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Wednesday 10 March 2004


Publishing in the Future:
The Potential and Reality of POD

by Sean Wallace

In the last seven years, print-on-demand technology has become an established component of the publishing industry, affecting everyone in it from authors to publishers to wholesalers to bookstores. Print-on-demand (referred to in the trade as POD) is the ability to short-run manufacture books or magazines in relatively low numbers, from one copy to the sky's-the-limit. Initially, the technology suggested a potential revolution in the way books were manufactured, distributed, and purchased, with visions of customers placing an order for any title ever written and having a copy print while they waited — in effect upsetting the whole infrastructure of traditional book manufacture and distribution. No title would ever be 'out of print' again.

It hasn't quite worked out that way, unfortunately. The technology was first made available by national wholesalers such as the Ingram Book Group and Baker & Taylor, who established POD operations LightningSource and Replica Books respectively, with all sales demand (online stores, chain stores, library systems) fed through their distribution systems. This represents a POD printing-and-distribution business model, and it's become the basis for thousands of publishing operations since then, including science fiction and fantasy small presses Wildside Press, Prime Books, Babbage Press, Wheatland Press, and many more. It has even been adopted by larger publishing companies such as Time Warner, which has occasionally released backlist titles in pod editions. Yet not only has traditional publishing not been revolutionized, or even much affected, POD's position in the publishing universe of 2004 remains suspect, even disreputable to some.

The reasons for POD's failure to achieve its revolution are varied, but much of the blame (and stigma) is a consequence of the first ecological niche that was available for it to occupy: vanity publishing. Services such as iUniverse, PublishAmerica, XLibris, and others, took quick advantage of POD, flooding distribution channels and catalogs with thousands of titles produced with little regard to quality, design, or marketing. This brought about an understandable backlash from buyers, bookstores, and reviewers, who saw POD as just another variety of vanity publishing. Consequently, major wholesalers made it harder for new small press publishers to enter their systems, reviewers became reluctant to consider anything POD-printed, POD publishers found their ISBN acquisition costs increased, and industry observers came to disregard all publishers using POD technology, whether they were vanity houses or not.

But not all POD publishers are vanity presses. The failure of POD technology to have the impact that some foresaw can be understood by considering the economics of POD in the context of the four P's of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.


Product: In its infancy, print-on-demand did have some production quality issues, but these days the quality is comparable to anything put out on the bookshelves. On most levels a nicely produced and designed POD paperback or hardcover is almost indistinguishable from its offset counterpart. Your average reader will not and should not be able to tell the difference. Unfortunately, there are still too many publishers who don't take advantage of the benefits of POD and continue to crank out shoddy product with inexcusably terrible designs.

Another factor is the editorial selections themselves. Too many publishers — like the vanity publishers — rely on desperate would-be authors crawling out of the woodwork. Others think they can succeed by imitating the majors, by publishing bad commercial fiction. That's not the place where POD publishers can thrive; it makes no sense for a small press publisher to publish in genres like commercial romance or suspense thriller, because of strong competition in the market from the bigger publishers. The answer is to carve out new niches and stick to them.

Admittedly, the economics of POD publishing carry limitations for some kinds of books. It's not always the best choice for original fiction, be it a novel or a short story collection or anthology, for a number of reasons, but for the most important: there's rarely any cash advances. The business model associated with most POD publishing operations doesn't allow it. Sales growth is the name of the game, and cash advances slow down progress, which is why you really don't see too many investing in them. On the other hand, POD is very well-suited for public domain titles, reference volumes, and other books whose warehousing expenses would make them impractical for traditional publishers to keep in print.

In contrast, POD enables publishers to take chances with authors, with design, with marketing. Publishing companies can do some really creative things with all this newfangled technology, things that would be rather expensive to do with offset and a larger print run. This is an advantage of POD publishing. There's just no excitement in cranking out the average book like sausages in a meat market. It's got to be something special, something exciting, to compete with the Big Boys.


Price: The high retail prices associated with the average POD book are also clearly an issue. This is an undeniable drawback of POD technology, as the unit costs stay fixed for each copy manufactured and offers no room for improvement; whereas with traditional offset printing the costs scale with increases in the print run. Let's take an example:

POD: 196pp hardcover, 6 x 9 trim size, four-color dustwrapper, unit costs of $10.00

Offset: all else being the same, but with a print run of 500, unit costs of $8.00 or less.

This offset example scales even further down with larger print runs, especially in the thousands, with unit costs dropping to $5.00 or less. From that perspective, it makes little sense to invest in POD for most projects, especially if your projected sales demand is high. Where a publisher is committing himself to a POD business model, there's not much to be done about the price, beyond keeping it as low as possible. Here's where vanity publishers have an advantage: they have no incentive to minimize production costs, because the low volume sales associated with their operations entail selling only a few copies of each book on the open market and relatively more copies to the large pool of authors, who are usually encouraged to purchase multiple copies of their own books at a 'discount'. But this is no way for a legitimate POD publisher to penetrate a market where the competition are traditional publishers out to make money for themselves and their authors.


Place (or distribution): POD printing-and-distribution business models are not a permanent replacement for trade distribution, by any means. Any publisher who wishes to expand and penetrate new markets will eventually have to approach trade distribution and either replace or complement his initial distribution method. In any case, POD distribution is further complicated by two decisions made by most (but not all) publishers:

  • They make their books non-returnable, which makes bookstores even less inclined to carry books on their shelves or for book signing purposes. Returns are a way of life in publishing.

  • They short-discount books. In other words, instead of extending a standard fifty-five percent discount through their wholesale distribution channels, publishing companies will usually offer far less, which in turn means a smaller discount to a bookstore. This obviously limits sales to mostly online venues and does not make it any easier to get into trade accounts.

Both decisions represent short-term and long-term limitations, making it that much harder to establish market penetration in terms of review markets, distribution channels, and so on.


Promotion: The cost savings in terms of setup costs and a royalty-based business model should allow a POD publisher to afford adequate marketing and advertising in order to push sales. But, too many publishers simply toss the books out, hoping for the best, and then wonder why they sink. Review copies, books signings, interviews, and more are the responsibility of the publisher, and a publisher that doesn't arrange these shouldn't be surprised by poor sales. Marketing can be an efficient and effective tool when utilized to its fullest. People want to read good books, but marketing has to make readers aware that the books are available before they can buy and read them.


There are other reasons POD publishing is still struggling for legitimacy, among them entrenched practices of industry analysts and bibliographers who have difficulties with books that aren't "published" in the usual sense of having fixed print runs (a problem shared in a sense with electronic publishing, which doesn't involve physical copies at all). However, the industry will catch up with the technology, eventually, as it always has. Despite its admitted limitations, POD does serve a function that traditional publishing does not, as outlined previously. The success of POD publishers should not be judged by the technology they employ, but — like any other publisher — by the care and effort they take to select, edit, and market books that readers want to buy.

Sean Wallace works full-time for Wildside Press, as senior editor for the following imprints: Cosmos Books, Prime Books, Renaissance Books; and contributing editor to Wildside Press and Borgo Press. He currently resides in Hatfield, PA, with his two cats, Amber and Jade.

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