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Is POD Gaining Respectability?

Even though the likelihood of a POD getting reviewed in a major print publication*, the POD phenomenon keeps churning along. Recently, Jayne reviewed Susan Higginbotham’s self published novel, Hugh and Bess, giving it a B review.

An article in Business Week takes a look at on demand publishing and how it is changing the face of self publishing. Since its inception in 2002, Lulu.com has printed up 236,000 separate paperbacks with a monthly volume in November hitting 14,745. Business Week touts places like Lulu.com as a great alternative because it does not require authors to pay for a print run. Instead, they can wait until the orders come in and then ship out the book when it is ordered.

What the article fails to acknowledge is that authors who go the self publishing route, whether through a vanity press or a print on demand, are not likely to gain respectability with traditional publishers. The author of the article does state that it appears that being a NY published author is still the goal. Yes, anyone can have a book published, but what exactly does that mean?

Via Galley Cat.

* In NBCC’s reviewers ethic survey, 60.5 review editors believed it was acceptable to ignored POD books.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

19 Comments

  1. veinglory
    Jan 03, 2008 @ 19:02:17

    It also fails to mention that Lulu throws out books, fine they make money. The average authors sells around 20 copies and a large proportion sell none at all. So I would say the typical author’s experience could be summed up a ‘waste of time and effort’.

    (And I actually like self-published books, but this whole ‘its changing the face of publishing thing’ is mainly because journalists like to regurgtate press releases)

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  2. R.W. Ridley
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 08:44:09

    You can count me as one of those who thinks that POD is changing the publishing industry. Well, POD coupled with the Internet. I am a POD author and I work for a POD company so you may dismiss my opinion based on that, but my reasoning is based on logic not my own financial interest. The inventory free business model of POD makes it fertile ground for getting books to market, and never before has there been this much content available to purchase because of online retail channels. Combine these two elements, and you have ideal testing grounds for books. Mainstream publishers finally have a farm system to minimize the risk behind the acquisition of manuscripts by unknown authors. They can pick up a POD book that's had modest sales behind a virtually non-existent marketing budget, and turn it into a cash cow for their company. Does the mainstream publishing industry respect POD? I think “respect” is the wrong term. They have accepted the fact that POD is the future for the publishing industry, and they are racing to incorporate POD into their own houses. Every business in the world would love to be able to sell a product without the expense of warehousing inventory. In addition, why wouldn't an over-taxed publishing house that is inundated with manuscripts from unqualified authors like to see their slush piles shrink? Let the author prove that their own book has market value, and then bring them a book with a track record instead of a hunch. The facts are 70% of books picked up by mainstream publishers fail to even earn back their advances. So, is POD changing the publishing industry? You bet, and it's a welcome change as far as the mainstream publishing industry is concerned.

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  3. Jane
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 08:48:27

    Ridley – I would think that your theroem is valid only if the majority of sales happen on line instead in the bookstore. You still need a print run to be a bookstores and even a modest print run of 30,000 will only stock 3 or so copies in bookstores around the country so for mainstream publishing, POD is only a viable business model IF the sales can be generated online sufficient to cover overhead of the book: editing, marketing, cover art, copy editing, author advance. I don’t see that happening as of yet.

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  4. Elizabeth Burton
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 11:24:42

    Jane,

    Zumaya Publications is living proof that you don’t need to do print runs to be in bookstores, unless you’re thinking in terms of being stocked by the superchains. Why would any unknown author want to be one of 40,000 or more?

    The important point that the media continue to overlook, thus perpetuating incorrect information, is that on-demand (or more properly, digital or inventory-free) printing is more than subsidy publishers and co-op publishers like Lulu. It’s a viable way for a traditionally oriented publisher to operate as well.

    We chose digital printing because we refuse to participate in the appalling waste that is the current system. It’s not just the waste of resources inherent in large print runs that don’t sell but the impact on the environment caused by the archaic system of returns. Digitally printed books ship only when they are sold–one trip, unless the publisher agrees to accept returns. However, should they do so, books can potentially be shipped not twice but three times: once to the bookseller, once to the wholesaler’s receiving warehouse and one more time to the shipping warehouse. And a fourth trip may be added if the returns are then shipped on to the publisher.

    And note that those two warehouses may be at opposite ends of the country.

