Printing costs for high-quality books (Aug 2016)

I got the first laid-out copy of Dragon Heresy: The Book of Heroes from +Rob Muadib this week. We’re still working on it, though work will slow down a bit as he goes back to school. That’s not actually a big deal – technically, the layout comes last, after writing and editing and lots of other things.

But I’ll tell you what – I’ve come to the conclusion that having a preliminary layout is all good, no bad. And I’ll tell you why. Actually, I’ll tell you why in another post. 

This one? This is about printing.

Dragon Heresy is not just going to be a big book, it’s likely going to be two big books. While there’s editing and tightening that will and must be done, I’ve got rules, character generation (that’s over 100 pages), spell lists (that’s another 100 pages in SRD5.1 books), a full setting  with “what’s it like to live there, and recent history” for each nation/realm, a sizeable list of magic items, and 100,000 words of monsters – likely 160 pages right there.

SRD-based book that are complete are going to be big. Limited ways around that, because that engine rewards giant lists of things rather than the build-your-own metasystem approach of a HERO or a GURPS or Fate.

But I digress. The layout plunked down on my desk at 370 pages. That will almost certainly compress, and Rob and I are working hard to make that so. 

But 370 pages means that a typical “perfect-bound” hardback is going to be fraught with peril, because the glue won’t necessarily keep the pages where they need to be. GURPS books had this problem early on – and SJG being SJG, they replaced every book that had that issue free of charge. I doubt I can afford to do that.

But looking at Dracula Dossier and the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook that plunked down on my desk over the last year or so, I don’t have to – both have sewn bindings. That means when you open it up, there’s a flexible bit in the spine that allows it to remain intact and open fully. 

For a big book, this is both more customer-delighting and will probably save the publisher/RPG company money. If you have a going concern with plenty of cash flow from other products, you have more to think about. If, like me, you don’t – at least not yet – you probably can’t afford to play the odds that it all goes to plan.


Putting me in a bind

The jargon of the printing and binding industry is dense and technical. I won’t try and get it all correct, but documenting what I’ve learned might help someone.

Perfect-bound books are glued into the cover. Many RPG books are made this way, as are many trade softback books. Grabbing the manual for Matlab and Simulink that is on my shelf, it’s a perfect-bound book. It will not lie flat when opened. 

You can also get lay-flat perfect-bound books, which still glue the pages in, but there are design elements present that allow the glued spine to fold more sharply.

There  seems to be some level of innovation (expected!) in the lay-flat technology in the form of adhesive selection. Polyurethanes (PUR-binding) are advertised to lay flat, stay flexible, and be up to 40% cheaper than smythe-binding, which I talk about below.

Another option is the Otabind. This seems to be the technology described to the right as well. It uses selective glue application to allow the flexible glue-strip to lay flat, while the cover floats.

One thing about glued technology is that I strongly suspect it’s page-count independent. If you want to have a 161-page book, you can. 

The next pieces of jargon revolve around sewn bindings. This is classic bookbinding technique, and involved printing pages on both sides of large sheet, folding them together into “signatures,” which are the folded sheets, which seem to be required to be 8- or even 16-page increments, due to folding. If you’re going this route, plan your layout ahead of time to meet this requirement for lowest cost.

But there’s no question – it gets the job done, and is very attractive and durable.

I believe that case-wrap and sewn binding are synonymous, but I’m not 100% on that.

I would print 1,000 copies, and I would print 1,000 more


I won’t make you wait for it. 1,000 is the magic number, it would seem, for an offset print run. Fewer than that and the prices tend to go up, More and they can go down. Way down, in some cases.

Many of these companies have online quote generators. But I’ll throw down what I’ve found. Let’s take a look at a 352-page book – a hefty one – with a standard hardcover with matte laminated print and matte (dull) pages, in 100% full color. The interior page weight will be between 70# and 85# paper – I’ve seen stated preference for both.

Check out the 5e Monster Manual. 352 pages. Glossy cover. Perfect bound (not sewn). I think glossy pages, but could be wrong. So this notional book is “how to make the monster manual with sewn binding and slightly difference aesthetic choices.”

