Affordable Print-on-Demand Options for Small or Private Projects – even if you don’t want to publish
Originally written April 17, 2021. Updated October 5, 2023.
We’re all aware of Amazon as an outlet for self-published books – but what if you want to print without publishing?
Here, Amazon KDP and Ingram Spark each get a brief mention, with slightly more information on my Book Baby experience and why I abandoned that effort. The Book Patch earns further mention. My experiences with Lulu and with Barnes and Noble are detailed and compared; I can recommend both.
Print-on-demand for personal use is a burgeoning service
In springtime of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the US, I began a project to give my mother a hardcover copy of her autobiography, which had been printed a decade prior in paperback, as a birthday surprise.
Amazon, the non-starter
Self-publishing with Amazon KDP is possibly the most-forgiving of the publishing services available, although cover processing handled issues, now left to the author/publisher, when Amazon used CreateSpace for paperbacks. CreateSpace cover colors were very noticeably superior, being richer, deeper, and brighter.
On uploading your manuscript, KDP now automatically handles tasks the author had to do themselves back in 2014, and its print requirements are less rigorous than those of other print-on-demand or distribution services such as Ingram Spark. But Amazon doesn’t offer private unpublished print-on-demand.
At one time, it would have been possible to upload a paperback to Amazon’s CreateSpace and use a proof copy as a “finished” copy of you didn’t mind, or wanted to remove, the interior “proof” page; then for a private copy, you simply never selected the “publish” option. Since replacing CreateSpace with KDP Print services, a proof copy has a “Not for Resale” banner around the center of the cover – front, spine, and back. It’s not until after publishing your book that you can order an author copy. If your book is intended only for personal use or private distribution, Amazon is not an option.
What didn’t work
The notion of making a hardcover book began years ago, when I met with a book binder in Colorado Springs. We discussed options for a leather cover, but they didn’t do book printing. It seemed I didn’t have a way to get a book printed to their specifications to pursue the leather cover option. It also would have been expensive – a few hundred dollars. The positive was that the leather options and samples were many, beautiful, and felt wonderfully supple and soft.
In 2020, the idea revived when I received an email message from Book Baby offering a print copy of any book, any binding they provided, for about $40. I downloaded Book Baby’s templates, converted a pdf of my mother’s book to Microsoft Word, and spent several full days reformatting.
The sticking point with this book is that it is chock full of old photographs. Some are black and white; more recent ones are in color. Some are grouped together as a single image, and I had no idea how my brother had handled inserting them into the book. They appeared fairly willy-nilly in their alignment, though they did associate with the text next to which they were placed. I did not have access to the originals from which they had been scanned. They likely were not CMYK (based on cyan, magenta, yellow, and black and generally used for printing, as opposed to RGB, based on red, green, and blue), nor were they 300 dpi. Several were blurry, faded, or slightly red-tinged with age.
Amazon KDP, with which I was most familiar, did not offer either hardcopy printing or private, unpublished projects in early 2020. I didn’t know exactly what my print options would be with Ingram Spark, but didn’t pursue it because (a) their upload requirements are rigorous, (b) there’s a charge for uploads, and (c) I anticipated upload failures and questionable likelihood of ultimate success. I met similar challenges with Book Baby. When it appeared that add-on fees for Book Baby’s handling of issues with the manuscript would add up to more than I considered affordable, I abandoned that route.
Next, I tried Lulu. I got started, had a question, attempted to contact their customer service, and received a message that they were overwhelmed with customer contacts since they had recently performed an upgrade, had known issues, and customers could leave a message for return contact. None came.
One of the issues was that I was unfamiliar with formatting a file for a hardcover book. Cover templates generally are provided for Adobe PhotoShop, InDesign, and something else that I neither own nor know how to use. I measured and “eyeballed” mine in a cover-design application, Book Cover Pro, that I had purchased several years prior. I didn’t know if Lulu or Book Baby would accept a cover not submitted in one of their template files.
At that point, with the unknowns, hype, and the shortages of health resources and cleaning supplies in that first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, my attention was drawn toward how to get groceries, paper towels, and toilet paper without being around people. I already had spray disinfectant and wipes to deal with a cat coronavirus that had proved to be sometimes fatal. That experience, by the way, left me unsurprised by the vast array of symptoms and internal organs affected by COVID-19; the cat coronavirus had behaved similarly. I abandoned the print project for the year.
