Printing On Demand

The best services for making and selling a single copy of a paper book

4 min read
Photo of a selection of books.
Photo: MagCloud

Electronic publishing may appear to be a dagger aimed at the heart of the physical book, but in fact it has made it possible for more people than ever before to produce professional-quality printed tomes, with little or no investment. Self-publishing authors no longer need to order large and expensive print runs of hundreds or thousands of copies, and then store them somewhere until they are sold. However, POD books require a manuscript laid out exactly as it should appear when printed, complete with a cover, frontispiece, table of contents, illustrations, chapter headings, page numbers, and so on—a job traditionally handled by a book designer.

Producing a print-on-demand (POD) book is more involved than creating an e-book intended for purely digital distribution. A carefully styled word processing document is all that’s required to automatically generate an e-book, since the exact appearance of the text is automatically determined by a combination of the reader’s preferences and the device used for reading. [For information on publishing e-books, see "Publishing Yourself"; we discuss different e-readers in "E-reader Roundup."] However, POD books require a manuscript laid out exactly as it should appear when printed—a job traditionally handled by a book designer—complete with a cover, frontispiece, table of contents, illustrations, chapter headings, page numbers, and so on.

Once their book is laid out, authors save their manuscripts in the PDF format and upload them to a POD service. While the service may check the files for obvious errors and problems with the layout, the automated proofing tends to be inexact, and authors are ultimately responsible for checking mistakes. The service will then display and sell the books on its website.

Choosing the right service from among the many available depends on several factors. Here is a handful that we have found to be reputable and reliable, and some of the reasons for selecting one over another, depending on circumstances.


Images: Amazon

CreateSpace puts books up for sale with its parent company, The page for the POD book looks like that for any other product on Amazon’s site. If you’ve also produced a digital version of your book for Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, the two versions will be linked, sharing any reviews and ratings your book has received. The basic CreateSpace service requires no setup or other fees; Amazon keeps 20 to 60 percent of any sales, plus a fixed charge and per-page fees. CreateSpace also offers a premium distribution service (US $25 plus 60 percent of your sales), which will make your book available to libraries, bookstores, and other retailers. However, given Amazon’s thorny relationship with bookstores, many refuse to carry books from CreateSpace. We published Daniel’s novella Honor using CreateSpace’s basic plan and found the service easy to use and responsive when we had questions about linking the POD book to the Kindle version. The print quality and image fidelity of the physical book were quite satisfactory.


Photo: Ingram

Lightning Source is a subsidiary of Ingram, a megadistributor used by traditional publishers to sell books to stores and libraries. Authors pay $12 per title per year for Ingram distribution. For that reason alone, we’ll be using Lightning Source for our full-length novels and nonfiction books. Typical upfront costs include fees for setup ($75 per book), proof copies ($30 to $35), and revisions ($40 per new upload). When everything’s set up, the actual printing of, for example, a 300-page paperback will cost $5.40. Authors set their own prices, both wholesale (how much bookstores will pay) and retail (the public’s price). When Lightning Source makes a sale, it deducts the cost of printing and sends authors the rest. Lightning Source’s print quality is recognized and respected throughout the book industry.


Photo: Blurb

Blurb is the go-to choice for photographic and other illustrated books. Professional photographers and artists use Blurb for their portfolio books and exhibition catalogs, but the price for this level of quality is considerably more than other services charge. For example, the cost for a full-color, 20-page, 8- by 10-inch hardcover picture book starts at $29 per copy; a paperback of the same book runs at about $20. Books can be offered for sale on Blurb’s site, both as POD titles and as e-books. Authors set the price, and Blurb retains the printing cost, plus a handling fee of $5 per book sold.


Photo: MagCloud

HP’s MagCloud produces reasonably priced, high-quality, glossy magazine–like publications and catalogs. For example, a 40-page, 8.5- by 11-inch, saddle-stitched (where staples are used to hold the pages together) magazine costs $8; perfect binding (which uses glue to hold the pages together) is an additional $1. As with Blurb, you can elect to sell your book on MagCloud as both a POD and an e-book title. You set the price, and MagCloud deducts the cost of the book, with no additional handling fees. Sally uses MagCloud for printing a periodic journal of her “American Hands” photographic project and has been very satisfied with the quality of image reproduction.

There’s nothing keeping you from using more than one POD service for your book. In fact, we will soon be offering Sally’s American Hands Journal through CreateSpace as well as MagCloud. And when we publish our upcoming novels and nonfiction books, we will use both Lightning Source (to get into the Ingram catalog) and CreateSpace (for less-expensive authors’ copies and to sell to Amazon’s customer base).

About the Author

Sally Wiener Grotta and Daniel Grotta, frequent contributors to IEEE Spectrum, have authored numerous books for traditional mainstream publishing houses. They are now publishing books under their own Pixel Hall Press imprint.

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