One thing to find out first, and ask specifically: not all binders are printers, and not all printers are binders. What you want as a small-fry publisher like me is to send a company two files: a PDF of the cover, and a PDF of the interior pages. If you get a quote and it seems low, make sure you’ve asked this question! I got a call back from a vendor today that was asking me from where I was going to ship them hundreds or thousands of pounds of pre-printed spreads!

OK, to arms, then:

Victoria Bindery/First Choice Books: Hardcover/Smyth Sewn. 370 pages printed full color, 50# text stock. Hardback, matte laminate cover. About $55 per book.

Victoria Bindery/First Choice: Sent me soft cover perfect bound too. $37 per book.

Lulu: US Letter hardcover casewrap. Full color, 352 pages, 1200 quantity. $61.42 per book.

Drive Thru RPG: Hardcover, Standard Color Heavyweight, Large Size, 352 page. I think these are perfect-bound. $14.50 per book if you order 250 or more. 

Colorwise has a wonderful and comprehensive online quotation page. They quote up to three quantities. 352-page, case bound, 70# uncoated paper. $49.65 for 500 books, $33.14 for 1,000 (!), and $22.08 for 2,000 books. 

Star Print Brokers goes for printing in Asia. They quoted me about $12.50 per book with my general specs, delivery of 1,000 books to my door in Minnesota. I didn’t give them enough detail for a precise quote, but I asked for: hard case, 370-ish pages, 1 color ink, printed cover. So this might be basically a monochome book, which will be less than color. Still – lowest price yet.

Thomson-Shore thus far is my “wow, these guys are good” winner. They referred me to someone that had done RPG work before, guy named Bill Wearne. He said he’d just printed 1,000 copies of 400-page 8.5×11 full-color for $12.50 per book. Explicitly states that using color throughout the book is the highest cost; separating color into 16-page sections can get you big discounts. He then noted (based on my mail) that he’d used incfile to set up an LLC – so he went above and beyond to help me with my project. He noted explicitly that it’s a “email print-ready PDF, four weeks later get books.” He also sent me a ridiculously attractive “sell sheet” on how they support crowdfunding, including domestic and international shipping.  New winner. Seriously.

Bind Tech is a bindery, but the contact sent me names for local printers in Nashville. 

PixArt Printing seems to offer 1,000 copies of sewn-binding hardcover books at 352 sides (the first time I encountered this term) with 70# matte paper, full color for $6.72 per book. Seriously. Looks like 10-day delivery too. For these guys, an equivalent perfect-bound book is $17.62 per book, which seems to invert conventional wisdom. 

PrintNinja gets it done as requested for $15.46, but that includes about $3.25 per book for shipping -they recommend saving money here by making a deal with a freight-fowarder, which may be beyond the skill set desired for a person in their house. Still, the raw book cost is about $12 per book.

Parting Shot

I was dismayed at the cost of Lulu, and though perfect-bound books are how WotC delivers their product, I love the quality of Dracula Dossier and the new Agent’s Handbook both have sewn bindings, and it’s just a good feel.

I don’t know what to make of PixArt. If their price for sewn binding is for real, it’s ridiculously good. 

For the rest, you’re looking, for a seriously good-quality book like what I’ve specified, at about $10-15 per book, which still leaves you out $10,000 or $15,000. But there’s a lot of room to offer a great book at a good price. The Dracula Dossier, a 368-page book at least as good as what I got quoted for quality, sells for $50 (includes PDF) while the PDF sells for $25. With a $50 cover price and a $15 print-and-ship cost, you’ve got a lot of room to actually make a few bucks on your product.

A note on profit

I’ve done a bit of “break it down” on what that means. Let’s say I do a super-limited Kickstarter, with one reward level ($50, for a  hardback book). People sign up, and pledge enough to sell out a 2000-copy run for a full-color hardback. 

Woo-hoo, $100,000 is mine, right?

No. Kickstarter fees are 8% + 0.20 per pledge – for me, notionally, that’s $8400.

