Self-Publishing, POD Technology and Author Mills

As an author who self-published using the print-on-demand business model, I thought I would share what I have learned with other authors, and so I've written this article. First, I'll describe what self-publishing is and how it works, how it has been changed by print-on-demand technology, and then the pros and cons of self-publishing. Lastly, I'll discuss my own experiences with self-publishing and talk about a new category of publisher: author mills, which are turning out to be vanity presses in disguise.

  • The Most Important Things to Know
  • How Self-Publishing Works
  • Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
  • Reasons Authors Self-Publish
  • My Own Experiences with Self-Publishing
  • Advice to Prospective Self-Publishers
  • Author Mills and Small Presses
  • The Most Important Things to Know:

    There are at least three flavors of self-publishing:

  • Owning a Publishing Business - The first option is starting a publishing business that you own yourself, and using it to print your own books. This is the oldest form of self-publishing, and it is also the type of self-publishing that has nearly all of the success stories (success stories are always rare in self-publishing, but such stories are exceptionally rare among any type of self-publishing that doesn't involve running your own business).

  • Vanity Presses - A second flavor of self-publishing is using what is called a vanity press, which is a company that charges authors in order to print their books, but this company generally presents itself to the author as a publisher, not a mere printer. These are considered scams by nearly everyone who knows much about the book industry. Even when vanity presses are honest about the sorts of services they provide, they often leave out important details that would make them look bad or they otherwise create a false impression of easy success. Other names for them are joint-venture publishers and subsidy publishers (even though vanity presses technically aren't joint-venture or subsidy, because the author takes all the financial risk instead of sharing it with the publisher; true subsidy publishers are extremely rare and you will probably never run into one).

  • POD Self-publishing Service Providers - A third option has sprung up in recent years, which charges authors to publish and is in many other ways just like a vanity press, but unlike vanity presses of the past, it actually delivers a few of the services that real publishers do (but generally it does not deliver as many of these services as it claims to deliver, or it delivers them poorly). This third option is usually called POD self-publishing because it is always based on POD (print on demand) technology. This third option is a business that you do not own yourself. You pay this business to print your book and to do some of the things that a traditional publisher would do (such as order fulfillment). However, this hybrid arrangement, unlike a traditional publisher, won't promote your book (unless you pay them large amounts of money) and often can't get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores, only into online bookstores.

  • Author Mills - There is also a fourth category that technically isn't self-publishing at all, generally called author mills, the most notorious of which is PublishAmerica (more about them later). However, authors pay in indirect ways, and the business model of author mills is still based on selling to the author instead of the general public, just like a vanity press.

    How Self-Publishing Works:

    At one time, self-publishing was suicide. It was the most insane thing you could possibly do. Success stories were so rare that it was like winning the lottery. However, at this point in time, it is a viable option for a few authors, DEPENDING greatly on exactly which flavor of self-publishing they choose and exactly how they promote their books. Why has this changed?

    First, we need to look at the history of publishing. During the nineteenth century and before, self-publishing was an extremely normal choice for authors, mainly because the book publishing industry as we know it today simply didn't exist. Self-publishing was always risky, but during this early period it was not an insane idea. As the publishing industry came into full flower during the twentieth century, such self-publishing success stories became extremely uncommon, to the point of it being a complete fluke throughout most of the twentieth century. Then things began to open up a little bit for self-publishers after about 1985, partly as a result of changes in technology, partly as a result of changes in the book industry itself.

    There is no doubt that revolutions have changed the pace of life at the big publishing houses, including mergers that produced mega-groups and plenty of changes due to computerization. This has led to accusations, that are probably true to some extent, that larger publishers are increasingly closed to new authors and innovative ideas, making it very hard for an untried newcomer to get their attention.

    One reason for this is that publishers are now swamped with an ever-increasing number of queries, proposals and manuscripts from the computer revolution. In the old days, you had to type out each manuscript copy on a typewriter (or pay someone else to do it for you). Now, it is too easy to print out many typewriter-quality manuscripts and send them off to everyone. You can easily see why each individual submission receives less attention than was true in the days when writers were lucky if they could send off three manuscripts a year.

    Publishers also became less accessible to the average author, since the way the industry works changed so that editors at publishing houses handed off many of their traditional duties to literary agents. In particular, agents are now largely responsible for determining whether a book is high-quality enough for it to be worth a publisher's time to give it a deeper look, a duty that used to be the responsibility of editors. The process of getting published is more complex than it used to be, with the extra layer of agents inserted between authors and publishers. Many authors are left feeling as if they have to jump more hurdles than ever, or they get contradictory advice even from supposed experts.

