Print-on-demand: Publishing Revolution or Hype-filled Exploitation?

The down-and-dirty on publishing’s over-promoted technology

by Peter Bowerman

(Adapted from The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living, by Peter Bowerman. Fanove, 2007).

In a recent year, Xlibris, one of the big names in POD (Print-on-Demand), celebrated paying out their one-millionth dollar in royalties. The prior year, they helped authors publish more than 7,000 titles and sell over 300,000 books. Impressive, huh? Well, let’s do the math. $1 million for 7000 titles comes out to an average royalty of $149 each. Not exactly worth bragging about…

How POD Works

In the past few years, POD has generated a huge buzz in the industry, promising to “provide the keys to the serious publishing kingdom for all those authors heretofore locked out of the game” and other lofty claims. Not really. Remember, POD isn’t some “miracle” or a “publishing revolution”; it’s just a printing technology, nothing more. Let’s try to separate the reality from the hype…

With POD, you submit your book to a POD publisher (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford, Xlibris and PublishAmerica are big players) in an electronic format, pay a fee (typically $400-1500 depending on the company and the marketing options selected; see below), they’ll “produce” your book and load it onto their system. No physical books are printed until someone orders one (i.e., through a bookstore).

POD – The Upside

POD makes sense for three particular scenarios:

1) Authors whose goals are to get in print, say “I’m an author” and have the book available for friends and family, but without the funds to finance an offset print run.

2) Authors taking the long view. Meaning, they indeed want to be a successful writer, know full well the limitations of the POD model, but know how hard it is to attract a publisher, and want to start building a platform for themselves. In those cases, they use POD to create the best (aesthetically speaking) possible book they can, knowing that it might take 2, 3 or 4 books to finally build up a name (and perhaps attract a publisher). And POD can help them cut to the chase.

3) Larger publishers with out-of-print titles which now, thanks to POD, can be reactivated and start earning new income streams.

POD – The Downside

The POD Business Model

By definition, conventional publishers have to be selective about the books they take on because their payoff doesn’t come until they sell a bunch. By contrast, because POD publishers make the lion’s share of their income on upfront fees – and because web space isn’t exactly in short supply – they have every incentive to sign up as many authors as possible, regardless of manuscript quality, and once signed up, virtually no incentive to promote them. Heck, they’ve made their money! They know most of the books won’t be successful, so why expend much more effort when the returns will likely be minimal?

The Marketing Hype

POD publishers will undoubtedly pitch you on their aggressive plan to market your title – at an extra cost, of course. Don’t get your hopes up. It’ll be an impressive sounding menu of window-dressing. They’ll promise to send a press release to thousands of potentially interested parties – a standard cookie-cutter piece, mass-mailed to people who get far too many anyway. Even if they do read it, once they figure out it’s a POD book, unfortunately, that’ll work against you. And here’s why…

No Respect

Why are most POD books not taken seriously by bookstores, media and reviewers? For starters, with typically higher printing costs, lower print quality and usually a “no-return” policy, (i.e., less profits and more hassles), the big bookstore chains aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to carry POD books. More importantly, POD is viewed as relatively “barrier-free” publishing.

Let’s examine the hierarchy. At the top is a conventionally published book. A book with a reputable publishing house’s imprimatur has jumped through many hoops before finally making the grade. The “book-sales-before-profits” equation ensures only the best survive.

One step down is a book like mine – “conventionally” self-published (i.e., I’ve paid for design, typesetting, offset printing, etc.) Yes, as the author, there’s no screening process other than my decision to publish, but, on the plus side is this: a self-publishing author has to totally finance the venture – typically, $8-12K to bring a 2500-5000-unit printing to market. Presumably, that implies an at least marginal grip on reality. Few people will drop that kind of dough on a lark unless they know they’ve got a good product.

Then, there’s POD publishing: a publishing decision left completely to the author and one with a minimal financial investment. So, quite legitimately, the key reviewers and bookstore chains ask, “What’s stopping any Tom, Dick or Harriet from getting published?” Not much anymore. Hence, low barrier = low respect.

Self-published books – even done the high-end way – already fight an uphill battle for respect and credibility. Why? Because, in truth, most are inferior in content and production quality. With POD, it’s a double-whammy.

Royalties, Not Profits

In self-publishing as I do it, after expenses, all profits are mine. By contrast, most POD publishers will have you sign a contract that pays you royalties and in many cases, has you turn over the rights to your creation – at least for a certain period of time. And those royalties are often based on net proceeds (after discounts to wholesalers, etc.), not retail price, reducing them even further.

Not YOUR ISBN

When you self-publish a book, you want to be the “publisher-of-record.” If you’re not, then that book wouldn’t technically be self-published, would it? You’re the “publisher-of-record” only if you own your ISBN number. Most POD publishers own the ISBN numbers for their authors’ books, so they’re the “publisher-of-record.” Which, incidentally, is the only reason they can get away with calling themselves “publishers,” and in the process, confuse unsuspecting authors into thinking they’re “publishers” on the par with a real one.

You NEED Cheap Books

Commercial success with your book demands a LOT of book marketing and promotion and that means sending out LOTS of review copies. With POD, buying your own copies of, say, a $20 retail book, will cost you roughly $8-10 each (similar, incidentally, to conventional publishing, where authors typically buy their own books for 50% off retail). Add about $3 more for press kit, mailer and postage and you could go broke in a hurry. My books? About $1.50 each, making a full review package less than $5 each.

Not to mention you’ll miss out on all those juicy personal book sales at events, seminars and out of the trunk of your car. With book costs around $2 each, you can afford to discount books 25-50% and still make a nice profit. With POD, no can do.

Depending on your goals, POD might be just the ticket or it could be a dead-end. Do your homework. Understand its limitations and be realistic about its pote
ntial. Read contracts carefully and ask questions about royalties, rights, minimum book purchases and artistic control. You could save yourself a truckload of disappointment.

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Author Peter Bowerman is known for the award-winning (and self-published) Well-Fed Writer titles (on the lucrative field of commercial freelancing), which have provided him with a full-time living for over five years. (http://ww.wellfedwriter.com.

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