Print on Demand Versus Short Run Printing

David Rogers


Print on Demand (POD) has become increasingly popular over the past few years, as the printing method allows self-published authors and independent book publishers to print copies of books only as needed. Despite POD’s popularity, however, it’s often still more cost effective to use short run printing, even for a relatively small quantity of books.

Many times short run printing ends up not only being less expensive than POD, but also provides a better quality final product. Here we’ll take a look at the differences between print on demand and short run printing, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

What is Short Run Printing?

Short run printing is custom order of a batch of books, though the definition of how big a batch constitutes a short run can vary by a very large number. Typically, a batch will consist of at least 50 or so books, and can go well into the thousands and even tens of thousands.

Each short run book can be completely customized, and therefore the majority of the cost is tied up in the initial setup of the run. The unit cost of the books in the run then decreases with every copy printed. You can see an example of how this would work on your own book’s specifications on our custom quote page, and we’ll also give a  generic example below to illustrate how this works in a real world scenario.

Difference Between Print on Demand and Short Run Printing

Print on Demand printing does exactly what it says on the tin: authors and publishers order the exact amount of books they need, when they need them. While this can mean books are only printed when a customer submits an order, it also can be used to print small batches of books for events – a book signing, for instance.

Therefore, the biggest difference in short run and POD printing is that with the latter, each book already has an assigned purpose even before it is printed.

Because of this, the actual number of copies printed for POD tends to be 10 or less, though the total can be larger, particularly if you begin ordering multiple POD batches over time. However, if a POD run gets much larger than 50 or so (for one batch or over time), this method can quickly begin to lose its cost effectiveness.

The Disadvantages of Print On Demand

This brings us to the primary disadvantage of POD: the unit price of the book never decreases.

The actual point where it becomes more cost effective to use short run printing depends on a number of factors, including the size of the book, whether the it is printed in black and white or color, the expected number of re-orders and the binding method (hardcover or paperback). It should be noted that some POD printers provide a discount for certain quantities.

A second disadvantage is a lack of custom options available for POD books. We’ll discuss this further in a bit.

The Advantages of Short Run Printing

On the other hand, the primary advantage of short run printing is the aforementioned fact that the unit cost per book goes down with each copy that is printed. This is because the majority of the expense in a print run is held in the initial setup cost.

Naturally, this is why short run printing isn’t typically the most cost effective for printing one or two copies of a book, but it’s certainly advantageous for longer runs. Again, the breaking point of copies where short run becomes less expensive depends on the specifications of the book, but tends to be around 50 copies or more.

A Practical Example

To better illustrate the difference in the two types of printing, consider this hypothetical situation:

As a self-published author, you need to drum up some interest for your book before you are ready to unleash your book on the world. To do this, you may want to send a few copies around to the press and other authors for reviews and blurbs.

However, there’s a good chance at this point that you don’t know exactly what the demand for your book will be, and therefore don’t yet want to embark on a full first-run printing.

Instead, you’ll probably want to use POD to print the exact number of copies you need to send for review. Because these aren’t the final version, they don’t necessarily have to include all the printing and binding options that you’ll want on the final version, so POD is a great choice.

Once you begin hearing back from reviewers and authors, it may be time to get ready for a full-run print. Hopefully you’ll even have a better idea of how many books should be included in that run because of the hype that has been generated by your initial POD books.

At this point, you can make sure your book is printed and bound exactly as you want it. Short run printing allows you to do this, all while paying less per book than you would with print on demand.

The Actual Numbers

How big is the difference? Here are some real numbers to consider:

Let’s say your work is a 150-page, 6×9 casebound (hardcover) book with a dust jacket. To print 10 POD copies with a popular online printing service would run around $210. While this is not bad for review copies, at $21 per copy it will be hard to make a profit (or much of one) when it comes time to sell your book to the public.

On the other hand, when it’s time to print the first run of your book, you can save a ton of money going with a short run print. If we were to print 1,000 copies of the same 6×9 book with a dust jacket, the total would be just shy of $8,000.

At $8 per book – less than half the cost of the POD unit price – you have much more room to not only make a profit, but also set a lower price for your books to improve your sales. Our exact quote is included below:


What’s the Quality Difference?

The rise of digital printing has made POD possible. With offset printing, the setup cost is just too high to print just a few copies of a book at a reasonable price. As digital printing technology has advanced through the years, we are now at a point where there the difference in quality between the two types of printing is often negligible.

Though POD printing will always be printed digitally, short run printing may be printed on a digital printer or an offset press – and sometimes a book will use both types of printing.

Here at Advanced Print & Finishing, we use whichever print type proves more cost effective while providing the best print quality for each book project. Typically, the breaking point to move a book from the digital printer to the offset press is between 500-1000 copies, depending on the qualities of the book. At times we use a hybrid printing method and print the covers on offset presses while the book block goes to a digital printer.

What’s a Long Run?

Like the difference between POD and short run, the difference between a short/medium run and a long run is also a bit undefined. Specializing in short runs, Advanced Print & Finishing typically handles book quantities anywhere between 20 and 20,000 copies, though we’ve done as few as one book.

Many times a long run will consist of a major book by a large publishing house that will require well into the tens or hundreds of thousands of copies. This type of run typically uses web-press offset equipment.

Also called web-fed printers, these machines take paper from rolls (or webs) of paper. This is in contrast to sheet-fed offset equipment, which print to large sheets of paper.

If you have any other questions, feel free to drop us a line or call us at 888.664.8166.

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