MN sales tax and local taxes will ding me for $7125.

Federal taxes depend on what other income you have, but plan for the maximum, and all your surprises may be positive – 25% is 25,000. [See the end for a correction here – 25% of top-line revenue is a gross over-payment, but it saves you from WTF! moments where you owe money you may not have. This is usually not a money-wise strategy, but it is a risk-averse one and not-awful for budgetary and goal-setting purposes. If you have a good idea of your net income and can plan ahead for what the actual rate on that will be . . . do so!]

So, of that 100,000, I now have $59, 475.

I have had to pay for maps, indexing, editing, and layout. Call that $10,000. Indexing is budgeted at $10 per 1,000 words. Editing can be 2.5-8 cents per word, and for reasons I figure on the low end. Call it $6000 for a 200,000-word book. Layout is maybe $1,000 per book, but that varies all over the place.

Oh, and now art. Full-color art at one piece of art per three pages, and 1/3 page per piece, at $250 per full page of art? Another $10,000.

Don’t forget – print the book is $30,000 at $15 per copy. Let’s presume that includes shipping to US customers. International? WAY more. I’ve seen rates as high as $30 per book.


But even with domestic, your costs to edit, put art in, index, and print the thing are $50,000.

Cash left to you? $9.475 (about 5 cents per word), out of which you still haven’t dealt with international shipping, setting up a website, marketing, legal fees or fees for making an LLC (and you DID do that, right? To protect your house from legal liability in case someone with a bone to pick sues you?).

You need that kind of margin if you’re dealing with physical media like books. If you’re PDF only, well, the Pelgrane example suggests the price for the PDF goes down to half. Call it raising $50,000 instead of the full $100K.

You still have to pay the $20,000 for what goes into the book. Taxes are halved to about $16K, and Kickstarter fees to about $4,000. So you still keep $10,000, and your per-word rate is about constant. 

So hardback and print aren’t that different using this model, and a lot of money goes away very, very quickly. Do your math.

A note on taxes (edit)

+Eden Brandeis made a fair point on taxes that bears repeating – you pay taxes on the profits, not the revenue, in the end. That was my line about “all surprises being pleasant ones.”

 The thing for me there is that I would rather send the taxes in early and get a refund later as risk management. No accountant would agree with me – and they’re right – but by planning it my way “all your surprises will be pleasant ones.” I have followed this strategy with selling investments that are part of my work income (always paying 25% taxes right away) and it has provided an important cushion in the past.

It’s a good point, though – if you assume a net 15% rate on the 35K profits, you’re out $5-6K in taxes, leaving $30K in profits. That’s an authorial pay rate of .15 per word, which is more in tune with being both a writer, early editor, project manager, art director, and Chief Everything officer. But your actual tax rate will depend on your other income. If you have a day job that is well compensated, you may wind up paying the top rate on all of your profits – maybe $10K total. If the publishing industry income is your only income, firstly I might question your sanity, but secondly, your next taxes will be lower.

Also – this math is for one book at the $50 price point. Dragon Heresy will be two, at roughly the same point, so things will scale accordingly. It will also vary by what your reward levels are.

But you can see where the cost of obtaining and shipping physical stuff plays merry hell with things – which is why offering free dice, free T-shirts, free tote bags, etc is a huge risk for the creator. I will definitely not be doing so – certainly not for my first time out!

11 thoughts on “Printing costs for high-quality books (Aug 2016)

  1. One thing to remember if you are doing an offset print run is that the more you print the cheaper the unit cost is. Which means if you are doing a Kickstarter you almost certainly want to print more copies than you are selling through the Kickstarter and to try selling the remainder through distribution.

    This has serious effects on the pricing you will arrive at for direct sale because there is a very deep discount on sales to distributors, since both they and the retailers have to get their profit in their too.

    Remember also shipping and warehousing. Whilst running it out of your spare room can work you will eventually get seriously tired of tripping over the excess stock at some point. A fulfilment house can help distribute your product, but remember you will be freighting the books after the printer to the fulfilment house (or your house), the distributor's warehouse, and if you use an established on-line retailer like IPR, their warehouse.

