Writers' Resources 

About Print-On-Demand Publishing

John M. Daniel

I have often been asked by authors what my opinion of Print On Demand publishing. Usually the author is seriously considering this option as a means for getting his or her book into print. I am no lawyer, and I’m not especially knowledgeable about advanced printing technology; but I have spent twenty years in the business of seeing books into print, and I know what a publisher’s contract should look like. So I have the right, I feel, to offer my two cents’ worth.

POD publishing is a growing business, the wave of the future for personal publishing, enabling virtually any writer to get a book into print fairly inexpensively. It will, perhaps, in time, render obsolete the old-fashioned subsidy presses. I am an old curmudgeon, an old dog when it comes to new tricks, so I am naturally skeptical. I don’t believe POD will improve the quality of literature or of life to have every book automatically publishable. In the past the main gatekeeper was cost: conventional, royalty publishers had to like a book enough to take a risk on what was a fairly expensive production process; subsidy publishing required the author to take that risk. The POD process reduces the risk to almost nothing for both parties. So there will be more books, and (I know this because of the manuscripts I read each day) most of them won’t be worth publishing except insofar as they make the author proud.

Your book may be worth publishing, but like a great many books worth publishing, it may have a hard time finding a standard royalty contract, because the odds are stacked so high against such luck. When you’ve decided you’ve had enough enough the door-knocking process, if you still are determined to see the book in print, then the time may have arrived to consider POD publishing. When you reach that point, it’s time for some soul-searching.

The questions to ask are really simple:

1. What do you want from having your book published? Be honest about this.

2. What will your POD publisher deliver to you? Be honest about this too. Don’t expect the publisher to be more than technically honest; they want your business.

3. What will this process cost you? Have your eyes wide open, and don’t buy snake oil.

Some answers:

1. What do you want from having your book published? There are a number of possible answers to this important question. Fame. Money. Communicating your message. Entertaining your readers. The pride of authorship. There are others, I’m sure, but these are a few that come to mind.

2. What will your POD publisher deliver to you? Alas, I don’t think your POD publisher will deliver on any of the menu items I listed in #1. The only real promise made in the standard POD contract is a couple of free books. You won’t get famous, except in your own home town and among your own friends, and you’re already famous in that arena. You book probably won’t be reviewed by any significant publications, because POD publishers don’t seek such reviews. You won’t get any money from book sales or royalties, because any book sales will be generated only by you, and that won’t amount to more than a few dozen copies. You’ll probably spend more money courting the market than you’ll make on royalties. Your book won’t communicate your message to the general target audience because they’ll never hear about it, and if they do hear about it because you’ve done a costly mailing, the book will be too expensive for them to buy. They won’t be entertained either, for the same reasons. Pride of authorship? Well, two books in hand is better than no books in hand, but since the literary world knows that POD publishers have virtually no gate-keeping process, it’s not much to crow about. You can be proud of having written a good book, of course, but that it got published won’t be important in the long run. Closure comes closest, but even then, as long as you feel the need to achieve your other goals, you’ll be working on this book, because you’ll have to generate all the little publicity and few sales on your own with no help from your publisher.

3. What will this process cost you? Well, financially not much, according to most POD contracts. At least not up front. But there will be other financial obligations that may be disguised in the contract, but they’re there (the cost of corrections, for example, which can mount up rapidly). Then there’s the cost of marketing, which will be up to you. The total expense won’t be a huge amount, perhaps, and probably nowhere near as much as you’d pay a subsidy publisher. But be aware that nothing comes free. POD publishers don’t offer a publication contract because they expect to make money off of selling books. Or, better put, if copies sell (because of your efforts, not theirs), they’ll be happy to grab the lion’s share of the money and consider it gravy, because they’ve already made their money from having sold you a contract.

Final advice: read that contract carefully, to see, point by point, what they will give you and get from you. It may be that POD publishing is right for you. But don’t take the publisher’s word for it.


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