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Production: How To Use Short-run Printers As An Alternative To POD

Production: How to Use Short-run Printers as an Alternative to POD

Jane Davis with pile of booksAward-winning British novelist Jane Davis shares her journey through the print process from POD (print on demand) to traditional book production.

Desirable, covetable, collectable

I fell in love with the physical book at an early age and so creating a set of desirable, covetable and collectable novels has been one of my goals. It has also been my aim to see my books on the shelves of bookshops (although I know from my experience of being trade published that this process is by no means automatic).

As a newbie to the world of self-publishing, I was sold the idea that Print on Demand provided the ultimate solution. The ability to print only what I needed and to update any create new editions easily was certainly alluring. There were three main problems:

  • Reluctance on the part of bookshops to stock Createspace titles. To date, my titles have been stocked by a limited number of indie bookshops.
  • Inconsistent quality. I received several botched batches. On one occasion, I had to cancel a launch event. And, while the quality of book covers and paper improved, these production problems cropped up more frequently. The last straw was when a proof copy ordered in the UK that was so badly cut the text was affected – and I couldn’t get either Amazon or Createspace to accept responsibility. My concern is that this quality was being shipping to Amazon’s direct customers – in order words, my readers.
  • Profitability. The other pressing issue was that I was making a loss of £5 on every paperback I sold. In fact, removing myself from the equation seemed to be the only way to stop the rot.

Why Clays? 

Cover of An Unknown WomanEarlier this year I was invited to speak to the London Writers’ Club at the London Headquarters of Clays Ltd. My talk was preceded by a demonstration of Clays’ production process. If you have ever wondered about the enduring lure of the printed book, just pass samples of book covers and paper around a room of writers and watch them touch; watch them smell. I was one of those who decided to investigate further. The following week, Clays Self-Publishing had a presence at Indie Recon and by then a personal relationship had been established.

“The self-publishing market has developed hugely over the last few years, and this year we have seen real maturity. This is the reason that we created Clays Self-Publishing: to give authors the opportunity to create books that are indistinguishable from a traditionally published book.” Rebecca Souster, Clays Ltd

Cost comparison

Box of "I Stopped Time" novel

The Clays edition of “I Stopped Time”

I placed an order for 200 of each of my five titles with Clays, spending just over £2000 (B format paperback, Ensocreamy paper 70/135, Cover: 4/0, matt laminate, standard cover board, Delivery to 1 UK address, storage of one box of book per title). The same order with Createspace would have cost £4003.87, using their medium shipping option.

However, I incurred costs in getting to the stage where I could place my order with Clays. Arguably, some of these costs were unnecessary, but a certain amount of work was required to convert the files from the US book sizes used by Createspace to the UK book sizes used by Clays and I didn’t want to use interiors that were clearly based on Createspace templates. Your costs might be less. On the other hand, as you will be producing a long print run, you may want to opt for a final proofread. (I did this myself. Twice.)

Interior formatting: £600 (money well spent!)
Book cover formatting: £240 (resizing, revised spine width, adding price and barcode, updates to reinforce branding, one updated cover design)
10 ISBN numbers of which 5 used: £ 72
Total: £912 (or 91p per book)

Plus each book must bear its share of what I call production costs (copy editing, cover design, proofreading, etc.) £1520 divided by 1000 assumed sales (actual number of sales may be lower) = £1.52 per book.

Total cost via Clays:

£1.94 (printing, average price)
£0.91 (reformatting, etc.)
£1.52 (production costs)

Total: £4.37 (first print run only); £3.46 (subsequent print runs – this is where it gets interesting)

Total cost via Createspace

£4.00 (printing/shipping)
£1.52 (book production)

Total: £5.52

And now for the not so good news…

Potential profit via Createspace

  • Direct sales at full price: £3.47, less cost of attending event, booking stall, travel, etc. (Average loss £5.00 per book.)
  • Sales via indie bookshop (30% discount):  £0.77, less any delivery costs (loss of £1.83 per book).
  • Profit if sold via Amazon: £-0.88 (I get average 90p less share of production costs.)

Potential profit per book via Clays

  • Direct sales at full price:£4.62, less cost of attending event, booking stall, travel, etc. (Loss will reduce to £3.85 per book)
  • Sales via indie bookshops (30% discount): £1.92, less any delivery costs = potential loss (current postage per book is £2.60, usually hand-delivered)
  • Sales to Gardners via Clays:£0.58

In other words, I won’t break into profit until I place my second order with Clays – but I will have a product that I’m proud to sell and will show people I mean business.

This is not Print on Demand

cover of These Fragile Things

The new Clays edition

Some points worth remembering:

  • The responsibility for preparing the files to the required standard is yours. You won’t receive a proof copy, although your files will be checked carefully before Clays go to print. (They picked up on a minor issue with one of my covers.)
  • You will need to purchase your own ISBN numbers (Don’t forget to complete the New Titles forms afterwards.)
  • To avoid incurring additional charges, you’ll need to supply the cover complete with a barcode. I used the free barcode generator tool at
  • The higher the number of books ordered, the cheaper the unit price becomes. If I had been able to afford to pay for (and store) 300 of each titles, the average price would have come down to £1.50.

