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Printing Books: Economies of Scale

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I thought this might be of interest to some folks, though it's a niche audience!

We've been getting printing quotes for Level Up: Advanced 5th Edition, and it struck me that I occasionally get asked about how offset printing works. So I figured I'd share my experiences.
  • Print on demand -- these books are printed one-at-a-time to order (usually by Lightning Source, viaDriveThruRPG).
  • Offset printing -- these are books printed en mass by a print shop.
So, for offset printing we've been using Standartu in Lithuania for years now, but there are many print shops who can handle an order. Standartu is popular with UK and European TTRPG companies. Obviously there are firms in the US, Canada, China, and so on. Prices may vary.

So I'm arbitrarily using a big 600 page full-colour book here, same size as the Pathfinder core rulebook, as that's what we're printing but the principle holds for other sizes. These are also rough, rounded figures, just to give a sense of the scales.

1 book Print-on-Demand (high quality) -- $90 per book*
1 book Print-on-Demand (lower quality) -- $35 per book
1,000 books offset -- $20 per book
5,000 books offset -- $7 per book

*There has been a recent big price increase for premium quality PoD from DTRPG
Let's look at a 50-page colour softcover, which we're also printing.

1 book Print-on-Demand (high quality) -- $9 per book*
1 book Print-on-Demand (lower quality) -- $4 per book
1,000 books offset -- $1.40 per book
5,000 books offset -- $0.60 per book

For fun and giggles, let's also look at a 4-panel GM screen. You can't do this print-on-demand, so I've only included offset printing.

1,000 screens offset -- $4 per screen
5,000 screens offset -- $3.30 per screen

As you can see, the more you print, the lower the price, and the drop is dramatic. At 5,000 units you're paying about 12% of the price you're paying for one hardcover book (note that offset printing is higher quality). For the softcover, at 5,000 units you're paying about 6% you'd pay for one book. In the case of the GM screens, the savings are much lower.

Large companies like Paizo or WotC order print runs that are orders of magnitude larger than us, so I don't know what their per-unit cost is. I suppose I could get a quote for a 100K print run, just for curiosity's sake, but obviously it's a LOT lower than the numbers above.

(Also remember that's a 600-page book; you can roughly pro-rate it by page count though there is some more nuance to it -- this example is for a BIG book, but for a 300-page hardcover you might look at $3.50ish per book at a 5000 unit print run, and softcovers are cheaper again, as are b/w books)

You place your order with a print company, send them the digital files to the specs they provide (they'll be pretty specific about certain things). They run off the print run and ship it to a location you specify, which will be a warehouse somewhere -- either your own, or that of a fulfillment company (we use ShipQuest in the UK, but there are many).

After Printing
The chain of people involved in selling a book is long!

Publisher -> Printer -> Fulfillment Partner -> Distributor -> Retailer

(With shipping companies in between each of those stages)

So despite the seemingly small unit price of printing a book, the retail price of it gets accounted for quickly! A LOT of people are doing a LOT of work to get that book from a PDF on your desktop to a hardcover on the store shelf, and they all need to be paid for their services. The distributor alone will take 50% or more of the retail price. Not counting the development cost of the book itself of course.
 

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J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Thanks for the look into how printing in volume works.
Just in case anyone else was wondering, as I was, what exactly a "fulfillment company" does, I grabbed a quick definition off teh interwebz:
A fulfillment company is an organization that processes the receipt, packing, delivery and return of customer orders for businesses. Fulfillment companies enable businesses to outsource their order fulfillment, including goods in, warehousing, pick and pack, shipping and returns.
Source.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Thanks for look into how it part works.
Since i wasn't certain exactly what a "fulfillment company" does, I grabbed a quick definition off teh interwebz:
OK, so it's a company which has a warehouse and a bunch of staff who handle packaging and shipping, basically.

They warehouse your 5K books or however many you have, and they package and send it out to people you ask them to (either individually as orders come in from your online store, or en-masse as you send them a spreadsheet of your Kickstarter backers, or in big pallets to distributors).

You can do all that yourself (and larger companies often do, and some Kickstarter creators do turn their living rooms into temporary warehouses and do it all themselves), but they're set up to do it. Good ones have automatic tie-ins to popular shop platforms on the web, so your Shopify (or whatever) purchase gets fulfilled by your fulfillment partner automatically. When you run a Kickstarter, you download the backer report from Kickstarter as a spreadsheet and send it to them, and they package each order and send it out.

And of course, they handle the admin, and returns, and tracking, and usually have an online stock level report so you can see exactly how many of each thing you have, and so on.

So yeah, basically a fulfillment company is a warehouse which handles the shipping for you. They're very useful!

We use ShipQuest in the UK; we used to use Parcelhub but I don't recommend them because reasons.
 
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