A bit later, Amazon began offering to authors a beta version of hardcover KDP print-on-demand books, at that time a confidential service we were supposed to keep to ourselves. I thought I could upload a book, publish and order a print hardcover copy, and immediately unpublish it. I spent days reformatting the original 8.5″ x 11″ manuscript to 8.25″ x 11″ and trying different fonts and their sizes, attempting to create a large-print version that maintained its size when converted to a pdf. Prior to hitting “publish” (with some trepidation), however, I asked other authors if there were options to print a book without publishing.
What has worked – so far
In response to an early 2021 post in a writing group, I received a suggestion to use Barnes and Noble or Lulu. Heather explained that both offer “private projects” for which it’s possible to print without meeting more rigorous publishable manuscript requirements. This was welcome news to me! I ultimately used both, using the same manuscript but each having very different cover designs.
Now, I needed to switch back to 8.5″ x 11″ or drop down to 6″ x 9″ in order to print a hardcover with Barnes and Noble. They offer a wide variety of trim sizes, but only some have the case laminate hardcover option, and fewer still can be printed hardcover with a dust jacket.
Opting to begin with a case laminate in 8.5″ x 11″ as needing the least reformatting, I spent a day on the manuscript and its cover. I had two very different cover options, and hoped to find a way to print two of each – one of each for my mother and one of each for me. I might print a less-expensive black and white version for myself prior to printing a full color version for my mother.
It’s worth noting that each printer-publisher that I tried had different size specifications for the case laminate hardcover file. They’re broken down to overall width and height, front cover width and height (and matching back cover measurement), spine width, bleed, margin, and hinge.
While a perfect-bound paperback cover matches the trim size of the manuscript, a hardcover must be larger to accommodate both the larger width and height of the boards and the margin where the cover wraps around the boards to the interior, where adhesive secures it. (The inside of both front and rear boards, including the adhered cover margin, are covered with a heavy grade of plain paper, at least in the proof copy I had received for a published book.)
Additionally, spine width can vary, depending on the type and weight of paper selected. Paper options vary from printer to printer, so the exact cover dimensions are specific to a particular printer and the options you select.
Barnes and Noble
In a full day, I was able to reformat both manuscript and cover to Barnes and Noble specifications, and upload the files. Barnes and Noble provides templates, but I did not use them. I use an application I purchased several years ago for creating book covers and exporting the images to pdf files. Similar to Amazon KDP, you upload the manuscript, you upload the cover, and you preview the manuscript in its cover. At any of those stages, you may receive messages indicating an issue that you need to correct.
After uploading each component (multiple times) and finally approving the copy, it was noted that the book was in review, which lasted several days.
Barnes and Noble print pricing is competitive. For a 280-page standard-quality color print of an 8.5″ x 11″ laminate (with image) hardcover, the print cost estimate is just over $20. That’s approximately half of the print cost for the Amazon KDP hardcover.
Lulu offers either a case or a dust jacket option for their hardcover books. The “case” is not a slip-case — it appears to be what I’ve known as case laminate. The image is part of the cover itself. Since I had just gone through that process with Barnes and Noble for one cover design, I opted to go the 8.5″ x 11″ case laminate route with Lulu for the other cover design. For a dust jacket version, I could keep the same trim size with Lulu, or reduce to 6″ x 9″ with Barnes and Noble. (I’ve still not tackled the formatting for a dust jacket.)
Both Lulu and Barnes and Noble offer an option to create a “new version” of your book project. I didn’t get a timely response from Barnes and Noble whether a new version wipes out the preceding version, or whether you can have multiple versions of the same book available within the same project. I believe, now, that “new version” is in addition to a previous version.
The day after submitting the book to Barnes and Noble, and while waiting for it to proceed from the “in review” status, I began a private not-for-publication Lulu project. I could upload the same manuscript that I had used with Barnes and Noble.
After completing the manuscript upload, I spent the rest of the day and evening trying to get a version of the alternate cover design finished. One of Lulu’s template options for the cover is a .png file. I downloaded that and used it in my cover design application to help format the cover while minimizing the measuring, eyeballing, and trial-and-error technique. When complete, I removed the template image from my book cover file. At midnight, the upload of the 64 Mb pdf cover file failed twice with no indication whatsoever of the cause of the failures. I didn’t know if it was too large, and I was unable to find a documented maximum upload file size.
Lulu provides three cover options: (1) upload your completed pdf cover, (2) pick a pre-formatted cover and update it, which seems to allow very little room for deviation from the original for your creative editing tastes, (3) use a Cover Creator which links to Canva, sending along some of the cover specs in the process; when complete in Canva, it goes back to Lulu. After the second midnight failure, I decided to try the Canva option in the morning.