But what about distribution?

All titles are registered in Gardners’ catalogue. Clays supply ten copies to them initially and then fill orders placed by Gardners from the stock they hold. (One box of approximately 50 books is stored free of charge. Additional storage is available for a fee). You will be asked to complete a Gardeners New Titles Spreadsheet and a Waterstones’ Trading Application Form. When the supply held by Clays runs out, you have the option of placing another order or sending any excess copies that you still have.

Gardners buy your books for a 50% discount, Clays take 12% of money received from Gardners and you are left with circa 44%. Gardners will offer your books to retailers at a 35% discount, which makes your book very attractive.

You can specify whether or not you will allow ‘sale or return’. Clays pay you direct for sales, however, this takes up to 90 days due to Gardners’ terms of credit. In addition, you may receive orders via Nielsen’s. It is up to you to check their website to see if orders have been placed.

Photo of four new editions

Customer Service

Boxes of books newly delivered from ClaysThe service received from Clays was second to none. Clays’ detailed guide for self-publishers is available for download via their website. Added to this, their dedicated self-publishing consultant, Rebecca Souster, walked me through the whole process, so that it didn’t feel overwhelming at any point. I couldn’t work the spine width calculator because I didn’t understand the terminology. Rebecca did it for me. I wasn’t sure how to fill in forms. Rebecca was on hand. I spotted a stray apostrophe in the first chapter of one of my titles at the eleventh hour, and then found that the person who had formatted the interior was on holiday. Resolved with the minimum of fuss.

By the end of the process, I feel as if I have built a solid relationship. I was touched that Rebecca seemed genuinely excited to see how my books turned out. She was concerned to make sure I got exactly what I wanted. I know that some Print on Demand services excel in customer service, but this was personal. And the quality of the books is far beyond what you could hope to achieve from a Print on Demand service. I’m delighted.


Have you tried traditional printing for short (or longer) runs? Please feel free to share your experience via the comments box.

A viable alternative to #POD for indie authors by @janedavisauthor about @ClaysSelf-Pub Click To Tweet

Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the author of seven novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Compulsion Reads describe Jane as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’ Most recently, her novel ‘An Unknown Woman’ has been named Self Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. For further information, visit the author’s website at

This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Having had my first book trad published I decided (for lots of reasons) to bring out the sequel myself. My main aim was that the second book would

    a) be indistinguishable in physical terms from the trad published one and
    b) that it would be available for bookshops.

    So I decided to do a print run using the same printer as had been used by the publisher (Anthony Rowe) – they were able to replicate the paper / cover quality etc, and the distributor of the first book agreed to take no 2 on the same basis as their arrangement with the publisher for no 1.
    I also used the same cover designer to ensure continuity. The book is 118,000 words – 480 pages.

    The total cost of editing, formatting, cover design, artist fee for map insert, ISBN, print run (1000) and split delivery – 800 to distributor and 200 to my home worked out at £3.03 per copy.

    The book retails at £8.99, the distributor takes 15% of net sales to bookshops / Gardners / Bertrams / Waterstones etc. and does not charge for warehousing unless / until after three years if they still have more than 500 copies left. (The charge would then be 1p per book per month.) Depending on the discount that various outlets get I receive either £4.96 or £4.59 per copy, so a profit of £1.93 / £1.56 up to the point when the costs are covered when the whole amount will be profit.
    On the print copies alone if only sold through the distributor I needed to sell 660 copies to completely cover the costs – which I admit was a fairly daunting prospect.

    However, the books I sell myself at events I usually sell at jacket price of £8.99, so receive £5.96 for those. I also have some direct outlets – several bookshops, a cafe and 2 stately home gift shops. I give all of those a discount similar to what they could get buying from the distributor, but I don’t lose the 15%. Obviously, it was a gamble doing a print run, but the base cost of £1.86 per copy inc the split delivery charges,was very tempting – c 1/3rd of the price Createspace would have been for the same length of book. Once postage was added with CS I would have been selling copies at a loss.

    When I was considering I also factored in potential ebook sales – which are (effectively) all profit as the formatting price I had included preparing my book for print and both mobi and e-pub files. For those I receive £2.79 per copy.

    I hoped to cover costs within a year. 8 months in I am c £300 short of my target, so fairly happy with that. Of course, since publication I have spent extra money on marketing / sending out review copies etc / supplying the British library and the other main libraries that have a legal right to a free copy, which I will have to work off – those costs could mount up quite easily if not carefully monitored, but to help off-set them I’ve also had some paid events at festivals and writing groups and been able to sell a related article to a glossy magazine. My revised break-even point including all marketing is 18 months, and so far it looks as if I should manage that.

    The major downside relates to Gardners – I only recently (through talking to a bookshop owner) discovered that they were only offering bookshops a 20% discount on my books (they get 40% discount from the distributor) so not surprisingly not many copies are going through them and in fact the only 3 returns that I’ve had have been from Gardners. I suggested to the bookshop in question that they order direct from the distributor, which they did. However, apart from the first couple of months after the launch most of the copies sold via the distributor have been to Amazon / The Book Depository / Waterstones, with a few via Bertrams and Gardners. Having read the above post I’m going to speak to the distributor to see if offering a 50% discount to Gardners would result in them offering 35% to shops which might make a difference, though a few months in discoverability will be an issue.

