Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Using POD to Make Shelf Worthy Books

1_the philosophers stoneLast week, I wrote that publishers had sacrificed the quality of the printed book in order to preserve their margins reducing the shelf worthy quality of hardcover, trade and mass market fiction. Because of the decreased quality of the printed books, it’s no real sacrifice to move to digital books.

<—-this is the first of a set of redesigned covers for Harry Potter series as imagined by MS Corely.

Digital book technology, however, can help publishers make creative and unique collectible books at a much lower cost. Ebooks are simply one by-product of digital book technology. Digital book technology encompasses a new way to process books, manage backlists, and distribute title information.

One benefit of advancing technology will be better print on demand. Both Google and Amazon are looking to provide POD fulfillment services to reduce the waste of print runs (Amazon has filed a patent to include advertisements in POD books as well as ebooks). POD can be used to create one of a kind collectible items for the reader. Mike Briggs brought this idea up in the comments and I think it’s pretty brilliant. While third parties may not be able to offer this because of costs, publishers can offer this direct to consumer service. (A byproduct of this is increased brand awareness for the publisher).

In other areas of the retail world, mass customization is an oft proffered option. There is the most common which is Burger King’s slogan “Have It Your Way” (created in 1974). In apparel, Levis held a promotion to allow customers to design their own jeans. Both Converse and Nike give consumers the option of creating a custom shoe.

With POD technology, readers can create their own selection of limited edition hardcovers for their favorite authors. They can choose from a selection of covers or upload their own. Designers can proffer their own suggestions for covers, taking a small royalty for each sale. Penguin held a contest to design the cover of the next Donna Tartt novel. Readers could choose which, out of the winning designs, they would put on the cover. Readers could include a custom flyleaf, pick their own font, chapter headings, and color of binding.

As a rule, I generally do not buy paperbacks as gifts. I would much prefer buying and gifting trade or hardcovers. Using POD customization, I could order a nice set of books to give as gifts to my girlfriends or family members For those individuals who are afraid to read a romance, I could create a beautiful hardcover conversion package. Replace the man titty with something more avant garde and even the most reluctant reader won’t know what hit them.

Another way POD technology could be utilized to create shelf worthy books is to tell a limited edition book club of just one author such as the J.D. Robb series. I would love to have this series in a futuritistic noir with a cloth binding and a special inscription (which would say “Dear Jane, enough with your natterings about ebooks). Readers could purchase this limited edition set on a monthly plan akin to something like the Fruit of the Month Club by Harry and David (there are an unlimited number of x of the month club gifts, from flowers to nuts to salsa to wine. I know this because I give these as gifts every year). I would love to gift someone one of these “collections.”   (One statistic from 2002 indicated that 51% of holiday shoppers intended to gift a book.   Random House created an entire campaign last year to promote book gift giving).

There is a kids version of this (of a sort).   IlluStory Make Your Own Story Kit is a self contained packaged in which your child draws and writes his or her own story. These pages are then sent to the publisher where the pages are bound into a real book and returned.  “The finished hardcover book measures 7 by 9 inches with 12 pages, and features a permanent hardback binding, a laminated cover drawing, and book title.”   The cost is $19.99.   I’ve used to create picture books for family and friends. Ned even did a story book for our tot recounting a visit to the zoo.   Apple users have access to photo books through iPhoto.

It seems to me that publishers can leverage print on demand technology to allow mass customization of books.   Each reader can have the option to create their own library of shelf worthy books containg their favorite content.

Mike Briggs, your idea was great. Hope to see Patty’s books available in a special collection one day.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Maili
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 08:47:39

    (MS Corely’s Harry Potter cover designs are awesome. Penguin + 1950s-era British art? Sublime. It has a hint of Saul Bass, too, which makes it even cooler.)

    I don’t quite understand the POD technology or rather, the value of it. An one-off copy with customised cover, flyleaf, text and so on seems an expensive idea. I wonder who reaps financial benefits from POD the most?

    For those individuals who are afraid to read a romance, I could create a beautiful hardcover conversion package. Replace the man titty with something more avant garde and even the most reluctant reader won't know what hit them.

    Nice idea! I’m sorry, but I deeply loathe some covers of my favourite romance novels. I think I’m one of very few rom readers who dislike traditional romance covers, such as half-naked men covers. I was dead keen on reading Laura Kinsale’s latest book, due out soon, and the recently-unveiled cover put me off somewhat, just like the covers of her other books did, damn it. (The original cover of Flowers From the Storm, anyone?) I’m trying to pretend I didn’t see it so I can get excited for her new release again. And yes, a book cover does affect the imagery of the story. Can’t help it. (I really envy readers who rarely let covers affect them.)

    If the POD technology isn’t expensive as I think it is, I’d leap in – just to change the covers. Pathetic of me, but I think it’ll be worth it.

