Wednesday, September 21, 2011

POD Is Not a Dirty Word

Somewhere along the line, print on demand (POD) got a bad rep. Perhaps this occurred because POD started about the same time as e-books and has been the dominant way of putting e-books into hardcopy format. Or perhaps it was because it quickly became the dominant format for vanity publishers. Or perhaps it was because POD allowed anyone to be a publisher, and some micropresses that sprung up were run unprofessionally by people who knew little about publishing.

"Print on demand" does not mean a book is of lower quality or the publisher or writer is unsavory. In fact, many of the tiny presses that use POD are making books with better cover art, better interior design, and higher paper quality than traditional publishers. Others make a point of seeking out great writers who are not writing what is currently selling. Others are reprinting classics that are no longer in print with the original publisher. Some scholarly and university presses use POD.

POD simply means  that a publisher prints a book only after an order has been received. Traditionally, publishers guessed at how many bookstores might stock the book and how many copies they might buy and then printed up copies. 

I have run into the stigma against POD on several occasions. Bookstores have refused to stock my book or to let me sign simply because Like Mayflies in a Stream is a POD book. My book is available through wholesalers, just like books by the big boys, and my book's publisher (Hadley Rille Books) offers bookstores the same terms as the large publishers do, such as a standard discounted price and the ability to return unsold books.

Despite the stigma, I believe the small publishers using POD will grow faster and be more profitable because of the technology. I also believe POD is the wave of the future for all publishers, including the New York Gargantuas.

When all the copies of the book sell, publishers make more money by having printed up mass quantities of books rather than using POD. This extra profit comes about because mass production is currently cheaper than printing small quantities as needed through POD technology.

However, publishers quite often overestimate or underestimate the demand for a book. Most books do not sell out. An occasional book sells out quickly, leaving many unsatisfied people who wanted to buy it but couldn't. When such things happen, the only advantage of mass production is lost.

Problems with estimating demand happen in other industries too, and many have embraced "just-in-time" practices. For example, one of my brothers works for the Graphic Communications division of Kodak (, which makes custom specialty printers. He has given me a tour of his plant a couple of times and proudly pointed out the many efficiencies Kodak uses. One such efficiency is just-in-time ordering. Every single part, down to the tiniest washers and screws, is counted and computer monitored. The division always knows exactly how many of each part it has and how many of each part it needs that week. Orders for new parts are placed only when needed.

Imagine how much money Kodak saves on parts and storage buildings with this practice! Then imagine the consequences if all publishers used just-in-time printing (POD):
  • The price of POD technology would fall.
  • The price of POD technology would eventually fall enough that bookstores could own printing apparatus and stock only one copy of each book, printing out copies for customers as needed.
  • Bookstores could carry more books in less space, and independent bookstores would have an easier time surviving.
  • Readers could possibly customize their books by choosing their favorite of two or three covers or having their names imprinted on the book.
  • There would be fewer returns from bookstores, benefiting publishers and writers alike.
  • Publishers would make a profit on more books than they currently do.
  • Publishers could charge less for books and could pay authors higher royalty rates. (Whether they would do so is another question.)
  • Small presses could compete on an even playing field, with lower prices comparable to big publishers and without booksellers turning up their noses at their books.
  • Paper books, with their wonderful smells of paper and ink and the lovely feel of different covers and papers, could continue to exist side-by-side with e-books.

Old-Guard publishers are struggling now mainly because they have not kept up with the times. Accounting systems haven't been updated to track e-book sales or to pay royalties quickly and accurately. Ridiculously low e-book royalties drive some authors to smaller presses or to self-publishing. Books are printed in large batches by guestimate.

POD alone won't save the big publishers. They need to modernize in many ways. But POD technology would be a big step into the future and help bookstores, writers, and publishers.

What do you think? Do you agree almost all publishers will switch to POD production and that it will benefit everyone in the publishing industry?

I'll be posting again at Novel Spaces on October 6. Happy Autumn!

—Shauna Roberts


Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Great post, Shauna!

I'm partial to POD technology because it wastes much less paper than traditional off-set printing, where -- as you mentioned -- many many books might now sell and will simply go to the garbage bin.

It's nice to see someone take this issue by the horns and put it out there. I've had book stores tell me they cannot order a book I want to buy because it was POD. So of course, I went and gave my business to Amazon instead. Makes me wonder whether it's this kind of rigid culture that put places like Borders out of business.

I don't know if POD is the future, but I like to think it is. And your post gives me reason to. Thank you!

Charles Gramlich said...

When I first learned about POD I thought to myself, "what a simple and attractive concept." I was amazed at the resistance, and I've run into some of the same stuff as you with my books, also published by small presses. I do think the stigma is decreasing among those who are professional writers and publishers, but it's still there a bit in some readers.

Eric T Reynolds said...

Shauna, those are excellent points. Imagine a POD-only bookstore with its own machine or maybe a couple. More books than a B&N store (every book in print, theoretically) in less space. The bookstore can still have the popular new titles on the shelves and the customer still gets to browse the shelves, or go to the computer screen and browse (and not have to wait for a book to be shipped). If the store hosts an event, they can do a print run for that. Not only are POD books better quality, they are GREEN.

Chris Gerrib said...

The problem is that, for bookstores, the current system is risk-free. They have no incentive to migrate to a "we print it here" mentality.

KeVin K. said...

As I recall I first heard about pods when Kevin McCarthy screamed a warning about them at me on the highway one night...
Wait. Different pods. My mistake.

I do think PoD's initial bad rep sprang from the fact vanity presses glommed onto the technology right out of the gate. They were able get unwary new writers to pay for a garage full of books they had to sell on their own without the expense of actually printing them or shipping them to the hapless hopeful's garage. Simplified their business plan and maximized their positive cash flow overnight. PoD has been trying to claw its way out of that negative association ever since.

Because PoD is much kinder to our resources and more responsive to market needs, the time is coming when it will be the primary mode of publication. News kiosks that print magazines & papers have been a staple of SF since the fifties. No reason (beyond current technological limitations) why all bookstores won't work that way by the time my grandchildren enter college. (Bookstores are already trending away from books. Local B&N recently moved to new, bigger store. More videos, more software, more games, larger coffee shop, impressive display of nook accessories... And 25% to 33% less floor space, depending on who you talk to, devoted to physical books and magazines than the old store.)

I think the possibilities for the bookstore/publisher are exciting and the future bright. Or will be if/when it become risk-free (or risk-acceptable) and cost-effective for the owners of the bookstores. So make that "potentially bright pending marketing trends and low-cost developments in technology."

Liane Spicer said...

Because of the association with vanity publishing, I too used to turn up my nose at POD.

About five years ago a popular blogging agent explained that POD is simply the technology, pure and simple, and that it was a step forward in getting rid of the wasteful traditional model of over-guestimating and returns. Since then I've looked at it as the wave of the future, which I certainly hope it is.