Monday, October 16, 2006

New Wave in Publishing…
Or Vanity X-Press?

A message from Ron Kaye
President, Authors & Publishers Association

Part I: Quality

Over the past year or so, we’ve been hearing a lot more about Print On Demand, or POD, and I thought it would be a good topic to kick off the APA’s new blog. Put simply, POD involves creating books electronically, rather than through an offset press. The printed pages are directly output from electronic files, eliminating the steps of outputting electronic files to negatives (which are then used to create the plates from which pages are printed).With POD, therefore initial setup is greatly simplified, and as a result it is less expensive. It is for this reason that POD can allow short runs of books — even one book at a time — much more economically than using the offset method, which requires setups on large presses that produce 8, 16, or 32 pages of the book at a time. Likewise, with POD, covers and dust jackets are output directly from electronic files, which is much simpler than the four-color offset press method.

On the surface, it would seem that POD solves many of the biggest hurdles publishers face, such as the need to stock and ship massive inventories of books that may or may not sell. Furthermore, POD opens the door to many authors who might not desire — or be able to afford — a significant quantity of books. For example, take the individual who develops a family history, which is of great importance to the dozen or so members of the family, but has virtually no commercial appeal beyond that small circle. In this instance and others like it, POD is clearly the way to go, and should be considered by people who simply want to make their books available to a limited audience at minimal expense.

However, there are presently a number of POD companies who market their services as being the path of choice for virtually any type of book, from short-run personal journals to mainstream nonfiction books, complete with photographs. It is within the latter that some problems have arisen, which the POD companies aren’t too keen on discussing. My partner and I have worked with a few clients who have, for various reasons, chosen to go the POD route, and so I felt obligated to our members to share some of their experiences.

My opinion of the POD industry as it exists today is, to be quite honest, not too positive. While I certainly see the potential benefits to some, I also have encountered some significant shortcomings, both technological and operational, and feel our members need to be aware of all the facts before making their decision to publish via POD. I won’t mention any company names, to avoid any repercussions to the Association, but I will detail some of the things we’ve encountered, so you will know a few things to look for, should you opt to publish your book via POD. (I ask that you not mention specific POD companies in your comments for the same reason noted above.)

The first — and frequently foremost — snag we’ve seen involves the quality of the books produced. Typically, the pages will look like they were printed on a laser printer (which, in truth, they are). If you have a book that is primarily text, with a few black and white graphics or line art, the appearance will probably be satisfactory. The output from POD printers is typically 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution, as opposed to the approximately 2400 dpi achieved using the offset method. It is not as crisp and true black as a book output on an offset press, but still acceptable if you’re not competing with the quality of traditionally published works. However, if your book has any graphics that are grayscale — especially photographs — they will usually be fairly pixilated, and, at best, will look more like the pictures that appear in a newspaper than those in a book. While the technology has improved somewhat since the original Docutech process was introduced some years ago, it still falls short quality-wise of offset.

Likewise, color covers on POD books appear to be either inkjet or dye-sublimation, rather than four-color offset. While such output devices have greatly improved over the years in their ability to prevent overprinting of one color over another, a close inspection will sometimes show a band where two dissimilar colors converge. This might not be an issue for someone who is producing a book for a committed, limited audience, but it becomes more obvious when the book appears on shelves next to others whose output is more precise. It is, I feel, too early to pass judgment on the long-term stability of covers and dust jackets produced via POD; we’ll just have to wait and see if the covers hold up to extended shelf time.

I realize that my bias is obviously in favor of offset press production of books, purely from a quality standpoint. I also realize that not everybody is going to be as picky as I am about things such as sharp, pure black text and smooth graphics. For that reason, I would not summarily advise anyone to avoid POD, so long as their expectations are clear and realistic. I do, however, feel it is important for the prospective consumer to be aware of the pros and cons of taking the POD route, which I will further describe in the next blog or two. Other areas of great concern with POD are…

Until next time, then, feel free to submit comments about your own experiences, positive or negative. After all, the more we know, the better our own projects can be.

Happy writing – and publishing!


I agree with Ron about the quality issues surrounding POD, but I haven't found the bookstores or their customers to notice the difference between the POD version and the offset version of my current book. Experienced reviewers DO notice it!

I contracted with Lightning Source to print my current book as a means to get access to Ingram; that has proved to be a prudent move. I have an offset run that provides the profit I can't get with POD. Both books have the same ISBN. I sell the offset on my own websites and on Amazon via Advantage. The bookstores can order it either way.