  2. Edie
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 09:40:11

    I think POD or operating a bit like e-pubs, would be a smart move by big publishing houses, especially for new authors or genres, why risk the massive print run?
    And yes backlists in ebook form with an option for print, would be handy and it seems logical to me.
    The figures for the current publishing system (at least in Oz) are quite scary, I would think that the houses would be leaping for newer, smarter systems(?).
    Just my rambling two cents which I think is on a different point from the post. oops

  3. Caligi
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 09:42:35

    Have you read about the VT bookstore that has a POD machine on the premises? Here’s a link to the Boston Globe article:

    Basically, they hope that POD will help their tiny bookstore compete with Amazon by letting them print out books from a database as people want them. Not only that, but I think it’ll be a nice counterpart to the popularity of ebooks. If ebooks ever start cutting into print run profitability, paper book readers could just get a book printed by a POD machine. Publisher and author get their money while the reader gets her book.

    I think POD is going to play a large part in the future of publishing.

  4. Missy Ann
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 09:45:42

    Not interested even a little bit. I want what’s inside the covers. I could care less about special editions, new covers, and POD? Kidding right? You know how much those specially made jeans and custom Nikes cost? Why would I pay extra $$ for a pretty cover when I can pay $7.99 receive the same content and have money left over for more books.

    But then again, book signings do nothing for me. I already know the author can write, I don’t need their signature.

  5. evie byrne
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 10:21:24

    I love this idea! If I’ve identified a book as a keeper, I’d not hesitate to pay a little bit more for a better cover. That Potter cover is fantastic. I want it for reals.

    Another aspect of this that I find intriguing is that I could design my own covers. As everyone knows, writers have little to no input on their covers. As a writer and a visual artist, I would be thrilled to have an opportunity to present my work exactly as I see it. I’d imagine that “writers’ covers” might become a standard option at the POD kiosk.

  6. Anastasia
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 12:08:53

    Actually, I don’t really care about POD books when the book is already in print and available in multiple formats. It just seems too expensive to buy a POD version when I can get a discounted hardback copy for, like, $5 and paperbacks even cheaper. And since I don’t buy books as gifts for people (because, uh, no one I know reads any), I don’t care about hardback vs. paperback, either.

    Instead, I’d be super excited to have the option for POD out of print books and unavailable ANYWHERE, even as ebooks. Zilpha Keatley Snyder did this with some of her older books through iUniverse, and the covers aren’t even too bad. I’d jump at the chance to get a nice new copy of, say, Elephi, the cat with the high I.Q..

    I wonder if publishers would be happier to do POD instead of ebooks? I’d love them to do both, but maybe POD is less scary then an altogether electronic version. No idea.

  7. Janet W
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 12:39:33

    I think Missy Ann has a very valid point. I have actually bought POD Nikes for my dd. Difference with this model, Nikes are great shoes to begin with. I didn’t buy her better soles, stronger material, more rugged shoelaces.

    These books, the ones you’re describing — for the most part — are printed on cheap paper and the covers leave a lot to be desired. So we should pay extra when say 10 years ago, we could get a decent book from the get-go?

    I do have one business model that might fly: allow readers to rename some of the Harlequin sheik/billionaire/hidden love child titles — maybe throw in a new cover too. I bet there would be some sales!

    The only model that appeals to me is the option of bound version of e-version OOP books. That could interest me.

  8. SonomaLass
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 12:48:48

    I agree that POD has some interesting possibilities for specialty markets, including books as collectibles. When I was younger, I remember lots of special editions of books as gifts, and I’d like to see that come back.

    I love M.S. Corley’s “classic Penguin Books” redesigned covers — if you haven’t seen the rest of the Potter covers, you should! Also, his Narnia covers are fabulous. He has done some others as well. I just love his style, and I would snap up either of those series as gifts in a heartbeat — so far, the publishers don’t seem interested in them for the mainstream, however.

    Would I pay more to get my choice of cover art on a book? Not on everything I read, but on keepers, probably yes.

  9. Diana
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 13:21:31

    This would be a great option for my keeper shelf novels – paperback books that I read constantly, but fall apart quickly. And let’s face it: some of those older romance novel covers are just dreadful. Man titty and impractical anatomy ahoy! I would love to have, for example, Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale in hardcover with a more elegantly designed cover, like what M.S. Corley has done.

  10. joanne
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 13:40:16

    God knows I’ve bought, given and pimped enough of the In Death books to border on obsession — but custom covers (even with the much loved nattering comment) wouldn’t even tempt me. Just wouldn’t.

    For mass market & trade size books I have both cloth & vinyl covers that were very inexpensive and several for my hardcovers to either disguise or protect the original cover.

    POD for out of print books; I’m so there!
    Same for ebooks that aren’t already in paper.

  11. DS
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 14:08:09

    I have some software that I can put in a bunch of genealogical information– not just pictures, names and dates but pages of text and scanned memorabilia– then the software will compose it into an attractive ebook that can be printed and bound or distributed electronically. I’ve only ever played with it, not actually made anything– who has time between the internet, work and RL? (I plan to someday use my scrapbooking supplies also.) But instant personalized family histories sounds like a natural for POD.

