At a recent conference, we displayed our wares—beautiful printed art books—while across the aisle from us, Yale University Press displayed their beautiful printed art books (though in a much larger booth!). To anyone not in the book business, this is a confusing juxtaposition: what is the difference between book publishing and book printing? The question came up often.

So what does a book publisher do?

Publishers look for manuscripts to publish, shepherd the manuscripts through the editing and design process, where they are turned into print-ready files, and market the books through indirect channels like wholesalers and booksellers, as well as reaching readers directly through their website and events like the conference where Yale was displaying. Publishers invest a lot of money in all of these activities, and that’s one of their roles: acting as venture capitalists for authors. Actually making the printed books is a process contracted out to specialized book printers of various types. After they’re made, the printers ship the books to a warehouse, which in the case of small- and medium-sized publishers is almost always another contracted service, not an operation belonging to the publisher.

And what does a book printer do?

Book printers focus on actually printing and binding books. Some, like Bookmobile, also provide fulfillment and distribution services. Book printers almost never acquire the rights to publish manuscripts themselves or do all the design, editorial and marketing work required to move a book from author manuscript to reaching an audience.

Why don’t publishers print their own books?

Occasionally, book publishers venture into book printing themselves, but in every case I am aware of except two, they shut down the operation after a few years. And in those two exceptions, the printing operations are standalone units of very large companies. Those units actively sell printing services to other publishers as well as serving internal needs.

Just as publishers don’t succeed unless they focus on the core activities of acquisition, editing, design and marketing, printers don’t succeed without constant focus on investing in new technology, adapting to the needs of people who buy book printing and reaching out to them through sales efforts, and managing materials quality, costs, and inventory levels. Plus, there are significant economies of scale in operating a printing plant: it would take a large publisher to fill our presses to an efficient level just with their own books. We print for hundreds of publishers! And then there would be bottlenecks when the plant was full that would have to be remedied by buying printing elsewhere. Also, every book printer has different levels of efficiency—and therefore cost—with different kinds of books. That makes it even tougher for a publisher to bring printing in house.

Though it may seem otherwise from the outside, there is very little overlap between the core competencies of manufacturing physical products and bringing books to market.

Need a printing quote, eBook conversion quote, or more information?

You can request a printing quote here, or request an eBook conversion quote here.

I’d be happy to answer questions—you can contact me via email.
 I welcome any feedback, including that pointing out my errors!

Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.