Gordon McComb, Writer and Editor

Using Print On Demand For Textbooks, Workbooks, and Training Manuals

Posted on January 21

During the 1930s through 1970s, a popular "work at home" scheme was writing and publishing your own pamphlets and booklets. Advertising was through the classifieds in popular magazines.

Priced at $5 or less, you could find home-brew booklets on just about anything. The consistent sellers were those that provided information not generally found at the bookstore or library. Copies were mimeographed, and for the bigger outfits offset printed.

Checks Stuffed Into My Post Office Box

I'd always wanted to try this concept, but I came to it a bit late. By the 1980s the market was starting to dry up for mail order pamphlets and booklets, but specialty books were still fair game.

In 1986 I wrote a 100 page book on building your own PC - one of the first of its kind. I spent about $30 in classified ads, and mentioned it in a magazine article I wrote.

Within days of the ads and article, I started getting orders to my post office box. I priced the book at $12.95, including shipping. It was printed on my own office copier, and plastic comb bound. Over the next several years I sold some 2,600 copies through the mail and at local computer swap meets. One swap meet alone I sold my entire "run" of 100 copies in a single afternoon.

My PC building book cost about $1 to print, and around 70 cents to mail, including the envelope and label. At about $11 net per book, it turned out to be quite profitable, though entailing a lot of manual labor - I did the comb binding myself, in order to save money.

Print On Demand to the Rescue

Since then I've self-published a half dozen how-to books, as author, press, and book binder. It's that last part I've hated most. My comb binding machine is now so worn it struggles to punch through five sheets of paper at a time!

Thanks to print on demand, it's possible to publish quality, professional looking books for just a few dollars a copy. And since they're printed only when sold, you're not stuck with boxes of unsold books in your garage.

Print on demand (POD) is not new. I first got involved with it in 1999, when I consulted with one of the early POD start ups, toExcel. (They later changed their name to iUniverse, who eventually concentrated on being a vanity press, rather than a pure POD service.)

I was in charge of filling a backlist of technical titles on open source technologies, to round out the company's online bookstore. Over the next year I scouted for, acquired, edited, and published several dozen books that were sold on the company Web site, as well as the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites.

Since those wild and woolly days, POD has greatly improved - in cost and quality. You can publish an 84 page tutorial or training manual, in standard "trade" book format, for about $4. No upfront fees. You can sell the book privately, or allow others to buy it online.

  • When selling the book yourself, you have copies printed ahead of time, then accept orders through your Web site, store, training class, or whatever.
  • When you turn sales over to an online store you don't need to pre-print copies, though it's a good idea in order to reduce the per-copy price. The online store collects the money, ships your book, and mails you a check. The amount of the check is the price of the book - which you set - less printing and shipping costs.

Self-Publishing Through Lulu

There are dozens of online POD services, some designed for small publishing houses, and others for first-timers.

One of the better POD outfits for those just starting is Lulu.com. They don't charge an upfront fee - just a sliding per-book printing cost, based on the number of copies you have made. You can reorder any time.

To get an idea about costs play around with their online calculator. Select a paper grade, soft or hard binding, finished size, number of pages, and quantity. Costs are higher for color inside.

We're talking non-fiction technical books here, so the typical size for that type of book is 6" by 9" trade paperback. In order to get the most options, be sure to choose Standard as the paper type.

For training guides, tutorials, and how-tos, consider the landscape size, 9" by 7". This format is well suited for step-by-step instructions and accompanying illustrations.

Perfect binding is what most books use, and it's the cheapest. Saddle stitching is basically staples down the middle. Lulu limits saddle stitching to booklets with no more than 56 pages.

For books that should lay flat consider coil binding. This adds a buck or two to the price of the book, but it's greatly appreciated by readers that need to set the book aside while they work, but still need to refer to the pages inside.

Your book can contain pictures and other illustrations, though photographs may lack some detail when the book is printed in black and white. You're best off with screen captures and line drawings.

Selling Through Online Stores

You don't need anything extra if you're only interested in publishing a book for use by your clients or students. But if you're keen on having your book available through online bookstores, including Amazon, you'll need an ISBN number.

This number, which is unique to your book, and the associated barcode, is what booksellers use to keep track of their inventory. Most POD services provide a way to purchase an ISBN for your book - cost is $50 to $100, depending on the service. The number is part of a "block" that belongs to the POD service. They are the publisher of merit.

If you plan on publishing more than a few books, consider buying a block of your own ISBNs. Bowker is the US agency that handles ISBNs, and you can buy blocks of numbers from them. The application can be a bit tedious, and it's not quick.

Or you can go to a service company such as Publisher Services, where you can buy one or more ISBNs from their block of numbers assigned to "Independent Publisher." At the time of this writing, cost for a single ISBN and digital barcode is $55. For 10 ISBNs it's $28 each.

Getting Your Book Ready for Publication

Print on demand services like Lulu provide templates for Microsoft Word to help you conform your book to their standards. Download the template for the size of book you wish to produce, and open the template in Word.

Be sure to carefully study the readme file that's included in the template package. If your book doesn't follow their standards it'll be rejected for technical reasons. You'll have extra work to get it into shape.

Prior to submitting your book for publishing be sure to check your manuscript for spelling errors. Have someone read through it for any remaining typographical or grammatical mistakes. For a top-notch job hire a copy editor.

Lulu - and most POD services - prefer you send your manuscript submissions as PDF files. You'll need a PDF creator program, such as Adobe Acrobat. If you don't have Acrobat or one of the other recommended PDF making applications, you can use Microsoft Word, but be careful with non-standard fonts. Check with the service for a list of fonts they support.

If you've used a print on demand service what was your experience? What would you do differently next time around?