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The POD Quandary: How to Decide if Print-on-Demand Publishing Is Right for You

by Brenda Rollins

Rapidly advancing print-on-demand (POD) technology is creating new opportunities for writers. This hybrid of traditional and self-publishing gives writers a relatively easy and affordable way to publish their own books.

The prospect of getting your book into print and selling it is exciting, but before you go this route, you need to know as much as possible about POD publishing and whether it suits your needs.

Writer Beware, a Web site that advocates for writers, reminds us that "POD is neither a publishing model nor a brand-new publishing paradigm (as advocates of fee-based POD services sometimes insist it is). It's merely a technology, employed in different ways by different publishers to accomplish a variety of goals."

POD refers to a method of laying ink to paper that allows words and graphics to be printed with astonishing speed. It eliminates the laborious and costly setup of traditional offset printing. With traditional methods, the cost of printing a small run of books is prohibitive. Once POD is set up, it gives printers a cost-efficient method of producing one book at a time.

In the traditional author-publisher relationship, a publisher contracts with an author to print and sell his books. The author usually gets an advance against sales and, once the advance is earned back, a royalty. The publisher bears the cost of producing and marketing the book.

If a writer self-publishes, he is in charge of the entire project from beginning to end, and pays all costs. To make the printing affordable, the writer usually must print several hundred copies. He then is responsible for distributing, selling and promoting the book.

With the POD method, you deliver a printer-ready manuscript file to the publisher. It is transformed into digitized computer language and entered into a bank of specialized computers from which printing is initiated. Both cover and pages are printed at the mind-boggling speed of approximately 764 pages per minute. Before you can say "prestidigitation," a hardback or paperback book emerges, bound and ready to ship.

Once everything is set up, your book is printed "on demand," or when someone orders it. If you want copies of the book yourself, you have to pay for them, but you receive a royalty on all other orders.

Most POD firms charge the author a fee, ranging from $99 to more than $1,000. Few fee-based firms offer editing, even for a price, which means they are not responsible for errors.

Here are some examples of POD packages: The Infinity plan costs $400, with additional charges for marketing plans. iUniverse offers three choices, ranging from $159 to $949. Xlibris' choices range from basic service at $500 to custom service at $1,600. Basic plans may include a limited number of typefaces and cover options, an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) that allows your book to be listed in databases used by booksellers, and some interior graphics (which you must provide).

POD companies may provide marketing plans, but they charge for them. These programs differ in value-many do little more than provide the author with printed postcards. Some fax press releases to selected media and bookstores. Without follow-up, these steps seldom generate responses.

On-demand favors limited print runs, so it can be a perfect niche-market solution. Family histories, technical books, memoirs, recipe collections, manuals and out-of-print books that authors want to revive fall into this category.

If you write poetry or fiction, however, and are seeking a wider readership, your best bet is to stick with commercial publishers.

Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, offers his opinion: "No one wants to publish their novels in obscurity, so it is a mystery to me why some fiction authors feel that POD publication is worthwhile. Some believe it will give them a leg up to republication or paperback reprinting by a major trade house. It will not. Sorry to say, the only route to publication by one of the big publishers is the slow, hard route... There are no shortcuts."

For certain types of nonfiction, however, POD publishing can be a good choice, according to the Writer Beware Web site. "It can be an excellent option for the motivated self-publisher who's able to devote time and money to marketing his/her product-typically, a nonfiction author with a niche market he/she knows how to reach, or someone who tours and speaks extensively and can sell books at these occasions."

Marketing is a primary concern. All books must be vigorously marketed, but extra effort is required for POD-produced books, because bookstores rarely will stock them and are even reluctant to offer signings with their authors.

New York agent Lucienne Diver, of Spectrum Literary Agency, speaks to this problem: "I know that some people turn to POD for instant gratification because they don't have to go through the long, involved process. If you're writing for your own satisfaction and seeing a bound book is enough, it's one thing. But if you're a writer who wants to have your voice heard, then the best way to do that is through a publishing house that has distribution, a publicity department and people who can create a buzz for your work."

One challenge is to get reviewers to look at your book. Jeff Zaleski, Forecasts editor at Publishers Weekly, says, "We're open to reviewing POD books with one very serious proviso. It's simply that there's got to be a compelling reason for us to review any book that comes into our office. If some new writer writes a novel as a POD book and sends it to us, we're not going to review it. We don't have room in the magazine or the facilities to review every book that comes to us. So we need some kind of filter on the book-maybe a reputable agent sends it or the writer has serious previous credits. Given that, we've reviewed two or three POD books in the last few months. We're not closing the door on POD, but we do have stringent requirements."

Promotion of POD books pretty much falls on the author's shoulders. John Henry Warren, whose thriller Storm Keeper was published by Xlibris, writes in the company's online newsletter, "I relentlessly promote my book, future books and writing career to anyone who will listen and even those who won't. I have sold thousands of trade paperbacks and hardbound copies of my book."

