E-books may be the future of publishing, but print editions continue to make up a large portion of book sales, and, for many indie authors, printing remains a crucial aspect of the self-publishing process.

One of the most popular ways indie authors print physical books is through POD—or print-on-demand—services. The clearest benefit of using a POD service is that authors don’t have to spend money printing large quantities of physical books that customers may or may not end up buying; with POD, authors only have to print as many books as they sell.

Most services also ship to customers directly, which cuts down on delivery time and allows authors to attend to the many other tasks and responsibilities that come with self-publishing. And, because books are always ready to be printed (assuming the contract with the service remains active), titles are never out of stock. Finally, many POD providers offer ancillary services, such as cover design and copy editing, which can be of tremendous help to indie authors who lack the contacts or expertise to manage these aspects of the process on their own.

Beyond these features, which are common to most services, POD providers vary widely in the benefits they provide, the business models they follow, and the fees they charge. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major POD players and the attributes that make each service unique.

CreateSpace

Amazon’s CreateSpace is one of the few POD providers that doesn’t charge a set-up fee, and its roster of additional services—which includes copy editing, cover design, interior design, and marketing—is one of the more robust. The service lets authors set the price of books and, using its Royalty Calculator, they can estimate their net profit from each book sale (factoring in variables such as trim size and page count). CreateSpace also offers two distribution plans: Standard Distribution, through which authors can make books available on Amazon and CreateSpace.com; and Expanded Distribution, through which authors can make books available to libraries, bookstores, and academic institutions. (Be aware that the Expanded Distribution plan involves a significantly higher “sales channel” deduction, and thus lower royalties.) CreateSpace’s main selling point—its sheer abundance of options—can also prove somewhat bewildering. Fortunately, the service provides some guidance in the form of community message boards, customer service, and instructional videos.

IngramSpark

IngramSpark, a POD service operated by the book wholesaler Ingram, offers an impressively streamlined process for publishing, producing, and distributing both electronic and physical indie books. Though printing with the service requires some setup expenses and legwork—authors will need to secure an ISBN as well as compile metadata and stipulate territory rights (the site’s glossary of terms can be helpful here)—the benefits of publishing with Ingram are clear. As the site states, “IngramSpark is connected to the ordering systems of 39,000 global booksellers, libraries, and online retailers.” Authors’ titles “will also be linked to direct orders from web consumers, and reach every major mobile and e-reader (including iBookstore, Kobo, Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, etc.).” In addition, the service boasts that it offers the a wide range of paper options, trim sizes, and bindings, making it a potentially good choice for authors with particular printing needs.

Lulu

According to its homepage, Lulu has printed more than 1.6 million books since its inception in 2002. The service charges no set-up fee, and provides a book cost calculator that lets authors estimate per-book printing fee, which is dependent upon factors such as trim size, binding type, and page count. Assuming a book meets the distribution requirements, Lulu will make authors’ titles available on Amazon.com and BN.com, among other retailers, at no cost. The site also offers estimates of royalties from each sales channel. Volume discounts kick in starting at 15 copies, and increase up to 20% off for orders of over 1,200 copies. Lulu also offers add-on services, such as copy editing and book video production, but these tend to be significantly more expensive than those offered by other POD services. Lulu is an especially good option for authors printing books for personal use that they don’t plan to sell via retail, in which case an ISBN is not required.

iUniverse

iUniverse offers five packages for indie authors, ranging in price from $899 to $4,299. Features of the most basic option include ISBN assignment, custom cover, author copy discounts, e-publication, and up to 25 black-and-white inserts. The offerings included in the more expensive packages consist largely of eligibility for iUniverse author programs and upgraded versions of the more basic services, such as an “elite” custom cover. In addition to offering a range of binding sizes and paper types for both soft- and hardcover books, the site also allows authors to create their own audiobooks. The cost of that service is $999.

AuthorHouse

AuthorHouse caters to authors who’d like help with all aspects of the self-publishing process. For a fee of $799, authors can get the basic Book to Bookstore — Online package, which includes ISBN assignment, custom cover and interior design, digital proofs of books, availability in print and e-book format, marketing consultation, and distribution to online retailers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Other packages include the Book to Network package ($1,799), which includes a radio interview, and the Book to Hollywood package ($1,599), which includes a free “industry-standard synopsis” (presumably intended for the eyes of producers). Be aware that AuthorHouse charges separate fees for many other important, even crucial, services, such as post-production revisions. While the site’s one-stop-shop model will certainly appeal to some indie authors, others—especially those who are taking care of editing and marketing on their own—may find the prices a bit steep.

Dog Ear

Dog Ear’s services start at $1,099 (for the Basic Package), and run up to $3,999 (for the Masterpiece Package). All packages include an ISBN assignment, a Library of Congress number, paperback and hardcover formats, custom cover and interior design options, free author copies, and inclusion in Google Book search. The more expensive packages include copy editing services, marketing materials, and the creation of an author website with a domain of the author’s choosing. Dog Ear’s retail partners include Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million; the site also allows authors to set their own prices and offer competitive printing costs. Perhaps what really sets Dog Ear apart, though, is that they provide an extensive—not to mention refreshingly honest—comparison between their services and those of other POD providers.