    I have now bought back the rights to my first book and the remaining copies that were held at the distributors – they physically stayed there – and so I’m working off the cost of them also, but still hope to clear that within my target time.

    My biggest decision at the moment is that i intend bringing out a small collection of short stories – probably c 30,000 words and would like a small print run for that for myself, so was thinking about CS or Lightning Source, but following the comments re production quality / print costs in this post am going to talk to my printer…

    I do not regret doing a print run, but realise I’ve been very fortunate in being able to pay for the cost up front – the end result has been a book that in physical terms compares with the best of traditionally published paperbacks – many people I meet don’t realise I brought it out myself at all until I tell them.

  2. A very interesting article and putting in her actual costs was very informative. However her comparison was with Createspace. I’d be interested to see how short print runs compare with Lightning Source/Ingrams’ POD which I currently use. Their recent hike in production costs makes it difficult to make a profit with them now.

  3. In reply to Piper, my agreement with Gardners is no sale or return. You are in control of this aspect. Of course, it may put some stores off buying. One thing I did not include (and something that needs to be factored into cost) is the request from both the British Library AND the Legal Deposit Libraries for 5 copies of each of my titles, i.e. 10 copies of each title in total. I admit that it would be quite a thrill to have my books in the Bodleian Library Oxford University, The Cambridge University Library, National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales and Trinity College Dublin, but a very expensive thrill. (The cost of the books, the lost revenue and a courier for 25 books to Edinburgh.) I have applied for permission to deposit ebooks instead of Print books, but am told that agreement is by no means certain. This will mean that the maths in my post will be wrong and the anticipated profit will be lower. I’d be very grateful for advice if anyone else has experience of this!

    1. Re the Legal Deposit – as I understand it the libraries have to be given a physical copy if they don’t agree to an e-copy. I sent off the copy to the British Library immediately upon publication and shortly afterwards received a demand for copies for the other libraries. – I asked the distributor to fulfill that (saved me the postage!) I didn’t offer an e-copy as I felt that if the hard copy was in these libraries maybe, just maybe someone would pick it up and who knows what might come of that.

  4. Access to physical distribution through wholesalers and retail outlets is the biggest stumbling block for indies, as far as I can tell.

    While I do think this is a great post for those in a financial position to afford this option, the issue that has been ignored is ‘returns’.

    Even with the wholesalers, Gardners, holding a certain number of your books in stock for distribution to retailers, and with the offering of a 30% discount (which seems reasonable) my guess would be that the majority of bookstores are only likely to order stock if there is a returns policy in place on them…and that’s where the indie or small press financial ship can sink- fast.

    I was reading recently about this business model in book retailers being the next big challenge for indie authors to overcome…I think it was possibly even on an ALI contributors post?

    I really do look forward to the day when the business model of retail print book sales offers an equal playing field to Big Trad and Indie publishing alike, because that is still where the majority of the readers are, despite the ebook revolution.

  5. Thank you for a great post, Jane. I too had a wonderful experience with Clays producing a gift book, which I will, as Debbie says, be covering soon for the blog. I do think it’s crucial to have your distribution outlets sorted before investing in short order print — and to do your sums. Though I’m delighted with my experiment producing a premium gift book ( it’s only working financially for me because much of the costs were crowdfunded up front. I think making a proper profit in print is very difficult for indies, whether its POD or short order.

    1. Good comment Orna. I feel like this post is nice, but not realistic for most indies. Most of us don’t have the start-up dough for this kind of run (or the space!) but it’s a nice idea for people who do.

      Fortunately, I have no problem doing all the formatting, resizing, artist query and put-together parts of the digital book myself, which does save money. I’ll be sticking to digital for now…

  6. Jane–
    It may be that entering self-publishing with an “award-winning” reputation explains your enthusiasm for what you term short-run printers. My experience was very different, and much more costly for my novel about dogs, Just Bill. I hired a book designer/cover artist, arranged for printing a thousand copies (the minimum for a better per-copy deal), and so forth. In the end, the absence of reliable distribution brought the project to grief. Stores wouldn’t carry it, reviewers wouldn’t review it, so most of the print run (an old story) resides in my basement.
    I’ve had a much different experience by switching to POD and Createspace. My formatter/designer loads everything for me, and my two Createspace suspense novels–The Anything Goes Girl, and Deep North–look very professionally done. I buy copies at the author rate for on-site selling and to mail out to reviewers, etc.
    All things considered, I’m a booster-club member for Createspace–but then I’m not an award-winning author.

    1. Aside from the many typos in this “blog” there are numerous other POD publishers that do a decent job, better quality product than Createspace and help with the numerous details that I for one do not want to handle such as setting up a book to be published, ordering ISBN, placing on Amazon and B&N, etc. Yes, one has to be very careful, cautious and thoughtful not to buy overpriced packages.

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