Before I was a printer myself, I spent 12 years working for publishers as a book-printing buyer. Along the way, I developed some personal rules for how to save money on book printing. Here they are, updated for today’s world in which offset printing and digital printing coexist.

How To Save Money on Book Printing

1. Look at the Total Cost, Not Just Cost-Per-Book

Its easy to focus on cost-per-book when getting printing quotes. Because printing is always cheaper the more you print, the temptation to print more in order to get a lower price per book is ever present. Almost every publisher is haunted by pallets full of books they paid to print but will never sell. The true cost of printing per copy is not the total cost of printing divided by the number of books printed, its the total cost of printing divided by the number of books sold. Plus, those extra books cost real money to ship, to store, and, ultimately, to dispose of. The moral? Right-size your print runs.

Other costs to take into consideration include:

  • The cost of your time: A printer may offer $300 less on a run but be time-consuming and unreliable to deal with. And if the low-ball printer screws up, they are really going to be a timesuck.
  • The cost of money: If you finance your business with a line of credit, you pay interest on the books sitting in the warehouse.
  • Opportunity cost: Tying up cash in slow-selling or not-selling printed inventory means you can’t use that cash for other purposes, including publishing new books or reprinting books that are actually selling.

2. Right Size Your Print Runs

After looking at the total costs of manufacturing and distribution, and a conservative estimate of demand for your book, set the print run to allow for at most a year’s supply of books: you can always reprint. If you set the run too low, the worst case is that you have to reprint and may have a slightly higher printing cost per book. If you set the run too high—which is much more likely, based on the millions of books sitting unsold in warehouses—you will definitely pay the price.

3. Don’t Put Lipstick on a Pig

That’s perhaps an unfortunate way to put it, but if the type of book you are publishing is strictly informational and not a work of art, don’t go overboard on fancier paper, french flaps, etc. Going fancy increases your costs while bringing no extra benefit to your readers. (This is not an argument against these options: they can absolutely be appropriate for some kinds of books.) See Selecting Paper.

4. Select the Right Page Size

Printing presses—both digital and offset—are optimized to print on certain size sheets or rolls of paper. The more pages that can be fit on those sheets without waste, the lower the printing cost overall. See Selecting Page Size for more information.

5. Automate To Reduce Staff Time Costs

For short runs, your time or the time of your staff becomes a more significant part of the cost. If you are doing enough runs to justify it, talk to your printer about setting up an Automated Replenishment Program (ARP), which can reduce your staff time from hours per run to minutes. Because ARPs represent steady work to the printer, they can also reduce your actual printing cost. If your printer has a warehouse next to their printing plant, as Bookmobile does, ARP can also save the not-insignificant cost of shipping from printer to warehouse. See Which Print Model to Use When for more information.

6. Be Organized to Avoid Costly Errors

We see cases where a publisher is not keeping proper records and it costs them money. When a book is first under consideration, different run quantities are considered; and sometimes, when a publisher decides on the optimum print run, a different quantity is somehow communicated to the printer. This can cost the publisher in two ways: 1) if they ordered too many books, they will have to pay for them, or 2) if they ordered too few, they will have to order another run. Doing two runs versus one for the same total quantity is always more expensive. The other area where we see the cost of poor record-keeping is in shipping: bad addresses and bad shipping instructions cost the publisher in additional shipping charges—perhaps rush shipping—as well as in lost time. Finally, sometimes publishers get quotes and think they have ordered the book when they actually haven’t placed the order. This costs in terms of rush shipping charges and, again, in lost time. See How to Prevent Book Printing Disasters for more information.

8. Get Quotes From Three Book Printers

First of all, be sure to get quotes from book printers, not commercial printers. Printers specialize, and book printers are going to give you the best price because they have designed their plants totally around manufacturing books. Get quotes from three printers—even between book printers prices can vary for a particular project because their plants are set up differently. If you’re not a veteran buyer of book printing, ask for printer recommendations from someone who is. Because book printing is so competitive, it is generally a waste of time to get more than three quotes: printers know very well the pricing ballpark they need to be in.

9. Select Paper From the Printer’s House Stocks

All book printers stock a range of book papers in different weights, shades, and quality. Choosing from this range, rather than specifying another paper, will save money because the printer buys their house stocks in huge volumes and can pass along that savings to you. Also, supplying paper to a printer can be tricky if you are not experienced in doing it: the printer is not responsible for any issues with the paper, and you will be stuck with the cost if there is a problem with it. If the printer supplies the paper, they are responsible. See Selecting Paper for more information.

10. Avoid Rush Jobs

Okay, I know you can’t always avoid rush jobs: sometimes they are in response to a great opportunity! However, if you’re doing rush jobs all the time, you should look at your procedures and schedules. Rush jobs often cost more in printing, because the printer may have to pay overtime or incur other costs. Also, rush jobs almost always cost more for shipping.

11. If You Print A Lot of Books, Negotiate Pricing

If you print a lot of books—dozens of runs a year or more—you can sometimes save significant money by negotiating with a printer, guaranteeing them the work in exchange for preferential pricing. Calculating and understanding contract pricing can be challenging, so only high volume makes this worth your while.

12. Get Quotes From Offset Printers When You Are Printing 2,000 Copies or More

Offset printers can definitely provide lower printing costs if you are printing 2,000 copies or more. Make sure you really need that many books first—see Right Size Your Printrun, above—and get quotes from a few offset printers. See Which Print Model to Use, and When for more information.

13. Get Quotes From Digital Book Printers When You Are Printing 1,000 Copies or Fewer

In addition to competitive pricing at 1,000 copies or fewer, digital book printers like Bookmobile offer faster turnaround and much more flexibility in setting quantities of future reprints, which can save money. See Which Print Model to Use, and When for more information.

14. Get Quotes From Both Digital And Offset Book Printers For Quantities Between 1,000 and 2,000

In the range 1,000 to 2,000 copies, usually (but not always) offset book printers will be less expensive than digital book printers. Because of the other advantages of digital book printing—faster turnaround and flexibility for future reprints—it’s worth pricing a run with digital printers as well as offset in this quantity range. They might surprise you with a better quote than offset, and then you get the other benefits of digital printing. See Which Print Model to Use, and When for more information.