One issue: The three cover options are selected by radio buttons. I had selected the upload option. In the morning when I came back to the project, there was another type of button elsewhere to go to Canva. When I clicked that Canva button, the radio button stayed on the “upload completed file” option. When returning from Canva, the preview showed an empty cover, but the manuscript was loaded. I selected the “Cover Creator” via Canva radio button, repeated the Canva process, and that time the cover appeared in the manuscript preview. So, be sure to use the radio button to select the Canva option.
Lulu’s color print option uses an 80# coated white paper, whereas other printer-publishers, including Barnes and Noble, use 60# or 70# paper. The technical message it displayed indicated that the large number of images in the book should use the premium color option rather than the standard color option. I had originally selected standard color because the images aren’t the best quality to begin with.
I approved the manuscript with cover, and received a message that the processing was taking longer than usual, and I should check my “Projects” tab later. It was there within two minutes, and I was able to order my copies right away.
The print cost for the 280-page 8.5″ x 11″ with standard color print was $22 and some odd cents. When upgraded to premium color printing, it leaped to $56 and some cents per copy. $64-even, with tax and shipping. Even $56 per copy seemed like peanuts when compared to the bits of a quote I had been given by the local printer.
A local printer had told me a hardcover would start at $250 just to set up and make the cover, and that didn’t yet consider the cost of printing the book. Price to print a dust jacket that size was a minimum $50. I was still waiting for the full quote at the time I proceeded with the Lulu cover. By then the local printer option was shelved due to both its uncompetitive pricing and their lack of response.
The Book Patch
Another response to my query about POD (print on demand) options recommended The Book Patch.
They offer perfect binding for paperback books and spiral binding, but not hardcover. I have no personal experience with The Book Patch beyond visiting their website. Their pricing seemed reasonable, but may be higher than Lulu or Barnes and Noble for paperback, known as “perfect binding” for a “perfect bound” book.
A spiral binding seems a good option if you’re looking for a book you want to lie flat when open, such as a cookbook.
- Both Lulu and Barnes and Noble offer private projects for print-on-demand books that you don’t want to publish.
- Both offer a wide range of book dimensions, some in landscape as well as portrait orientation.
- Both have options to skip over the normal requirements for images internal to the manuscript. (Normal requirements: CMYK color (as opposed to RGB); grayscale for black and white images; 300 – 600 dpi image resolution.)
- Both provide templates for manuscript and cover. Templates may require products such as Adobe Photoshop or InDesign.
- Both have similar upload and review processes. Using the Chrome web browser on Microsoft Windows 10, I had to refresh pages multiple times throughout the process on the Barnes and Noble site to clear error or hang situations. An update of the book in early 2023 for a cover correction had no such refresh issues using a newer PC running Windows 11.
- Barnes and Noble provides meaningful error messages for your troubleshooting pleasure. Lulu did not, for the cases I encountered (failure of the cover pdf to upload, with no indication why).
- Barnes and Noble has a review process between your manuscript approval and your ability to purchase a copy of your book. The review took several days. Lulu provides the ability to purchase your book almost immediately upon your manuscript approval.
- Neither Barnes and Noble nor Lulu provides the extensive and easy-to-find documentation of their processes, options, specifications, and other requirements that Amazon KDP offers. Barnes and Noble specifications and print options/limitations were eventually found, but not until I had resorted to trial-and-error and written them down. I still don’t know the maximum upload file size for either of them. Nor do I know what allowed the Canva cover to succeed where my pdf had failed.
- Paper, cover, and print quality of both Barnes and Noble and Lulu are good. I would use either of them for additional books.
- Both Barnes and Noble and Lulu offer the option to publish and sell your books.
With a couple more private projects to tackle this year, I’ll likely use Barnes and Noble for the small paperback one, as it meets the needs of the project and is the most affordable. The larger project likely will use a case laminate hardcover with premium photo paper. Barnes and Noble’s heaviest paper option for premium color is 70# paper, while Lulu uses 80# coated paper for premium color printing. My previous project for my mother used one of each, and I was happy with the results of both.
I recommend that you estimate the number of pages for your project, and visit the website for your print options early on. The websites offer an opportunity to estimate print costs before even beginning a project.
You’ll need to review the various print options each printer offers:
- book dimensions
- orientation (portrait vs landscape)
- cover type (paperback/perfect bound vs hardcover vs spiral binding)
- matte vs gloss cover finish
- paper color (white vs cream)
- weight of paper
- black and white printing vs color
- minimum or maximum number of pages required
You may want to decide the trim size of your book based on your print options before setting the page size for your manuscript in whatever you use for your word processing software, such as Microsoft Word.