Print On Demand Book Quality Can Restict Self-Publishers

Print on demand book quality is where self-publishers lose

Self-publishing does very well in ebooks sales. But because of print on demand book quality, self-publishers will continue to lose out in print book sales.

There is no doubt that self-publishing has stamped its authority and found its place in book publishing. It is winning on many fronts.

However, its success has mostly come in the form of ebooks and through the power of the Internet.

But when it comes to retail book sales in bookstores, self-publishing has a very long way to go.

Print on demand book quality

The quality of print on demand (POD) paperback books is inferior to books produced with offset printing.

POD books use laser printing, which is a similar process to how a photocopier works.

At first, books were restricted to 300 dpi, but at least today the clarity is better with some POD services offering 2,400 dpi.

However, the choice of paper grades is still limited and rarely of trade quality. It’s also impossible to use POD for hardcover books.

Offset printing allows for an almost unlimed range of papers and grades and the quality of the printing is far superior.

POD paperbacks seem economical because you only pay per copy when it is produced.

Offset printing can be cheaper per copy when you order over 1,000 copies. If you order more, the price per copy reduces even further.

But for most self-publishers, investing in an order of one, two, or three thousand copies of a book is probably out of financial reach.

That’s what makes POD paperbacks so attractive to new self-publishers. But it comes with on downside.

Retail bookstores will rarely if ever agree to stock POD books on their shelves due to the poor quality of the paper and printing.


The ebook and book market

For self-publishers, ebooks are the main source of sales. But ebooks make up only a small percentage of the book sales market.

AAP book sales per format

According to Publishing Perspectives, in 2021 ebook sales are only 12.3% of total book sales. However, paperbacks account for 33.8% and hardcover 37.7%.

After meteoric increases following the introduction of the ebook in 2007, ebook sales have now plateaued and are struggling to increase by more than single digits year on year.

print and ebook sales

The graph above from Publishers Weekly shows how ebook sales have stagnated over the last five years.

This means that the ebook pie won’t get much bigger. But the number of new self-published ebooks increases at a staggering pace every year.

It is very bad news for self-publishers because ebooks are their bread and butter sales.

On the other hand, paperbacks and hardcover books are the bread and butter sales for traditional publishing.

By controlling, manipulating, and even owning shelf space in bricks and mortar books stores, the big five have a monopoly on non-ebook sales.

But there are still many independent bookstores around the world, and there is no reason why they won’t stock self-published books if you ask. But it will always be a question of quality.


Print on demand books can’t compete

The quality of paperback print books is where self-publishing has made little or no ground whatsoever over the years.

Sure, self-publishers can offer a paperback version of their book on Amazon, but what about at a local bookstore?

What about with a chain of national bookstores? No way, no hope, and no possibility.

For most bookstore owners, print on demand books are not good enough.

Compared to trade published books, they are a very poor relation.

Ebooks have made considerable strides in quality in recent years.

But print on demand books are still very much the same as in 2002: poor quality, poor formatting, poor typography, and poor paper grades.

It is the real frontier that will for some time yet, hold back self-publishing as a challenger to traditional publishers.

Yes, there are independent bookshops that stock a few self-published titles, but it is the exception.

The tough truth is that bookstores and bookstore chains still sell a lot of books.

By using prime store placement, which publishers pay an arm and a leg for, this can turn almost any book into a bestseller.

But it would never, no matter how much money is spent, turn a poor-quality print on demand paperback into even a modest seller.



Self-publishing has been a winner, but only on one front. Ebooks.

The real challenge is for self-publishing to aim higher and challenge print book sales.

The best avenue of attack is, of course, still through print on demand books because of the economy it offers self-publishers.

But until online self-publishing services such as Amazon KDP, Lulu and others lift their game and can produce and provide paperbacks and hardcovers close to trade quality; there is little hope.

All self-publishing authors can do is to try to promote online sales through Amazon and Barnes & Noble as much as possible.

But, one can hope for change in the future with improvements and development of print on demand book quality.

Or perhaps, is this a current market opportunity for Vanity Press?

Although vanity publishers have somewhat of a bad reputation in the market, some offer the possibility to produce a quality book using offset printing.

As with everything, we’ll see what the future brings.

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent writing and blogging, as well as testing and taming new technology.

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13 thoughts on “Print On Demand Book Quality Can Restict Self-Publishers

  • Avatar for Steve O
    June 9, 2021 at 5:50 am

    I bought a physical copy of a POD title from Amazon recently. It was a reissue of a book originally published by Headline about 20 years ago. It’s extremely badly typeset, there’s only one illustration (I think the legit edition had about 8 pages as tip-ins), and the whole thing looks amateurish at best. It’s the sort of thing a well-meaning but naive local historian would produce in conjunction with the local council.

  • Avatar for Corbin Brodie
    October 1, 2020 at 2:02 am

    Interesting article and interesting thoughts. I was pleased with the print-on-demand version of my book on Amazon, but no doubt about it, sales of hard copies have been negligible compared to e-book/kindle unlimited readership. And yet, I’m pretty happy with that. I published mainly to put it out there, not to develop a career in writing. So it’s been merely a nice extra having a little earner on top of my day job – in fact I’ve been surprised at how steady that little extra each month has been.

  • Avatar for Julie Christine Round
    August 5, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    I am discovering the weaknesses of Print on Demand. I sold more real books when I was my own publisher. Amazon keep changing the price and the availability of my book. I’m just hoping the e book sales make up for the dire results in paperback sales. I’m going to go back to using my own imprint. I still have some unused ISBN numbers.

  • Avatar for Kevin
    July 12, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    I happen to believe in taking the ‘long view’ and utilizing as many distribution outlets as possible for e-books. With modern technology at our disposal, it’s really a no-brainer!

    I concur that indie-authors and publishers don’t have a prayer with respect to getting print books stocked at traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. But, In my opinion, I don’t think they’re necessary. How long do you think your book will be stocked if it doesn’t fly off the shelves? Not long. And let’s not even discuss the deep discounts they require and their less-than-equitable return policies!

    Conversely, I find most independent bookstores are more than willing to support indie authors. Fortunately, I’ve developed a solid working relationship with many in my area, as well as a local book manufacturer. So, I’m never at a loss for print books and I can get them at a reasonable price.

    And as for exclusivity? (Amazon) It’ll never happen! (though I do use KDP . . . not KDP Select) for e-books and POD, as well as various on-line distributors, including Ingram. So far, so good!

    Best of luck to all the trail-blazing Indie-Authors . . . Onward & Upward!


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