Picture books are primarily a print market. Kids and parents love holding the books in their hands and interacting with them, pointing to pictures and turning pages. Deciding the best way to make your physical product involves some decision making and figuring out what is best for you and your book. Here are the options, along with the benefits and drawbacks of each, to help you decide.
The two main ways to indie print picture books (or any book) are to offset print or use a print-on-demand service. Offset printing is when you put in an order with a traditional book printer such as Thomson-Shore or Phoenix Color and they do what is called a print run. You pay the money up front for an agreed-upon amount of books. When the print run is finished, you have all of your books ready to sell.
Print-on-demand or POD is a relatively newer service in the history of book printing. All you do is upload the files to a service such as Amazon or Ingram Spark and they print copies after they are purchased and mail them to the customer. If you want to have a home stock of books, you will need to order from the printing service and you only pay for the exact amount you want.
Offset Printing Benefits and Drawbacks
Offset printing is number one when it comes to print quality, especially for picture books that have color interiors. You also have more print options with an offset printer. You can pick your trim size, get foil embossing, do lift-the-flaps, even get holes cut in your pages. You can customize whatever you want!
However, when you offset print you have to pay for an entire print run. This can get expensive and is risky if you end up not selling very many books. Also, now you have an entire print run. Where are you going to store those books? You will have to do some research and see if you want to apply for a distributor, store them at a warehouse that does pack-n-ship, or keep them at home/a storage unit and mail them yourself. But another benefit is the per-unit price. The higher the total print run, the cheaper the books are per book.
Print-on-Demand (POD) Benefits and Drawbacks
The benefits of POD are easy to see: significantly less up front cost and much easier product management. It is the most economical option. Plus services that do POD also list and ship your books for you. Double bonus!
Here comes the big drawback: print quality. Because these books are printed quickly and shipped out right away, the printing methods give less rich color and quality controls aren't as well regulated. You are also limited in your options and must chose a trim size from a predetermined list and can't get any of the special features. Some POD printers, such as Amazon, only print paperbacks. Finally, the price of the book per unit stays the same whether you print two books or two thousand. It becomes the least economical option if you need to print large quantities of books.
The best method is going to be what is right for your goals, your time, and your budget. What is most important to you? What can you honestly manage? How much money do you have to spend? You also don't have to be married to one printing method. You can make a judgement call for each project and see what works best for you. I personally do both, pending the project and what I deem is important.