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De-Bunking the Myths of Author-Initiated Publishing

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Authors who choose to utilize Print on Demand to make their books available to readers should not be labeled “vain” in the sense the slur is often used in the industry. Perhaps I am naive, but it seems that any effort to place a work into the public space involves some vanity. Writers seeking to be “traditionally published” obviously wish to be known for the work they’ve created. As David Byram-Wigfieldof Cappella Publishing says in a posted article on the Internet: “Vanity Publishing is a sniffy condescending term used by the publishing trade to describe those writers with enough faith in their own endeavors to finance an entire print run.”

Author-Initiated POD services have reduced the “financing of an entire print run” to as little as one copy. The removal of this economic barrier of entry has led to the rise of author-initiated service providers in the last two years. However, even with all the hype that POD and author-initiated publishing services have created, the entire industry has still published less than 1% of the manuscripts that are submitted to publishers in a single calendar year. This does not include out-of-print or out of stock indefinitely (OSI) titles and books that were submitted in years past.


Challenges & Opportunities for Indie Publishers

The fundamental shift occurring in publishing is from a vertical (top-down) marketing approach (i.e., a publisher using “all resources at their disposal” including Pepsi cans, cereal boxes, cable TV partnerships, and CD inserts to sell a novel by Britney Spears and her mother–that is an exaggerated example) to a more focused and intelligent approach. In this new horizontal business model, every book printed can be profitable and no niche is too small for a publisher to successfully exploit. This is why POD publishing and “book-at-a-time” bookselling actually favors the independent publisher with smaller and more identifiable markets. It does not require an intermediary and succeeds on more than just brute force.

Publishers who pursue these more profitable models will become truly independent with all of the risks and rewards that brings. As they begin to rely less and less on the traditional book distribution infrastructure, they will have to rely more and more on wits and intuition about how and where to sell books and rethink the whole concept of online book retailing. It is now obvious that just shipping your book to Amazon is not intelligent online bookselling.

Over the next few years, we will see more and more reputable authors (and talented editors) initiate the publication of their own books. We have already seen it with Robert Morgan (Oprah Book Club and NY Times bestseller) and Gary Null (NY Times bestseller), who have placed books directly into POD, bypassing traditional channels. In the case of Morgan’s Zirconia Poems (published by Booksurge, LLC subsidiary, Greatunpublished.com), the author earns a 30% royalty on the gross retail price of each book sold. The Null title, The 7 Steps to Perfect Health (published by LiveReads.com and available in Booksurge.com) allows the author, who is an avid self-promoter, to sell books through high margin online retail channels and through his speaking engagements. Null earns a royalty that acknowledges he is his own best promotion tool. These authors still required the expertise of cooperative publishing professionals who will earn a fair profit on each title sold, but the nature of the relationship is quite different than that to which most publishers are accustomed.

The need for experienced publishers to place books in front of interested readers through new channels will increase as the traditional infrastructure continues to fragment. I expect that the entire process of bookselling will become a more de-centralized, imaginative, and cost-effective experience for publishers willing to lead rather than follow in the digital bookselling revolution.


What Does This Mean for Traditional Publishing?

Traditional publishers make invaluable contributions to the book world. POD publishing and Internet point-of-sales sites are not going to replace publishing professionalism and the attention to detail needed to sell books in wider markets. However they can improve the economics of publishing. Authors publishing and selling books themselves through POD can earn three times more than they would through traditional publishers. Thus they can make the same amount of money by selling only a third as many books, while giving up no rights.

I think most publishers agree that nobody sells a book like an author and that even the most “traditionally published” titles are eventually sold most effectively by an author. Now traditional publishers who can cooperate on book projects with motivated authors can use their traditional marketing expertise within this adjusted economic model and gain significantly more profit from selling (and printing) fewer books.

Traditional publishers can slowly stop embodying the “unholy trinity of money lender, literary mid-wife, and spin doctor; requiring thousands of copies to be scattered like grapeshot to the ‘For Sale or Return’ trade winds of chance, in the expectation of selling one-third of that number over two years” (the words are David Bryam-Wigfield’s; see http://www.cappella.demon.co.uk/bksondem.html).


Nuts & Bolts

of Author-Initiated Publishing

Who Owns the Rights?

In good models, books are cooperatively published and the author retains all rights. The POD firm simply provides a service to help authors get their manuscript into a sellable format. They have a nonexclusive contract with the author to print and ship copies of the book in response to orders.


How Are ISBNs Handled?

As we know, Bowker sells International Standard Book Numbers in bulk and includes them in the Books-In-Print database, which enables booksellers to order directly from the POD publisher. Author-initiated services buy batches of ISBNs and issue numbers to authors. The cost is included in the author’s sign-up fee. Buying directly from Bowker might cost the author 20 times as much.

Most services allow authors to provide their own ISBNs if they have them. Authors who choose this option can list themselves or anyone else as the contact for book orders, though listing themselves may slow down the ordering process since the author must relay the order to the POD company.

If a POD book is picked up by a traditional publisher (Greatunpublished.com has had three genre titles picked up), the author removes the book from the POD service and places it with the new publisher, who assigns a new ISBN to it.


Do POD Services Sell Titles through Traditional Sales Channels?

Some services make books “available” in the Ingram database. This means that orders can be placed through Amazon and BN.com as well as Barnes & Noble and other brick-and-mortar bookstores. However, authors may not realize that simply being listed in the Ingram “channel” doesn’t suffice for selling books to bookstores. A good bookstore also uses Bowker’s “Books-in-Print” database to find books and an ISBN suffices to make it available.

Since the before mentioned channels extract their own tolls for doing business, taking as much as 55% of the retail price of the book, charges for POD titles in these channels are often inflated by as much as 100%, which obviously depresses purchases.


Mitchell Davis is the VP of Marketing and a founding partner of Booksurge, LLC, an Internet-based publishing operation headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina. Davis oversees several business-to-business and author-initiated publishing units that integrate digital publishing, on-demand printing, and retail on-demand bookselling.

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