A writer might think that her POD book eventually will get the attention of a major publisher. It has happened, occasionally. Laurie Notaro, author of The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club (Random House), a collection of humorous essays, tells her POD success story.

"I tried to get my book published for eight years by going through traditional publishing routes and realized that wasn't going to work. So finally, I needed to prove to myself that I could sell this book by myself. The next day, I saw an iUniverse ad. Without the product that I had with iUniverse, there was no way that I could have made the jump to mainstream publishing firms. It was a vital and essential link."

Such success stories are rare, says longtime writers' advocate A.C. Crispin, who has had several books published by traditional houses. "Selling 3,000 POD copies might arouse some interest; 5,000 definitely would. A regularly published mass-market book, even one that does poorly, is going to sell, at minimum, 5,000 to 10,000 copies. There's just no comparison in POD sales." She advises writers to explore traditional avenues first.

Let's say you decide that the POD method can accomplish your goals. What next? You'll want to carefully study what each company has to offer. Once you've made one query, the company will probably bombard you with "money-saving" specials (with deadlines). Even if you like the company and the offer, don't be rushed.

Look for publishers on the Internet. Study writing magazines. Request literature and make comparisons. Afterward, armed with a list of questions, contact a company representative and ask for clarification about services not addressed fully or to your satisfaction. If the answers you receive are hesitant or unclear, move on. If you're satisfied after this first stop, request phone numbers of authors who have used the company more than once. If all's well, contact the Better Business Bureau in the firm's state and ask for data on the company's stability. You want to be sure the company is well established. Vanishing acts do occur. Before signing any contract, study the small print.

When you talk to writers about a specific POD company that you're considering, ask them if they were satisfied with the royalty and contract arrangements and if the company delivered on its promises. Were there unexpected costs, un-announced policy changes, loss of rights, marketing disappointments or unsatisfactory products?

Watch out especially for companies that require "grant of rights," Crispin says. That means the "author grants the publisher exclusive rights to publish, reproduce and distribute the work in any format or medium and to license others to do so in all languages throughout the world for the full term of copyright" (life of the author plus 70 years).

If you plan to prepare a POD manuscript yourself, find out the exact requirements. Insist on detailed instructions about how to set up the pages and make corrections. If what's required is beyond your capabilities, hire a professional editor. Remember, you are responsible for the final copy, so when your book is ready, triple-check the hard copy for mistakes.

We asked writers who have worked with POD publishers about their experiences. Here are some of their comments:

Ronald Haun says he would use the same publisher again. Only minor problems occurred with the publishing of his thriller, Spirit of Bayonet. "I received a thin, bound instruction book designed to show how my own book would look. It was very clear in spelling out what was needed to ready it for the company's formatting team," he says. Haun typed the manuscript, checked it and sent it in. Soon afterward, he received a copy of his bound book for proofing. From manuscript to publishing, the process took Haun four to six weeks.

On the other hand, nonfiction author Peggy Williams Grigowski says she didn't receive enough guidance. "Directions for preparing my manuscript consisted of two typed lines! I was told all I had to do was write and save it to a disk. They'd 'take care of the rest.' They would choose fonts, book size, set margins, make page breaks and the book would 'look wonderful.' When I received my first galley, I actually cried. I had never seen a book so poorly done. The cover itself was illegible because they put animals all over the letters. I insisted they change it and they did, but I paid. "

Some writers complained about changes in contracts by a number of companies. Steve Dunbar, vice president at iUniverse, addresses that issue: "iUniverse occasionally updates its contracts to make them more author-friendly. The last change made ... was to make them nonexclusive (a favorable change for our authors). When iUniverse changes its contracts, we only change them going forward. Any author who has already published remains under the existing contract."

Despite divided opinions and skepticism, on-demand publishing is growing. Lightning Source, a leading on-demand printer, presently has 100,000 orderable titles in its digital library-many are on-demand offerings.

Even so, successful publishing requires much more than a technological magic wand that conjures "instant" books. It bears repeating that authors seeking a wide readership must be all business as they make their decisions.

"It's clear that POD is going to become more and more important in the future," says PW's Zaleski. "Just because it's a particular method of publishing a novel doesn't seem to me a reason to reject it out of hand. As many people should know, a fair number of books have hit the bestseller list that were originally self-published. Shutting your door to that doesn't seem smart."

Related Articles:

To POD or Not to POD: Some Pros and Cons, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/PODstats.shtml

The Price of Vanity, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/vanity.shtml

Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: What's the Difference? by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/subsidy.shtml

Ten Questions to Ask Before You Sign that Print-on-Demand Contract, by Sue Fagalde Lick
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/lick.shtml

Copyright © 2003 Brenda Rollins
This article originally appeared in The Writer.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Brenda Whitehurst Rollins, of Knoxville, Tennessee, is a freelance editor and writer whose articles and stories have appeared in various print and online magazines. Her interest in print-on-demand (POD) began when she edited a client's autobiography and guided it through to POD publication. Convinced that POD will revolutionize the publishing industry, Rollins continues to research this rapidly growing form of self-publishing and enjoys speaking at conferences about the subject.

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