    There are a number of misconceptions, common sayings and seemingly insurmountable problems that tend to drive authors into self-publishing. One example is the Catch-22 that you supposedly cannot get an agent unless you have been published first, and you cannot get published unless you first get an agent (see this article for why it really doesn't work exactly like that). Another frequently-repeated adage is based on the simple mathematics of taking the number of manuscripts submitted to publishers and agents each year, then figuring the percentage that actually get published. The result is so small that it makes an author depair of ever getting published. This, too, is deceptive. It often doesn't account for how many duplicate submissions have gone out, but, more importantly, it is like comparing apples to oranges. If you actually have some idea what is in actual slushpiles, you'll quickly realize that if you've written something halfway decent (or something that could become halfway decent with some light copyediting), then you are already in the top 5%. At least 90% (and probably more) of what agents and publishers receive is quite obviously unpublishable.

    The new self-publishing field is much different than it used to be, although it still suffers from all of the same problems, and some new ones. It also requires even more research, to know what you are getting into. Until the POD revolution started in the late 1990s, there were only two ways to self-publish: to start your own publishing company (requiring thousands of dollars) or to go through a vanity press (also requiring thousands of dollars). Vanity publishers charged very high prices and delivered boxes of books to you that would end up gathering dust in your attic, unless you personally sold them. In those days it was almost universally true that no bookstore would stock self-published titles, and there was no other way of marketing them besides trying to sell them in person or through junk mail campaigns (even more expensive and didn't work either).

    Around the mid-1980s, self-publishing of the type where you start your own business had started to become more viable. If you had a great book, AND you had a lot of marketing savvy AND you worked really hard, you might actually be able to get copies into bookstores and become one of the rare success stories.

    When self-publishing options using POD technology began to appear that combined aspects from the vanity press self-publishing model and the own-your-own-business self-publishing model with a small smattering of characteristics found in real publishing companies, it seemed to some people that a revolution was about to occur, while to others, it just seemed like exactly the same thing - vanity publishing - with a slightly different technology behind it. This hybrid model was made possible through print on demand or POD, which virtually gets rid of two big costs involved in book publishing: warehouse costs and the financial risk of printing books but not selling them. With POD, the publisher is able to print a book each time one is ordered, so there are no inventory costs or limited print runs. Real publishers found this technology attractive for printing up books during the lag time when one print run was sold out but another had not yet arrived, and some very small legitimate publishers, sometimes called micro-presses, came to rely exclusively on POD technology in order to make extreme niche books widely available.

    A new breed of vanity publishers also popped up at this time, which combined enough hybrid aspects from other types of publishing that it was at first widely praised as a new business model, by newspapers and even news shows on TV. Unlike vanity publishers of the past, POD self-publishing companies handle the paperwork involved in any orders that come in for your book, instead of unloading boxes of copies on you and expecting you to run a small business from your garage. You don't have to make out orders or keep track of sales tax or arrange shipments; like a traditional publisher, the POD publisher takes care of the business side of fulfilling orders and simply sends you your royalty check every few months. This seemed like the sort of business arrangement that could work - taking the sting out of self-publishing by reducing the risk to a few hundred dollars.

    With POD technology, a book can stay in print for years even if it doesn't sell many copies - this theoretically allows most authors a good chance to recoup their initial costs and make a profit, even if it ends up taking a very long time to break even and the book never makes more than pocket change. In reality, it is generally harder to recoup your costs. This is partly because many POD self-published books sell so poorly that a hundred years wouldn't be sufficient for them to recoup their costs, partly because many POD self-publishing service providers have now instituted recurring yearly fees in order to keep a book in print, and partly because authors have a tendency to spend more money on promotional activities in order to push a slow-moving book, so that making any profit whatsoever can easily become a moving target.

    Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing:

    Nowadays, bookstores are not completely closed-minded about stocking self-published books (however, POD books face additional problems that other self-published books don't face - see "cons" for more details). It is still harder to get a self-published book into a bookstore, but it is not next to impossible, like it was several decades ago. Also, with the Internet and computerized marketing networks, it is easy to make your book available at online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as making it available to be special ordered by readers from any bookstore, even if they can't get it physically stocked on bookstore shelves.

    Authors also like the control they get through self-publishing. At a traditional publisher, an editor will generally change things about your book, in some cases so drastically that it is practically a new book. This is more likely to happen to first-time authors and to anyone with innovative ideas. With self-publishing, you decide exactly what your work looks like. In some cases, you even write the stuff that appears on the back cover and design the picture for the front cover. Unfortunately, if you leave in typos, these go through too, so you need to be really sure that your book is exactly the way you want it to appear.

