The Rub With Paper: POD, Print Runs, Trade Discounts, and Returns

The Rub With Paper: POD, Print Runs, Trade Discounts, and Returns

We all have a dream of seeing our books in print, right? It’s an exciting time to be a writer, and you now have more options than ever before in publishing high-quality hardcovers or paperbacks. But with them comes an array of details you should be aware of prior to making any decisions!


For many indie publishers, print-on-demand (POD) is a great option to have a professionally-printed book without having to pay thousands of dollars for an initial print run. While the cost of printing per book is higher than with standard offset printing, the money saved on both up-front printing and warehousing/distribution can be worth it. If you are on a budget but still want to have a printed book available, this is your best bet. Printing costs are taken off the front end of each sale, so there are no costs for you to pay out-of-pocket. The two major POD printers/distributors are Amazon’s CreateSpace and Ingram’s slightly more robust subsidiary, Lightning Source.

Pitfalls of POD and the Returns System

The biggest pitfall of POD is that making a book returnable to the warehouse, which is required for any major bookstore to stock a title, can bankrupt you. CreateSpace doesn’t allow for POD books to be returnable, but Lightning Source does. Say your Lightning Source book costs $7.00 to print on demand, and you’ve marked it as returnable. You’ve done a stellar job with marketing, and Barnes & Noble orders 3,000 copies for its stores. They end up selling only 1,000 of them, so they return the remaining 2,000 at your cost. Not only does Lightning Source shred these and simply print/ship you new copies, but they also charge you for the freight. Which means you would be out the cost not just of freight but also of printing. That’s freight + $7.00 x 2,000, or $14,000—a terrible loss. Thus, it would be a big mistake to make your POD book returnable. The downside is that most physical bookstores will never stock your book.

But POD Has Benefits! 

So, why consider POD at all? Because the costs are minimal, and your reach is global. Amazon’s CreateSpace, while having a more limited global reach for its free distribution, doesn’t charge a title setup fee. Lightning Source charges only a small title setup fee, an even smaller annual catalog fee, and $40 every time you upload a print file (either cover or interior). Even so, both options can make your book available anywhere in the world at the click of a button. Lightning Source, being a subsidiary of the behemoth distributor Ingram, ensures your book is listed as in-stock and available with retailers at all times. They can print within hours and ship overnight. Lightning Source also gives you multiple print options, including hardcovers with dust jackets and matte laminated covers.

Print Runs

If you don’t choose POD printing, you can also do a normal print run of your book, just as any other publisher would. You then would have the option of storing and selling the books yourself, or paying for warehousing and distribution, which could make it feasible for your book to be returnable (and thus stockable at bookstores). Keep in mind that warehouses charge for storage, freight, and return freight.

But Wait! You Can’t Forget About Trade Discounts

If all this wasn’t enough to make your head spin, you must also consider your book’s trade discount, which all major retailers require in order to list it for sale. All books sold through the usual retail channels, whether they’re POD or warehouse-distributed, will have a trade discount, usually 40% – 55%. Booksellers buy them at this discounted rate, then sell them for full price to make money.

As a self-publisher, you are responsible for your print costs. This combined with selling your books to retailers at a discount affects your bottom-line return. If you set your book’s cover price at $16.00, retailers might buy it for $8.00. If you choose POD, your book might cost $6.50 to print, and you would receive $1.50 per sale. If you choose offset printing and warehouse distribution, printing might cost $3.00 per book, and you would earn $5.00 per sale. Even so, the costs of freight, warehousing, and other peripheral services can eat into this profit. Discount rates can vary between POD and traditional printing, but it is essential that you are aware of them! For a long (but helpful) explanation, follow this link.

As You Can See…

There are pros and cons to each method of book printing. Figure out your priorities (Do you want to try selling in bookstores, or do you want to aim mostly for online sales?), and then make the leap!

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