Printing and Digital Sales Options for Small Canadian Publishers

Introduction: Publishers’ needs

Small publishers—usually defined as having 10 or fewer staff and netting less than $1M revenue—historically have had two problems that make it difficult for them to grow out of that “small publisher” bracket: affordable printing and visibility of their books. Canadian small publishers have the added problem of having very few Canadian options for affordable small run printing and digital sales channels.

In terms of printing, the industry standard for a long time was using offset printing, which is ideal for large print runs and is still used by the major publishers, but the required print run to make the units cost effective is too high for small publishers (Allison Schiff and Alex Daniel 2016). Most printers that used to only provide offset printing are now offering other options to make short print runs more cost effective for small publishers; while the unit cost is not cheaper than offset, the reduced risk and costs in other parts of the process make up for it: “[p]ublishers understand that while unit costs may be higher, producing only what they need cuts warehousing costs and lowers the risk of larger print runs not selling through” (Stephanie Oda 2016). The two relatively new options for small publishers are short run digital printing (SRDP) and print-on-demand (POD). SRDP allows publishers to produce smaller print runs at a more affordable cost than small run offset printing, but the unit cost remains higher than doing a large offset print run; this method is ideal for print runs of less than 200 (Sara Chang 2017). POD is simply a “digital printing technology in which a book or other publication is printed on an as needed basis,” meaning that the book is only printed when a customer—or the publisher—places an order (Techopedia); this method is ideal for print runs of less than 50 or for individual customer orders.

Although affordable small print run options have been developed in recent years, small publishers still struggle with sales options that put their book directly in front of potential readers. According to a 2015 BookNet Canada study, most Canadians receive recommendations, pick which books they’ll read, and buy books in a physical bookstore; the biggest bookstore in Canada is Indigo / Chapters, so small Canadian publishers that aren’t able to get their books in those stores have to find alternative ways to increase the visibility of their books. Other traditional sales channels—independent bookstores, libraries, and direct sales—have to make up for the loss of sales to the bigger bookstores. The advances in printing technology have been able to help in this area as well, as POD is perfect for digital sales direct to readers all over the world.

The growing need for these additional options—cheaper printing and digital sales—has caused an increase in the number of companies branching out into these areas of publishing. Amazon started CreateSpace, which offers POD and digital sales primarily through Amazon, CreateSpace directly, and Barnes and Noble; and Ingram, a distributor in the US, launched IngramSpark, which is similar to CreateSpace but uses Lightning Source to print and offers broader distribution options. Other POD companies include Lulu, iUniverse, and AuthorHouse, but these options are generally more expensive and are more appropriate for self-publishing authors than small traditional publishers (Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel 2016).

Current practices of Canadian small publishers

To evaluate the current practices of small Canadian publishers, four fiction publishers from across the country were interviewed about their printing and digital sales practices: Rhonda Parrish (Alberta), ID Press (Ontario), Pulp Literature (British Columbia), and Tyche Books (Alberta). ID Press is a relatively new publisher, launched only about a year ago, but the other three have been established for at least four years. These four publishers all have very similar processes, but they are all slightly different in various ways:

  • Rhonda Parrish prints her anthologies through CreateSpace POD with a total lifetime print run of 150-500 per book, printed in small quantities as needed. Digital sales are available through CreateSpace, Amazon, and Draft2Digital. Rhonda’s books are also available in-person at various events.
  • ID Press also prints their anthologies through CreateSpace POD with print runs of 50 at a time as needed. They sell their books primarily in-person at events, but they are also available online through Amazon.
  • Pulp Literature, a quarterly fiction magazine, uses a combination of SRDP and POD. They use CreateSpace POD for international orders and subscriptions, but they use SRDP through First Choice (a printer in Victoria, BC) for Canadian orders and subscriptions, and for their own stock to sell in-person at events. Their SRDP print run is typically 250.
  • Tyche Books prints through Lightning Source with an average print run of 50-100 as needed for in-person event sales and sales to local independent bookstores. Approximately 90% of their sales are digital, primarily through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

The common thread between each of the four publishers is the use of POD, whether it is CreateSpace (Rhonda Parrish, ID Press, and Pulp Literature) or Lightning Source (Tyche Books). Their print runs are all much lower than the industry expectation of good sales for fiction at 5,000 copies, and lower than the required print runs to make traditional offset printing a cost effective option (Thomas Woll 2014). Pulp Literature is the only publisher out of the four interviewed that uses SRDP for some of their printing. JM Landels, co-founder of Pulp Literature, stated that they print with First Choice for their domestic subscribers because they wanted to be able to print in Canada. They continue to use the American company CreateSpace for international orders, however, because shipping from CreateSpace directly to the customer is significantly cheaper than shipping from their stock printed in Canada.

The last question asked of each of the publishers was whether they would switch to a Canadian POD company if there was an affordable option similar to what they were currently using. Every publisher answered the same way: absolutely.

