Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Experiment, Part Two: The Print On Demand Controversy

So while waiting for funding to come through on my purchase of a UPC code (and of course by "funding" I mean paying enough down on my credit card to actually have credit again) I have been researching Print On Demand (or POD) publishing.

POD publishing has a very bad rep, if you read a lot of the press that's out there. This is because so many vanity presses have set themselves up by using "POD technology" (a term that sounds suspiciously like a marketing ploy even if it is used by both opponents and proponents of the technique) to produce their work.

The thing is, you can usually spot the vanity press assholes by the simple fact that they, as their name implies, go out of their way to appeal to the vanity of their target market, unpublished (and naive) writers looking for a quick break into the "industry".

Vanity press outfits almost invariably pepper terms like "you deserve to be published" or "taking control of your destiny as an author" or "At last you will be published" and other ego-flattering catch-phrases into the lengthy blocks of texts that are plastered on virtually every page of their websites.

But what I don't understand is why every printer who offers writers the chance to use POD to produce copies of their work are hampered by the same blanket condemnation reserved for the vanity outfits.

So besides just compiling a list of POD printers and comparing the services and prices offered by the different companies, I also looked into the controversy surrounding POD and POD technology.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of radical, most of the bad press seems to be coming from "The Establishment"; IE, Publishers, and "recognized" authors (Anyone who's read by entry on the Author's Guild will know what I think of author "recognition).

Here's an example of the bad press, from one David Taylor. The article can be found in full, by clicking here

"...Why hasn't the potential and promise of print-on-demand technology been realized? It's not just POD's poorer quality (especially evident in images and covers) or cost (POD can be three or four times more expensive per unit)...Here's what POD publishers fail to arm their writers with and thus lead them to slaughter:

• Trade quality design. "Trade" refers to bookstores. And the author-chosen templates that Xlibris offers, for example, are instantly recognized by the trade and rejected because of their quality. Writers are not book designers, a fact which is evident in virtually every book it produces. There's a standard that must be met in order to get into bookstores, and few writers know enough about graphic design and book production to get there.

• An offset book. As a rule, bookstores and libraries do not accept POD books. Although the differences may not be immediately discernible to most customers, book professionals know instantly if a book was done on a souped-up Xerox copier (which is what POD publishers use) or if it was produced by offset lithography..."

The "bold" highlights are my own; I felt it necessary to point out both Mr Taylor's apparent bias against Xlibris, his disdain towards independent authors, and his lack of knowledge about the quality of POD publishing.

First off, while I neither support nor endorse Xlibris, it must be said that the full article in question seems to be more of a subtly directed attack against that company than an actual report into the POD industry. Taylor makes several references to Xlibris in his article, none of them very flattering.

Secondly, as to the quality of POD publishing, the American Council of Learned Societies, the London National Gallery, CAP Ventures (article), and the Bellagio Publishing Network, among many others all either endorse or use POD publishing. Likewise, there are colleges, universities and trade schools that offer courses on POD printing.

Thirdly, the condescending and insulting claim made by Taylor that POD publishing is done on "souped-up Xerox copiers" is obviously a dig at the fact that Xerox manufactures the offset printing machines that are used in POD printing. But Xerox is hardly the only company who makes the printers used in POD printing.

There is no question that POD-printed books are of lesser quality than offset litho books. However, the consensus seems to be the opposite of Taylor's claims. I quote below from Forner Books, on POD versus Offset Printing:

"...If you're publishing a full color cook book, there's just no way you can do it with print on demand at this point. The cost is too high and the quality isn't there...On the other hand, for a novel or a nonfiction book with limited black and white illustrations, print on demand quality is good enough. Print on demand printing is actually cheaper than a short run of offset...

Printing Offset
High quality from a good printer
Low unit cost if printing in large quantity - F.O.B.
Tremendous flexibility in cut size, paper weight and color
High storage cost
High distribution cost
High initial investment
High prepress cost, errors extremely expensive

Print on Demand
Low quality relative to offset printing
Uniform unit cost at all quantities
Limited flexibility in cut size and paper
No storage cost
Low/No distribution cost
Low initial investment
Low prepress cost, errors easily corrected..."

So it looks as though POD is a viable option for self-published authors. So what's the problem? Well, one thing that opponents of POD and its proponents can agree on is that all a POD printer does is print up books to order and specification. The author is responsible for everything else.

That means the onus is on the author to have the book proofread and copy edited. Likewise, cover design, marketing and distribution are all problems the author must overcome:

Distribution isn't a problem; you don't go to your local bookstore and try and get them to sell your books on consignment. There are numerous legitimate book distributors out there who will work with you. The more helpful ones will even give you tips and advice you'll need to consider before going to press. Granted, you have to shop around first, find a distributor who is both above board and right for your needs, but they are not as closed a circle as Mr Taylor's article implies.

The great thing about small business, though, is that small businesses tend to encourage other small businesses. Chances are you can find a journalism student at your local college to proof and edit your copy; chances are they won't charge you the small fortune that "professionals" do. Granted, you have more of a guarantee of quality with the pros, but odds are good that you don't have the capital to hire them.

Unfortunately, book jacket design isn't as simple as going to Chapters or Barnes & Noble and studying the books on the shelves of the genre section you're trying to break into. But again, there's a good chance that a graphic design student that'll be willing to help for cheap if you can't afford a professional's services.

The same goes for marketing. If you do have a decent budget for your publishing project, my honest suggestion is that you invest it here. You'll need a consultant and a campaign. You won't sell unless you can generate demand; you won't generate demand unless you create a buzz. Unfortunately, putting a URL in your email sig and in your sig line on message boards won't suffice. Yes, I know; it's ironic that I've been doing just that, along with this weblog. However, the small things are necessary steps, but the big things, like a marketing strategy are essential steps.

And as this experiment continues to go forward, I will look at all of these issues (and more) in future weblog updates.


Anonymous said...

Hey man. Looks like I'm your first regular reader... this really interests me, as I might try getting something published soon. Just one note, selling your book by hand to bookstores isn't that bad, as my favourite author to make a break with self-publishing, 2 million copy selling Matthew Reilly did just that around Sydney. Getting a distributor is probably a good idea, though, and would look more professional.

WTL said...

Book cover design is a touchy item, depending on the content - if fiction, it can make or break a book- no matter what the content is.

I would then suggest that if you have any budget, get someone to design a good book cover, because a huge number of people do indeed judge a book by its cover.

Cavan said...

It's nice to see such a level-headed approach to the issue. I self published a year ago and later made the big move to set up my own self-publishing company. On my site, I try to avoid the "ego-flattering catch phrases" you mention and really lay the pros and cons out for the potential client. I'm sure you'd agree that it's not a great business idea to delude clients - it ends up making up for a lot of unhappy people.

If you'd like to visit the site, it's at