Print on demand vs. offset printing for self-publishing

When you enter the world of self-publishing, you quickly learn there’s a lot to learn—ideally before you publish. One decision you’ll face near the finish line is a big one: choosing between the two standard printing processes—offset printing, and print on demand (POD). 

The most basic criteria for choosing the right method for your book is straightforward: Choose based on volume. If you’re printing thousands of copies at once, offset printing is likely the way to go. If you’re printing only a handful of books, or one at a time, without question, it’s a great reason to choose print on demand. But there’s a lot of middle ground between those scenarios and many factors to consider if you’re on the fence. Knowing some details will help you make the right choice. 

What is offset printing?

Modern offset printing is an advanced version of the printing presses that put more books in the hands of more people beginning in the 15th century. Today, rather than huge blocks of moveable type, set by hand individually, several “plates” are made for each book page. Creating and setting up all the plates for a single book takes time, but once it’s all up and running, these warehouse-sized offset printers can churn out hundreds of books per hour. As a result, the more copies you print in a single offset printing run, the more economical the run becomes—while printing just a copy or two would be incredibly expensive on a per-book basis. 

What is print on demand (POD)?

Print on demand, on the other hand, is a digital process that put bookmaking in the hands of everyone near the beginning of this century. By printing directly from the file to the page, the best POD systems (like the HP Indigo presses used by Blurb) allow anyone to upload and publish a book that’s as comparable in quality to those produced with offset printing. All that with a fraction of the setup time and materials. There are still some economies of scale, but the ability to produce just a few copies at a reasonable price has made POD such a game-changer for an ever-expanding new generation of authors.

Large commercial printer

What’s the difference?

The most significant difference between digital printing (used for print-on-demand books) and offset printing is that printers print-on-demand books as customers order them, while offset print books are printed all at once in a large print run. But you already know that! So now we’ll get into a deep dive into a few essential differences between the two, like quantities, speed, size, distribution, and way more.

Quantities

The differences in upfront costs give a print on demand a significant advantage for smaller runs but offset printing starts to make more sense at a certain point. The cutoff can range from somewhere around 750 copies to 1,000 or more, and it depends on a huge number of factors. We’ll dive into many of them here, but if you’ve already got your project planned out, directly consulting one of our Large Order Services experts can give you all the answers you need to make the right call.

Speed

Print on demand holds the advantage for self-publishing projects that call for copies right now. If you’ve got your files ready, you can get a POD book in your hands in as few as 5-7 business days, while an offset printing run will typically take at least 12-13 weeks to reach its destination.

Book sizes

Today’s print-on-demand systems offer more ready-to-print book sizes than ever (they’re called trims in the industry). Offset printing offers just as many, so there’s not too much a difference here. But if you’re printing a particularly exotically-shaped book, you’ll want to talk to your printer first—and the costs for your book will likely reflect the unique setup. This is something to keep in mind from the moment you start your book project.

Revisions

The end of a book project is a triumphant moment—and it’s often followed by the realization that there is still more work to do. Even the most fastidious self-publishers may want to revise their work, from simply addressing typos and tweaking page breaks, to updating content, artwork, attributions, and about a million other things. 

If that book was published with offset printing, making those revisions will mean more upfront costs to set up another run. There will likely also be more existing copies already printed, and if the change was critical, the inventory implications will be, too. This factor alone can make POD a safer choice for less seasoned self-publishers.

Paper sample kit

Paper stock choices

Your choice of paper has a massive impact on your published work, creatively and from a budget standpoint, and choosing the right paper is an art unto itself. But this is one area where the differences in offset and print on demand aren’t that significant. 

The paper stocks available in the two processes are technically different, but functionally very similar in look and feel. In fact, close alternatives are available with either method. And generally speaking, the cost implications are similar too. Choosing heavier or more premium paper types will cost more, no matter how you print. 

Binding

Your binding options are also more or less the same with offset and print on demand, so you aren’t technically limited to the type of binding you choose with either. Economically, though, some especially durable and elegant bindings (like Smyth sewn) take longer to set up and cost more, so it’s not suited to smaller POD book runs.

One of Blurb’s most popular choices for print on demand is PUR (polyurethane reactive) adhesive binding, which is strong and stretches without becoming brittle when a reader opens a book repeatedly. Saddle-stitching, AVA glue, and wire-o binding are also available at some print-on-demand suppliers and can be more cost-effective for magazines, low-page-count volumes, and other applications. 

Hand opening book with full color photos.

Printing in color

Regardless of the print method, color printing costs extra. When you choose to print on demand, if your book calls for any color beyond black and white, the entire book will need to be printed in color. Offset printing allows for separate printing of black and white pages, with color pages inserted separately before binding. 

If you’re printing a large run of a text-heavy novel with a few color images interspersed, you’ll find that offset printing can offset some of the color-printing premium. But if your book features glorious color images on every page, the cost advantage can shift back to digital printing (typically used with print-on-demand books), especially at lower volumes.

