Perhaps you've seen the television ad: A pompous professor informs creative writing students that it costs too much to publish books and that they have little chance of finding a New York publisher. A student stands up and defiantly announces that now, through digital technology--publish-on-demand (or POD)--everyone can be published. The students cheer.
In fact, both are right.
Many major publishers have merged and since it is expensive to publish a book, "name" writers dominate. Even new writers who do get published often disappear through poor publicity and low sales. Their books get remaindered (the practice by a publisher of disposing of or selling off remaining copies of the book at a reduced price) and eventually go out of print. Agents have a necessarily fierce, commercially oriented screening process and it is difficult for a new writer to catch a break. The days of in-house editors nurturing a new Faulkner or Hemingway seem to be gone.
Enter POD publishing to the scene. By contrast, POD publishers produce books as needed. Many POD companies offer new writers a chance to publish without the rigors of agents or the usual major publisher screening. This leaves the door open to all writers, including amateur writers. There might be nothing wrong with someone publishing their grandmother's memoir about famous dogs of Cleveland, as a book to share with family and friends, but the current book market is glutted with new books. Random House would question its commercial viability. POD publisher Publish America would not--they released 4,000 new books last year.
POD publishers don't carry the overhead major publishers do. The books have little or no professional editing. Because they are printed when requested, POD books aren't printed in batches and don't require warehousing. Yet ironically, POD books are more expensive than those mass produced through offset publishing, so they have a higher and often noncompetitive price. POD publishers tend to have low discounts, as well. That "on-demand" aspect means a no-return policy that discourages book buyers from stocking POD books--major bookstores like Borders or Barnes and Noble won't carry POD books for that reason. Many new authors are shocked to discover reputable critics will not review a POD book and writing organizations don't recognize them, either. The POD phenomenon, which was supposed to change publishing, carries the stigma of a cleverly disguised "vanity" press. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware has this to say:
"[A] distinction needs to be made between print-on-demand the technology--which doesn't in and of itself imply any particular philosophy or business practice--and print-on-demand the business model--which involves a complex of factors such as poor editorial gatekeeping and lack of marketing and distribution. The latter is never going to merit respect--not just because it can't reliably produce quality books, but because it can't or won't provide them with any exposure." Strauss warns writers to examine a "publisher's overall business practices and whether or not it can get its book reviewed and into bookstores."
I've had my own experiences with this as a writer. In the past, I had reputable agents. When I found myself between agents and not relishing the process of finding a new one, I decided to publish an Irish American memoir called Confessions of a Shanty Irishman through Publish America. It seemed like a good idea; I would have a book in print and wouldn't pay for the privilege--Publish America maintains they're a "traditional" publisher, not a POD press. My wife, a journalist and editor herself, warned me at the time that the contract was Draconian. Publish America took most of the rights and had a copyright that ran until the book entered into public domain--that's over a century. (They've since adopted the standard policy of the seven year copyright.)
I edited Confessions of a Shanty Irishman myself and was satisfied with the book when it arrived in the mail. I even got a one dollar token advance against royalties--which are 8 percent, low by most standards. I quickly discovered that my memoir would not make the bookshelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores and no critic wanted to review it except for one in Galway, Ireland. Confessions was available online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, but online sales are generally poor for new books by unknown authors. It seemed I had a book no one would read except friends.
I was lucky in a way that most POD authors probably aren't. Gerry Nicosia of The San Francisco Chronicle loved the memoir and gave it a glowing review. I got my "exposure." The sales dramatically improved and I received invitations to two important Irish festivals. My royalties, even at 8 percent, were decent and Publish America allowed a second edition (all POD books are first editions) with some added material. Libraries took the book, including Dublin's public library. Though Publish America was the subject of controversy in the Washington Post and other newspapers, my experience was relatively positive. At the encouragement of a popular writer willing to give POD publishers a shot, I published a second book with Publish America called The Irish Connection and Other Stories. This collection of connected short stories--always a risky venture--did not get a major review; its rating on Amazon grew worse by the day.
Like Laurel Johnson (Alley of Wishes) and Christy French (Wayne's Dead), who eventually found POD publishers with whom they were comfortable, I used a more author friendly POD publisher for my third book, a novel called Byron. Virtual Bookworm offered 50 percent royalties and a return policy (for a price), didn't tie up the rights, and it was a non-exclusive contract, meaning I could leave at any time. (Publish America, on the other hand, has a tight lock on my memoir.) If the POD situation has improved, a "stench" as French calls it, still hangs over POD presses, even though commercial publishers occasionally use the process for a book with a limited audience. Publish-on-demand distribution remains poor and I doubt the New York Times will review Byron, though the book has been favorably received elsewhere. There is that rare POD book that is successful enough to attract a mainstream publisher. John Gilmore, author of Severed and Live Fast, Die Young, feels that the POD process "has to act as a legit publisher to succeed and advance the world of publishing and desperately needs to escape the doom of the 'self publishing' house-label."
For my next book, about my wife whom I lost last September, I will pursue the lengthy process of finding a reputable agent and a reputable publisher. Her story and the grief process deserve a book that reaches a wide audience--something that no POD publishers can promise, even as it grows in popularity and availability.
The common consensus on POD publishers is this: unless the writer simply wants to put a book out, POD may not be the best way to go. (Though a POD book will live forever in an electronic file, even if only four people ever see a hard copy.) French insists that a good book with a reasonable POD publisher could build a readership. A writer can't wait forever for a New York publisher, perhaps, but for the serious writer, mainstream publishers still offer nationwide distribution and a chance for reviews by established critics. Even so, Gilmore is right--POD technology, at least, may be the wave of the future.
A caveat for beginning writers weighing the merits of the struggling with the big publishers versus POD: Consider warnings by industry pros like Strauss. If you go POD, research each publisher carefully and go in with your eyes open. There are many high priced POD outfits looking not to help new authors emerge, but to fleece naive novices.