PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2015
by Brooke Warner, President, Warner Coaching, Inc.
When and why did “print-on-demand” become a synonym for “self-published”? The cynical among us may even ask when and why “print on demand” became a putdown for “self-published.”
Print-on-demand (POD) is a term for a printing process that can produce one copy or several or a few hundred. It’s a process that’s not used only by self-published authors, and it is not always used to satisfy any particular “demand.”
Here are a few facts about POD:
- Self-published authors generally start by using print-on-demand technology because they don’t want to spring for an offset print run of 1,000 copies or more.
- Traditional publishers generally start with offset print runs and use POD for titles that are selling slowly on their backlists and for titles that are selling so much better than expected that stock needs to be replenished quickly. (In this second case, the POD copies do satisfy demand during the time publishers must wait for another offset print run.)
- POD print quality has significantly improved in the past few years, so that books printed using POD technology are now indistinguishable from books printed using offset technology.
When it first hit the scene, print-on-demand was heralded as a new technology that was going to save publishing and let indie authors print as few or as many copies as they want. (In fact, POD is cost effective only for 1 to about 500 copies. For quantities over 500, you get a better unit cost with offset.)
During the early 2000s, when I worked at North Atlantic Books as an editor, print-on-demand was simply a default. Any book that had run through its initial print run and was not selling consistently was flipped to POD so it could be printed to fulfill orders. But in the years since then, there’s been a tectonic shift in publishing, and where POD used to describe a means to an end, now the term conveys negative status.
The Story Behind the Stigma
According to Merriam-Webster, the word status means “the position or rank of someone or something when compared to others in a society, organization, group, etc.” The evolution of POD’s status from neutral to negative is directly correlated to self-publishing’s rocky beginnings, when eager-to-be-published authors produced poorly designed (and often poorly written and poorly edited) books, tarnishing all self-publishers’ reputations.
Self-published authors, not understanding the industry, made a lot of other mistakes along the way as well. They failed to make their titles returnable and then felt incensed when bookstores refused to carry their books. Many set discount terms below what wholesalers and bookstores required to pick up a title. A lot of these authors saw themselves as renegades, forging new ground and bucking the establishment, but the industry reacted swiftly, dismissing self-published books as not viable. And for a while this was the status quo.
In the late 1990s, a whole new class of companies emerged to serve self-publishing authors. Most of them perpetuated the status quo by caring more about profits than editorial and design quality. In general, they were no better than the wayward authors who didn’t know what they were doing, and few of them brought substantial previous book publishing experience to the table. Although “vanity publishing” had existed for a long time, these companies fortified the stigma against self-published authors. That they came to be known as “POD companies” only strengthened the message that POD meant inferior.
But then things started to shift—and rapidly. The self-publishing about-face of the past five or six years has been nothing short of astounding. Savvy authors, realizing that the only way to compete was by rivaling their traditional counterparts, began publishing books whose editorial value and design quality equaled and even sometimes exceeded that of established publishers’ titles.
Little by little, self-publishing improved its reputation. Self-published authors got smarter, hiring teams composed of true book professionals. New publishing models emerged, offering better services and producing better quality books. Print-on-demand technology also improved dramatically, and today anyone looking at a book printed offset against a book printed via print-on-demand would be hard pressed to note the difference. Many authors I work with actually prefer the look and feel of their POD books.
Despite this about-face, the industry has retained its disdain for self-publishing, and in subtle ways actively works to marginalize self-published authors in order to assert superiority. Using “POD” as a way to brand a book as low status provides an easy way to do this. Never mind that all big houses use POD for their titles at some point in a book’s life cycle (unless they give up on the book and declare it out of print first).
Dealing with the Danger
If you’re considering a print run of no more than 500 copies, then POD will be your best choice economically and environmentally. And if you have already launched POD books, you’ve surely come up against the POD prejudice. Poke around a bit online and you’ll discover how “POD” disqualifies you from many contests, association memberships, and reviews.
I advise authors with POD books never to specify how their books were printed. If you’re talking to a book buyer, event host, bookseller, conference organizer, or librarian, leave that part out. The book should speak for itself, so if you’ve hired a good team, you should be able to present a product that you’re proud of, and that doesn’t raise any eyebrows or set off any alarm bells.
If you can’t avoid a conversation about POD, you can try to educate the person you’re talking to. If you find this uncomfortable territory, keep in mind that your books shouldn’t be rejected by bookstores as long as they’re returnable and correctly discounted. Where bookstores, contests, reviewers, and associations are concerned, I believe we must voice our collective concern. Don’t just let it slide. It’s okay to let people know that you disagree with the policy, and that it feels discriminatory and behind the times.
Changes to Come
Various trends point to a time when this problem will start to take care of itself.
Well-known previously published authors are being barred from the traditional publishing world for all sorts of reasons—and plenty of them are not taking kindly to rejection from a club that used to call them members. Today, many of them are using alternative ways to get their books to readers, and that has been a boon for indie publishing.
New publishing models, including hybrid models, are beginning to replace old models (see, for example, “Partnership Publishing: The Continuing (and Controversial) Revolution,” via Independent magazine at ibpa-online.org). Eventually the big houses will start to see the value in the flexibility and smart economics some of these models embody. Think shared costs, better royalty scales for authors, and short (aka, POD) print runs. Many smaller traditional houses, noticing the strengths of hybrid press models, have been operating like hybrid presses behind the scenes for years.
But mostly authors will effect the positive changes. They’ll stop tolerating being treated like second-class citizens. Those who will feel most empowered at first are the hybrid authors, writers who publish both traditionally and independently, because they have one foot in each world. And plenty of these authors are speaking out already. Authors who have rejected traditional deals to pursue alternative options that offer more control, more flexibility, and more appealing economics will feel increasingly empowered too. And progress will continue to trickle down until POD is treated for what it is—a valuable technology that lets publishers (including but not limited to self-publishers) produce just as many copies of a book as they calculate they need.
A publisher’s choice of print technology for a given book says nothing about the merits of that book, and the industry needs to stop propagating the myth that it does.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, and Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, and the forthcoming Green-light Your Book. She serves on the IBPA board, and on the boards of the National Association of Memoir Writers and the Bay Area Book Festival. To learn more, visit: warnercoaching.com.