    I remember a discussion on usenet about rebinding books in leather but it was more about which books should be rebound from a financial, collecting, condition standpoint rather than a desire for a personal collection. I doubt if I would buy specially bound books for myself– I am one of those people who enjoy shelves of multicolored, multisized, even rather tattered at times, books, but I might buy them as gifts– I give my brother POD local history books.

  12. Janet W
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 14:31:12

    Trying again to post my comment – here goes:

    1. The Nike example – I've actually bought customized Nikes for my dd. The difference with this example: the Nikes were great shoes to begin with – I wasn't paying for upgraded soles, better material, stronger laces.

    2. What is annoying about this proposal – 10 or so years ago, paperbacks, imo, were pretty decent. They're now made more cheaply, with all the flaws you mentioned, and we need to pay more … seems unfair.

    3. I personally might buy into a model where you could re-name a book – some of the Harlequin sheik, billionaire, love-child titles don't do the contents of the book justice. Not to mention some covers!

    4. What I might be interested in: buying a new bound copy of a long OOP book. That sounds interesting – and great presen idea too.

  13. Marianne McA
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 15:19:13

    I would go out of my way to avoid buying books that include adverts. I suppose newspapers and magazines carry advertising, so there’s no actual reason why a book shouldn’t – but if I had no choice but to have adverts in my ebooks, I’d just go back to reading the paper versions.

  14. Dave
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 17:00:51

    I think it’s an incredible technology, and more advancements like this will be available in the near future. The publishing world is going to change dramatically over the next 5years.

  15. tribal dragon tattoos
    Sep 06, 2009 @ 18:43:06

    I think that this is a revolutionary technology, and we will see more advancements in this field very soon. Along with the environmental cost of paper, we will see tremendous changes in the publishing world in the next 5 years.


  16. Ruth
    Sep 07, 2009 @ 00:57:45

    well i’ve got to say print o demand seems interesting especially since i hate reading ebooks. I shouldn’t put it that way– the story may be excellent and everything i’m looking for but i feel reading from a screen is robbing me of the reading experience. touching a page is like opening a door to a whole new place, i love the tangable link to the story. I dunno it may just be me. every one els my age (18) doesnt seem to have a problem w/ online/kindle books

  17. NKKingston
    Sep 07, 2009 @ 04:42:13

    I think it’s not really viable from a publishers perspective, but from a bookseller’s there could be real benefits. Get a couple of POD machines to keep behind the counter, and if a customer requests a book you don’t have in stock in store send them off for a coffee and print one up for them. You could do a gift range, custom covers with the recipient’s name on or a personalised cover, but you’d also be able to offer hard to find books at reasonable prices.

    You could have a whole bookshop this way: a mix of POD and ebooks, with browsing copies on shelves, kiosks for downloading ebooks in your preferred format and a counter to order print copies at (and a cafe to wait for them in, with eBook readers attached to the tables with sample chapters and freebies to promote new releases… I may have given this some thought). There’s a danger you’d end up with something Argos-esque, which is a catalogue store in the UK (and the subject of many jokes) and rather impersonal. You’d need to have the right atmosphere to pull it off, and it probably wouldn’t work until eReaders were considerably more common than they are today.

    In some respects, I think equating POD with better quality isn’t necessarily the best way to go. If you’re offering a custom service or rare books, the price is going to be driven up anyway. POD isn’t going to take off if it costs twice as much as a mass-market paperback, not unless someone /really/ wants that books. If your standard POD book is fairly cheaply made (better quality could be by request) then it might motivate traditional publishers to raise their quality again, so customers will stay loyal.

  18. Liz
    Sep 07, 2009 @ 05:35:40

    Sorry, but I still can’t get on board with eBooks. To me, they’re like those little keychain egg things everyone was fidgeting around with in high school. I’d be in the middle of an algebra test, and somebody’s egg would go off, and they’d be all over that sucker ’cause if they didn’t feed it, it would die, like omg. And I’d be thinking, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s not even real!’ I keep trying to get over that way of thinking when it comes to eBooks, but I’m not even close. If I can’t touch it, it must not be real. Will it always be this way?

    I also am appalled at ads in books. I mean, really. If I can get unlimited, ad-free webspace for $6.95 a month, I had sure as hell be able to get an ad-free book for three times that amount. It isn’t like TV, where shows depend on their sponsors for survival. It’s just another way to get more money out of a product at the consumer’s expense. Not a new practice, to say the least, but irritating just the same.

  19. APFOL: Sept 6-12 « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog
    Sep 12, 2009 @ 07:37:29

    […] Using POD to Make Shelf Worthy Books | Dear Author “With POD technology, readers can create their own selection of limited edition hardcovers for their favorite authors. They can choose from a selection of covers or upload their own. Designers can proffer their own suggestions for covers, taking a small royalty for each sale. Penguin held a contest to design the cover of the next Donna Tartt novel. Readers could choose which, out of the winning designs, they would put on the cover. Readers could include a custom flyleaf, pick their own font, chapter headings, and color of binding.” […]

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