What the experts are saying

When eBooks started getting popular among readers, industry professionals were worried about the future of print. However, recent studies prove that eBook sales, although still strong, are declining and people still prefer print books (BookNet Canada 2015). In an interview with Jim Milliot posted on Publisher’s Weekly, Penguin Random House (PRH) spokesperson Stuart Applebaum stated that even PRH is becoming more conservative with large print runs, and opting more towards smaller print runs (likely using a combination of offset printing and SRDP depending on the expected sales of the book) and utilizing POD options to maintain their backlist sales. PRH, being one of the largest publishing companies in North America, can easily get their books in the large bookstore chains and in front of potential readers, but even they are leaning towards the smaller print run options now that printers have made these options more affordable. Similarly, the spokesperson for Perseus Book Group states that they use SRDP for almost all of their titles, particularly when they hit the backlist, but they’re set up for the SRDP option immediately from the initial print run (Andrew Pate 2013).

According to Circle Press, a full-service print shop in New York, “offset should enter the decision-making process at print runs of roughly 1,000 or more” (Allison Schiff and Alex Daniel 2016). Given these numbers, it’s clear why the larger publishers can still consider offset printing an option for most of their books and fall back on SRDP and POD when necessary to fill backlist orders. Small publishers, like the four Canadian companies interviewed, have nowhere near a 1,000 copy print run, so SRDP and POD are the only options.

Conclusion: Best practices

With SRDP and POD options, small publishers are able to take advantage of the long tail and keep their backlist books in print without the burdens of large print runs and high warehouse costs. While large run offset printing remains cost effective for larger publishing companies and predicted bestsellers, a combination of SRDP and POD is clearly the best option for smaller publishers. Other advantages to including POD is the built-in digital sales channel, which allows publishers—even small publishers—to sell their book all around the world. As long as the publisher has the rights to sell the book around the world, small publishers are no longer inhibited from selling their books outside of their local community.

While conducting the research and analyzing what other publishers do, I thought about what options will be available to me when I start my small press next year. My press will publish Canadian content only, so it seems fitting to partner with other Canadian companies as much as possible. With this in mind, I believe I would follow a similar model as Pulp Literature: print my own stock and local orders with SRDP through a local printer, but use a POD company for international orders and digital distribution. For SRDP printing, I expect to use First Choice in Victoria because I’ve personally seen the quality of their products and so I can support a local business; however, I will also ask for quotes from Friesens in Manitoba and Houghton Boston in Saskatchewan, both of which have positive reputations for working with Canadian book publishers. As for POD and digital distribution, I would use Lightning Source to take advantage of their large distribution channel, but I’ll be impatiently waiting for a Canadian POD company.

While the current POD options (CreateSpace and Lightning Source) and SRDP are more cost effective for smaller print runs than offset printing, small Canadian publishers could benefit from more options—including and especially a Canadian POD company and a Canadian-owned digital sales channel.


2 Responses to Printing and Digital Sales Options for Small Canadian Publishers

  1. gkabeya says:

    Ellen, your essay is informative and an enjoyable read! As someone who has tried to set up a small press myself, I have often overlooked the printing side of the publishing process and focused more on marketing the company itself. You lay out the advantages of both short-run digital printing (SRDP) and printing on demand (POD) and show how they relate to the growth of a small publisher. Having considered the latter, myself, it was a learning experience to see that there are options beyond Amazon CreateSpace and your essay has triggered me to do more research into Lulu, iUniverse and AuthorHouse. The Printing House (Canada) has created a succinct table listing the advantages of both offset and digital printing and I think this will further help you as you set up your own press (view here:
    There are many time limitations when using offset printing and it can prove disadvantageous when a small press has a quick turnaround or urgent jobs to release. That being said, for small presses producing books with colour images, different paper sizes and illustrations, offset printing is likely to produce higher quality books. For example, a small children’s publisher producing board books and picture books will not necessarily benefit quality-wise from SRDP and POD. Could it therefore be argued that SRDP and POD are not the blanket solution for all Canadian small presses but should be applied on a more case by case basis? The types of books small presses produce differ.

    The elimination of inventory/storage costs with POD are the factor that sell this form of printing to me. I recognise that a reduction of costs is critical to a start-up small publisher’s success and POD offers that. I believe, however, that the biggest challenge for a small publisher is implementing effective sales and marketing techniques. Without adequate marketing to rival the big publishers, won’t small presses remain “invisible”? You very interestingly point out that small Canadian presses struggle to have their books in large book stores such as Chapters/Indigo, is this not partly due to marketing problems too? How can a small publisher begin to compete on a level playing field against multinationals who have entire departments dedicated to this function alone?

    Lastly, I see that you referenced the Milliot article on “digital fatigue”. I do not think it is wise for small publishers to embrace digital formats wholly (especially eBooks) in this age of “fatigue” therefore SDOP and POD of print formats are the go-to options to ensure sustainable growth.

    Would like to continue this conversation further. Well done!


  2. gkabeya says:

    Further point to think about partly based on our lecture with Lara Smith from Figure 1 publishing today:
    POD allows a small publisher to keep books in print for a long time and at very small volumes. In this way publishers can retain the rights to books and not revert them back to the author (all at a lower cost)! Interesting power play…

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