Offset printing

So, let’s talk print jobs.

To oversimplify a tad, there are three “classes” of print job you can do as an RPG publisher.

Print on Demand (POD) (or: single-copy POD)

This is what I think of as Print on Demand (though that term gets used for two classes, as I’ll cover below): the Lulu model, a truly print-on-demand service where you can give the general public the access to visit their site, order your book, and have that book printed out specifically for that order and shipped to them. This style of POD is pretty hot stuff, in that it means you lay out no cash whatsoever, and with Lulu at least, once you have a laid-out file you want turned into a book, the setup time is a matter of hours (though you’d be wise to then add a couple weeks so you can print out a first copy as a proof before you actually start letting other folks put in their orders — if you’ve screwed something up, the liability’s on you). This is a high convenience, very low risk way to go, and it’s how I started out with Don’t Rest Your Head. For those benefits, you’re trading a certain amount of per-unit cost — this way is definitely not ideal for all-that-large print runs, when it comes down to it. As to what I *mean* by “all that large”, read on.

Short Run (or: short-run POD)

When you’re printing often or regularly enough — or if you know right from the outset that you’re going to be printing enough copies for it to matter — it’s worth a step up to the “short run” printing strategy. Here, print on demand technologies are used to do “bulk” print runs, often with some kind of discount. Note that I said “print on demand technologies” — that’s why the short run method is often referred to as POD as well, because it’s essentially the same outfit, same operation, just with somewhat different economies of scale. The first type I talked about above is focused on the one-or-a-handful-at-a-time type runs; this one gets more up into the dozens-to-hundreds range.

Lulu *can* be used for this, and certainly its pricing can be marginally competitive at times, with its creator’s discount that kicks in at 26+ copies for softcovers. Still, you can often save up to a few bucks more per unit by going over to a short-run focused printer — for me, I transitioned from Lulu to Lightning Source for my Spirit of the Century print runs. The benefit here was that I could get the print jobs done still as fast (if not, at times, faster) than Lulu, and I could do it — given a book of SOTC’s 400-page-plus dimensions — at $2-$3 per copy cheaper, which was a good move given the amount of sales I was making into retail. The costs associated with this are worth noting, however: Lightning Source’s website is functional, but has nowhere near the bells and whistles and convenience factor of Lulu’s. Plus, to get the job set up, I had to go through their account application procedure, taking a few days, and to set up the job I had to spend some up-front cash (around, say, $120 in job set-up costs, for a book of SOTC’s size). Also, I needed an ISBN for my book (actually, I needed my ISBN prefix for my application) — luckily I’d bought a block of ten a year or so back, in anticipation of the need, so that part didn’t really take up any time for me when I sat down to get set up with LS. Finally, it simply required a little more expertise and persistence than the Lulu experience did; if I’d encountered LS as a “beginner”, I probably would have flailed a bit

Offset Printing (or: traditional printing)

Traditional printing kicks in when you’re looking at doing 1000 copies or more. Lower than that, the cost savings aren’t that significant (and sometimes they don’t even exist), and moreover many traditional printing houses won’t even consider doing a print run smaller than 1000. This is a high-volume service that, frankly, most small press indie publishers won’t really need: it’s a rare (though that rarity is decreasing) title that hits 500 copies, let alone 1000, in physical, print sales. But if you have the confidence, drive, and determination to make those copies move (I’m talking, like, Luke Crane type levels of effort) then traditional printing can work for you.

So why do it? Simply, if you’re already committed to producing, in one fell swoop, a volume of product that’s 1000 copies or greater, the price-per-unit can’t be beat (assuming you’re going to sell out 100% — remember, when you produce this many books, you’re taking on a level of risk you wouldn’t with the other methods). A Spirit of the Century offset print run, at 1000 copies, comes in another $3-or-so cheaper than the Lightning Source method, which is nothing to sneeze at, again giving you a chance to seriously fatten your margins on those retail sales. The downsides are the already-mentioned additional risk, a higher level of necessary expertise, the necessity to lay out a lot of up-front cash (several thousand dollars, often half up front), and an investment of time that can span a couple months (and that’s after you’ve shopped around a number of possible printers, gathering quotes). Also, in my case, my printer wanted legal proof that I was going to be reselling the stuff I was printing — if I wasn’t, they had to charge me sales tax. This meant producing a company sales tax ID from Maryland — which I discovered I didn’t have yet. So I had to go through the process of getting one before proceeding with the account verification step. All in all it added up to a not-insigificant amount of time, one in which I had to have all my ducks in a row. But the results are hard to quibble with, when it comes to that bottom line and a fairly reasonable — at this point, at least — expectation that Evil Hat will be able to sell another thousand copies (actually, we got 1100 due to “overruns” — which is an interesting small topic of its own, but not worth the distraction just yet).

