Who Pays Whom, Part III

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Please find part one of WPW: Editors, Agents & Editorial Services here, and part two, Vanity Presses, here.

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!

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13 comments to Who Pays Whom, Part III

  • Well poo. I was hoping you were gonna hit e-books this time. I can wait a week though, as I’m not done with my MS yet anyway and I need to do more research into traditional markets for the book anyway.

  • Catie,
    I am so glad you addressed this. Great post!

    My AKA has several backlist novels out in POD format with a small press. (I/she got the rights back and resold.) I still sell a goodly number a month and get a pleasant royalty check two times a year.

    Because so many traditional presses are going to POD with their backlists, having a good agent keeps the rights revertable. In my current contract, if a backlist sells less than 300 copies a year, I get rights back, which was negotiated by my agent. Another good reason for a good agent! When I get them back, I’ll POD them through the small press.
    Thanks for this!

  • Aaah! If I’d known that I’d have used you in the blog as an example, Faith! That’s great!

  • I’m having out-of-print issues with my first trilogy — the first book is still in print, but not books 2 and 3. Crazy I know, but that’s how this business works sometimes. We’re trying to get them back in print on a POD basis, but are wary, of course, of the reversion issues you bring up here. This is the wave of the future: Warehousing is becoming more and more expensive and POD is becoming easier and easier. I expect to see more of this in coming years, along with smaller print runs. And as a result, reversion rights clauses are going to become more contentious issues in contract negotiations. Interesting post, Catie!

  • David, my small press works with agents and offers short term rights (like 3 to 7 years). One problem you will face, is that your books are so long it will cost a good bit to get them into POD print, which can mean a smaller profit margin for all concerned. But it can be done. E-books will make it even better for longer books! Can’t wait to see about that next week!

  • What do the cover art rights do when the right revert and an author takes the book to POD?

    Also, call me ignorant but… will the ebooks articles include the internet publishing “pay what you want” sites I’ve heard of (haven’t explored) as well as thinks like the Kindle and all those things that look like the notepads from star trek?

  • Catie, I’ve had an education into the process and I find it all quite interesting. But I know nothing about e-books. Can’t wait.

  • I have a lot of rather passionate opinions about e-books. Whether I’ve got *knowledge*… 🙂

  • Good questions, Axisor. Unfortunately, I don’t have answers for you. [Looks at the others…]

  • The cover art belongs to the publisher, not to you, so it goes back to the publisher when the novel rights revert to you.

    I’ll try to hit as many ebook points as I can think of, ranging from Kindle to “pay what you want” and some other things, too. It could take more than one post. 🙂

  • David, I didn’t realize books 2 and 3 of the LonTobyn Chronicles were no longer in print. I’m going to have to hunt for those as I only have the 1st one so far (which is sitting in my TBR pile).

    Sounds like a trip to the local B&N is in order this weekend. Sometimes I get lucky and they still have a few paperbacks on their shelves that aren’t in print anymore. I know they have a fair share of your books usually.

    This is probably the main thing holding me back from giving in and buying a Kindle. I want complete works available in e-format.

    If they had the complete works of Andre Norton available for the Kindle, I’d buy one in a moment. That’s why I’ll eventually make the move to that format, for the back catalogue more so than for new books.

  • Can I just announce that my first draft, sans 3 scenes that I still want to add, is done? Now the hard part begins…dealing with edits and feedback…

  • HOORAY DANIEL!!!! Congratulations!!!