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POD Books from the Publisher's Point of View

by Sean McLachlan

This is the second of a two-part article, the first of which is "Ebooks from the Publisher's Point of View" (http://www.writing-world.com/publish/ebooks.shtml).

In this election year we've heard a lot about "game changers." The banking crisis was a game changer for economic policy. Iran getting nuclear weapons would be a game changer for foreign policy. At times it seems the game changes so much that there aren't any rules!

But the publishing industry has its very own game changer--Print on Demand technology. Now publishers don't have to invest in a print run of thousands of copies; they can program a Print on Demand (POD) machine to print only as many copies as are ordered, saving a fortune on print runs and storage costs.

Most articles about POD focus on how it gives self publishers an alternative to churning out huge numbers of copies that may not sell. But what do publishers think of POD? This article is from their point of view.

As publishers have become more familiar with the technology, it's gone from the purview of vanity presses into the independent press and is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream houses.

Small presses like the lowered risk that comes with POD. They can print books as needed, or a small run of 50 or 200 to keep on hand. The initial outlay is lower, freeing up limited funds for marketing and production.

Academic presses have also taken on POD technology as a way to keep their backlists in print and for cutting costs on highly specialized titles that may sell only a few hundred copies.

Backlist sales are important for fiction publishers as well. Ellora's Cave Publisher Raelene Gorlinsky said, "New readers continually discover an author and buy not only their new release but also their previous books. Backlist revenues can add tremendously to an author's royalty income."

Also, POD books don't have to go out of print. When a traditional publisher gets through their initial print run, it may not be fiscally viable to print several thousand more copies. A POD publisher can take advantage of small but continuous sales for years to come. Spread over dozens or hundreds of titles, this can add up to significant revenue.

Nor do POD publishers need large warehouses to keep their stock, with the attendant costs of rent, insurance, and employees. This doesn't mean POD publishers don't keep a stock; many do. Gorlinsky said, "When a new book is released, we print sufficient to have available to fill the anticipated orders and have a small stock in our warehouse. If orders exceed available stock, we do another small print run. That way, we always have some quantity of the book on hand to fill orders."

An added bonus is the knowledge that they're helping the environment.

Kristofer Stamp, owner of StoneGarden.net Publishing, said, "The decision to use Print-On-Demand technology stemmed from our desire to limit the impact we have on the earth. Rather than produce 10,000 copies of a single title, with the possibility that only one to two thousand of those will be sold, we would rather produce those titles as they are needed."

POD does have some disadvantages. Per-unit cost is higher than traditional methods, cutting into profit margins, and some POD suppliers have been accused of shoddy product, with customer complaints of slow delivery time, missing pages, pages in improper order, and cover art being off-center.

One major barrier for POD publishers is getting books into stores. Many stores assume the publishers don't have a return policy, and they've developed a bad impression from a number of small and vanity presses churning out frankly inferior work.

While the barrier to getting on bookstore shelves is a major handicap, it does save smaller publishers from one major headache--returns. A large percentage of print books will sit on shelves for a few weeks or months and if they don't sell, they're returned. This appallingly wasteful practice costs publishers a huge amount of money every year. Perhaps being barred from bookshelves is a blessing in disguise, although most struggling independents don't see it that way.

Some publishers opt not to try. Steven Womack, publisher of Whiskey Creek Press, decided against using traditional distribution channels, "which carry huge distributor costs and volumes of unsold book returns that are very costly. Our books are featured at our two website bookstores, third party resellers like Amazon, and any bookstore in the world can order directly from us."

Treva Hart, co-owner and editor-in-chief of Loose-ID, says the problems faced by POD publishers are the same as any small press. Production and distribution costs are steep for those with limited budgets, and it's hard to get noticed by bookstores and readers. With tens of thousands of titles from hundreds of companies, it's very much a reader's market.

While the industry as a whole is becoming more accepting of POD technology, it still bears a stigma in some circles. "The quality of production does vary wildly from one Print-On-Demand publisher to another, and is really a reflection of the printer that they have chosen. It may sound like a paid plug, but the quality of titles coming from the Lightningsource, Inc. printers is as good, or better, than many traditionally published works. As Print-On-Demand technology becomes more prevalent, we are seeing more and more acceptance of our titles. This is a direct reflection of the attitude of Print-On-Demand publishers. Initially this was the realm of the vanity press. Companies (I won't say their names) used it as a way to bilk hard working authors out of their money. Now we are seeing smaller presses using it as a way to get a foothold in the industry," Stamp said.

While POD publishing is well within the means of most small presses, it's far from free. Operations such as Booksurge and LightningSource offer a wide variety of options with costs ranging from the hundreds to the thousands. Some publishers charge the author this fee, or give them the option to only publish their book electronically. While this saves money on the publisher's end, it can also drive away some potential authors. The charges tend to be relatively low, however, since the publishers do the layout and editing themselves, and the author only pays for the POD availability itself. Writer's Exchange, for example, uses Booksurge and their authors have to pay $99 for the setup fee. This practice has become less common in recent years because many in the industry think it smacks of vanity publishing.

Many small presses using POD are epublishers who decided to move into print.

