The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing. —Douglas Engelbart

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Print on Demand


With print on demand publishing, everyone’s story can be told. Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

Print on demand (POD) is a publishing technology. The main distinguishing mark for print (or publish) on demand is that a copy is not created until after an order is received. While it is conceivable that one could print on demand using any printing technology (e.g., linocut or Gutenberg letter press), digital printing is so often employed that the terms are often used interchangeably. To add to the confusion, print on demand is also a trademark of Cygnus Business Media, Inc. Contrary to popular belief, POD is not a business model; many small presses have replaced their traditional printing equipment with POD equipment (accepting initially slightly higher costs for increased printing flexibility and reducing the warehousing costs).

Book Publishing Through POD

Print on demand with digital technology is used as a way of publishing books to order for a fixed cost per copy, irrespective of the size of the order. Digital technology is ideally suited to publish small print runs of books and posters (often as a single copy) as and when they are needed. While the unit price of each physical book printed is higher than with offset printing, when setup costs are taken into account digital print on demand provides lower per-unit costs for very small print runs than traditional printing methods.

The introduction of UV curable inks and media for large format inkjet printers has allowed artists, photographers, and owners of image collections to take advantage of print on demand, too. The National Gallery in London installed a print on demand system using HP printers and technology in their shop in July 2003. The system increased the number of images available as prints from 60 to 2500 (almost all of the gallery’s permanent collection).

While the unit cost of a book or print produced using POD is usually higher than one produced as part of a longer print run, POD does bring some key business benefits: 1) large inventories of the book or poster do not need to be kept in stock, 2) the technical set-up is usually quicker and less expensive than for traditional printing, and 3) there is little or no waste from unsold products. These advantages reduce the risks associated with publishing books and prints and can lead to increased choice for consumers. However, the reduced risks can also mean that quality control is occasionally less rigorous than usual.

While most print-on-demand services do ask an up front fee for the creation of the digital masters, editing, and formatting services, it is likely to be less than the set-up for traditional printing.

Print on demand book publishing is growing in popularity especially among first-time authors as an affordable and easy way to get a book into print with little or no editorial review.

Profits from print on demand publishing are on a per sale basis and the amount of commission will often vary depending on the route by which the item is sold. Highest profits are usually generated from sales direct from the print-on-demand service’s Web site or by buying copies from the service at a discount, as the publisher, and then selling them yourself. Lowest commission usually come from sales from “bricks and mortar” bookshops, with on-line bookstores falling somewhere in between.

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