A complete step-by-step guide to self-publishing hardcover books, including design, printing, and distribution options
Photo by Marta Dzedyshko via Pexels.com
Is a hardcover edition of your book the right choice for you?
In the era of the eBook and print-on-demand paperbacks driven by the rise in self-publishing platforms such as Amazon’s KDP, Ingram Spark, and Lulu, you might be forgiven for wondering if there’s still a place for custom printed hardcovers in the modern market. But when you look at the figures for book sales and formats in the USA — with over 650 million print copies sold each year, of which hardcovers represent a staggering 25% — it’s clear that hardcover books not only still have a place but those sales are thriving.
There are good reasons for this, as successful publishers know. So, when you’re thinking about why and how to self-publish a hardcover book, remember that while the eBook and the ‘throwaway’ paperback have a place, millions of readers still prize hardcover books for their superior quality, elegance, beauty, and durability. Hardcovers are also popular with libraries which spend over $2 billion a year on book acquisitions in the US alone.
As any mainstream publisher’s marketing department will tell you, a hardback edition of a book—whether it’s a novel, a cookbook, a travelogue, or a portfolio of photography or artwork—communicates value, quality, and authority to the potential reader. Many readers who’ve enjoyed a series which they read in eBook or paperback format will eagerly buy a hardback compendium edition to grace their bookshelves at home.
Most successful self-publishers these days know that even if they expect most of their sales to be eBooks, they should still publish a paperback version. Why? Well, aside from the added sales made to those readers who don’t like eBooks—and there are tons of them—it’s good marketing. It means every time a potential customer goes to a sales page on whatever platform they’re browsing, they’ll see how much money they save by buying the eBook, which makes the deal look better. But if you’re thinking about why and how to self-publish a hardcover book, you’d be wise to take a leaf out of the mainstream publishers’ playbook.
Mainstream publishers continue to publish hardback copies first, before they release a book in other formats. And they know what they’re doing. In a recent interview in The Guardian, Philip Jones, the editor of The Bookseller gave the following reasons why publishers put out hardcover books:
- A hardcover book exudes quality and proves that the author and publisher believe in the book’s value.
- Hardcover books are more likely to be reviewed, for example in Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus—and reviews have a huge impact on sales.
- They sell well and are more profitable because you can charge twice as much while they don’t cost twice as much to produce.
- Millions of readers prefer them for their aesthetic qualities; for the beauty of the object itself.
You could compare hardback releases in publishing with cinema releases of a movie months before it’s released on DVD or a streaming service. In part, it’s good marketing—cinema releases are more high-profile, are more likely to be reviewed in the papers, and generate buzz for the future release of the DVD or streaming version—and in part it plays to that section of the market which still prefers to watch a movie in a theater rather than on the small screen. It’s exactly the same dynamic with hardcover books.
So, in increasing numbers, successful self-published authors realize that it may be worth their while to invest in hardcover production. As the boundaries between mainstream publishers, small presses, and self-publishers continue to blur, it’s an ever more common aspect of the self-publisher’s marketing strategy. Having answered why, the question is how to self-publish a hardcover book.
All that being said, the hardcover option may not be right for every author. Much depends on what you write and publish, who your target readership is and what their buying habits are, and what your reasons are for publishing in the first place. So, before we get into how to do it, here’s a useful checklist to help you decide if going this route will help you reach your goals.
How to decide if you should self-publish a hardcover book
Publishing a hardcover could be the right choice for you if you can say yes to one or more of the following:
- Do you write in one or more of the most successful hardcover genres such as cookbooks, travelogues, memoirs, science fiction, fantasy, and young adult dystopian fiction?
- Have you written a family history, local history, or memoir to distribute to family, friends, a membership society, local independent bookstores, and libraries?
- Are you a self-published novelist or other writer with an established fanbase and responsive mailing list, ready to up your game?
- Are you a photographer, artist, or graphic designer looking to produce a stylish “coffee-table book” to promote your work?
- Have you already successfully published a comic book or graphic novel series and now you’d like to produce collectible compendium editions to sell to your fans?
While there may be other very good reasons to choose hardcover books, these are the proven categories that most often work for self-publishing authors. So, if you’re still interested, let’s take a look at what your options are when thinking about how to self-publish a hardcover book and what’s involved in each possibility. The first thing to understand is that there’s a difference between printing a book and publishing and distributing it. While for eBooks and print-on-demand paperbacks, you’ll often find both services bundled together—for example on Amazon’s KDP platform or through Ingram Spark—that’s not yet fully true for hardcover publication.
