WHAT IS POD?
By Neil Marr
Published: October 16, 2007

What Every Author Should Know About POD. From Neil MarrAuthor’s note: This warts ‘n’ all article is one I send out to authors whose work I see as a potential publication for a small independent publishing house at which I am head of the editorial department. It would be unfair to single out my own company when it comes to discussing the merits of small houses that rely largely or exclusively on print-on-demand production, so I have removed the name of my company and replaced it with ‘Publishing Company X.’ Such admirable companies do exist – but they are rare and take some finding. All my published authors would agree that the search is worth the trouble. Neil Marr

WHAT IS PoD?

PoD is a four-letter word!

The initials originally were nothing more than an innocent and accurate expression of a revolutionary new print technology called the Print on Demand process. But unscrupulous hijackers in the vanity “publishing” business (commercial print shops in disguise) deliberately fudged the issue to confuse Print on Demand – the PoD high-tech print term – with Publish on Demand … the manipulation of authors and readers by those whose interest in books extends no further than cheque books.

Please get this clear …

PoD (Print on Demand) = a high-tech print system employed by legitimate small press independent publishers and all major, respected publishing houses to reduce financial risk of book release or to maintain backlists by operating on a non-inventory basis and printing books to order. Penguin, Random House and other well known houses now even use the technology for some new releases.

PoD (Publish on Demand) = a business module; a system to convert raw manuscripts into "books", automatically and without selection or any editorial intervention … at the cost of the author. It used to be called “vanity press”. Some now call it “self-publishing”, “subsidised publishing” or “partnership publishing”, although the terms might well be considered interchangeable. Publish on Demand affairs also tend to use Print on Demand technology to produce their books, so the distinction has become even more blurred to their advantage and to the detriment of legitimate small independent publishers.

New Print on Demand technology means that when someone orders a hundred, fifty, ten or even one single copy from an online bookshop or a high street store, the order is passed to a specialised printer and the PoD book is immediately produced accordingly and despatched to the buyer. The new print technology means that publishers don't have to carry a large inventory, speculating on mass producing copies that might be returned unsold from brick-and-mortar bookshops or (as is usual these days) destroyed by high street retailers. This new technology is what makes many legitimate small independent publishers viable and keeps major publishers' backlists open.

Beware! Almost all companies using the term PoD are Publish on Demand outfits and leave a big hole in an author's pocket. Many will charge thousands of dollars to set up a title for PoD release. Others make profits by simply publishing raw manuscript at the touch of a few computer keys for a few hundred dollars, without any editorial input (not even a cursory proof read). Yet others will offer to publish a raw manuscript “free” but make sure of big bucks every time by obliging the author to buy a number of copies and/or demanding a potential sales list of friends, family and colleagues and putting high pressure upon them to buy. There is, therefore, no need for the company to sell another single book to be in clover. Artificially high “royalties” (covered by inflated cover prices) are often offered to authors, who are, themselves and their circles, the sole buyers of a title, with glib claims of profits to be made. Very, very few authors ever approach break-even point and are left with broken hearts, depleted bank balances, and garages full of expensive books. Paid-for PoD (Publish on Demand) companies seldom offer any significant distribution network (although some will fix wider exposure at a price).

Another PoD (Publish on Demand) system is called the author mill. Companies applying this approach will accept and auto-print anything offered in a Word.doc or RTF file – for free! Several serious authors have tested such outfits with scanned copies of telephone directories and sheer nonsense (check out the biggest, PublishAmerica.com, in a browser). Their manuscripts are always accepted enthusiastically and produced – unread, of course – within weeks, days or even hours. PublishAmerica, for instance, releases two titles per working hour! Such quick turnover means that the companies are well ahead on the swings and roundabout principle as most hapless authors order anything from a dozen copies to a thousand and persuade their circles of friends and relatives to spend, spend, spend. Nice work if you can stomach it.

Very, very rare are non-subsidy publishers using exclusively Print on Demand technology and who offer a full professional editorial, design and technical service, organise print set up and world-wide distribution, handle all the expensive official extras from listings and necessary legal work to ISBN numbers and international library placement of books – yet carry the entire financial risk themselves … whilst at the same time offering realistic industry standard royalties to authors.

Such reputable publishers stand or fall – as do the bigger traditional publishing houses – solely on the quality of their books and authors and sales to the general reading public.

Publishing Company X is a non-subsidy, royalty-paying publisher with a full professional editorial and technical team, sub-contracted designers and artists, top quality, state-of-the-art print bases in the UK and the US and a world-wide distribution network second to none. Not a red cent is accepted from an author to subsidise release. The author isn't committed to the purchase of a single copy.

Publishing Company X is a true publisher in the traditional sense of the word, which is why it has earned prestigious listings in publishing bibles like The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and The Writer’s Handbook. It is editorially driven and the small team of three fiction editors has well over a century of combined professional experience. It also has two professional poetry editors and three professional consultant editors. Google Publishing Company X and you’ll find nothing but praise for the orgnisation and its titles.

