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."

The POD publishers, writes skeptic Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books, know that the best market for the books they produce is the author himself. Though they offer royalties that range from 20 to 45 percent on the net sales, their first 100 or so books are generally bought by the writer (who, in turn, attempts to resell them, use them as promotional copies or gifts to family and friends). If, for instance, a publisher has 10,000 writers ordering 100 copies of their own book, they're going to realize a profit in the millions while the authors aren't making enough to cover the gas to their next book signing.

Thomas hopes that if he can eventually sell 1,500 to 2,000 copies of Madre de Dios, he can attract the attention of a mainstream publisher for his next work. "It doesn't take a large spark to ignite a fire," he says.

Authorlink's Booth, who has heard the frustration of authors she's published in the last three years, says the greatest difficulty she's faced has been the unrealistic expectations of writers and their failure to fully understand the realities of the industry. For that reason, she has decided to ease out of the POD business and into more traditional publishing. "Still," she says, "I know the day is coming when print-on-demand is going to play a big role in publishing."

But not until a new industry mind-set emerges. "For now," she admits, "the taint attached to POD books is difficult to overcome -- for the publisher as well as the author. Too many bad books, unedited and poorly printed, are being poured into the marketplace. Only when the POD industry improves its overall quality and convinces the bookstore chains and book reviewers that they're doing something worthwhile will it gain a foothold."

Inroads, though still difficult to negotiate, have been made. Several major distributors have agreed to work with POD publishers, thus making their books available to stores that put in special orders at a customer's request. "In effect," Thomas says, "your book is available in thousands of bookstores across the country." It just isn't sitting on the shelf.

As fledgling writers pondered ways to get their works noticed, author Thomas was wrapping up a two-hour book signing in front of a B. Dalton outlet at the mall. He'd been hustling and hawking, handing out flyers and urging Saturday-afternoon shoppers to stop and let him tell them about his novel. He was tired at day's end, but pleased.

He'd sold seven books.

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