Prior to the development of high-speed print-on-demand digital presses, the only way to produce print runs cost-effectively was using the more traditional “analog” offset presses.
Offset printing had been perfected over the decades to squeeze out as much unit cost as possible from book production by increasing economies of scale (mainly through achieving very high operating speeds).
But the result of low costs per unit was that publishers needed to commit to a high volume of books per print run. Now, when it comes to authors with an existing following and sales history from previous books, this was quite easy to forecast.
But when it came to new authors, this printing technology resulted in a huge waste of book stock, as publishers were required to print too many copies without having clear sales forecasts.
The Print-on-Demand Revolution
With the popularity of the nascent self-publishing industry in the early to mid 90s, as well as the increased profile of smaller indie presses, equipment manufacturers realized that a new solution was needed.
Even though digital printing technology was well developed at the time, it was mainly targeted at the photocopy business, which was too high cost/low-speed for volume printing applications.
However, through research and development, manufacturers were able to create higher and higher speed digital presses with progressively more and more quality. By the end of the 90s, the first large-scale high-speed digital printing presses began to appear.
The book distributor Ingram was one of the first companies to install large banks of high-speed digital presses to produce short print runs cost-effectively, followed a few years later by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a subsidiary of Amazon.
Today, digital technology has improved to the point of being able to produce high-quality images that are cost effective and nearly indistinguishable from the quality standards of offset printing.
Introducing the Two Main Players
There are currently two main players in the print-of-demand world who’ve developed not only global print-on-demand networks with facilities around the world, but also the software platforms necessary to distribute titles at a very low-cost.
The first player is Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which is the portal for self-publishers and small indie presses to have their books appear on Amazon.
KDP has on-demand printing facilities in North America, Europe and Japan, so when a reader in any of those markets purchases your book on Amazon, a copy is printed on demand in near-real time and then shipped domestically to the end user at the lowest possible cost.
This convergence of technologies (the world-wide-web, eCommerce and distributed print-on-demand facilities) has removed the biggest barrier to global book sales – the high cost of shipping books around the world.
The second player is IngramSpark, a subsidiary of the book distributor Ingram. What KDP does for online book distribution, IngramSpark does for brick-and-mortar bookstores and library distribution.
IngramSpark also operates print-on-demand facilities in multiple countries through Ingram’s LightingSource subsidiary. Specifically they operate high-speed on-demand printing presses in the U.S., the U.K., France and Australia, offering similar coverage as Amazon’s KDP.
As a self-published nonfiction author, your best approach is to self-publish on both platforms simultaneously in order to the get best of both online and offline worlds.
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP)
Below, you’ll find the approximate costs of self-publishing on the KDP platform. KDP has no publishing fees, although I highly recommend that you purchase your own ISBN, or book identification number.
If you use the free ISBN supplied by KDP, you’ll be blocked from co-publishing your paperback with IngramSpark, which will lock you out of physical bookstores (they seldom order books from KDP due to their low wholesale discount).
KDP won’t charge you in advance for the cost of the books sold through Amazon. When a sale is closed, they’ll simply deduct their print cost from the purchase and forward you the remainder minus their distribution fee (more on this later).
The actual print cost amount will depend of the type of paper you choose, your book’s trim size and your number of pages.
KDP only offers a flat 25% discount to brick-and-mortar bookstores, whereas the expected industry discount is 40%. As a result, bookstores don’t typically order books from KDP because most would be doing so at a loss.
KDP will take pay you 60% of your book’s list price as a royalty minus the printing cost and keep the rest as their commission for distributing your book through Amazon.
Volume Discounts for Author Orders
Although KDP allows authors to purchase books at cost, they don’t offer volume discounts. So, if you purchase a large order to fulfill back-of-the-room sales for a number of speaking events, you’ll get no break on your order.
This is the downside of KDP, however, there’s a workaround that I’ll cover below.
This is a feature were you can enable KDP to distribute your title to the book trade outside of Amazon. If you do, your royalty is decreased from 60% of your list price to 40% minus the print cost.