There are, though, two obvious differences between the household names in the business and Publishing Company X. We (so far) exclusively employ state-of-the art press technology to Print on Demand rather than mass-produce on a hit-or-miss basis, and we rely on the huge reach of the Internet and ordering facilities at all high street bookshops in the world to reach the reader, rather than speculatively stock shelves in the local high street book store.

And – as a small bonus that may soon become significant – a Publishing Company X title is also backed up by a top quality e-book. Generous royalties are also paid on these.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A NON-SUBSIDY PoD PUBLISHER AND A HUGE ESTABLISHED HOUSE?

As far as most new authors are concerned, the main difference is that they stand at least a fighting chance of being published because financial risk to the independent publisher employing Print on Demand technology and mainly Internet marketing is so much reduced.

But we do NOT regularly stock the shelves of high street bookshops as do major mass-production traditional houses. Although, because of its full Ingrams service, all Publishing Company X titles are also available on order from any brick-and-mortar retailer in the world, by far the greatest number of sales is made via the Internet. In Publishing Company X's case this means titles are offered for sale in our own online store, other small but reputable independent online book stores, and with all major sellers including Amazon (International, UK, US, Canada, Japan, France, etc), Barnes and Noble and AbeBooks. We are also fully covered through online stores (and, of course, brick and mortar stores) in Asia, the Far East, the Pacific Rim, Australia and New Zealand. Publishing Company X books are also placed in major and many local libraries.

The reason why new talent has a much greater chance of publication with a non-subsidy PoD publisher is determined by the Print on Demand principle itself and a strict non-inventory policy.

Huge and rightly prestigious international houses with outlets in the high street, at airports, rail stations, etc., must (among other things) consider the vast expense of speculative mass-print runs, warehousing, physical distribution of books to shops, high commissions to retailers (between 35% and 60% (much higher for supermarket chains and book clubs), short shelf life (average a couple of months – often a month's the limit) and a destruction rate currently running in excess of 60%.

Little wonder, then, that they must place their bets on big-name, bankable authors and tightly defined genres, reducing the odds against losses by leaving out in the cold newcomers and works of lesser commercial potential, like cross-genre, genreless literary works, short story collections and poetry. Please don’t take this personal opinion as criticism of the bigger houses. It is remarkable in the present economic climate that they survive with some integrity and, among the obvious bread-and-butter dross, still provide for the intelligent reader.

Publishing Company X need not consider such high costs (with our outlets, commission averages about 25% – no commission at all is charged by our own online store). Our books are printed to order with zero wastage. There are no book stacks gathering dust in expensive warehouses and delivery costs are borne by the buyer. This means that we can take a chance with a lower risk of major financial loss.

To release a Publishing Company X title costs us a few thousand dollars in professional editorial, design, technical and admin time, fixed legal and listings costs that must be met on the author’s behalf, library placement, print set up, and ongoing effort and limited costs for the period of an individual author/publisher contract.

Recently, by the way, Publishing Company X has been – and will now always be – represented by staff at all major book fairs, including London, New York and Frankfurt in a heavy drive to interest bigger publishers and foreign houses in our titles and authors. Our annual printed catalogues of titles (including blurb, synopses and opening chapter) are distributed widely in the trade. Authors, of course, will see massive benefit whenever we succeed. Some deals with large foreign-language publishers and movie companies are already in the pipeline.

IS A PUBLISHING COMPANY X PoD PAPERBACK OF COMPARABLE QUALITY TO ONE PUBLISHED BY A BIGGER HOUSE?

No, it certainly isn't. It is of much, much higher quality! Our printers (Lightning Source UK and US) are rated the very best in the world. We use their top-of-the-line print process – near-indestructible, gloss laminate covers, top quality pure white heavy (‘woodless’) paper, clear black text and the very best of binding glues.

Although of the same size as a standard paperback, you just need to hold, scent and look at a Publishing Company X product to immediately appreciate its superiority.

We pay a high price for such quality (higher still because we refuse to accept the usual ugly and over-sized trade paperback format produced by most Print on Demand publishers to save paper). Unlike traditional publishing houses, printing is far and away our biggest overhead – and we firmly believe it's well worth our investment.

But we still manage to keep our cover prices competitive with those of mass produced books. How? The secret’s simple … quality sells and greed doesn’t enter the equation here. And like our authors, our professional staff works on a royalties basis (much lower than that of the authors), sharing the risk.

It took a long time and near super-human effort to meet daunting release schedules in the early days to secure the print and distribution arrangement we have with LS and Ingrams. We're pretty well unique in independent small press publishing with the comprehensive printing, shipping and distribution deals they have awarded us.

WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS?

The few existing small independent non-subsidy publishers of which Publishing Company X is the biggest (just call us for contact with the others because we consider ourselves friends rather than competitors and you will have a fair assessment of our house), who work exclusively with Print on Demand technology obviously do not have at their disposal the massive resources of the big boys.

*We CANNOT regularly stock high street stores for the reasons mentioned above. We concentrate on online retail. On the other hand, we do have ways and means of stocking some B&M retail shelves that cover high commissions and discounts without the author or Publishing Company X losing out on the deal. We now also have an arrangement with the giant Waterstones high street chain of bookstores.

