What's the difference between self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD)?

Q: What’s the difference between self-publishing and print on demand (POD)? Is one better than the other? —Rachele LaBello

A: With self-publishing, a company generally charges you an upfront fee (roughly between $500 and $1,000) and then does print-runs, or large orders, just like a traditional publishing house. You pay the cost of your book’s publication and control almost every aspect of the production process. Your name will be listed as publisher of the book. The upside is that you have many copies and control everything, which makes it easier to market and sell. But if you haven’t done research on how to market your book, you could end up with so many leftover copies that you’ll have to start building furniture out of them.

POD publishing uses printing technology to produce books one at a time through a company at a cost-effective price. The books are printed individually as orders come in. Therefore, if you have an order of 200 books, you can print 200 books. If the only person who wants a copy is your mother, you can print just one book. POD cuts back on costs and eliminates the need for space to store unsold copies—that way you’re not stuck with 10 tomes stuffed in every corner of your bedroom. I hear spouses don’t like sleeping on piles of books.

Both are great options if you’re looking to get your book in print, and if you research companies that dabble in each, you’ll find benefits to both. If you’re writing a family history, memoir or book of poetry that has a limited audience, using POD is probably to your advantage. POD books are rarely stocked at bookstores, however, because they’re often nonreturnable and not sold at a discount. If you know how to market and promote your book and want to try to make a splash in local bookstores, printing in bulk via self-publishing may be a better bet.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at WritersDig@fwpubs.com with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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3 thoughts on “What's the difference between self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD)?

  1. Greg Miller

    I would just add the word “digital” to #1.

    POD is all fine and good but producing 1 copy is only possible with digital technology. The “offset” explanation was good; digital makes it better. POD usually talks about short runs. Every day (in my day job) , I deal with the extreme end of digital publishing where I can do a short run WITH large (make that gigantic) page counts.

  2. Edward G. Talbot

    I appreciate you posting on this oft misunderstood concept. If I may, I’d like to expand on a couple of things. I think what you are calling self-publishing is really "vanity publishing" and what you are calling print on demand is a combination of the print on demand printing process and actual "self publishing". Most of those presses that charge $500-$1000 up front actually use the print on demand process, very few of them do offset runs (defined in #2).

    1.Print On Demand is a printing technology. It means the printer prints books essentially one at a time. Many small publishers use print on demand technology, and even larger publishers are beginning to make limited use of it. It has a huge stigma because initially it was mostly just used for "self-publishing". For less than 500-1000 copies, print on demand is usually a cheaper printing method.

    2.The alternative to print on demand technology is "offset press" technology. this is where a printer sets up a press do do a run of a few hundred or a few thousand (or more) books. This is how most books from large publishers are printed. For 1000 or more copies, offset printing is cheaper than print on demand

    3."Self publishing" is a term that is defined differently by different people, but essentially it means when an author arranges to have his/her own book printed, as opposed to going through a "publisher". Of course some authors become "publishers", but many would consider this still self-publishing. Self-publishers can use print on demand technology or offset technology – usually the former due to the cheaper price for small numbers of books.
    Some people would say that self-publishing includes any publishing that is not from a "publisher". Others would us something closer to the definition you used above, although one could self publish without using POD technology. They’d differentiate between self-publishing and "vanity publishing", saying self-publishing is where you only pay for things related to printing, not editing, cover design, etc. Whatever you call it, it is important to recognize the difference between vanity publishing (which I describe next) and printers like CreateSpace and Lulu.com, or even authors that go to their local press and have an offset run done directly. I should note that a motivated individual can also go directly to Lightning Source, which is a printer and distributor used by many publishers.

    4."Vanity publishing" is when you pay someone more than just printing costs plus maybe a nominal setup fee to print your book. Really, vanity publishing is a subset of self-publishing, although some people like to say that they are two different things. Terms can get confusing. Examples of vanity publishers are IUniverse and Amazon’s Booksurge. you pay them to edit and layout your book and design the cover, etc. You also pay them to print it of course.

    Anyway, it is a topic that is often confused. And to address the question in the comments, it has nothing to do with agents one way or another. That has to do with the submissions process, not the publishing process, although really agents do more than just sell your book (but that’s yet another topic). And A whole book could be written about pros and cons of self-publishing, vanity publishing or trying to get picked up by a traditional publisher.

  3. Ben Akoa

    Thank you Brian for answering this long debated question amongs my buddies and Rachele for bringing it up. I guess the next question (One we are still killing for over here) would be; what’s the What’s the difference between print on demand (POD) and the tradition way through an agent etc type of way? Is one better than the other?

    Ben in Maine

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