Costs aside, offset printing has a slight edge in the quality of color reproduction, with more consistent color from sheet to sheet. Offset ink also sinks deeper into the paper, perfect for black and white photographers wanting a deeper black. However, as print on demand technology has improved, this consistency gap has shrunk considerably, and because the inks sit on top of the sheet, colors can pop more on a digital press (which is used for POD). 

Storage and distribution

If you go the offset route and print a large number of books at once, you’ll suddenly have just that: a large number of books at once. Without pre-arranged distribution, you need a way to store the books—and account for climate control, ease of access, and all those associated costs. Make sure you’ve got an appropriate place for those books since sitting on extra copies until they’re ready to move can quickly become uncomfortable.

Print on demand earns its name in this department. When more copies are needed (by a distributor, retailer, or you), you can simply print more to dropship or sell through Blurb or Amazon, in batches or one at a time. Even large publishing companies have embraced POD to avoid extra inventory and fill gaps in production when demand is high. 

Open cardboard box with hardcover books stacked around it

Profit margins

When printing a book you intend to sell, another significant consideration that impacts your choice of printing method is how much you plan to make from the book. Add your desired profit margin to the cost of producing, printing, shipping, marketing, and storing a book, and that’s your book’s list price. 

High-volume offset printing requires a higher upfront cost but offers a lower cost per copy, so there’s room for more markup relative to the printing cost. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re trying to sell a limited-run print-on-demand book, you’ll find it’s hard to reach a reasonable list price without seriously cutting into your margin—or pricing it out of the market entirely. 

Remember, however many books you’re printing, you must price them competitively if you want them to sell. When choosing your printing method, paper stock, binding, and defining your margin, keep this in mind. Sometimes you’ll find a bigger audience with a lower cost-per-copy option. If your book doesn’t need full-page images on heavy high-gloss stock, trade books can get your work out into the world at a lower price, with a bigger share of the sales going into your pocket.  

Environment

Ecologically-conscious authors take note: print-on-demand books are much more environmentally friendly for several reasons. First, the process typically yields fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than offset printing. Next, the setup process for offset requires printing hundreds of press sheets before the live run can start. POD books reduce waste and spoilage because you only print the number of needed copies. 

Commercial printer with color pages being printed.

Misconceptions

If you’re trying to sell your book through traditional bookstores or a distributor, you might find that they have some opinions about your choice of printing method. Some favor offset-printed titles based on lingering misconceptions from publishing days gone by, while others will share valid realities of the always-shifting publishing landscape as it exists today. 

The vast majority of misconceptions about print-on-demand center on print quality, book durability, and general acceptability in the marketplace. We’ll dispel some of those misconceptions so you can make a well-informed choice. 

Quality

When it comes to print quality, offset printing is often considered the gold standard—and there’s some truth to that. However, print-on-demand technology has improved dramatically in recent years. The days of grainy black and white images and barely legible print are gone. Today’s print-on-demand books boast resolutions of up to 2400 dpi and print as crisp and clear as any offset book. 

Durability

As for durability, because the paper and binding offerings are nearly identical in offset and print-on-demand printing, they’re both every bit as durable as their counterparts. 

If you print an offset book on cheap paper with a flimsy binding, it will fall apart just as easily as a print-on-demand book. Likewise, if you print an offset or print-on-demand book on high-quality, acid-free paper with a stitched and glued binding, that book will withstand the rigors of time. So if you’re considering print on demand for your next book, don’t let outdated misconceptions about print quality or durability dissuade you.

Acceptability

What about general acceptability in the marketplace? This is a valid concern, but it’s essential to keep two things in mind. First, the print-on-demand market has grown exponentially in recent years, and POD books are now widely accepted by booksellers, distributors, and librarians.

Second, many traditional publishers often mention their limited shelf space and the need for a guarantee that a stock of books will sell—and that there will be more copies to sell if and when needed. Luckily, both offset and print-on-demand services can deliver new stock relatively quickly.

Keep in mind that unless you have a publisher helping to market your self-published book and drive demand, you’ll probably need to do some legwork to boost your book’s sales appeal and ultimately get it on the shelves. Printing more copies won’t make your book more marketable. You’ll likely want to start with smaller POD runs until the demand is there. 

Person holding a final hardcover book showing cover.

One batch at a time

Don’t be alarmed if your head is still spinning or you can’t nail down a variable or two. Remember: You can always change your print method on the next run. That’s the beauty of today’s self-publishing options.

If you start with print on demand, you may find it’s time to shift to offset in the future. Maybe you’ve finally ironed out all the bugs and your perfect book is ready to hit thousands of shelves, or perhaps demand for your masterpiece is spiking—time to make a move to offset.

Or maybe you’ve already successfully published and distributed a big offset printing run but have a few extra orders to fulfill or a limited-run special edition to offer your superfans. Print on demand to the rescue!

Run with it!

All of this should give you a good idea of which printing option is right for your book—and reassurance that you can always choose a new option for future runs. But if you still have questions, feel free to reach out to us by submitting a request, and let us help you navigate the world of self-publishing.

Ready to print? Check out Blurb’s print-on-demand and offset book printing options.

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