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  • Writer's pictureEsther Harder

Printer or Publisher? A Decision in Five Q/As

I thought I had time to research and decide on a printer/publisher while waiting to approve the full-color illustrations for my picture book pages, but it turned out that my illustrator needed some layout details before she could start: What were the page dimensions of my book? Did my publisher have any specific templates? So, I jumped into the nitty-gritty decisions that are part of printing a hardcover, full-color book a little sooner than expected.

A jumble of type for a printing press.
Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash.

These are the key questions I considered about printers and publishers.

1. What's the Difference?

I found the printer/publisher research to be quite confusing at first. To begin with, I wasn't entirely sure I understood the difference between a printer and a publisher in the self-publishing world. I knew more or less what a traditional publisher does for an author: When an author signs a contract for a title, the publisher oversees the entire editorial, production, and marketing process, start to finish. The author is expected to do contribute edits, give feedback, and present at events, but they are no longer driving the process. They've signed on with a full-service entity and are along for the ride. The traditional publisher is looking to make money on their investment in the author, so they put their efforts into marketing the book.

In self-publishing, the author drives the process, so how does a publisher for self-published works contribute to the process? They print (or produce/package, if we're talking ebooks) the book, but they offer additional services, too. They package the services a traditional publisher gives their authors, and sell these packages to the self-publisher.

For example, I found that I could purchase packages that offered a combination of these elements:

  • layout and design expertise

  • copy editing

  • ISBNs

  • title listings in librarian/bookstore databases

  • social media expertise

  • marketing material creation

These self-publishing packages can help a first-time author. Rather than trying to become an accomplished book designer, copy editor, data entry analyst, social media expert, and marketing guru overnight, it is possible to pay other experts to do this work for you. It's a larger up-front cost, but may be worth avoiding the nights where you wake up with a keyboard imprint on your cheek and your monitor snoring away nearby, utterly exhausted from your panicked how-to searches.

A printer, on the other hand, doesn't typically offer anything more than the printing service: you send in files, you get a book back.

Since I had invested in an illustrator with layout experience, and I felt fairly confident shouldering editing responsibilities, I decided to take the no-frills version and seek out a printer instead of a publisher.

I will note that the free ISBNs some publishers offer in their packages sounds like a great detail because single ISBNs come at a steep purchase cost, but it's important to read the fine print in those offers. Some publishers then retain ownership of that ISBN, meaning that you won't be able to go off and publish your files through a different system later with the same ISBN. Authors can purchase their own ISBNs through Bowker and create a press name; those ISBNs will be attached to your press, and you have the freedom to decide whether you want to change publishers or production venues later.

2. On or Off Demand?

Chef squeezes lemon onto two orders of fish being smoked outdoors on cedar.
Order up! Photo by Christiann Koepke on Unsplash.

If you decide to hire a publisher's services, the next question is whether you want to take the on-demand publishing route. In on-demand publishing, there are no boxes of books sitting as inventory in storage somewhere, waiting for buyers. On-demand is to publishing as à la minute preparation is to the culinary world; an order is prepared as the ticket comes in.

There's a huge advantage to not having to estimate a print run in advance of sales. Your print-on-demand publisher will take a cut for hosting your file and running those print jobs for you, but there's no pressure to sell yourself out from under your inventory.

The disadvantage to on-demand printing is that you cannot be entirely sure of the quality of the print job. You can purchase one yourself to see what you get, but from the reviews I read, quality can vary widely, and you can't check every box or copy as you might if all the copies were shipped to your house.

In my case, on-demand publishing was not an option for me because my final product was to be a hardcover picture book. Paperback books can be printed on-demand, as the production process is a little more straight forward. But hardcover books have additional steps; there's the cover paper that has to be pasted onto cardboard and then affixed to the inner pages. Too many steps do to à la minute.

3. Import or In-Country?

When printing physical copies, another decision is the location of the printer. At first, I was startled at some printers' low production costs, until I realized that their offices were in the States, but their printers were abroad, usually in China, and the shipping and customs fees were not included in their estimates. Some of my research warned me that that getting books through customs could cause delays.

In a typical situation, this decision might be weighted more heavily towards cost and budget, but because I was doing this research in April, I wasn't sure how the pandemic would impact transportation. Would the entire world shut down or limit unessential supplies? I didn't want to risk finding out. So, I narrowed my search to US-based printing companies, knowing I would have to pay more per copy, but that the books would have a shorter distance to travel to my doorstep.

4. Digital or Offset?

This is another decision that was made for me, this time based on the likely size of my print run. I wouldn't be printing at the volume to meet the minimum thousands of copies to do an offset run, where the printing process is done with plates and ink transfer. While the traditionalist in me fancied being able to lay claim to an offset-print book, that would have to be for another day. For now, I would be going digital.

5. Extra Concerns?

As with choosing any company, one can look at the values of the company to help determine a choice. There are printers who use more eco-friendly processes; printers who are more interested in limited, artistic runs; family-run printers, you name it.

By May, I had narrowed my list down to two possible printers, keeping them both as potentials until we were ready to print. I asked them both what their templates were for print-ready files (the initial question I had been tasked with), and discovered that they both had similar requests that were typical for the industry. And after holding and opening a number of picture books I had on my shelves, I decided I liked the heft of an 8.5 x 11" book, definitely in portrait orientation because my story was set in an apartment building. Having the information she needed, Dana could get started on layout.


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