This week I want to tackle POD, or Print On Demand.
First off, to steal a phrase from Laura Anne Gilman, “POD is a process, not a publishing style.” What it means is that the book you’re ordering isn’t created in the physical world *until* you’ve ordered it.
Once upon a time I would have categorized POD as solely a vanity press thing, something which was largely there to bilk writers out of hard-earned money by promising they would print up your book exclusively just as soon as someone ordered it! Of course, with no publicity, no books on the shelves, no word of mouth, it wasn’t very likely your book was going to get ordered, even if you’d paid to get it *ready* to sell.
I think the Internet Age has changed that significantly. I do still, mind you, believe that POD can be part of a vanity press scheme. But at this juncture I’m going to trust that our readers understand what’s bad about a vanity press, and instead I’m going to talk about what’s good about POD.
1. It can make otherwise out-of-print books available to readers.
One of the writers I know got critical acclaim for her first novel, great reviews for her third, but the second didn’t do as well. The publisher made the decision to not reprint the second in large numbers, but did make it available through POD, so if a completionist wants to pick it up, they’re going to be able to find a copy.
There are down sides to it–if you’re a professional, you want to make sure there’s some kind of caveat in your contract regarding how many POD sales over what period of time constitutes in or out of print, because otherwise your rights may never revert–but it can potentially be a helpful scenario to a writer. This use for POD is seen with some regularity by university presses and small presses.
2. It can help a small business reach an audience it would otherwise be unable to afford to.
Evil Hat Productions, a small press RPG company run by friends of mine, is a great example of this. Evil Hat have taken advantage of the POD technology to create independent roleplaying games and gaming guides which they don’t have to warehouse, thus saving an enormous overhead cost. They’re not making vast amounts of money, but they are making enough to continue forward, which is quite an achievement.
Mind you, part of the reason they’ve succeeded is because they spent a long time putting time and energy into free roleplaying games, so they were building an audience long before they went commercial. But they’re enthusiasts of the POD technology, and with good reason: used correctly, it can do wonders for a small business.
3. It can make actually self-publishing, with no press at all, a viable possibility.
I say this with some caution, because by and large I still believe right down to my toes that if you’ve written something good enough, you will find a traditional publisher for it. I’m reluctant to press the idea of self-publishing very hard.
That said, however, Magical Words has readers who’ve spoken up about their own self-publishing decisions, among them a poet, a self-proclaimed hobbiest, and one who has decided to become his own publisher after receiving encouraging rejections from traditional publishers.
I do not know if any of these readers have used POD; my impression is that the hobbiest has used more of a web-based donation system than physical copies of books, but I could very well be making that up.
For any of them, POD could potentially be a viable choice. The poet had books made up as gifts, but could use (for example) lulu.com’s marketing tools to potentially reach an audience beyond the friends & family he initially made the books for. (I have to admit, with no prejudice meant against the poet, that may be the most viable publication scheme available for poetry. It’s not exactly a fast-profits market…)
The self-publisher and hobbiest could potentially use the same process to reach an audience without the outlay of costs that a vanity press generally demands. There *is* room for this kind of publication–but it requires a lot of marketing and forethought to make money.
For total disclosure, let me confess to having a print-on-demand product myself: a 2010 Ireland calendar. For further total disclosure, let me also mention that I’ve sold exactly one copy. To a friend. And that’s with advertising on all my various sites.
Lulu and other POD systems like Zazzle (which is what I’m using for the calendar) *do* take a percentage out of sales, because they have to make money somewhere for this to be a viable scheme. But they take their percentage out of *sales*, not from up-front costs; there’s no way I’d have tried the calendar thing if I had to put money up to do it. (That would be vanity press in its evil form. We shall consider POD to be vanity press in its good form. At least in theory.))
So in a nutshell, I think POD can be pretty damned cool. There are probably about a million applications I haven’t touched on here, but I hope I’ve covered the ones most relevant to people considering a career in publishing.
Next week: e-books!