POD People

A new publishing method attracts first-time authors. Will it do the same for readers?

You need not bother reading this, Stephen King. Nor you, John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark, or you folks who crank out all that warm and fuzzy "chicken soup" drivel. You brand-name authors, rolling in high-dollar advances, celestial sales numbers and permanent spots on The New York Times best-seller list, aren't who they're looking for in the latest and still experimental approaches to book publishing. Likely as not, none of you Doubleday-Simon & Schuster-Random House big shots have ever heard of Xlibris in Philadelphia or 1st Books Library in Bloomington, Indiana, or Texas' Authorlink and Brown Books.

What they and dozens like them are doing, if their press releases and many of their writers are to be believed, is tossing a lifeline to those determined to get their books published and weary of having New York's publishers slam doors in their faces.

The would-be authors' need to provide the world an opportunity to read their own attempt at the Great American Novel or philosophical take on world affairs has, in effect, created a new industry called print-on-demand, or POD, books. Some critics, including most book-section editors of the nation's major newspapers, who have hard-line policies against reviewing such offerings, view them as vanity publishing disguised in sheep's clothing.

Not necessarily so, says Doris Booth, founder and president of Authorlink. "Print-on-demand, I believe, is the future of publishing. Right now, there is an ongoing shakeout process that occurs with any new business concept, but even the major publishers are acknowledging that the POD idea is here to stay."

Technical mumbo jumbo aside, it is a revolutionary new approach whereby you, the reader, can order, say, Texas writer Frank Thomas's 362-page supernatural novel, Madre de Dios/Mother of God. A few computer buttons get pushed, and faster than you can say "royalty check," a slick-looking single copy is printed and shipped to you. For his publisher, 1st Books, there's no warehousing problem, no worry that thousands of books will sit unwanted and unsold. For Thomas, a disillusioned screenwriter-turned-novelist, it is simply a welcome avenue to the status of published author.

For a couple thousand bucks, 1st Books took his on-disc manuscript, converted it into book form, provided an attractive cover and alerted distributors and Web site operators that it was available. As a bonus, 1st Books allowed Thomas (as it does all its authors) to retain all rights to the book. That way, if a big-time house decides it wants to snap it up or Hollywood comes calling, he's free to open negotiations.

And while he's sold only a couple hundred copies since the novel's May publication, he's not only encouraged but at work on the second book of the trilogy he has planned.

Though generally pleased with the efforts of his publisher and the product it ultimately produced for him, 51-year-old Thomas is quick to acknowledge the shortcomings of the POD industry. After spending four years researching and writing his first novel, he explored the options available to him: the traditional publisher, self-publishing and print-on-demand. Like so many unknowns, he was quickly discouraged by the lack of response from major publishing houses. And the cost of self-publishing ("Any author who goes that route is crazy, or very wealthy") was prohibitive. Thus he opted to go with POD.

Aggressively working a Saturday-afternoon crowd at a bustling suburban Dallas shopping mall, Thomas views himself as a pioneer in an industry that will only get better. "At this stage of its development," he admits, "it is terribly flawed." Current POD publishers, he points out, do little more than print a book and provide a bit of promotional help.

MIT and Kellogg School of Management graduate Jason Junge, author of the nonfiction Why Freedom, was turned down by MIT Press, so he went to Xlibris. The 28-year-old management consultant knew that his book on the relevance and practice of freedom around the world would have a limited audience.

He signed a contract to pay Xlibris $1,600 to publish his book. Since Xlibris provides no editing (as all traditional publishers do), he paid an additional $1,700 for an "independent editor." Then there was $375 for the "marketing package," which included a press release, bookmarks to give out as promotional items and a list of suggestions on how he might find an audience.

Since Why Freedom's publication in April, Junge has sold only 100 copies. "I've just about run out of friends and family," he says with a laugh. His goal? "If I could get it in the hands of 1,000 people, I'd be happy and feel it had some impact."

He says he wasn't ready for the widespread criticism of print-on-demand books. With no apparent concern for the quality of books submitted and printed, a large amount of what he calls "gunk" is being produced by POD publishers. "The good books, written by people with talent and something to say, are getting lost in the flood of those without merit," Junge says.

That problem, Thomas says, has caused reviewers to turn away. Thus self-promotion has become a full-time project for many POD authors. Seeking alternative methods for selling their books, they do signings at coffee shops, send out a flood of e-mails to potential customers and speak to any group that will offer an invitation. "If you go the POD route," Thomas acknowledges, "you had best be prepared to become a promoter and salesman."

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