    The initiative to have publishers use recycled paper is a wonderful idea, but it only addresses one part of the problem. Digital printing and inventory-free publishing, while not feasible as the main model for large publishers, is a means by which smaller ones can ensure readers have access to more options while minimizing the environmental impact.

    Unfortunately, because of articles like the one you’ve cited (and, frankly, a someone elitist attitude on the part of the established industry), the alternative business model to the Authorhouses and Lulus is unknown to the vast majority of people. Which is fine. At Zumaya, we accept that education is part of what we do.

    As is, to quote Brian Judd, selling “beyond the bookstore.”

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  5. Mrs Giggles
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 12:24:37

    Ms Burton, I recalled reading similar points made by Zumaya in the Absolute Write thread for the publisher, and I also recall someone there asking what I feel is a very good question. You’ve described all the good things the POD technology can do, but how is the POD technology, or Zumaya for that matter, doing to SELL these books? Do these books sell?

    Less waste, inventory-free, et cetera are very nice catchwords – for the publisher who can therefore minimize costs of operation by eliminating the need of warehousing. But what does the author get from all of this?

    By the way, I’d like to think of myself as a supporter of POD books, having regularly purchased from Lulu and such places, so I’m not trying to dismiss POD. But like Emily Veinglory, I feel that right now there are more unsubstantiated hype about POD than anything else.

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  6. Barbara Sheridan
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 14:22:17

    Zumaya Publications is living proof that you don't need to do print runs to be in bookstores, unless you're thinking in terms of being stocked by the superchains. Why would any unknown author want to be one of 40,000 or more?

    Because that’s where an author’s name and book will have the most exposure to the target audience?

    Sure, readers wanting niche fiction like m/m and whatnot will probably think to look at e-publishers and e-book distributor sites such as Fictionwise first, but the average reader is going to be cruising the stacks at B&N, Borders and whatnot. That’s where the target audience is likely to be.

    I imagine many readers do as I do and check new books out via Amazon then look for the title at their nearest store where you can actually browse through the book to see if it catches your interest.

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  7. Jane
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 14:40:05

    I guess it depends on what you term successful. I think that most writers want to write for a living and write more than one book. I don’t know how that is accomplished through POD right now (except in a few exceptional cases). So POD still remains, in my mind, more vanity press than a viable business model for mass market publishing.

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  8. Elizabeth Burton
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 14:56:06

    I responded to Mrs. Giggles, but it got lost in cyberspace, so I’ll start over and address Barbara’s question first.

    I have to disagree that a single book by an unknown author is well-served by being shoved on a shelf amid hundreds of other titles, many by well-established writers. I supposed one might pick up a few sales from avid browsers, but there’s a reason publishers are willing to pay huge sums of money to have titles placed on the front tables and displays and endcaps. And why the chains can get away with charging those sums.

    What isn’t readily available to the browser’s eye might just as well not exist. Those who seek to purchase one of our books do so because they’ve heard about it somewhere else, or have met the author. We’ve had no problem arranging for copies to be available should a chain store agree to have a signing, and the books are readily available on special order.

    What I find amusing is that bookstores talk about not ordering them unless the book is paid for in advance as if that’s some unpardonable sin. On the other hand, given that a traditionally printed book might end out being out of stock when that order goes through, I can also understand why the pay-in-advance concept is alien to them. It’s a nuisance having to give someone a refund.

    But our books are never out of stock, so it’s no big deal to have them paid for at the time they’re ordered.

    And yes, browsing Amazon to buy at the bookstore is very common, but these days there are options at Amazon and on Google that will let you virtually “browse through the book”–I suspect for that very reason.

    Mrs. Giggles: What do offset presses do to sell books? Or web presses? Printing presses don’t sell books, and POD is a printing process not a publishing process. The work of marketing and promotion falls to the publisher and the author.

    Do the books sell? Yes, ma’am, they do. Not in the numbers we’d like, yet, but we’re very early in the process of educating the relevant people just how the new model works. Part of that process is having to deal with the frustration of having the media constantly equating the printing process with one of the ways in which it’s used, i.e., subsidy and co-op publishing.

    Ironically, the very booksellers who will firmly say “we don’t sell POD books” likely have more than a few already on their shelves. Large publishers have caught on that it saves them money to convert backlist titles that sell enough to justify keeping them in print but not enough to justify a print run. In fact, it was precisely that–and some extremely poor judgment–that led to the flap over Simon & Schuster’s new contract last year.

