June 2, 2011

Print on Demand Publishing: What and Why

When I first applied for a business license in Washington State, I listed my occupation as publisher because I was selling a photocopied, comb-bound book on seasonal holidays through ads in the backs of magazines. I continue to sell some of those books today, but in the intervening twenty years, I’ve expanded my empire to include eight e-books (downloadable PDF files) and three POD (print-on-demand) books.

Usually when authors talk about self-publishing, they are talking about creating a POD book, that is, a book that is submitted to the publisher in an electronic format and is printed only when it is ordered by a customer. Authors also need to know about their other options and an editor can help guide them in making the right choice by asking the right questions.

The Decision
Many writers choose to self-publish after trying the traditional publishing route. Others like the idea of being in complete control of title, cover, and design as well as reaping all of the financial benefits. I qualified on both counts: my agent had failed to sell my first book, Slow Time, after sending it out to 15 major publishers. And I loved the process of working with a designer and cover artist to make the book look the way I had always envisioned it.

However, self-published authors rarely have a realistic perspective on how many books they can sell. They believe (as I did) that once their well-written, fascinating book is out in the world, it will become a bestseller by word of mouth. This is about as likely as winning the lottery (although it does happen, as does winning the lottery: otherwise no one would buy tickets).

In my Non-Fiction Book Proposal class, I ask authors two questions. If you are working with an author who wants to self-publish, you might start with these questions too.

First I ask authors to estimate: How many people are likely to buy the book?

The answer “everyone who likes to read in the United States” is not sufficient. Authors have to show me (as they have to show a traditional publisher) numbers that back up their claim. For instance, if I’m selling a book about a Chihuahua (I am!), how many people attend Chihuahua meet-ups in the United States? (In case you’re interested, San Diego has the biggest Chihuahua meet-up, with 990 participants; New York is second with 928.)

But not all of those people are going to buy books. Meanwhile, there’s still the second important question a self-published author has to answer:  How am I going to reach them?

If I’m going to meet most of my readers in person, for instance, traveling around the country and attending Chihuahua meet-ups, I might as well get a printing company to print my books and put them in the trunk of my car. Writers who intend to sell most of their books by hand—at workshops, classes, or readings—can create books by hand, use a local printer, or print books on an Espresso Book Machine. But for writers who intend to sell most of their books via the Internet (through Amazon.com or a website or blog), POD publishing is convenient, as each individual book will be printed and shipped directly to the customer by the POD publisher.

This is a gross simplification of a complicated decision, and the field is changing so rapidly that any information I give you today will be out of date tomorrow. If you are working with an author trying to make this decision, I suggest sending them out to interview other local self-published authors.

I hope to interview a few local self-published authors who have tried different pathways and share what they’ve learned in upcoming blog posts. The next few posts, however, will cover the A to Z of POD publishing via my experience publishing my book Slow Time.

—Waverly Fitzgerald

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