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Pseudo Self-Publishing: The Unvarnished Truth about POD Companies

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Pseudo Self-Publishing: The Unvarnished Truth about POD Companies

by Peter Bowerman

In a recent year, Xlibris —number three among firms that have appropriated the term POD (print on demand) to describe their services —reported publishing more than 7,000 titles and selling more than 300,000 copies. I remember a much-heralded celebration they had that same year after paying out their one-millionth dollar in royalties. Let’s see . . . $1 million over 7,000 titles comes out to an average royalty of $149 each (and I’m being generous here by counting that $1 million as payment for just one year’s sales rather than for cumulated sales). I promise you, they charged every author far more than that to “publish” their books. (For a real-world definition of publishing, see “What Is a Publisher?” on page 9.)

How do you separate the POD truth from the hype? As I see it, publishing with the big three—Author House, iUniverse, and Xlibris – or another POD firm is great for writers whose goals are getting a book into print, being able to say “I’m an author,” and having their books available for friends and family.

But if you’re interested in publishing to make profits, don’t count on the POD companies to get you there. POD can be great for publishers with older titles that are now selling a trickle of copies, but it’s just a technology. It’s not a “revolution” or some groundbreaking marketing strategy. Realistically, you can’t outsource the marketing of your book unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to invest and excellent antennae for avoiding ripoffs. To succeed, marketing must be ongoing, consistent, and multifaceted. What you’d pay a POD publisher to handle it, so to speak, would be both too little and too much: far too little even to begin to do the job right, yet way too much for the results you’d get.

Straight Talk on Sales

The typical POD company charges upfront fees ranging from roughly $700 to $1,500, according to the industry’s top players. Those upfront fees include the publishers’ profit margin, because they know that only a tiny fraction of the books they “publish” will be successful. Why? Three primary reasons:

  • Essentially, there’s no quality control—anyone with a manuscript can get it “published” for a relatively small charge.
  • Overwhelmingly, the mass-produced book covers will mark the books as amateurs’ work, further stacking the deck against them.
  • Precious few POD authors have thought about who (besides friends and family) would be interested in their books, and about how to reach those audiences.

According to estimates from the three big players, the average POD author sells 100 to 200 copies. Who’s the biggest buyer? You sitting down? According to Xlibris, 64 percent of those copies are purchased by the authors themselves, and the numbers elsewhere are probably similar.

Why so few sales to wholesalers and retailers? POD books aren’t taken seriously by the trade for the same reason that old-style vanity press books aren’t—because they’re the fruit of barrier-free publishing. In addition, booksellers generally shy away from POD books because of lower quality, nonreturnability, and higher prices. In a podcast interview (see “Listen and Learn,” this issue, for details), Dave Maturo, VP of Xlibris, conceded that POD pricing was based on actual production costs, not on what the market will bear. The result? Retail prices often 40 to 50 percent higher than those for comparable books.

Compare and Contrast

A few key distinctions between regular self-publishing and POD:

Royalties vs. expenses and profits. With POD companies, you pay less for production (although you’re forced to operate within strict parameters), but the contract you’ll sign will likely pay you royalties based on net proceeds, and the royalty arrangements can be extremely complicated and confusing.

With “conventional” self-publishing, net proceeds after expenses are all yours.

Control. With POD companies, you give up most of the control over production. And in most cases, your book’s ISBN will be in the POD company’s name, which means that you won’t be listed as the “publisher of record” in the book world’s databases, and that you have even less ownership of your work.

With true self-publishing, you maintain total control over production, making crucial decisions on editing, cover and interior design, trim size, paper quality, and timetable. And when you buy the ISBN, you’re the “publisher of record.”

Rights. POD companies may require that you turn over rights to your creation—at least for a certain period. The big three own your “produced” files, meaning that if they lay out your book and design your cover and you decide you want to leave them at some point, you take only your original text files with you.

