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Q:

That was a most informative article on Print on Demand in the September

PMA Newsletter. Thanks.

Although a number of the books we have packaged or published have been printed by POD, including several by Lightning Source, we, too, have been concerned about the disconnect between Ingram and its subsidiary when it comes to bookstore orders.

The biggest problem seems to be the way Ingram has the POD books set up; that is, when clerks key in the ISBN, the first thing they see after the title appears is: “Not in Stock. Will be back ordered.” The easy next step is saying: “I’m sorry, it isn’t available,” although, in fact, the book is available within a short period of time–usually 48 hours or so. A change in wording could help fix the problem.

Linking POD and bookstore distribution will be a boon to small press and self-publishers when problems are ironed out. It has been helpful to a number of our clients who want to be able to offer their books nationally but have no expectations of a large press run or substantial sales–books of poetry, genealogies, town or regional histories, for example.

We’re wondering if production quality is another reason that chain bookstores are summarily rejecting POD books. Many, if not most, books produced through major Web publishing sites are not edited, do not have mainstream covers, and may even bear the advertising of the Web publisher on the back cover. It takes a naive author to think that he or she can get a first-class, successful product for a couple hundred dollars. The Web publishers and POD printers are not emphasizing the quality of the product and the necessity of doing the book right if it is going to compete in the retail market.

Is it easier for Barnes & Noble to just say “No” to all POD (as Richard Williams, Hollyride Press wrote) rather than sort through hundreds or thousands of submitted books that are not properly produced? Could PMA find out?

Linda and Jim Salisbury

Tabby House

Charlotte Harbor, FL

Authors of “Smart Self-Publishing: An author’s guide to producing a marketable book,” available at leading bookstores and via The Cats’ Meow Online Book Boutique

(http://www.tabbyhouse.com/shop/main.html).

 

 

A:

 

We’ve collected observations about POD from Ingram, Barnes & Noble, and selected distributors and smaller retailers. Taken together, their comments show that problems stem partly from economic disincentives, which many publishers may be able to alter, and partly from confusion.

Consider, for example, the fact that information about Ingram’s titles (POD and otherwise) appears “all over the place,” in the words of Wendell Lotz, Vice President of Metadata. “We’re pushing people to ipage” [ipage.ingrambook.com] for authoritative information, Lotz explains, noting that the screens at this Ingram site that pertain to roughly 35,000 Lightning Source titles feature the phrase “Lightning Source On-Demand” along with a “status” chart that shows whether “there are any copies in the building at the moment.”

Because most orders from retailers are “fill or kill” and POD titles may not literally be “in stock,” the screens for Lightning Source titles also feature a message that says, “This title is available in any quantity but you must backorder.”

Asked if the message could also say something like “usually available within XX hours” to remind distracted clerks that these books are “never really out of stock,” Lotz was receptive. “We’re continually looking for solutions to this issue, and we probably could do that,” he said.

 

The Many Meanings of POD

Confusion also arises from terminology. Because the same label is applied to several different Print-on-Demand products and practices, it’s hard to think straight about causes of and solutions to problems. For much of the public, for instance, “Print on Demand” calls up a largely futuristic vision in which a consumer who already wants a single copy pushes a button and gets it. For a staggering number of would-be authors and some who’ve been published, it means “publishing” (often e-publishing) with companies that follow the vanity press business model. For established publishers, it can mean printing very short runs of books whose sales have slowed but not stopped. And for booksellers, it may mean, above all, an untenable economic setup.

As Marcella Smith explains from her vantage point as Director, Small Press & Vendor Relations, Barnes & Noble, Inc.:

“Print on Demand is a remarkable advance not only in the technology of printing, but in the democratization of publishing. This new model for publishing is not meant to replace traditional1hOnlishing but to exist alongside it, serving authors whose works have been declared out-of-print and new writers who desire to self-publish and market their own books.

 

“The hard reality of the marketplace is that the business terms from Print-on-Demand suppliers do not leave the bookseller any incentive to stock the titles. Most titles are two to three dollars higher than the prevailing titles in the category, the books are non-returnable, and sold at less than competitive discounts–leaving the bookseller no room for markdown if the books don’t sell. At the same time, the editorial and production quality is inconsistent at best, and most often not competitive with the traditional trade houses.

 

“Taking all of these factors into consideration, Barnes & Noble made a business decision to take full advantage of Print-on-Demand technology and order books created in this fashion when there is a request. If a customer orders a Print-on-Demand title, it will be obtained as quickly as possible.”

 

Follow the Money

Supplying specifics, another retailer has noted that she might make a profit of 16 cents when she orders a $16.95 short-discount POD title, instead of the $3-plus she’d net on a title with conventional terms. Books sold non-returnable with a short discount are simply “not commercially viable,” said a third, adding that such terms make it virtually impossible for new POD authors to get their books into bookstores “in any meaningful fashion.”

Any publisher can, of course, get these books into cyberspace stores such as Amazon.com, which wants to have “the biggest catalog in the world” and is game to house a couple of copies of any title on consignment indefinitely, no matter what the size of its print run or the quality of its production values. (“We have the same production issues with offset printing,” says Diane Zoi, Amazon’s Director of Vendor Management.) Still, the copies must come either “from large companies with which we already do business” or through the Advantage program, with its sizable discounts.

But publishers also get POD titles into brick-and-mortar chains and indies. One distributor notes, for example, that he offers roughly half a dozen of them and has “never had a single copy refused by anybody.” Why not? Probably because the market is demonstrable (at least a few consumers may actually be asking for these titles since they are books whose previous, longer-run printings have sold out); because the production values are decent (the books are produced by a well-established book printer who uses “good paper and in general does it right”), and, most of all, because the terms are what booksellers want (these titles are not–and need not be–marked POD because they’re offered, returnable, at normal trade discounts).

By contrast, more than 85% of the POD titles that Ingram offers are non-returnable, and discounts, derived from the ones the publishers set, are usually short, sometimes shrinking down toward the vanishing point. Under these circumstances–no matter how available a book seems or how good its production values are–demand from an end-user figures, in fact, to be the reason a retailer might order, with any payoff coming in terms of customer service rather than in terms of making money.

 

The View through the Retailer’s Eyes

“This whole issue drives me nuts,” a distributor complained, and nobody finds it simple. But the key to making new printing technology work in the book trade seems to be the familiar put-yourself-in-their-shoes syndrome, as you indicated with comments about overwhelming quantity and underwhelming quality. Publishers who think about their own POD titles in terms of minimizing problems and maximizing benefits for booksellers should find it easier to get the books onto shelves and out to readers.

J.A.

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