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Really and Truly Print-on-Demand: Pros & Cons

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Really and Truly Print on Demand: The Pros and the Cons

by Linda Carlson

How important is print on demand to your business? Not very, some of you say, but a recent survey by the Copyright Clearance Center shows that many small publishers expect print-on-demand publications, or POD, to be increasingly significant in the next few years. In fact, that’s how some are doing all their titles today. Others aren’t quite sure what it is.

When PMA members were queried recently, several said they simply haven’t had time even to consider POD. After all, when you’re a small publisher already juggling editorial, marketing, sales, fulfillment, and accounting, there isn’t an eighth day of the week to research new technology. Others call the technology too challenging to attempt.

What the Words Mean

Before we look at PMA members’ experiences, let’s define terms. Print on demand means that books exist only in electronic form until an order is placed. Then, using digital printing (such as Xerox’s DocuTech), one or more copies are created to fill the order. Most are glue-bound, and they may be shipped direct from a POD vendor to the customer, who receives what looks like a traditional publication. Many are shipped from POD vendors (for example, Lightning Source or BookSurge) to wholesalers or retailers such as Ingram or Amazon.com.

Some publishers are using POD vendors to obtain very short runs of digitally printed books, which they then inventory and sell either direct or through booksellers, and some use digital printing for samples or advance reading copies. These uses do not fit the label POD, although that’s the term often used to describe them. A better label might be USR (for ultra-short run) or simply digital printing. We’ll be exploring USR/digital printing options in an upcoming issue of the Independent.

Voices of Experience

Should you be considering POD? No, say some PMA members discouraged by the print quality and vendors’ customer service.

When he was preparing Body Esteem: Weight Loss Through Self-Discovery, Michael Dawson ran several POD tests for his Luma Publications in San Juan Capistrano, CA, and never was satisfied with print quality. “The blacks were dark gray and the whites were actually off-white. The illustration and photo reproduction was horrible—uneven and patchy. Put side by side against offset printing, there is really no comparison at all,” he says.

Additional problems with his tests: margins on the bound books varied from copy to copy (some had inadequate top margins and others were skimpy at the bottom), which meant images intended as bleeds never were.

Because Dawson had decided to do an initial print run of 2,000 instead of printing to fill orders, offset printing was more economical. Even with an embossed cover and upgraded paper stock—neither available through his POD vendor—he saved about eight cents a book.

At Matter of Time Publishing in Hot Springs, AR, D.P. Carroll started out POD and switched to offset for a coffee-table book on historic Hot Springs buildings when she needed a higher quantity and lower unit prices. “I showed both editions to larger publishers, and they were generally impressed with the POD book,” Carroll says.

Carlene Sippola—whose Whole Person Associates in Duluth sells almost 150 stress-management and wellness titles to trainers, usually through direct mail and her Web site—sees several advantages to POD technology: “I can keep older titles in print because I don’t have to order 2,000 or more copies at a time; I reduce my need for warehouse space; my cash isn’t tied up in inventory; it’s a quick and easy process—and I can test a new title with less risk. If sales soar, I can always switch to a traditional printer.”

Sippola, whose annual sales on publications are 200 to 1,000 copies per title, has switched almost all her titles to digital printing. She’s comfortable with the quality it provides.

So is Florrie Binford Kichler at Indianapolis’s Patria Press, Inc., who uses POD only for direct sales. “We have a couple of titles that are not huge sellers, but because we market our books as a set as well as individually, we need to maintain inventory for all titles,” she notes. “Print-on-demand technology has been perfect for our needs, particularly in filling museum-store orders, which are small quantities multiple times a year.”

Although Patria Press has “had some significant problems with binding,” Kichler reports that “the interiors of our books, which include black-and-white illustrations, are well done, and nobody but an extremely picky publisher can tell the difference. We have never received a single consumer complaint about any of our POD titles.”

Jim Salisbury, at Tabby House in Mineral, VA, echoes Sippola and Kichler: “With POD, we can keep a title alive.”

At Medusa’s Muse Press near Mendocino, CA, Terena Scott cites other advantages to POD, which she is doing through Lightning Source. “The access to Ingram has been wonderful, and it helped me get my first book (Laura Fogg’s Traveling Blind: Life Lessons from Unlikely Teachers) into more stores and online retailers. When bookstores hear they can get the book via Ingram, and that I offer the industry standard returns and discounts, they seem more willing to take a chance.”

Scott also mentions a philosophical reason for going POD. “It’s a better use of resources. Fewer books printed at a time means fewer wasted pages and fewer trees chopped down. I believe POD is the future of book printing.”

At Wild Grace (wild grace.com) in Ohio, Julie Marlin has other practical reasons for a very basic form of DIY POD. “Because our product is playbooks that churches need for drama presentations, and because we customize these packages to meet customers’ needs, there is no point in stockpiling inventory. We’ve been using laminated covers, comb bindings, and laser-printed text since 2001. Also, we want our publications to make a good first impression, be used, and then discarded, because we lose control of the rights when scripts are shared.”

