Print on Demand

Official Survivor of Texas Family Reunion T-shirt shirt Print on Demand – or POD – is available everywhere on the web and in places offline as well. What the heck is it? And why would you care?

Think of the printer that’s attached to your home computer. You can send a file or photograph to be printed whenever you like. Print on demand is similar, but the media available for printing  is hugely varied (try baby bibs to skateboards!) and the printing technology is a lot more sophisticated.

Print on demand means that a product doesn’t physically exist until it is ordered or demanded. Until then it’s only an idea or a digital file and a blank product or product component. Once demanded by a customer, a product is printed from that digital file and – if necessary – assembled, packaged and shipped. Brands (e.g. Disney, Hallmark and Harry Potter), independent designers or customers create the designs. The print-on-demand companies or their partners stock the blank inventory. When a customer orders a product, a blank is pulled out of stock and printed on that demand. It saves a lot of storage and reduces inventory and waste.

Print on Demand = Customer Order/Input + Artist/Wordsmith Creation + Printing Technologies + Business Entity with Inventory

For example, a POD t-shirt exists in inventory as a blank shirt until someone decides on a product design that will incorporate it: the desired size, style and color of shirt is then printed using a digital file. Similarly, a print-on-demand laptop sleeve will be blank fabric and component parts until an order kicks off the process to print a design on the fabric and assemble the bag. Like this:

People want to express themselves. People want to buy products that fit. People want to personalize cards and gifts. Print on demand makes these one-of-a-kind products affordable for the masses.

POD and Consumers

Want to flaunt your view of the latest political faux pas? Announce that you survived a huge blizzard today? Order birthday invitations with your four-year-old’s name and picture on them? Or choose from thousands of beautiful wedding stamps? With print-on-demand, you can.

Have you ever gone to a t-shirt shop in a college town or while on vacation and chosen a design and a t-shirt separately? You then waited just a few minutes for the design from a rectangular sheet of special paper to be heat-pressed onto the shirt. It was cool! You weren’t limited to the style, sizes or colors previously chosen by someone else. That is a kind of print-on-demand, but new printing methods have gone way beyond this!

Print on demand now includes hundreds of products: apparel, yoga mats, binders, posters, invitations, phone cases, ornaments, fabrics, mugs, water bottles, notebooks, letterhead, mousepads, flip flops, greeting cards, skateboards, pillows, napkins, placemats, business cards, coasters, hoodies, keyrings, necklaces and more.

Printable materials include fabrics, plastics, vinyl, china, wood, metal and just about anything you can think of.

Advantages for consumers

  • no minimum orders
  • can order online 24/7
  • ginormous selection is likely to have just what you want
  • customized products at reasonable costs
  • current event products available to order almost immediately
  • sales are frequent and the discounts substantial
  • take advantage of the “long tail” of product availability (a niche market force described in Chris Anderson’s 2006 book The Long Tail)
  • satisfaction guarantees can be very good

Innovative printing technologies have made it easy and affordable to produce niche products that were previously just too expensive to consider. Unlike screen-printed products, there are no minimum orders to make the price reasonable. The new technologies, combined with new business practices, also make it possible to get customized products very quickly.

Disadvantages for consumers

  • can’t see or touch actual product before you buy it – only see computerized mock-ups
  • lack of previous buyers of that exact design+product mean few, if any, customer reviews
  • prices are higher than mass-produced products
  • ginormous selection can be daunting or tedious to search through
  • generally must order online and wait for delivery
  • may be created by inept, inexperienced or expert designers – buyer beware, especially if you design your own
  • intellectual property laws can be very frustrating to encounter
  • shipping costs can be high

POD and Creators

Visual artists and wordsmiths of all kinds have the opportunity to operate their own small businesses based on working with POD companies. With this business model, writers and artists can have a business up and running in less than an hour, with zero to low cost fees.  Artist costs (other than their hardware, software and equipment!) are time and promotional costs. There is continuous learning required, however, as the markets change and the print-on-demand companies and search engines tweak the rules constantly.

In addition to the potential to earn money from their work, artists and wordsmiths have the opportunity to test out their designs and ideas at a cost of only time.

Advantages for Artists

  • no or low cost business model
  • no inventory
  • no shipping costs
  • no customer service (unless you willingly do so)
  • practically unlimited scope of products across several PODs
  • control over promotion
  • communities of like-minded people
  • make products available with a few clicks of a mouse
  • you can make money while you sleep
  • work anywhere, at any speed
  • scope of designs limited only by imagination (porn / obscenity / hate generally forbidden)

Disadvantages for Artists

  • fierce competition
  • learning curve to design products well can be steep
  • selling enough to make decent money can take a months or years
  • must do own marketing
  • no control over quality
  • little or no control over customer service
  • changes in POD algorithms may significantly affect sales without warning or recourse
  • customer interaction potential controlled by POD
  • POD may drop your profitable products without warning
  • financial arrangements subject to change
  • payment is limited in frequency and lags sales significantly
  • intellectual property laws may be over-enforced
  • lose all your work if the POD goes under or if they bar you or you leave

Apparel, Cards, Home Decor, Gifts, PODs

Some of the better known printers-on-demand:

  • CafePress – 100s of products including t-shirts, flip flops, water bottles, yoga mats, baby hats, banners, etc
  • RedBubble – a variety of products including posters and cards
  • Zazzle – 100s of products including invitations, t-shirts, home decor, skateboards, messenger bags, stamps, laptop sleeves, etc
  • MySoti – clothing, artwork, lampshades, wallpaper
  • Spoonflower – fabric
  • Printfection – t-shirts
  • Greeting Card Universe – greeting cards
  • Spreadshirt – t-shirts

Wait.  You’ve been patient and gotten this far but, all along, you thought Print on Demand was for writers and books! Yes, it is. There are two kinds (at least) of POD.

The more widely known print-on-demand model for many people is for books. You know how Amazon keeps all those books in stock? Well, not really, they don’t. Some are on shelves in big warehouses around the country, but many are digital files that only get printed when someone demands a copy. Newer printing technologies have removed the absolute requirement that multiple copies must be printed simultaneously in order to be cost-effective.

Long ago, when my parents used to read bedtime stories to us, my brother had a customized storybook. It was about a boy who goes on vacation to a cabin in the woods. My Dad customized it for him with a ink pen. He crossed off the book boy’s name and wrote Donnie. He scribbled out “the road” and printed I-75 above the scratch out.. He crossed off the lake name and. . . well, you get it. It was more fun to read a custom book, but you had to get used to the cross-offs. Customized books have come a long way since then! Enter Print on Demand.

In fact, you can write your own book and get it published easily through POD. Or, you can purchase a book that has a very limited printing. Say, a family cookbook with 100 copies. Or you can order a copy of a book that would otherwise have been out of print.

A caveat for print on demand books: they don’t all have good editing or fact checking. Again, it’s buyer beware.

Book PODs

Some of the book printers-on-demand include:


Print on demand is a fairly new and evolving business concept, but expect it to keep growing! It offers a lot of promise for customers and creators and the environment. I have undoubtedly missed some other PODs, so feel free to add any to the comments. I will likewise revise this page as necessary.

It all means more art and more character in the world. I’m all for that!