    The whole point of new technology is to use it to develop new and better ways of doing things. That, however, requires a lot of patience, because human nature resists change; and the traditional publishing business model has been going on for most of a century. It’s counter-productive to insist that someone has to continue following it blindly when there are better options.

    What does the author get? Well, for one thing, they get published. The lower cost of digital publishing means publishers can take chances on unknown writers or books that don’t fit into neat categories. And they can let those writers and those books take whatever time necessary to find a readership. Those are luxuries print-run publishers don’t have, and neither to the authors they publish.

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  9. Ann
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 19:18:03

    I have to disagree – I was recently “published” by a small press using POD only to find that all of the promotional efforts were dumped on me – including the efforts to try and get bookstores to order my book. It wasn’t in Ingrams for months after being released online and is pretty well DOA. Thanks to the publisher not obtaining a distributor who would try and sell my book I’m in the same situation as others – I’m being told that I have to buy my own books and then sell them on consignment. It’s not mandatory, but it’s pretty clear that with no bookstore placement and even the most enthusiastic promotion online any book isn’t going to sell well, if at all.

    This ongoing mantra about “the big stores keeping the little presses down” is getting pretty old – the fact is that while the concept of returns may be unwieldy and annoying, it’s the way the publishing world works. And many an author signs up with a small press claiming that POD is the way to go and then discovers that the bookstores can’t/won’t order them and they’re just a blip on the online world because of so many others trying to do the same thing.

    The only ones making money are the publishers who pocket the sales from the authors and the pittance from the website sales and then cycle another round of authors through the grist mill. Meanwhile the authors are told to spend even more money promoting their own works instead of the publisher doing *their* job by obtaining a distributor and trying to get books onto shelves.

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  10. Elizabeth Burton
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 19:47:17

    Ann,

    I never said the big stores are keeping the little publishers down. I said it makes no sense to have a book by an unknown author sitting on the shelves where all it will do is get lost.

    We go out of our way to find low-cost or, preferably, no-cost ways for our authors to market their books. We prefer they don’t place them on consignment except for the brief time required for a signing.

    If you weren’t prepared to assume the major part of the marketing, why did you sign with an inventory-free publisher in the first place? We make it clear right from the start that this is the way it has to be right now, and work with the author to develop a marketing plan. We do what we can to assist, but with a staff of two there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do a lot of marketing, too.

    Did this publisher not do that? If so, then you have some cause for complaint. Otherwise, you signed that contract with full knowledge you were going to be busy.

    I would also caution against painting all inventory-free publishers with the same brush. There are as many varieties there as with more traditional publishers, and it behooves an author to ask pertinent questions like “How much marketing assistance do you provide” before they sign the contract.

    You make it sound as if getting a distributor is easy. It’s not. And it’s expensive–the publisher has to be willing to give a 75% discount, which simply isn’t possible with the higher per-copy costs of digital printing. An usually, one also has to agree to unlimited returns, which we’ve chosen not to do. On the other hand, we offer a 50% discount to booksellers for prepaid, nonreturnable orders, and to date I’ve had no complaints from those who took advantage of it.

    Additionally, the publisher has no control over when a book makes it into the Ingram catalog. That’s a function of when the book is launched. Ingram updates their catalog once a month on the first, so a book that publishes early in the month won’t be listed until the following month.

    Are there disadvantages to inventory-free publishing? Of course. But part of the task of developing a new business model is addressing the disadvantages and finding ways to work around them.

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  11. Ann
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 20:34:03

    except, of course, that the disadvantage is all put on the writer who then either spends more money that he/she can afford to either publicize a book that can’t be found or ordered other than online or purchasing copies him/herself to resell.

    And all the promotion in the world, “marketing plans” and the like won’t make a difference when your book is just one among a thousand e-pubs released in the Amazon pool. It falls again to the author to do the work of the publisher and that’s not right.

    I’ve seen small publishers get distributors and make it work – Behler, for one. Somehow Samhain books make it onto the shelves in my local bookstore. What are they doing that your company or any other POD can’t do?

    You may be “revolutionizing the industry” but on the backs of the authors who end up spending more time promoting than writing… and that’s just wrong.

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  12. Elizabeth Burton
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 21:22:35

    I understand a lot of what you’ve said is venting your frustration with your own situation. However, I’d rather you didn’t accuse me of things that aren’t the case.

