One of the many important decisions you will have to make as a self-publishing author is whether to print your books using digital printing or litho printing. In this article we explore the differences between the two methods.

The printing method you choose – digital versus litho printing – will depend on a few considerations. These include:

  • how you intend to distribute your book
  • how many books you want to print
  • the financial resources you have available
  • the kind of book you are printing
  • your quality requirements
  • your finishing requirements

A digital press

A digital press looks like a large, fancy photocopy machine. It uses four toners – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and black – with special finishes being limited to matt and gloss.

Digital printing

Digital printing is done using machines that look similar to very large photocopiers. Sheets are pre-cut to size and loaded into trays. The maximum sheet size is usually A3-oversize (just larger than A3) to accommodate bleed and grip area to feed the paper through. A small set-up fee is charged for preparing your file, loading paper into the machine and setting the printing parameters; thereafter the client is charged a rate per page printed, like the charge-per-click used for photocopy billing. Digital printing uses dry toner in four colours – CMYK – that is fused onto the paper using heat.

Print quantity: Digital printing has very low set-up costs making it suitable for small print runs of just one to a few hundred books. Digital printing is the method used for print-on-demand books (books printed as and when orders are received).

Cost: Low set-up costs and smaller print runs mean lower cash outlay and therefore lower financial risk. However, because digital printing costs are based on a charge-per-click, larger print quantities yield minimal to no cost-benefits.

Distribution requirements: Digital printing is suited to authors requiring smaller-scale, niche distribution, for instance, a motivational speaker who wants to sell books at his or her seminar; a company who wants to sell books to their customers; authors who run courses; family members creating family history books; authors writing on specialised topics aimed at very particular (and usually small) markets; authors wanting to test the market first before investing heavily in a large print run; and so on. It is not suited to bookstore distribution because of the high costs of the book distribution chain, and authors are able to cover their printing costs but not their production costs and must rely on direct-to-customer sales to cover the latter and make a profit.

Kind of book being printed: Digital printing in South Africa is still very expensive when it comes to full colour printing, so digital printing is only recommended for single colour books, such as fiction, self-help, biographies, and other text-based books. Full colour coffee table and childrens’ books, for instance, are better suited to litho printing (see below).

Quality: While digital printing has come a long way and can offer very good print quality, especially with single colour books, litho printing is still better. Having said that, many authors cannot tell the difference between a digitally-printed book and one printed using a litho process, although industry professionals will likely be able to do so, particularly when it come to full colour.

Finishing: Options are limited, as is the size of the book that you can print because digital presses have limited sheet sizes. Basic finishes such as foiling, embossing, thread-sewing and hardcover binding are usually outsourced, so when these costs have to be carried by a small volume of books, it makes each book very expensive and puts the price of the book out of the range of what most buyers are willing to pay.


A lithographic press

Each standing unit applies a different colour – up to 8 colours can be accommodated on this particular press. Large sheets are fed through the first unit to the last unit. Standard book printing colours are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. The extra units on this machine can accommodate additional colours and finishes, such as spot colours, aqueous varnishing and spot varnishing.

Litho printing

Litho printing is the printing method used by major publishing houses because it is better suited to large print quantities (thousands of books), although it has also proven to be more cost-effective on smaller volumes of 750+ books.

Litho printing uses wet inks, printing plates and rollers that transfer the ink onto the paper. The initial setup costs are high because the printing plates must be made and ink needs to be put into the machine. Each colour needs its own plate, as does the spot varnish and each additional colour added to the job. Many sheets are first run through the machine until the ink spreads evenly, at which point the job can now begin. Sheets are assessed periodically to ensure that the ink is running through properly and adjustments to the pressure and ink availability are made if necessary.

Litho presses can take very large printing sheets, which means that many of the book’s pages can be laid up together on one sheet, usually in 8, 16 or 32-page sections, depending on the size of the book. So one pass on the machine will yield 8, 16 or 32 pages of the book! This is why large print volumes are so cost-effective when printed on a litho press.

When printing is complete, the inks need to be washed off the machine and the machine must be prepared for the next job. Some jobs use additional printing inks – called spot colours – and these too need to be added to the machine and washed off before the next job begins. Litho printing also offers the option of adding an aqueous varnish to the pages to give them a beautiful satin finish. Applying spot varnishes and metallic inks is also possible.

Just from the description above regarding the work involved, you can see why litho printing would be too expensive for small print runs – the few books printed would have to carry the enormous costs of getting the job on the go, the plates, and the cleaning up afterwards.

Print quantity: Litho printing has high set-up costs making it better suited to large print runs of 750 books and more. (Note: 750 is considered very low by traditional publishing standards!).

Cost: Although litho printing carries high setup costs, the actual printing costs are very low because the process is so quick and hundreds of sheets can be processed within a minute. So, the larger the print quantity, the lower the unit cost per book because the setup costs are amortised over a larger number of units. The capital outlay will be very much greater due to the higher volumes being printed.

Distribution requirements: Litho printing is the best option for bookstore distribution due to the very much lower unit cost per book. This option allows authors to cover their printing and production costs, and make a profit provided the book sells. Due to the lower cost per book, authors can also make much more profit on sales they make directly to their target market. The lower cost per book also gives the author greater flexibility regarding their distribution options and the discounts that can be offered to third-party retailers. The disadvantage to litho printing is that there are more books that must be sold and so this option is only recommended if authors feel confident about the quality of their book, the book’s sales potential, and their marketing and publicity campaign.

Kind of book being printed: Absolutely any book can be printed using litho printing due to its flexibility.

Quality: Quality is excellent, so litho printing is particularly suited to high quality full colour coffee table books, cookery books and full colour childrens’ books.

Finishing: The full range of finishing options are available and litho printing offers greater flexibility in terms of book size – press sheet sizes are large so one can easily print over-size books. Finishes such as foiling, embossing, thread-sewing and hardcover binding are more cost-effective because the cost is carried by a larger number of books. Some finishes are done in-house, making them more affordable.

To find out more about the printing method best suited to your book and your options in terms of binding and finishing, book a publishing consultation with one of our consultants. We will look at your project holistically and guide you in the right direction.