Book Printing: Print Only What You Can Sell

Note: As of 2023 this post is ageing. Some aspects may be dated. However, the core lessons hold true for the new author looking to self-publish or an entrepreneur looking to start a small publishing business.

When a new publisher is looking at printing options, there is a temptation to print too many copies. The more books the publisher orders, the bigger the discount the printer will give. It is very easy to fall into the trap of asking for a quote for 1,000 copies and ordering 5,000. The discount of 25% to 50%, or even more, that the publisher would get by ordering 5,000 copies causes the publisher to forget everything discussed in the book pricing chapter.

I was guilty of this mistake, once. Then I vowed to never again forget one simple rule: print only what I have sold. Today it is easy for a publisher of any size to use offset printing, Print-on-Demand, or electronic formats to publish their books. These options allow the publisher to develop a game plan that will stick to this simple rule.

Learn from my mistake

For the first book that I published I ordered a print run of 1,500 copies.

Initially I wanted to order only 500 copies. Based on all the research I had done and pre-sales, I knew that I would sell at least 500 copies in the first year. My plan was to have the first 500 copies, which were as good as sold, printed using offset printing. Then I would fill all subsequent orders using Print-on-Demand.

So I asked the printer to give me a quote for 500 copies. Feeling curious, and slightly optimistic, I also asked the printer to give me quotes for 1,000 and 1,500 copies. I never should have done that.

When the printer sent the quotes to me, I was amazed at the massive “discount” that I would get if I ordered 1,500 copies instead of 500 copies. The discount was a little over 33%. A 33% reduction in printing costs per book! I ordered the 1,500 copies and justified my action with the thought that eventually I would sell all 1,500, and when I did I would have made more money per book versus printing 500 copies.

So what happened? I sold the first 500 copies—the copies I knew I would sell—within the first couple of months. The rest of the books sat around in storage for years. They trickled out copy by copy, a painful thing to watch.

The added cost of printing an extra 1,000 copies over what I needed hurt my cash flow, which stopped me from spending more money on marketing, which in turn hurt the overall sales of the book. It was another hard lesson to learn: print fewer to sell more.

Print only what you have sold

That’s right. Print Only What You Have Sold!

Here are some good reasons to follow this rule:

  1. It forces the publisher to do more marketing before releasing the book.
  2. It forces the publisher to pre-sell the book as much as possible before releasing the book.
  3. It forces the publisher to face realities: if the publisher can’t market the book and can’t pre-sell the book, then it will be more difficult to sell the book once it is out.
  4. It helps keep more cash on-hand, and not lock up that cash in inventory.
  5. Less inventory.
  6. The project will turn a profit faster.

Choosing the best printing option

When abiding by the rule of Print Only What You Have Sold, there are a few printing options publishers can pursue.

For the trade paperback publisher, which is where I do most of my business, Print-on-Demand or offset print runs will work equally well. POD printers like Lightning Source produce paperbacks that often are better quality than a lot of offset printed paperbacks. No longer should questions of quality push publishers towards making financially unsound decisions!

If the publisher must do a traditional, offset print run—for example, a photograph art book—then pre-selling the book is vital! For many real life example, look at the books on the Kickstarter website. Why are the publishers and authors putting their books on Kickstarter? So that they can pre-sell as many books as possible before they have invested a dime in printing.

So, for the trade paperback publisher, the key is matching pre-sold volume to the best printing option for that volume. Here is a general rule of thumb:

  • Fewer than 500 copies—Print-on-Demand
  • 500 copies or more—Offset

Here is another fear that the modern publisher can vanquish:

  • Do not worry about having enough supply!

With Print-on-Demand, books can be ordered, printed, and shipped within a couple of business days. Books are now part of the Just-in-Time fulfillment cycle, where manufacturers produce only what has sold and then ship the products worldwide direct from the factory. And often everything is done overnight! It is a revolutionary change. Yet the publishing industry, despite having access to POD for decades, is still underutilizing this technology compared to what could be done.

So, unknown supply needs should not influence the publisher’s decision on what printing process to use or how many copies to print. Supply is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, worldwide.

Here is an example. If I pre-sell 500 copies of a book, then I will order those books from an offset printer. I will fill all other orders using POD … Unless there are enough new orders—after the first 500 have been printed and sold—to justify another offset print run. In this situation, the POD will fill the gaps between offset production times so that orders are never delayed. Customers will not experience delays nor significant differences in quality.


Ultimately we are left with a near perfect economy, where supply and demand are almost in harmony.

Know your audience and which format they want

Most of the audiences I publish for want print books. This is something I realized only after investing months of time formatting beautiful ebooks, sometimes coding them from scratch.

To be honest, it was obvious from the beginning which formats my audiences prefer. My books fall into several categories: academic, outdoors non-fiction, and inspirational. The audiences that I sell to are, for the most part, well-defined niche audiences. I am not publishing Harry Potter, which appeals to almost everyone. So it makes sense that eBooks account for only 2.5% – 5% of my business.

If a publisher is producing fiction and general audience non-fiction, then eBooks are likely to be a more important part of the publisher’s income.

Similarly, if a publisher wants to produce an art book of photographs or paintings, then Print-on-Demand is not the right solution. The publisher will have to use more traditional printing methods to get the very high quality that their audience will demand.

If the publisher knows the audience, the publisher will know where to invest time and money during the design and production phases.


Do not print 1,000 books with few ideas for selling them. Do not fall into the trap that so many passionate authors and publishers have fallen into—if we publish it, they will buy it. This is a sure recipe for a garage full of books.

In sum:

  1. Know your audience and what format/s they prefer
  2. Pre-sell the books (especially important for printed books, less important for eBooks)
  3. Print only what you pre-sold
  4. If the content category permits, use Print-on-Demand to fill orders during low demand

Remember! Print Only What You Have Sold!