In November 2007, Lida Quillen, publisher of Twilight Times, interviewed thirteen ebook publishers who offer some or all of their titles in print. Seven said they still made 60 percent or more of their income from ebooks. The remainder said they made more on print or didn't answer the question, but it appears this is more due to how much of a focus publishers put on print, whether they get them in stores or not, and whether they offer all, most, or only some of their list in print. The full survey may be found here: http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474977188887

Quillen's experience with Twilight Times is interesting. The company started in 1999 as an epublisher and switched to also offering all their new titles in print in 2004. Within that year 70 percent of their sales revenue came from print. They tend to do a print run of 750 to 2500 copies and have managed to get reviewed by top magazines such as Library Journal and Booklist. Unlike most other publishers offering ebooks, they do not use POD, instead preferring traditional print runs. This may partly explain their success with getting into bookstores and major review magazines.

Some publishers planned to do print from the beginning. Ellora's Cave, despite being the quintessential ebook success story, soon bought their own POD equipment and offers much of their list in print. Others made deals with traditional publishers, such as Samhain's deal with Kensington, in which Kensington puts up to a dozen of Samhain's books a year in bookstores nationwide.

But epublishers have to think about whether their titles are suitable for print. Erotica, the bread and butter of many epublishers, isn't stocked by many bookshops. And while it's perfectly acceptable to have shorter ebooks, with word counts of thirty or twenty thousand, these tend to get lost on shelves between the latest magnum opera. Although there are some fine ebook writers out there, there's also a lot of work that wouldn't be picked up by a major house. The tolerance for diamonds in the rough is higher with ebooks because the investment for both the publisher and the reader is smaller.

The decision to put an ebook into print varies from publisher to publisher. Harte said, "From time to time, we do publish selected titles in print. But we're an e-publishing company first. Print is expensive and doesn't provide a good return on investment. We've elected not to jeopardize our financial status by putting every book into print."

Gorlinsky of Ellora's Cave echoed many publishers' sentiments when she said there was no set formula for what titles are put into print.

In general, publishers tend to follow the money, so if a book looks likely to profit from being put into print, then it will be.

Mainstream publishers follow the money too, and the big houses are looking into POD now, especially for their backlists. This makes smaller presses go head to head with some serious competition, but most editors don't think it's much of a threat. "The large publishers will muscle their way into the Small Press POD and ebook universe. When they do, because of their higher overhead, prices will rise considerably, which will continue to leave room for successful Small Presses like Whiskey Creek Press with smaller overhead costs," Womack said.

But even the game changer of the publishing industry is having its rules changed. In early 2008, Amazon told publishers that if they didn't switch to using Booksurge, which Amazon owns, the "buy" buttons on their sales pages would be turned off.

The issue is too complicated to cover in this article, but WritersWeekly offers in-depth coverage at http://www.writersweekly.com/amazon.php. It should be noted that WritersWeekly is run by Angela Hoy. She and her husband own Booklocker.com, which is currently in an antitrust suit with Amazon over this matter. Publisher's Weekly, which has no vested interest in the lawsuit, also covers the issue at http://www.publishersweekly.com.

The move has been a major shakeup to the POD industry. Changing POD providers is a costly process, but most publishers don't want to be barred from the world's largest online bookseller.

Steve Womack said the move has affected Whiskey Creek Press, "but not as bad as some, since we offer our books through Amazon Marketplace, where books are sold by our printer, instead of Amazon Advantage, where they made this change and we have just a few books listed. We have been told that our books will remain available at Amazon Marketplace for sale."

Whatever the result of the Amazon/Booksurge fracas, POD is certainly here to stay. As mainstream houses move into the scene, small publishers have to think of ways to compete.

[Editor's Note: WritersWeekly won this battle, and POD publishers are no longer being asked to switch to Amazon's in-house publisher.]

Quillen said, "We need to find a way to bring the books produced by small press publishers to the attention of the general public.

Sandy Cummins of Writers Exchange started Reader's Eden Online Bookstore and handles distribution of ebooks for various epublishers. Maybe someone can set up a similar system for print books. Perhaps an online semi-annual book fair or a small publishers' co-op could be a start in the right direction?"

Stamp noted that, "As more companies come to realize that printing with economies of scale in mind is not the only way to run a 'traditional' publishing house, we will see more and more companies only printing what is ordered. Print-On-Demand kiosks, which have already been developed, will become more prominent, and may help bring reading to places no one wants to build a store. How easy is it to simply wait one or two minutes for a book to be printed while waiting for the train?"

While the relationship between ebooks and print is still developing, most small presses are seeing advantages to offering both. Ebooks are steadily rising in popularity, but most readers still prefer print, and it's by browsing through bookstores that most people find what they'll read next. It would appear that for small publishers, POD offers a happy medium without the huge outlay that even a moderate print run entails, while academic presses and even major New York houses are seeing the financial advantages to the new technology. POD will continue to change the publishing game for years to come.

More Information:

E-books from the Publisher's Point of View, by Sean McLachlan
http://www.writing-world.com/publish/ebooks.shtml

Copyright © 2008 Sean McLachlan
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Sean McLachlan worked for ten years as an archaeologist before becoming a full-time writer specializing in history and travel. He is the author of Byzantium: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 2004), It Happened in Missouri (TwoDot, 2007), and Moon Handbooks London (Avalon, 2007), among others. Visit him online at http://www.midlistwriter.blogspot.com.

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