    Then there are overseas shipments. You can do this via USPS but it is likely to be incredible expensive for the customer (which will discourage them) – especially to the EU because they will also have to pay VAT on the shipment. A number of companies offer fulfilment services in the EU and Australia to take advantage of shipping books there directly using a freight service and then mailing locally. Amazon, is also set up for freighting bulky goods to each geographic location.

    The blogs of Fred Hicks and Stonemaeir Games are very useful reading for considering what comes next, after the books are printed, since where they are printed (geographically) will also affect shipping costs.

  2. I'm in concord with Reverance Pavane here. If you get 2,000 Kickstarter backers, print 2,000 books, it sounds like it would he harder to expand your market share afterwards. I haven't a clue if there's some magic number for overproduction, some nexus where the cost saving between the break points offsets the increased upfront cost, but it seems like you'd want a few on hand to anticipate future demand.

    As for the post, that's a great breakdown. I've never had to go through all the steps before, so I'm not familiar with the maths. Speaking of an LLC, I recall hearing (but can't confirm) something about if the profits come in through the LLC, it can be used to offset the total tax amount. Something an accountant would have to vouch for, not this guy who does something that is not accounting.

    I'm surprised Lulu was so far up there. I guess their real niche really is print on demand, rather than printing in the classical sense. I suspect PixArt a number in their quote.

    1. You should definitely print more than the amount of backers you get. The math is simple. You find X amount where savings in printing costs per book exceeds maximum non-sold and holding costs for excess books. Say at 3500 you save 10 dollars per book (retail costs included). You have 2000 backers so 1500 books will be distributed. Holding costs for books after kickstarter is 2$ per book over a 1 year period. Non-sold are estimated at a maximum 500. Total costs associated with this is will be $28,000 assuming $50 per book. While you save $35,000 on the print run. In this case you should print 3500 and not 2000.

    1. Kickstarter is 5% fee; I'm not aware if you can escape the 3% + 0.20 per backer, but if you can, saving money there is going to be viable, especially if you have a big kickstarter. Economizing on a $200,000 KS with 4,000 backers ($6800) will probably net you a few thousand bucks. If you go crazy and have Ogre levels of success (925,000 and 5,500 backers) then the breakdowns get more serious: 46,000 goes right to KS, and their transaction fee is $27,750+1,100 = $28,850. There is, as they say, real money to be saved there.

      Another way to look at it: for a 200,000-word manuscript, every 2,000 saved in costs gives you a 1 penny per word raise in your effective rates.

  3. As an operations and logistics guy in my day job, I'd be very curious how shipping from each potential vendor shakes out. That would be my number one yellow flag. Keep in mind, too, that if you're shipping overseas and you screw up the customs paperwork – which is easy to do if you aren't very careful – you're going to encounter delays and possibly more fees. Then again, hiring a broker isn't cheap. On the other hand, depending on your volume and the number of shipments you plan on making, it might be worth it. Maybe . . .

    Shipping is where people tend to get killed in business.

    1. I seem to recall being told that the real forte of Walmart was transportation and logistics, which ties into your point.

      There seem to be a few different companies, and brokers, popping up to deal professionally and for a reasonable fee with the complex mess that is post-KS fulfillment.

    2. Wow, what a great discussion. I was hoping to do it all myself to increase the margin but I realize that I'm going to shoot myself in the foot. DriveThruRPGs 30% seems more and more fair. I'm going all in with them later tonight, even though their account and buy process is sort of rough.

  4. "One thing about glued technology is that I strongly suspect it's page-count independent. If you want to have a 161-page book, you can."

    Not necessarily. If the printer is making any large page-count book as single pages, they're most likely using a copier (or toner-based printing). That toner won't hold up to repeated use nearly as well as printing with actual ink.

    It's very common for perfect-bound books to be run on larger sheets in "signatures," then folded and trimmed as needed. In fact, it even leads to more durable binding, as the spine-edge is ground rather than cut (or just left as-is, as with single-page runs), giving the glue a better surface to grip.

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