Once you have decided that you want your book to appear in print it can be difficult to understand the difference between the printing methods and the implications this on quality, time, and cost. As always, the purpose of your book and the number of people that you want your book to reach will impact on which decision is right for you.
Litho printing, also known as offset printing, means that an image is placed on a plate, covered in ink and then these plates used for printing copies. a single book will generate many plates.
In the past, the printer would store these plates and re-use them for subsequent re-print runs. That assumes that there are no corrections. Many printers nowadays avoid the cost of storing thousands of plates by recycling them at the end of the run. That means a new set must be produced for a subsequent print.
Litho printing creates sharp, vibrant, high-quality printing and will produce a nicely printed book.
The downside is that it requires skill and patience to set up the plates and so is slower than some of the other methods. The biggest drawback is that to make a print run cost effective the minimum number of books is generally 500-1,000+. However, this method becomes increasingly cost effective as the print run increases. The cost of running the press once everything is set up becomes marginal, and this is reflected in the unit cost of each book.
Litho has a setup cost but a low cost per print. It is, therefore, not suited to printing a small number of books but can be significantly cheaper than other methods if you want to print thousands or tens of thousands of copies.
Short run printing does not have the initial expense of creating printing plates as it uses digital printing equipment.
Short run printing allows authors and publishers to order a small batch of books for a cheaper price than litho printing or POD printing.
This method is quicker than litho printing but the printing will be marginally lower quality.
While litho print and short run printing means authors can order lots of stock for selling at events or distributing to reviewers, POD books are can be produced once they have been ordered by a consumer in quantities as low as just a single copy.
This means that there is much less waste. A litho print run means the publisher or author will be responsible for storing hundreds, or thousands, of books that might never be sold. POD means that there is no need to store unsold copies.
POD is the quickest printing method if only one copy is needed but the print quality will not necessarily be as high as litho printing or short-run printing because the choice of paper and print finishes is limited by comparison. However, the quality of output between traditional offset printing vs POD is narrowing, and in some cases POD can come out on top. As print technology improves it will become increasingly difficult to spot the difference.
POD is generally more expensive per unit for large quantities, and also for low runs requiring high-quality output (for example, a lavishly illustrated cookbook or coffee-table photo book), but the big advantage is not having money tied up in stock. If you have sales for ten copies you can print and deliver them and have no more stock left over, but if you had to place a minimum order for 500, you still have 490 remaining. You can profit from the first order with POD, but with books in storage you need to recoup more of your outlay before you see a return.
So, which one is right for me?
The simple answer is that it depends how many copies of your book you want, and how quickly you are likely to sell them. If you want one copy, POD is the best choice. If you need 50 copies go for a short run and if you want thousands a litho print will be the best option.
Things are rarely this simple though – how do you decide how many books to order?
Our advice is to be conservative; yes it is great that authors have ambitions to sell thousands of copies of their book, but if they remain unsold then it can end up being an expensive mistake.
If you are a business person giving copies of your book to clients, then a short run may be appropriate. If you hoping to sell books online it would probably be safest to use POD.
The best advice is to take advice from someone without a vested interest. Printers will (rightly) point out that the unit cost will go down with a bigger order (this is true for litho and short-run), but do you need them? It’s a false economy to reduce the unit cost only to dispose of half of the books because they didn’t sell or, worse still, all of them because you found a mistake on p.217 that absolutely had to be changed.