The difference between printing and publishing
Printing and publishing can be related activities, but they shouldn’t be confused and they are not the same. In short, the difference is this: printing is the process of producing a physical book—putting the ink on the pages and binding all the pages between the covers—to create the object that a reader will eventually hold in their hands; whereas publishing is taking that book—or many copies of it—and distributing it to stores and other outlets where potential readers can find and buy a copy.
The best printers offer a bespoke service. That means you have full control over the printed product you’re creating. They are also expert technicians and craftspeople, with years of experience in the industry. Good custom printing services can offer you the full range of available materials, formats, layouts, and styles that are possible in today’s market. While integrated self-publishing services — such as Amazon’s KDP and Ingram Spark — have recently begun to experiment with print-on-demand hardcover, Amazon’s service is still in beta and has limited availability and Ingram Spark’s service, while available to all for a fee, has limitations on size, paper quality, etc. One way or another, whether you opt in to Amazon’s beta program, work with the limitations of Ingram Spark’s automated system, or choose to work with a traditional bespoke printing company, you’ll need to print your book before you can publish it. And until the other services have fully caught up, if you want to offer your readers the best possible product and reading experience—which you should in such a competitive marketplace—then for most purposes, a traditional printer is probably still the most reliable and cost-effective route to take for a hardcover book.
How to choose the best printing service for the hardcover edition of your book
All authors are different and which option will be right for you depends on what you are publishing, why, who your readers are, and how you want to handle distribution.
Here are a few questions to answer to help you decide:
- Have you published before and do you have an established readership? Unless you have a lot of capital to invest, as a first-time self-publishing author, it may be safer to publish electronically or in paperback using a print-on-demand service until you have established a fanbase and a measurable market for your work. If you’re already a successful self-publisher with a tribe of eager readers waiting for your next release and a responsive email list to market through, then a hardcover is your next logical step.
- If you have published before — perhaps eBooks and paperbacks (also called ‘softcovers’) — which distribution channels, have you used to date? For example, you can still sell your hardcover book through Amazon as an independent seller and use their fulfilment program. Likewise, you can contact bookstores and libraries and list your hardcover editions with the main distributors such as Baker & Taylor and The Independent Publisher’s Group (IPG) in the US or Gardners in the UK. And if you’re a savvy and successful self-publishing ‘authorpreneur’ then you should have a large and responsive email list which will make direct-selling your hardcover book a breeze.
- Do you want to sell your book for a profit or are you publishing for another reason? If you want to make money on your book, then you’ll need to do the math on the profitability of ordering a print run. In most cases, if you’re at the stage where you’re ready to market a hardcover, then custom offset printing will be cheaper, as well as better quality, than one of the emerging print-on-demand services. But if you need fewer than 100 copies—perhaps just for friends, family, or your club—and have a tight budget, print-on-demand might serve you better.
- Need your book have the highest quality photographic and visual reproduction: for example, a photo-essay, a travelogue, portfolio of artwork, or a book with full color illustrations? In that case, only a custom printing service will meet your needs.
The pros and cons of your hardcover printing options
Ingram Spark’s hardcover service
- Ingram Spark is the name of the self-publishing arm of the Ingram Content Group, which also offer one of the most important book distribution services in the United States. They’re an established company with a good reputation.
- While Ingram Spark—like all self-publishing services—focus on eBooks and paperbacks, they also offer print-on-demand hardcover books and can even handle color.
- Turnaround times are reasonable and on the whole, their shipping options are affordable and trustworthy.
- They do not offer personalized customer service. You must do everything yourself through their online automated platform. If it’s your first time and you make a mistake or just don’t understand what you need to do; you’re on your own, kid!
- The platform user interface is notoriously difficult to navigate and is often very ‘glitchy’.
- Because it’s a print-on-demand service, the relatively high price you pay per unit (meaning per book) doesn’t go down on a bulk order. So, if you plan to order more than 1,000 copies—which you probably do if you’re distributing the book yourself—it’s quite expensive and your profit margin will always be low.
- On top of everything else, they charge you fixed fees to upload your files and added fees if you need to update or correct them
- They have a limited range of options from which to choose in terms of sizes, formats, paper types, etc. and they can’t offer high-grade printing options such as embossing, full-color photographic inserts, ultraviolet spot glossing, and so on.
Amazon’s Beta Service
- If you already publish your eBooks and trade paperbacks with Amazon, then it may make sense to use their print-on-demand hardcover service, too. That is, if you have access to the beta program as it rolls out.
- You can tie your hardcover straight in with Amazon’s stores and distribution and it functions the same as you’re used to with your other editions.
