Color Printing and the Cost impact of Children’s books

Typesetter

I recently had a reader email me questions about printing color in books.  Their question/complaint was along the lines of “Is having color in my book an industry no-no? Are interior color images useless in a +500 page book? I don’t understand this book selling industry and the absolutely crazy costs of this type of publishing!!!”

The frustration is understandable—especially since there are some things a person might want to try, such as including a few color images inside the book. This might especially be true if you are writing nonfiction and have a handful of images you might wish to include—something common in travelogues and other types of books…

This color issue was one of my first hard-learned lessons of my career. In my first fantasy series I wrote I wanted to have one character’s dialogue be a different color to represent the wrongness of his words whenever he spoke. The character was a demon, and later in the series an angelic creature would fall and become a demon; his words would change color to reinforce that fact. It was clever. More clever than the industry was set up for. Well, almost. You can do pretty much anything you want in the print industry—you just have to pay for it.

The Print on Demand machines which are the standard operations set up for indie authors are set up to print in either black or full color. Doing something unique and special would require using a machine that is set up specific to the book, which means a print run of several thousand copies and defeats some of the idea of being independent and simply running off copies as needed (POD). What I learned is that you have to decide exactly how important to the final product is your color? Is it critical to the story? Ask yourself if there is a workaround? I opted to use a font change instead of a color change for reasons discussed below.

A cool effect like a page written in a certain color, a sprinkling of graphics, or certain dialogue tags seem like it’s not a big deal, but to the machine it is everything. The manuscript is either color or it is not. If you have a 500 page book with one full color image in the middle, that’s a 500 page color print job. Page one? It’s color. The last page? Still color. Printing a graphic novel in B&W? That’s a B&W print, but add Red so you have only black and red ink like some of Frank Miller’s stuff, now it’s full color. The rule is: any color=a full color manuscript.

True, this might hamper your artistic expression, but business decisions often do. Your book is also a business and so you’ll have to make decisions about profit margins, etc. For my fantasy series, I had to make the decision to work around the color because of the math and the fact that I sell a ton of paperbacks. I would sell a lot less if my book prices were triple what they are now (and they would be way out of market norms, further reducing sales).

Here’s the math on a 500 page book. At Amazon’s KDP Print prices (a popular POD service) you should retail at about 17.99 for a B&W print book. That makes a razor thin profit margin for buyers in expanded distribution (let’s say your mom buys a book at Barnes and Nobles or at the local Indie Store and they order it in… you’ll make only 35cents on that sale.) If it’s bought at Amazon you’ll make $3.95, and if you sell the book yourself you’ll net about eleven bucks. That paperback will cost you $6.85 to print, so about $70 for a box of ten copies that you’ll want to keep on hand to sell to all those folks at your family reunion using a good old fashioned guilt trip.

Now let’s imagine you absolutely have to have three pages with color in that book because you think the readers need to see the full color illustrations your child did of the main characters in 48 color Crayola. That’s a choice you can make, but it will change the pricing scheme.

The print cost on a 500 page color print job is 35.85. Good news, you will make about $18 when(if) the book sells on amazon. Bad news, it has to be priced at $89.99 just so that you can make fifteen cents if someone orders it your mom and pop bookstore. That box of ten is now $360. Not even a guilt trip is going to move more than one or two copies of that book. Frankly, the book becomes impossible to sell.

That’s crazy and frustrating, right? Think back to the original question that was posed… I imagine some folks wonder why the option exists at all. Children’s books.

Let’s say you have a 28 page children’s book with full color illustrations. You could sell it for $16.99 and it will cost $3.65 to print at KDP Print. The indie bookstore will net you $3.15 and sales from Zon will earn you $6.09. That’s decent margins. You could even reduce the price for sales and still do okay… Selling a copy at your church bake sale will make you about thirteen bucks.

There’s a reason full color children’s books are often in the $15-$20 range.

The above numbers are for a paperback, however. If you wanted to get some in a nice case laminate binding, you’d have to go to Ingramspark, (KDP Print currently has a minimum page count of 75 pages for color books.) Same book with hard cover and cheapest options will cost $7.57 to print and earn you $2.82 via online sales if the price remains at $16.99. The bake sale buyers will still earn you around nine dollars.

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