Nontraditional publishing, Part 1: Print on Demand

I see all these ads for companies that would be delighted to publish my book. Can’t I just go with one of them?

Well sure, you can do anything you want with your book. BUT know what you’re getting into. Once upon a time, there was something known as a “vanity press.” These were companies that would charge you a big chunk of money to format and print your manuscript into a beautiful book. They were lovely, with leather binding and gold print on the cover. However, in addition to the big fee, these companies did nothing to edit, publicize or distribute your book, and no bookstore would buy it because everybody knew that vanity presses would publish anything, whether it was good or not. There are still some companies out there doing exactly this. I wouldn’t advise you to go with them.

What about print on demand?

First we have to get our terms straight. “Print on demand” is a process whereby one’s book is stored on a computer and copies are printed when somebody orders them. As a technology, it’s fine and being used by many traditional publishers. In fact, a few places are offering consumers the opportunity to have a book printed in a few minutes in what looks like a giant photocopier stationed at the mall.

But there’s also the print on demand industry which gets people to pay POD companies to format, store and ultimately publish their books. It’s not much different from the old vanity presses in some ways. They accept almost anything, don’t edit your book, and don’t market it for you, at least not with their basic publishing packages. However, it’s not all bad. Most of these companies do distribute your book to all the major booksellers and many offer editing and marketing assistance for additional fees.

I published one book, Azorean Dreams, this way. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. The book is physically beautiful, although I’d like smaller print and a less intimidating size. Many people have read and loved my book, and I still sell copies now and then. But it has never been a big seller, and I have lost money on it because they charge me 80 percent of the $20.95 cover price to buy copies of my own book. Several studies have shown that most POD authors sell fewer than 200 copies of their books.

So I just mail them my manuscript?

Afraid not. Most print on demand companies will ask you to fit your book, as well as the cover text and photos, into their online templates. I found this quite challenging, and I have a lot of computer knowledge. I also found that their support staff was so overloaded I couldn’t reach them when I needed them. When proofreading the book, I found more than their quota of typos and had to reload and submit the book again, for an additional fee. In the process, they changed the format of the book to something I didn’t like as well as the first version, but I was stuck with it.

It sounds like you don’t approve of POD

No, it has its place in the industry. These companies do a wonderful service for authors who want to bring back books that have gone out of print and for people who just want to print their books and are not worried about getting rich or building a writing career. The finished products look fine. If you have a built-in market, such as workshops where you will sell your book, it can be a great way to go. Most companies also publish e-book versions these days, which is a bonus. With any type of self-publishing, if you can manage to sell thousands of copies, your book will be respected and might even attract a traditional publisher to take it over.

 What should I know before I sign a contract with a POD company?

A lot. I published an article on that outlines all the questions you should ask, but these are the most important:

* Get the book edited, even if you have to pay for it. You cannot see all of your own mistakes, and the POD company will not fix them for you.

* Get your own copyright and don’t sign a contract with a POD company that takes over your rights to publish the book. You want your name on that copyright page.

* Check out the company before you commit. Study their contracts and the cost of their services, including buying copies of your books, and check out the quality of the books they have produced. Do they look good? Would you be proud of these books if they were yours?

Is POD considered “vanity publishing?”

Among publishers and agents, yes. The self-published POD book will not be as warmly received as books put out by traditional publishers. Reviewers may shun them. Bookstores may refuse to stock them. I have had agents refuse to count POD books as real books. BUT the average reader doesn’t know or care how the book came to be. She just wants to read it.

Who are these POD companies?

Some of the biggest players in the POD game these days are Amazon’s CreateSpace, iUniverse, xlibris, and lulu. Look them up and see what they do.

Do you have more questions about print on demand? Do you have experiences with POD publishing that you could share with us? Please submit them in the comments or write to me at

Coming up: e-books.

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