Out of the 60% that KDP collects, they’ll give a 25% discount to bookstores and keep the remaining 35% as their distribution cost.
Now remember that bookstores will not order from KDP at this low discount rate so make sure that this feature is disabled for your title to prevent KDP from selling to physical bookstores.
IngramSpark does have a small cost when you upload print files. Specifically, they’ll charge you $49 per book format.
Their upside is that they can print both paperback and hardcover formats (KDP only supports paperbacks), which gives you the ability to offer your title with two different price points.
You’ll also need to supply a separate ISBN for each format.
IngramSpark also deducts the print cost from sales after receiving payment from customers, and like KDP the amount will depend on the type of paper you choose, your book’s trim size, the your number of pages, and the book’s format (paperback or hardcover).
Ingram offers bookstores the standard industry wholesale discount of 40%.
Over the years, they’ve come up with a flexible discounting scheme that allows you to set a lower bookstore discount and keep a higher royalty, mainly to offer a competitive counterpart to KDP’s approach.
However, any discounting below 40% will result in bookstores not ordering your title, so make sure you always set your title’s discount to the expected 40%.
On the subject or royalties, IngramSpark offers the following scheme:
- You can choose a bookstore discount of between 30% and 55%.
- Out of the above range, IngramSpark keeps 15% as their distribution fee so bookstores will get an actual discount of between 15% and 40% (as stated before, a bookstore discount lower than 40% will result in no book sales due to lack of margin).
- You get paid the remainder, between 70% and 45% as your royalty minus the print cost. Again, for all practical purposes, the only figure that’s meaningful is a royalty of 45% of your list price minus the print cost.
Volume Discounts for Author Orders
This is the area where IngramSpark really shines: the very generous volume discounts they offer to authors.
Not only you’ll be able to buy books at cost, but they’ll also offer volume discounts that make ordering through KDP unecessary. Here’s an example:
Say that you’re printing a 200-page black and white paperback. Your IngramSpark print cost will be approximately $3.69 for a single copy, but if you order 1,000 copies you’ll get an additional 40% discount off the unit cost.
So, let’s assume that you pay the same unit cost of $3.69 per copy both with IngramSpark and KDP (their pricing structures are very competitive). Instead of paying $3,690 at KDP ($3.69 x 1,000) you’ll only pay $2,214 at IngramSpark ($3.69 x 1,000 x 60%). That’s a savings of $1,476!
Online Bookstore Distribution
Although IngramSpark will also distribute your title to online bookstores including Amazon, you still need to publish directly to Amazon through KDP.
First of all, you’ll get a higher royalty for Amazon sales if you go through KDP, but also, Amazon is known for prioritizing KDP-distributed books over other competitors
Although they’ve never admitted to this practice), it’s been observed over the years that KDP books always show up on Amazon with a status of “Available Immediately” whereas IngramSpark-distributed books often appear with a status of “Not in Stock,” even though they print books on demand as well.
As a self-publisher of nonfiction you want to get the maximum possible exposure for your book. Both IngramSpark and KDP have created powerful distribution platforms with different strengths and weaknesses.
Fortunately they happen to be complementary, and by self-publishing your book on both platforms you’ll get the best of both worlds – global reach through online as well as offline bookstores at a very low distribution cost.
Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a specific need that I can help you address – I operate an author services firm that specializes in helping entrepreneurs, professionals and business owners who want to publish books as a calling card for prospects, to establish their status as an expert or to just to generate additional leads for their businesses.
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Bennett R. Coles is an award-winning author of 6 books published through Harper Collins (NY) and Titan Publishing Group (UK). He is also the publisher at Promontory Press and the founder/CEO of Cascadia Author Services, a boutique full-service firm that specializes in premium author services specifically designed for busy professionals. Our end-to-end services include writer coaching, ghostwriting, editing, proofing, cover design, book layout, eBook production, printing, distribution and marketing.