Book printing: offset or digital?

Authors often ask me what the differences are between offset and digital printing, and whether there is an advantage to using one over the other. Here is a quick explanation.

Printing on an offset press
Books have traditionally been printed on an offset printing press using ink. A full-color book cover is printed with four ink colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black, or CMYK). The pages are usually printed with black ink on large sheets of paper, which are then folded into 32- or 48-page blocks (called signatures).

Digital printing
Digital printers produce books on high-end laser printers using toner instead of ink. The full-color cover is printed on cardstock and the pages on paper. Short-run printing refers to printing a small number of books (say 20 or 200) using digital printing. Print-on-demand (POD) refers to a publishing model whereby books are stored digitally and printed one at a time as they are purchased online.

Cost comparison
Printing on an offset press is very cost-effective: the more copies printed at a time, the less it costs per book. However, you need to print at least 1,000 copies to make your printing cost-effective because of the cost of setting up the press.

Digital printing is more expensive per book, however you can choose to print as many or few books as you need at the time. You may only want 50 books to test your market, and in this case digital printing is a cost-effective way to print your book. There is no cost saving for printing in quantity.

Quality comparison
Having your book printed on a press allows you to control its quality, and gives you a lot of flexibility. You can work with your book designer and printer to choose your book size, paper stocks, binding and many other options, to create a quality book exactly the way you want it. All your books will be of equal quality.

Digital printers offer limited choices of book size (usually standard sizes like 5″ x 8″, 5.5″ x 8.5″, or 8.5″ x 11″) and two choices of paper (thinner and thicker). The color printing can vary up to 10% on any given day (might be slightly pinker or greener one day). However, many books look just fine within these limitations.

Which printing method is better?
Both are excellent in different circumstances. Printing on a press is better if you’re printing in quantity, or if you want to choose a certain book size or paper stock for your book (such as environmentally friendly papers). Digital printing is better if you want lower startup costs and your book is a standard size.

Some authors and publishers use digital printing initially for market testing and advance review copies and, if the book does well, switch to a larger print run on a press later. Alternatively, some authors and publishers have already sold a large print run, and now just want to print small digital runs to fill orders as they come in.

Isn’t is great to have choices?