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'11 Authors Insider Tips

Cooking Up A Storey
by Donna George Storey
From Inspiration to Publication
Writing the First Draft
Seduce Your Reader
Be a Real Writer
Sexy Writing Partnerships

Kill Electrons, Not Trees
by William Gaius
What Does It Mean...?
The Decision to Self-Publish
The Decision To Self-Publish, 2
Printing ... for Self-Publishers
A Copyright Primer
How to POD, free (almost) Part 1
How to POD, free (almost) Part 2

The Write Stuff
by Ashley Lister
Three Top Tips...
Not Writing Erotica
The Importance of Being Colin
Dream Writing
To Boldly Go
The Unforgivable Taboo
Managing Multiple Projects
Doing it in Public
Nil Bastardum Carborundum
Workshop Insights

Assorted Attractions

Meet Robert Buckley
Between the Lines
with Ashley Lister

Kill Electrons, Not Trees

Fiction Publishing in the 21st Century
by William Gaius

Printing Technology for Self-Publishers


Kill Electrons, Not Trees by William GaiusSo you’ve made the decision to publish your own novel or short-story collection as a printed book, and you turn to the crucial task of educating yourself in the many steps between finished manuscript and printed book. Where to start? Well, the first piece of advice is to buy, borrow or steal a copy of The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, Fifth Edition, by Marilyn Ross and Sue Collier, and read it until you’re either enthused or thoroughly frightened by the whole prospect.

But in this episode, I want to discuss printing technologies and how to choose among them. It’s likely the simplest decision you’ll have to make as a self-publisher. In today’s printing world, ink-on-paper publication really boils down to three options: offset, print-on-demand, and digital printing. 

1. Offset Printing  (very technical)

The oldest and most well developed technology is offset printing. The printed image is formed on flexible metal printing plates by photographic or direct computer processes. Some areas on the plate are treated to they’ll pick up ink from a roller, and other areas will repel it, so the metal printing plate carries the image in wet ink. This inked image is then transferred to paper. The plates are used to print on large sheets of paper, typically 16 6x9 pages per sheet (8 on a side). Other machines fold the sheets into little booklets, or ‘signatures’; stack them in order; glue or stitch the spine and cover together; trim the book to final size; and pack in boxes for shipment. As complex as the process may be, it’s suited to high-speed operation and long print runs.

The important feature of offset printing is the upfront investment of time to prepare the printing plates and set up the machines. Because of setup costs, the first book off the press may cost two or three hundred dollars, but the 5000th may be less than a dollar. For this reason, print runs under 500 aren’t economical. But if you want thousands of copies, the per-unit price can be as low as a dollar. 

2. Print-On-Demand (POD) (video of a working POD machine)

The technological opposite of offset printing is print-on-demand. POD printers are glorified copy machines integrated with devices to carry out the collation, covering, binding, and trimming operations. The whole process is automated, so all that’s needed is to upload the print and cover files, press the GO button, and wait for a finished book to drop out the end of the machine (see video, above).

For a self-publisher, the critical feature of POD is that each book requires a separate cycle of the machine. No matter how many copies are printed, the cost per unit is the same. For example, a typical 200 page, 6x9 perfect-bound trade book from Createspace will cost $5.50 (plus shipping) whether you’re buying one copy or a hundred.

Beautifully coordinated machines are a delight to watch. Already, a few bookstores are installing Espresso Book Machines to print backlist or out of print editions. A list of locations with installed EBMs can be found here:

3. Electrophotographic, or Digital Printing

This is printer’s talk for photocopying, in this case, high speed photocopying, up to 1200 pages per minute, on separate sheets of paper, rather than multi-page signatures. The collated pages are taken to separate machines for covering, binding, and trimming. This method allows high-speed printing of multiple copies, but avoids the need to make offset plates, so it neatly fills in the gap between print runs of 10 and 500 copies.

In preparation for this column, I approached United Graphics, Inc, of Mattoon, IL (with whom I’ve done business in the past) and asked for sample quotes. The VP of Sales, Stan Freeman, gave me the following quotes for the typical book mentioned earlier (6x9 trade, 200 pages, four color cover, black on white interior).

            20 copies -  $11.10 per copy (more than POD)
            100 copies - $5.57 per copy (about the same as POD)
            200 copies – $3.70 per copy (cheaper than POD)

(These prices don’t include shipping from the printer’s to your location. There may also be state sales tax unless you have a retail tax license.)

Cost Analysis

So can we make a profit or even break even with conventional ink on paper publication? The cost analysis is straightforward.

A 200 page fiction trade book might expect to sell for $12.95 to $14.95. Let’s suppose your book is so engrossing, you can order 200 copies and command the $14.95 price tag.

Wow! You’ve already made nearly eleven dollars a copy!

Not exactly. If you sell the book through Amazon, they’ll take a 55% discount and pay you $6.73 a copy, no negotiation allowed, leaving you $3.02 in gross profit. This paltry sum also has to pay for shipping and overheads, plus your own profit.

Suppose Amazon orders just a single copy from you (which is most commonly the case) and you address a padded envelope and mail off a copy. Since the minimum charge for US Post Office Media Mail is now $2.41, this leaves just 62 cents to pay for all your ancillary costs: return shipping, mailing envelopes, labels, and all the other little expenses involved in getting a book out to readers.

If your book sells well, Amazon may begin stocking your book under its Advantage program, so they may order five or more copies at a time, which will save on shipping costs.

Why do I focus on Amazon so much? Because that company has at least kept its doors open to self-published authors. Getting a book onto the shelves of conventional bookstores like Barnes and Noble is a harrowing and nearly impossible process. Online bookstores connected with so-called ‘self-publishing’ companies are worthless, since no one actually shops there. The first move of nearly every book buyer is to

If the financial side of self-publication with ink and paper seems bleak, it’s because it is. However, thanks to the rapidly rising market for e-readers and e-books to fill them, the future of self-published fiction authors may not be as desolate.

Next month, we’ll have something to say about copyright, ISBN numbers and Library of Congress numbers.

William Gaius

Bill Gaius welcomes comments, questions and brickbats, and can be reached at
Read more of William Gaius' Kill Electrons, Not Trees in ERWA 2011 Archive

"Kill Electrons, Not Trees" © 2011 William Gaius. All rights reserved.

About the Author:  Bill Gaius lives and works in the American Southwest with his lifetime lover and wife (who happen to be the same person). Retired from a life in science, he operates a small business while writing erotica, but he can't decide which is vocation and which is avocation. While faced with the same barriers to publication that all new authors face, he's made a study of the modern publication process. This was begun with his experience with old-fashioned ink-on-paper publication of his wife's local history book over a decade ago.
In 2010, Bill published two novels, The Ancestors of Star and Lessons at the Edge with (UK), but has previously self-published the mainstream novel Anne the Healer. He has also assisted friends in the self-publication of their own works.

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