- It’s still in experimental beta mode and not available to everyone.
- The formatting, size, design, paper, and other options are very limited compared to other options.
- There’s no personal service. As with Ingram Spark, you need to do everything yourself via the automated platform.
- There’s no escaping the fact that the resulting book is an inferior product compared to Ingram Spark or an offset printer.
- As with any print-on-demand service, if you’re a successful self-published author looking to up your game, offer a superior product, and try your hand at ‘cutting out the middle man’ to increase your profits, Amazon doesn’t cut the mustard.
Custom printing services
- With a reputable custom offset printing company, you’ll get a personalized service from experienced staff who are as invested as you are in the quality of the final product.
- Unlike the limited range of options available through the print-on-demand services, offset printers can offer you all the fancy add-ons and features you could ever dream of; making your book truly outstanding.
- As part of their professional level of service, the best independent printing companies will provide you with templates to give your designer and offer free file checking and proofing to make sure there are no errors in your product
- Offset printers use the best machinery and latest technology combined with human management and quality checking, unlike the print-on-demand services, which are fully automated.
- This also means that they can offer you the full range of bindings, including saddle stitching, perfect bound, flat or rounded spines, and more
- Wide-sheet printing means quality is maintained while keeping the costs down, and the more copies you order, the less you pay per copy. So, if you mean to direct-sell over 100 to 1,000 copies or more via your list, your profits will be higher than with other options.
- If you want color or photographic printing, then a custom offset printer is really your only option.
- If you’re concerned about the environment — and who isn’t these days? — many traditional printers, unlike the other services, can boast FSC certification and use environmentally friendly ink products (like soy-based inks).
- If you’re handling distribution yourself, the most reputable printers can offer storage, too — so you don’t need to fill your apartment with boxes of unsold books! — and they’ll ship the books to you in smaller batches, or even singly, as you need them.
- If you’re completely new to self-publishing and still finding your literary feet and developing an audience, it’s probably too soon to dive into hardcover production, anyway.
- But now you know how to self-publish a hardcover book, and you’ve got this far, that’s probably not you. In the interests of balance, you might expect to find a few more bullet points here. But to be honest—while paperback, softcover, and trade printing could be another discussion—if hardcover printing is the solution you’re looking for, then a custom print service simply beats the other options hands-down on all the points that matter: professionalism and personalization, product range and quality, and even price and shipping.
As we noted before, the self-publishing companies are beginning to play catch-up with hardcover printing options. But it remains a fact that their services and products still aren’t equal to the personal service, high-quality materials, range of sizes and designs, and competitive pricing you enjoy with a custom printer. It’s the difference between photocopying your watercolor painting to display in a photo frame from Walmart and getting a high-fidelity limited edition print mounted and framed by a master craftsman. If you’re serious about a long-term self-publishing career and you’re building on your success so far by rewarding your loyal readers with a volume they can treasure, then why would you want to settle for anything less?
How to self-publish a hardcover book: the custom printing process step-by-step
Designing your hardcover book inside and out
- You’ll need to work with a professional designer to create the artwork and layout for your book’s interior and cover. Your printer will be able to provide your designer with templates, formatting options, and anything else they need to prepare print-ready files.
- You’ll also need to buy ISBNs and barcodes and give them to your designer
- Your designer will format the interior layout and text, too.
What you need to give your printer
Your printer will need the files that your designer gives you. These should include the choice of paper and size for your finished book along with the spine style—such as round or flat—and any special features like embossing, debossing, or a ribbon marker, for example.
Options a good printer should give you
Whereas with one of the automated self-publishing services, you don’t have much—if any—choice about the details of the product you’ll get when you publish in hardcover, a custom offset printer can give you a very wide spectrum of options from paper to trim sizes to different spines and surface finishings to dust jackets and slip covers.
Checking your proof
Your custom printer will send you proofs and samples so you can check everything is exactly as you want it before going ahead with the final print run.
Shipping and distribution
Once your book is printed, you can list it on the various retail outlets and get it into the catalogs. Also, you can have the copies delivered to your distributor (Amazon fulfillment, for example), to yourself, or held in storage by your printer. Most good printers now offer storage and can send you copies as you need them; either to sell at a public event, conference, speaking engagement, book fair, library or school appearance or for you to mail direct to your email list customers.
That’s it. Self-publishing isn’t easy. But for those with the right skills and determination, it can be a very rewarding career choice. And once you reach a certain level of success, custom printing a beautiful hardback edition of your work is the obvious upgrade to take you to the next level on your writing and publishing journey.