When I was a young man, the only sensible option when producing a book was to turn to offset printing. Even in the late 1980s, the first glimmerings of print-on-demand (POD) publishing were already shaking up what it meant to print a book; in 2014, the on-demand options are rather glorious.
A few months ago, I oversaw the production and distribution of a book of articles and essays collected from The Magazine, in low-volume offset, POD, and ebook editions. Being able to compare offset and POD side-by-side gave me a strong appreciation for what on-demand printing is capable of: It’s so inexpensive that it’s reasonable to make books that would previously never have been worth the time, whether for your own purposes, to meet a company’s needs, or for sale to the public.
Pick a print-on-demand service
Several companies offer straightforward POD services, where you can take a finished file created to their specifications, upload it, and order one or more copies of a book. These include Amazon’s CreateSpace, Lulu, Blurb, and many others. Nearly all try to sell add-on services aimed at authors, including designing a cover, editing, and marketing help. You can ignore all that. (A number of self-publishing sites offer extensive guides as to which add-on services are useful.)
You can find local printers or copy shops that have POD systems, too, which will likely cost more and often not match the quality of bigger firms; depending on your project, being able to upload a file or walk a thumb drive over and get books within hours may be worth it. The dividing point of quality is dropping fast, too, and for small quantities, avoiding shipping charges could make a local option competitive as well.
Get an ISBN and/or barcode
The International Standard Business Number is the book industry’s uniform unique identification code. You need one to upload a book to most services, even if you don’t intend to put it up for sale. Most services let you purchase a code from them, which is fine if you don’t plan to produce other editions, such as ebooks; if you use a POD printer-provided ISBN, however, you typically cannot produce an identical version of the book and sell it elsewhere. The American ISBN registrar, Bowker’s, sells a single ISBN for $125, 10 for $295, and 100 for $575. (Some people buy batches in cooperation with friends or colleagues, too.)
Depending on the POD service, you may need to or want to create a barcode. Several online services will make one instantly, in mutiple formats. I used Barcode Robot ($10 for one, $20 for 10).
Choose your software
Because all major services accept PDF files, you can use just about any page-layout software you want—as long as it can produce a PDF that meets the POD service’s requirements; I advise using InDesign, however, as it offers a decent learning curve and powerful tools. You can rent InDesign CC by the month via Adobe’s Creative Cloud. (If you’ve never used InDesign, Lynda.com offers online video instruction.)
Some POD firms may require a version of PDF/X, a format used for offset prepress, and you’ll need either InDesign or Acrobat 6 or later to create the correct format. (Other outfits take Word files and even individual image files, but that way lies madness if you value consistent design.)
Build your book
If you plan to sell a book to the public, you should take the time before you start monkeying around with getting a book printed to write the marketing copy and other metadata that you’ll need to provide to the POD service. This typically includes descriptions of various length (often a capsule summary and then an extended one), edition number, publication date, contributor, and similar bibliographic data.
Start with a size and a format. Every POD printer has preset sizes among which you can choose. Nearly all have templates for InDesign and some for Microsoft Word, and all offer specific measurements if you’d rather set up your own documents.
Some POD printers only offer paperback covers, while other offer hard- and soft-cover publishing, including a dust jacket option. Almost all allow you to choose between a black-and-white interior and full-color interior—but be forewarned, there’s a huge price leap between the two, as full color takes longer to print and typically consumes more ink. Blurb would have charged me $30 more for an all-color interior than a grayscale one for my book, for instance.
Set the bleed and page margins: In addition to the “trim size,” or the final dimensions of the book, each service has different requirements for how far printed elements can extend into the margins. This requires initial planning so that you can create a design that keeps to these margins, or, in my case, modifications to keep everything in the right place. Some let you choose to bleed images or color fields, which means art extends past the edge of the page and, when trimmed, goes exactly to the edge.
(A quick InDesign tip that will save you the hair I tore out: Its bleed settings for books with facing pages—separate left and right master pages—in File > Document Setup > Bleed and Slug are labeled Top, Bottom, Inside, and Outside. But the Inside bleed must be set to 0, as there’s no bleed needed in the space between two pages. If you set it to another value, your PDF winds up being too wide!)
Upload: After you’ve created your book to spec, follow the POD service’s directions to upload your file. Most services require that you upload a cover file separately, which will need to be set up as a spread as if you had the book face down: the back cover is at left, then the spine, then the front cover. (Think "book jacket" rather than a front and back page.) The service will give you exact spine measurements, which are based on paper type and page count.
After uploading, you’ll have multiple options to make sure you didn’t mess anything up. With Createspace, you can use a detailed review system that highlights any errors, such as text creeping into margins or images that are too low resolution to be reproduced well. You can also download a final PDF after it’s been processed by the service—this can help catch font or conversion errors—and order proofs (preview copies) of the printed book. CreateSpace and most other services also have a human step: before your book can be either printed as a proof or put on sale, an employee has to take at least a cursory look. The review often took only hours during my production period.
Order and put on sale: When you’ve finally decided your book is ready to go, it’s just a few clicks and buttons to put it on sale or order multiple copies for your own purposes. If your book ends up wildly successful as a POD title, you can use the same files to print offset copies, too. Blurb, for one, has already expanded to offer offset contracting services, too.
The bottom line
While POD can’t fully replace offset printing yet, it’s become an excellent adjunct for many purposes, especially short editions or where demand is so unknown as to warrant the least upfront investment. One can see a day not too far off, as POD quality continues to improve, where offset becomes reserved for 1,000 copies or more, and POD is both good enough, cheap enough, and fast enough to fill most of the low-volume end of the market.