Despite the frequent claims that print is dead, many nonprofits are looking for ways to affordably create and distribute published works—everything from local directories and guides to full-fledged books. But publishing can take a lot of time and money that could otherwise be spent on programs or mission-related tasks. A Print-On-Demand service, or POD, can be a low-cost solution that lets you provide create and distribute printed resources to constituents, wherever they may be.
In general, a Print-On-Demand service is an online vendor or site that turns files you upload into materials that are printed in small numbers as they are purchased by your readers and mailed directly to them, saving you the hassle and logistics of having to fulfill orders yourself. The fulfillment is part of what distinguishes POD from regular printing services. Essentially, you upload the manuscript as an unformatted word processing document or laid out and designed and saved as a .PDF.
Whenever someone purchases a copy, the vendor prints and ships it and takes a percentage of each sale.
There are a number of such services available, each offering a slightly different take on the process and product. Which you choose depends on a few different criteria, including your needs and your budget. We talked to a handful of people from organizations that had used these services in the past and asked for their advice and recommendations.
Before we look at the types of tools available, let’s look a little more at the service itself and what it can offer your organization.
There is no shortage of reasons why you might use a Print-On-Demand service to sell your printed materials. One of the biggest is if you’re not going to be selling a vast number of copies. Having copies printed can be expensive, and vendors often offer per-copy discounts for volume purchases. That bulk rate may mean that you’ll end up with a better profit margin on each book sold, but if you order 5,000 copies and sell fewer than half of them, your cost savings vanishes. That business model makes sense if you know you’ll have enough demand. A POD service only prints copies when they are ordered, which means you don’t have to make a large up-front investment.
Another good reason to go with POD is to avoid fulfilling orders yourself. If you’re responsible for packaging, postage, and customer service, it can be a hassle, even with small print runs—and even more so if you’re selling a large amount of copies. That kind of process can quickly overwhelm a nonprofit’s small staff. Print-On-Demand lets you keep your printing service out of sight and out of mind—filling book orders takes time away from the work that’s more important to your organization’s mission, and storing physical copies of your book takes up office space.
Considerations When Choosing a Service
There are a few different things to consider when wading through the growing field of Print-On-Demand providers. Let’s look at them one at a time.
- Cost per copy. Instead of charging you upfront for the copies you sell, POD services take a cut of each sale as their per-copy fee. The cost may be determined by a number of factors, including length, size and dimensions of the printed materials and the type of binding you select, but length is typically the most important factor. It’s not always easy to tell what a final product will cost you per copy, and you may have to actually start creating it on the service’s website to determine the price.
- Cost of physical copies for yourself. While you won’t be fulfilling orders yourself, you may still want copies to hand out to high-value constituents or prospective major donors, or just to have as a reference at the office. The cost of printing and shipping your own copies varies depending on which service you use—some provide a few copies for free, while others charge full price.
- Audience. No matter how much work you put in, or how high the quality of your content, your book is worthless if no one can find it. It’s important to consider where and how your book will be displayed online. Some of these services, like Lulu.com, have their own online marketplace for books organized by subject (for nonfiction), genre (for fiction), or price. Others, like CreateSpace, automatically list books on the Amazon.com marketplace. For a one-time fee, CreateSpace and services like Lightning Source let you enter your book into the Ingrams content database and give it an ISBN identifier that allows bookstores to order copies if someone requests them.
- Format and bindings. What size do you want your book to be? What dimensions do you want it to have? Some services offer more variety of options for the size and shape, up to 8.5 inches by 11 inches. You’ll also have a choice of binding, typically either spiral bound—which uses plastic or metal binding that allow the pages to be opened and lay perfectly flat—or perfect bound, which uses glued bindings like on a paperback book.
- Shipping costs. How much will it cost for your customers to have the book shipped to them? Is the cost comparable to what you’d pay at the U.S. Post Office if you shipped them yourself, or does the vendor mark up the cost dramatically?
- Customer service. Inevitably, something may go wrong, or you may have questions or concerns about your order. What if there’s trouble shipping a copy to a customer, or the book prints incorrectly? It’s important to know how responsive the service is to such issues, and how quickly and how well they typically resolve problems. Of course, since this is something you usually don’t learn until something does go wrong, you’ll want to read the reviews posted by past customers or ask people you know who have used these services about their customer service experiences.
There are a number of vendors in this space, but a few stand out in the crowd. The following were identified by our experts as being of interest for nonprofits:
One of the most popular and best known POD services, Lulu in general offers more binding options, including spiral, perfect, and saddle stitch for paperback books and either a case-wrap or dust jacket for hardcovers. Lulu also offers a wide selection of trim, or sizing, options, ranging from pocket-sized 4.25 inches by 6.875 inches up to U.S. letter-sized 8.5 inches by 11 inches. This service can be more expensive per book than other options, however, starting at around $4 per copy for black and white, depending on size, binding, and number of pages. Lulu has its own online marketplace for books, and if you choose to create an electronic version, or eBook, it offers the option to publish to iBooks, Apple’s marketplace for eBooks. If you want to distribute your book outside of Lulu.com, you’ll need to get a free Lulu ISBN or purchase your own from the vendor for $99, and to choose a distribution service.
If you’re hoping a wider audience than just your constituents will find your book, CreateSpace may be a better way to go. While it doesn’t offer quite as many options for bindings and sizes as Lulu, it’s owned by Amazon and shares a marketplace. You’ll also have the option to add an ISBN for a fee, and to add your book to the Ingrams database, allowing bookstores to order copies (if requested). Setting up your book is straightforward, but the step-by-step process is not as polished as Lulu.
Other solutions to your self-publishing needs include Lightning Source, which pre-dated CreateSpace as Amazon’s go-to Print-On-Demand service. Lightning Source will also add your book to the Ingrams database, and is reasonably priced.
Along similar lines to the Print-On-Demand model, many of these vendors also offer on-demand publishing solutions for other forms of media, including CDs and DVDs, T-Shirts, and other items.
If you decide against POD, there are other ways to find help distributing your printed matter. Fulfillment houses let you ship physical copies to their warehouses and fulfill the orders for you. Options include Vervante.com, which also offers a POD option, and Amazon. If you don’t want on-demand fulfillment but need a large number of copies to sell or hand out, printing services like 48hrBooks are worth looking at for price comparison.
It’s never been easier to self-publish a book, guide, or other materials. But your job doesn’t end with publishing—you still have to make sure people can find and purchase your content. In addition to marketing, there are still other considerations necessary to help people find it. Think through the keywords or categories you enter on the POD marketplace to help people find your book when browsing—more keywords will result in your book appearing in more searches, but make sure they accurately describe the content. The cover image of your book can also be a factor in whether or not someone browsing the marketplace chooses to buy a copy, so design your materials thoughtfully.
If you have content you think is valuable enough to share, and put a little thought into the marketing and distribution process, creating Print-on-Demand materials is as simple as choosing the right service for your needs. And with new options appearing all the time, print almost certainly is not dead.
Thanks to TechSoup for providing the financial support for this article, and to the following nonprofit technology professionals for their recommendations, advice, and other help:
Blaine Moore, Trail Trotter Press
Michelle Murrain, Nonprofit web developer
Colin Delany, e.politics.com
Sarah White, Author, Chasing Merlin