With true self-publishing, you simply hire service providers to execute various tasks, and you retain all rights to your work.

Cost of copies. If you want copies of your own book, you’ll typically pay POD firms 40 to 50-plus percent of the retail cost. Many POD companies require their authors to purchase a certain number of copies of their own books at prices considerably higher than typical offset printing unit costs.

With true self-publishing, yes, printing can take a big financial bite, but once the books are paid for, you own them. Commercial success entails a ton of book marketing and promotion, and that means sending out lots of review copies. With POD, even at 40 percent of retail, you’re paying $8 for a $20 title. Add in mailer, postage, and press kit, and you’re way over $10 per package. You could go broke in a hurry. At my cost of under $2.50 a book (delivered), I’m below $5 a package.

Let’s not forget direct sales of books at events, seminars, and, of course, from the trunk of the car. Paying $2.50 per unit for a book priced at $20, I can sell copies at 25 to 50 percent off and still make a healthy profit. And when you can discount like that, Econ 101 says you’ll sell more. Not possible with POD.

The Jump-In Imperative

When it comes to marketing your book, I say jump in with both feet or don’t bother at all. Why? Because marketing a book takes massive effort. And because it’s a critical-mass thing, the results of half-assed marketing will be close to the results of no marketing. If you decide not to bother—a perfectly honorable decision, and far better than a toe-in-the-pool approach—POD can work. Problems arise when people think that using a POD company amounts to “jumping in,” which it doesn’t.

This article is adapted from The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living by Peter Bowerman (2006). He is the author of the 2000 Book-of-the-Month Club selection The Well-Fed Writer, and its 2005 companion volume, TWFW: Back for Seconds (both self-published), which together have provided him with a full-time living for over five years. For more details and ordering information, visit www.wellfedsp.com.


The POD Business Model in Brief

By offering a rigid menu of choices for its basic packages (cover and interior design are template driven), the POD firms can turn a profit. And once their systems are in place, it costs them virtually nothing to do another book. Bottom line, the POD firms have every incentive to sign up anyone, regardless of the quality of the book. And, given that 98-plus percent of books fail, the POD squad has virtually no incentive to promote books (unless the author is paying). Never forget: for most POD publishers, the goal is signing up authors and collecting upfront fees (a sure road to profitability), not helping those authors’ books become successful (a financial crapshoot, at best).


Listen and Learn

Check out a handful of enlightening interviews with top brass from AuthorHouse (formerly 1stBooks), iUniverse, and Xlibris (the number one, two, and three POD players in the business, respectively, at press time)—all via podcasts with Ron Pramschufer, founder of www.publishingbasics.com and www.selfpublishing.com. (For all the podcasts on POD, visit Ron’s related site, www.wbjbradio.com/archives.php?aid).

Also visit blog.selfpublishing.com/?p=103 for a take-no-prisoners snapshot of the whole POD arena, plus some great response posts from listeners, several of which point out the crucial distinction between POD printers and POD publishers.

Bottom line, caveat emptor, big-time.


Contacts and Lowdown

The big names in POD publishing companies are AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com), iUniverse (www.iuniverse.com), Xlibris (www.xlibris.com), Trafford (www.trafford.com), and PublishAmerica (www.publishamerica.com). If you’re considering PublishAmerica, check out this podcast (www.wbjbradio.com/viewshow.php?id=42&aid).

For a good look at the potential minefield of contract fine print, read the article by Clea Saal at www.booksandtales.com/pod/rword.htm. And on the same site, examine head-to-head comparisons of POD publishers and many other interesting articles: www.booksandtales.com/pod/podpublish.htm.

A great straight-shooting article (along with some good links) on the whole POD thing is at www.sfwa.org/beware/printondemand.html.

Another good resource is attorney Mark Levine’s book The Fine Print: What Print-on-Demand and Ebook Publishing Contracts Really Say (more info at www.book-publishers-compared.com/AuthorHouse.html).

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