    Our books are in bookstores. One of them is in quilt stores–and doing very well. Did you miss the part where I said bookstores are quite happy with the additional discount over standard we offer in exchange for no returns?

    Because that’s how Samhain gets into bookstores–they accept returns. Mundania is there for the same reason, and both are paying the price for it. Returns benefit no one but the bookseller, and are wasteful.

    In the best of all possible worlds, writers could write and nothing else. Unfortunately, this is the real world, where the competition for a shrinking body of readers is fierce and the only way for a book to succeed is for everyone with a vested interest in it to do what they can to see it gets attention.

    And do I really need to point out that “on the shelves” isn’t the same as sold? How many of those copies ended up being sent back? The average is 25-30%, but in some cases it can be 50% and up.

    Our authors would rather have actual sales. Those who prefer otherwise simply go elsewhere–it isn’t as though anyone is holding a shotgun to a writer’s head forcing them to sign our contract. They make the choice fully informed about what we can do for them and what they’ll need to do for themselves.

    Our model isn’t to your liking, and that’s fine. That doesn’t make it wrong.

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  13. veinglory
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 21:42:13

    I think RW Ridley makes good points. POD like ebooks means publishers, large and small, can ‘farm’ authors. They invest little and need only sell a few dozen books to enter the black. The author must still invest enough time to write a book–they can’t reduce that.

    It is part of a trend that means authors have to be canny to make sure they benefit in a meaningful way, not just the publisher.

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  14. Mrs Giggles
    Jan 04, 2008 @ 22:00:24

    What does the author get? Well, for one thing, they get published. The lower cost of digital publishing means publishers can take chances on unknown writers or books that don't fit into neat categories. And they can let those writers and those books take whatever time necessary to find a readership. Those are luxuries print-run publishers don't have, and neither to the authors they publish.

    Yes, I see where you are coming from, as a publisher, but I’m not sure if authors will agree with you that getting published is enough. They want their books to sell, I believe, and right now there aren’t many ways for folks who use POD technology to find do this.

    But of course, I also believe it is up to these authors to decide what they want to do with their books and where they want to see their books published.

    Either way, good luck with your business endeavors. I believe we can always use more folks in the industry who take chances on new authors.

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  15. Barbara Sheridan
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 10:58:21

    I have to disagree that a single book by an unknown author is well-served by being shoved on a shelf amid hundreds of other titles, many by well-established writers.

    While “a single book” by an unknown may not be well served the fact of that particular author being beside the big names in a great many stores may help their overall name recognition and sales of future works.

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  16. veinglory
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 19:45:08

    Being shelved strikes me as exactly what I am after in the long run. That is 90% of the battle, assuming the book is any good.

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  17. Ann
    Jan 05, 2008 @ 19:51:32

    exactly.

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  18. Lisa
    Jan 09, 2008 @ 19:00:16

    As a literary agent, I’ll give you my perspective on POD: it makes sense for an author to publish a single title via POD because many agents, myself included, have sometimes made the mistake of “overlooking” a book while it’s in manuscript form, but once it’s in “book” form and makes a few sales, then it catches my attention and can lead to a contract with a major publisher. Self-publishing is a terrific way of getting your name out there. Do whatever it takes to set yourself apart from the pack!

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  19. Elizabeth Burton
    Jan 09, 2008 @ 19:53:10

    Lisa,

    A number of our people have brought us excellent books that their agent wasn’t able to place. We fully understand that one of our functions is to be a stepping stone for writers to the big time, and we’re as thrilled as they are when it happens.

    And then there are the senior citizens. One of my people sent a copy of one of his new mysteries to his former agent. This is a man who won multiple awards in the 80s for his YA books. Her response was that although it was an excellent book she doubted there was a place for it in the current market and “after all, you ARE 79.” Well, he’s now 84, and I have two of his mysteries under contract, want to republish the YAs and have three other titles–a collection of essays, a middle grade chapter book and a literary–in print. Well, the first is out temporarily while we do a new edition.

    Another of my people won the Harper Prize with his first novel and went on to make the NYT best seller list in ’61. He was working on #2 when life intervened, and he didn’t get it finished for another 40 years. And nobody wanted him.

    Another dozen of the titles in our catalog were written by talented people who can’t get the time of day from most publishers simply because of their age. They aren’t looking to move up, but at least they didn’t have to give up their dream.

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