I order from CreateSpace, I think it will be too expensive. Should I try a regular printer locally? If so, would I need to order 500 to make it work? Also, is a PDF file good enough? Or do I need something special?


  5. William

    Hi, Joel:

    I enjoyed this article and agree. Let me add another point. With POD, there is no press check. I self-published a book with a POD publisher, and it contains 20 photographs. The quality of the photos in the book varies from copy to copy. Some look just fine. Many look terrible — like multi-generation Xeroxes. When someone sends me a copy to autograph, too many times I’ve ended up — at my own expense — replacing their bad copy with a good copy instead.

    • Joel Friedlander

      William, that’s interesting and disappointing. There is really no solution at the moment for books that combine text and images to print well on digital equipment for print on demand. I’m confident the capability will be there someday, but it’s not there yet. Thanks for your contribution.

  6. Milton Simpson

    Hi Joel,
    Love your blog. Read it every day and find it very informative.
    I produced a Facsimile Edition of an out-of-print book called
    Windmill Weights with Blurb. The book https://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1107512 IS making money.
    Depends on the markup and the market.
    Milt Simpson

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for the link to your Windmill Weights book, it’s delightful. You know, this really goes to prove the point that although we can attempt to categorize self-published books, in the end it’s pretty futile. There are so many scenarios that make perfect sense for self-publishing, and I’m sure there is a whole community of people who are so happy you’ve brought this back into print that they don’t mind paying $98 for it. And at that price, there’s plenty of room for profit.

      And the book is brilliantly designed. Thanks for your contribution.



  1. Tweets that mention When Print on Demand Fails: 6 Scenarios for Offset Printing — The Book Designer -- Topsy.com - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lee Benz, Marla Markman, Buzz Tatom, Diane Drexler, Joel Friedlander and others.…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.