Lightning Source has an interesting option for handling returns: if you choose, they will put them in the shredder. It still hurts a little, but at least we're not paying to ship them around!

The one issue Ron didn't discuss in his post is the one that irks me the most. Some vanity presses have succeeded in confusing folks into thinking that POD=vanity published=self-published. POD means "Print On Demand"; it's a printing technology. Any type of publisher can use it, and I know successful ones use it to keep titles alive from their backlists and to print galleys for new titles (then, if they get reviews, they'll do the offset run).

Byron C. Justice,
Lone Tree Publishing
My biggest issue with POD publishers is that they misrepresent the sales potential of the books they publish. Most books published by the POD publishers (who call themselves "self-publishing companies," another misrepresentation) average sales of fewer than 100 books. And most of those are sold to the authors.

If authors go into a relationship with a POD publisher understanding what they will truly get, it can be a good way to test a book, or to produce a book for a limited market.

There is also the possibility of using a POD printer, rather than a POD publisher. The main difference is who owns the ISBN and whose name appears as the publisher--is it your company name, or "Vanity Books R US"?

As for the quality of POD printing, it has certainly improved, although it is not as good as offset. I had 100 copies of a book printed using digital printing while waiting for an offset run to be completed. Although there are slight differences in the finished books, I believe the average reader would not notice them. Of course, the book did not include photos or grayscale images, just black text.

The bottom line is always to learn before you print. Too many authors rush into publication because something looks good on the surface, without learning about the publishing industry. Your book is important. Investigate your options and choose wisely.
Byron -
The issue of POD as vanity press is actually the topic of my next blog, which will be published a little later in the week.

And Cathy -
How right you are about authors needing to have all the info before making a decision. But that's why we're all here, isn't it? :-)
I come to this discussion from two experiences: first as an author who is published by a POD publisher and now as a publisher using a POD printer (which, I guess, makes me a POD publisher).

When signing with a POD publisher, the main thing I'd caution on is to make sure that the publisher will take returns. My novella, Hidden Gifts, is non-returnable and therefore basically non-marketable. I could not get a bookstore to host a signing because what doesn't sell sits at the bookstore until they either sell or are marked down for clearance. My publisher said other authors had signings at major bookstores all the time and when I asked how they got around the non-returnable issue, I was told that most authors offered to buy the left-over books at cost. So, if you have the cash flow to buy your own books after a slow signing, go for it. Personally, I'm just riding out the 7 year contract I signed. Only 4 more years to go! Actually, I did get them to add a rider to my contract that says if I find another publisher for my book, they would release me from my contract early. I just haven't done much to pursue another publisher yet.

Now, the above experience is, in part, what set me off in my current direction: a small press publisher. In looking into all the things I hated about my publisher, I found those had nothing to do with POD. I discoverd that POD books can, indeed, be returned and that's really all a bookstore cares about stocking a book or ordering multiple copies for a signing. (I've now had my first Barnes & Noble signing with my first book from my small press.)

Ron's concerns about quality are real. I wouldn't do a book with photos in POD. Or if I did, the photos couldn't be the main attraction. I did a "test book" wherein I put in all kinds of elements like drawings and a photo just to see how it looked. Ron is right that the photos are closer in quality to a newspaper photo---and if that's okay, it's okay. You can certainly recognize faces and such. Fine art photography would be wasted in a POD book, however, as would any fine art.

For me, starting out, POD was the only way to go. It's affordable, it gets you automatic distribution (at least using Lightning Source as the printer), and it lets you try out this crazy publishing thing with little risk. Do I always want to use POD for my printing? No. I want to eventually do some books with fine art reproductions and the like (hence the "arts" in my name). I want to eventually do hardcover editions--which are available in POD, but I find really cost prohibitive if you want a competitive retail price. And as a publisher that is not interested in commercial fiction so much as literary fiction, POD just makes sense. The literary fiction book that takes off and becomes a best seller is rare, but there is still a market for literary fiction and this printing process makes it possible for me to keep a book "in print" indefinitely for a very low overhead.

Also, I do know some small presses, especially university presses, use POD for back list books and sometimes as an "in between" while waiting for a second printing. While I'm using it for first run books, I'll take comfort in being in that company.

As I've told some people who have asked about my decision to be a "POD publisher," I usually conclude by saying: POD is a printing process, I am the publisher. Judge my book by the content, not by how it's printed--unless, of course, you know which printers Random House and HarperCollins uses and judge their books by their printers, too. That's fair, then.

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