*We CANNOT routinely subsidise fancy launches and book signings. But we do help to great effect.

*We CANNOT afford very many review paperback copies of titles as a matter of course. That’s why we offer free ebook or CD equivalents to reviewers.

*We DO NOT have huge publicity and promotion budgets to spend on huge advertising campaigns. But we are effective in what we can do on a shoestring.

*We DO NOT offer royalty advances to our authors under any circumstances. Every time we take on a title, every single person at Publishing Company X also takes a big risk. We feel it fair that the author should share the stake.

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Although our books are prominently displayed in the online stores mentioned above and many others, promotion and publicity is a responsibility we hope is shared between publisher and author – this, though, is by no means a contractual obligation on the author's part. We will enthusiastically help with press releases, press stories, contacts, and all kinds of media advice, though. It is in our interests to do so, because any income to Publishing Company X itself comes solely from sales to the general reading public. It’s also in the interests of the author to join in and increase the value of his or her royalty cheques.

If he or she wants them, posters, flyers, bookmarks, paperbacks for review, etc. are often down to the author, though we will freely design them, as we do banners for publicity websites. The not inconsiderable cost of all promotion at the major (and some minor) trades fairs, of course, are borne by the company.

We provide special web pages specific to each author and title, too.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES?

First and foremost a (slightly) better chance of publication.

But, sorry, by no means a guarantee.

We must be selective and more than 90% of books offered in synopsis and sample form fall at the first fence with no invitation to send full ms. Around 10% of full manuscripts (invited after assessing initial synopsis and sample chapters) are accepted. Do the maths. But even in the face of such daunting odds, Publishing Company X still increases your chances a little. And our emphasis is strongly upon emerging talent – another factor in your favour.

Also with Publishing Company X, an author is involved every step of the way from first draft edit, through proofing, to cover design. Authors enjoy a friendly, one-on-one ongoing writing partnership with the assigned professional and experienced editor and with a team of other professionals that would be the envy of many a major house. Nothing goes without full all-round agreement. Without exception, the author-publisher relationship becomes so solid on a professional basis and close on a personal one that it extends far beyond the release of a first book.

Big houses often take over completely once you've signed on the dotted line and the author loses all control – unless he happens to be King or Grisham and can call the shots.

From acceptance of a raw manuscript to full publication is usually a matter of a few months to a year, rather than the long, long delays involved when dealing with traditional houses. Years of waiting time is not at all uncommon in the traditional zone.

And worth bearing in mind is a particularly author-friendly contract should a book be accepted by Publishing Company X for publication. The "draft" contract on our site is very much open to discussion and rarely is a contract not tailored to meet the individual requirements of an author.

A WARNING!

Non-subsidy independent PoD (Print on Demand) publishing is relatively new and in these early stages, accepted authors should not expect to become overnight millionaires.

Although the Internet is daily claiming a larger portion of overall book sales, it will be some time before non-sub PoD becomes a serious threat to the establishment.

However, a PoD title need never be out of print. We usually commit to a five-year term of availability and cover all maintenance and other costs for that period. After that, other print arrangements may be made. Our authors are advised very early on in the process that our contracts are there for the writer's protection … we would not hog-tie an author with paperwork.

No instant millionaires, but the realistic possibility of a respectable and steady income over a long period is so far the name of the non-subsidy PoD game we're helping spearhead.

CONCLUSION

So, that's it in a nutshell.

And please don't think for a minute that this message is intended to persuade you to send your manuscript our way. It's for your information only. One thing we are not short of is manuscripts – although new submissions are welcome during acceptance periods. And, unlike Publish on Demand, which will accept anything, any time at a price, we must be, and are, extremely selective to build a solid reputation for ourselves and our authors. Although our aim is to encourage new talent, we can open the door – but not the floodgates.

OK: If you’re an author reading this, there’s one question you have every right to ask … what’s in it for the amazingly altruistic Publishing Company X? How much profit do you make, guys? Come on -- how fat are your pay cheques?

If you’re not a Publishing Company X author, please do not read the following!

What’s in it for us after seven years of 16X7 work? Nothing so far. Fat salaries? Four pro editors are on royalties much smaller than those of the authors on whose books they work and representing much less than they pull in when they work for bigger clients, other full time professional staff is paid nothing at all yet and we all carry our own expenses.

Why work for nothing? We don’t work for nothing. We work for the future. We know where Publishing Company X is going.

By 2004, we’d reached the stage where our split of income from sales started, for the first time, to cover the cost of new releases (before then, we had to dig into our own shallow pockets).

Early in 2004 (the year we took over Publishing Company Y in Australia), we actually started to see a small profit. This we invested in what we think is a vital part of our work … selling rights (on our authors’ and our own behalf) to bigger houses and foreign publishers. It’s not an easy sell, but we’re already making headway. In 2007, we will continue and extend this drive.

Publishing Company X paperback sales in 2006 were 68% up on 2005. E-book sales over the same period rose by more than 150%. We’ve not got this year’s figures yet … but it’s looking better than ever. And the mainstream’s taking a greater interest than ever.

We are getting there. And it’s all very, very exciting.

Neil Marr