A more sophisticated approach is under consideration by another religious publisher, Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, IN, which may bring an Espresso Book Machine in-house. Already installed on some college campuses and in such bookstores as Vermont’s Northshire, the Espresso Book Machine is a combination printer/binder. Its manufacturer, OnDemandBooks (ondemandbooks.com), says it can “automatically print, bind and trim on demand at point of sale perfect bound library quality paperback books with four-color covers in minutes.” OnDemand estimates production costs at a penny a page. (A company spokesperson declined to provide purchase or lease information, however.) Digital files are transmitted and retrieved via the Internet.

Angela Hunt says her Los Angeles-based Hunt Press is all POD and all downloadable. Because POD did not require the expertise or the investment needed with traditional offset, she says, it “let me learn about running a small press without bankrupting myself.”

But, cautions the publisher, who uses Lulu, “The biggest challenge is keeping up the quality and not uploading files just because you can. Taking the time to have the best-edited book with a great cover is still important.”

Mary Lou Peters Schram, a Sonoma, CA, self-publisher, has done two novels POD through iUniverse, and she’s satisfied with print quality and customer service, as well as with the firm’s relationship with Barnes & Noble, which she says makes it easy to arrange store appearances. However, the stores refuse to stock her titles and require that she bring in bound copies for Barnes & Noble to sell at the readings. The reviewers she has contacted also refuse to review her titles. “These are the two greatest handicaps to POD,” she reports.

Things to Think About

Other factors publishers should consider before committing to POD:

Limited text or cover-stock options. Lee Hall of Sarasota, FL’s Babbling Books describes the cover stock from his vendor as “shoddy” and the text stock as “high-end recycled.”

Lack of control over printing. Ernie Honigmann, of St. Louis’s Monnet Press, had covers curl because they were printed against the grain.

Salespeople who may not understand printing. I’m working on a POD project, and I was told a contract would have to be signed and the setup fee paid before I could discuss it with someone who could answer my prepress questions.

Shipping charges. If, like Monnet, you’re planning to order any significant number of printed copies, compare vendors’ shipping charges. Hall says one advantage of his vendor is “rock-bottom domestic shipping charges.” It appears that the vendor passes its bulk UPS discount along to customers, he explains.

No customer database. Sheila McCurdy, of clutterSTOP, is a southern California personal organizer who appreciates “no running to the post office every time someone needs a book,” but has not yet found a way to capture customer contact information.

The quality of your vendor’s Web site, if that’s where you’ll be directing customers.

Accuracy of your vendor’s sales reports. How will you know if you’re being paid for each book the vendor sells?

Where will you be without POD? Mary Shafer, at Ferndale, PA’s WordForge Books believes publishers need to pursue both POD and downloadable. “Repurposing and repackaging content is the future of publishing,” she says. “These are two of the places the market is headed, and they both offer several new opportunities for nearly passive income—from little additional work—once the original products are developed.”

The ability to maintain a full product line. As Kichler reminds us, “POD allows us to keep books in print that 20 years ago would have been scrapped, and to serve customers whose needs would have otherwise gone unmet.” As technology continues to improve, she predicts, the short-run option “will become even more attractive to publishers with titles that are part of the ‘long tail’ of bookselling.” More about that coming up.

Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes from Washington state, where she began her career on a newspaper then still using a Linotype machine.

POD vs. “Self-Publishing Support”

Theoretically, anyone with a Kinko’s account could publish POD; you could email a PDF of a book to the quick-print shop, and have the book digitally printed, bound, and delivered via FedEx to a customer. But most PMA members doing POD are using such vendors as BookSurge, owned by Amazon.com, and Lightning Source, owned by Ingram.

Other companies that combine POD with self-publishing “support services” are:

Lulu (lulu.com), a combination of book packager/subsidy press, charges significant unit fees (about $7 for a 150-page book) and offers options as expensive as a $650 package of services and templates. No tie-in with wholesalers. You obtain your own ISBN.

Llumina Press (llumina.com), a subsidy publisher, charges $799 to create a file and then charges for each copy. It offers promotional options as expensive as $1,100 and a “POD Returnability Program,” which costs an additional $500 and allows a book to be submitted to the Ingram database as returnable for the first year (presumably making the book more attractive to bricks-and-mortar booksellers).

iUniverse (iuniverse.com), part owned by Barnes & Noble, is another subsidy publisher that charges significant fees (between $599 and $1,400) for creating a file that will be submitted to Barnes & Noble’s online store (bn.com) and other Internet retailers. This company does not allow an author to determine the book’s retail price.

Author House (authorhouse.com), like iUniverse, is a unit of Author Solutions (authorsolutions.com). Setup costs for publishing a book through Author House range from $600 to $1,200, with extra charges for a copyright application and submissions to Google Search and Amazon’s Look Inside program. (Neither Google nor Amazon charges if you submit directly to them.) Author House assigns ISBNs. Author Solutions also offers POD and offset printing through its Publisher Services unit (authorsolutions.com/Publisher Services).

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