Comparing the Methods

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Since I’ve done Lulu (POD), Lightning Source (Short-Run), and an offset printing solution for Spirit of the Century, I can take a look at all three in comparison.

Up-Front Costs

Each job had a small dollar amount of “proofing costs” — printing up a copy or two so I could take a look at how they came out and make sure I didn’t see any problems — that I’m leaving out here because they all sort of factor out against one another.

Lulu: $0 to get the job set up. And I could start selling online right away in addition to ordering a short run to sell through IPR.

Lightning Source: About $120 to get the job set up (it’d be more like $70 for most smaller books) before printing starts. No online storefront, so I’d have to outlay some cash to get a print run done to sell through IPR.

Offset: For a book of SOTC’s size, quotes (including shipping) ran from around $5000 up to the $6000ish range. This got me my thousand copies, but I had to be able to pay that up front before they’d be delivered to me.

Minimum Order Size

For Lulu and Lightning Source, the minimum order size was zero, really. Lulu’s storefront left me without needing to do any printing in advance, while Lightning Source was a cheap gateway to getting a small print run done.

For the offset print job, the minimum order was, effectively, 1000 copies.

Unit Cost

Lulu: Any sale Lulu made direct to a consumer had a unit cost of about $13. They also took 20% of the remaining royalties, but that’s comparable to IPR taking 15% of the sale price, so I figure that part comes out in the wash. I could do a short run printing through Lulu and get ab out 8% off for a 50-copy run (unit cost, $12), 12% off on a 100-copy run (unit cost, closer to $11), 17% off on a 200-copy run (unit cost, under $11 by about a quarter dollar). Add shipping costs onto this that could run from $0.30-$1.00 per unit.

Lightning Source: A print run of any size could get me a unit cost of about $6.50 before shipping. Call it $7.50 with shipping and compare that to about $12 at Lulu to get an idea of the savings here. But that up-front setup of $120 had to be factored in as well.

Offset Printing: With shipping, 1100 copies came in just slightly over $5000, for a unit cost of $4.60 or so. If I’d gone for 2000 copies (which would have required the confidence that we would *double* our to-date sales figures) that unit cost could have been a buck or more lower.

Bang for Buck

Let’s assume I’m willing to spend $5000 on a printing and I’m looking at all of my options.

Lulu: Maxing out the bulk discount at 20%, I’m probably getting around 450 copies for my $5k.

Lightning Source: I’m getting more like 650 copies for my $5k, even after taking out the $120 in setup.

Offset: I’m getting 1100 copies for my $5k.


Direct sales are where it’s at, obviously. Setting aside the notion of me personally doing fulfillment and selling preprinted copies through my own website, I could sell direct through Lulu’s storefront (getting 80% of the royalties above the individual item printing costs), or direct through IPR (getting 85% of the sale price of the item). The cover price is $30.

Since it’s a one-off, let’s talk Lulu first: at about $13, that leaves $17 as royalties, which Lulu takes $3.40 of, leaving me with about $13.50 per unit sold.

Or, IPR sells the book: $30 cover price direct sale, IPR takes 15% of that, or $4.50. That leaves me with $25.50 before the unit costs get exacted. For comparison, we’ll assume Lulu’s about $12 as its unit cost:

Lulu short-run: Hey, look! $25.50 – $12 = $13.50. It’s about the same as if I was selling these direct through Lulu, one at a time, only with the added benefit of IPR’s marketing, etc.

Lightning Source: $25.50 – $7.50 = $18.00 (a 33% increase in profit over the Lulu printing)

Offset: $25.50 – $4.50 = $21.00 (a 55% increase vs Lulu, a 17% increase vs. Lightning Source)

But that’s just direct sales. Consider, then, that approximately half or so of SOTC’s sales are going to retail. With IPR’s deal, they offer retailers 42% off of cover, or 58% of the price (this is actually a smaller discount for retail than retail usually gets from a distributor, so this is a pretty good deal). IPR then takes 15% of that 58% pricepoint as its cut, leaving me with 49.3% of the cover price — let’s just call it $15 — as my pre-unit-cost gross. So how’s *that* affect the margins?

Lulu short-run: $15 – $12 = $3 made per book.

Lightning Source: $15 – $7.50 = $7.50 made per book (a 150% increase over Lulu-based retailer profits)

Offset job: $15 – $4.50 = $10.50 made per book (250% increase over Lulu-based, and even a 40% increase over Lightning Source)

While these calculations are all somewhat simplified, I think they make the point: it’s certainly nice to go for Lightning Source when you’re doing a predominately direct sale focused strategy, but offset isn’t necessarily super-crucial, especially given that total unit volume on direct sales can be a lot lower. But when you bring retail sales into the picture and the level of volume to support it, Lightning Source style short runs — or even offset traditional runs, if your numbers are expected to be high enough — are pretty much vital to making the most of the money you’re putting into it.