    With all these advantages, you might be wondering why everyone isn't self-publishing. There are some very good reasons not to self-publish, and the most important is the money. The average self-published book sells between 50 and 100 copies in its entire lifetime. With a real publisher, you don't have to pay them anything, and they market your book FAR more effectively than any self-publishing company (this is true even when you count the growing trend among traditional publishers of slacking on the marketing). Your book sells more copies and does so sooner when it is not self-published, especially since you don't have to find ingenious ways to wriggle past the anti-self-published bias that still exists.

    This bias is considerable. It relaxed somewhat when POD technology was the next hot new thing, but the POD self-publishing honeymoon is now over. The essential aspects of the book publishing industry that nearly every book needs - distributors, reviewers and bookstores - largely went back to their old opinions of self-published books after the POD excitement settled down. Most of the old problems associated with self-published books were also inherent in the new POD self-publishing model - such as books with a low level of editorial control - along with a few new problems, such as an amazingly large deluge of new books created by the cheap start-up costs of the POD business model. This unprecedented deluge makes it next to impossible for book reviewers and bookstore managers (the very people who might be able to propel a self-published book to success) to sort through the masses of dreck for the few bits of gold.

    The lack of any sort of quality control is, and always has been, the biggest problem with self-published books of any sort, and it affects all self-publishers because of the bias it creates, even those who have high-quality books. In all forms of self-publishing, authors rely on the exact reverse of the usual model. Instead of having qualified professionals (agents and editors) decide that their book will sell before publishing it, they publish the book first and then try to rely on a different set of qualified professionals (book reviewers, with some help from bookstore managers and a few people working for distribution companies) to decide that their book is something that the public will buy. The problem with this is that the qualified professionals that self-publishers rely on aren't very suitable for the job. All of them are geared towards sorting through a medium amount of material that is already of at least publishable quality in order to locate the higher-quality entries. Expecting them to sort through a huge amount of material that includes a lot of stuff that isn't publishable is asking too much of them, especially since bookstore managers and distribution company employees don't normally read books in order to decide whether to carry them. Reviewers are the only ones of this bunch who normally read books in order to evaluate their quality, and book reviewers are typically overworked and underpaid people who exist in small enough numbers that they can't even review all of the books that are published by real publishers.

    Reasons Authors Self-Publish:

    If authors have little chance of making real money, then why do they self-publish? One reason is a simple love of their work and a desire to share it with others. POD technology allows any reader who really wants the book to get it, even if they can only get it by ordering online. Since books can, in theory, stay in print for as long as it takes to recoup the small initial investment, those who simply want their work to be available to the world can do so with little to lose, as long as they don't start pumping additional money into promotional schemes. For some authors, "success" does not mean any sort of legitimate career that would be recognized by the writing community, it simply means that any friends who want to will be able to go online and purchase a real, professional-looking paperback version of their book. Almost all POD self-publishing ventures give you at least that much, so if an author measures success that way, they can guarantee "success" by self-publishing, even though any real author will want to beat them over the head with their own book, shouting, "Are you crazy?". This type of thinking is the way that vanity presses got their label in the first place. It is the "vanity" of a person who wants to see their work masquerading as a real book without going through regular channels.

    A more compelling reason is that self-publishing success can sometimes be a break into real publishing for first-time authors. The chance is slim, but it exists. This is more likely to be true for innovative or unusual books that do not fit well in any established niche, as editors are reluctant to take them on, regardless of how good they are, unless the author can offer some compelling proof that the book will sell. However, POD self-publishing service providers are notoriously worse at this than self-publishers who own their own publishing company. This is partly because of the near-boycott that Ingram (one of the major book distribution companies in the United States) has against POD books (more on that later). It is also because POD publishers have never offered competitive discounts to bookstores. A few self-publishers who own their own publishing companies have had bestsellers to rival any traditionally-published bestsellers. But so far, despite the promise inherent in POD technology, the POD crowd has no real success stories. The best a POD self-published author can hope for is to eventually get their book switched over to a real publisher, but most POD companies have very few authors who sell more than 500 books. In comparison, a book at a traditional publisher that only sold 5,000 copies would be considered a total failure - unless it was a highly specialized textbook or some other kind of niche book.

    The sales statistics of a self-published book, IF they show high enough sales, could be a powerful mechanism for convincing editors to be interested in your book, a mechanism that is not present in any unpublished manuscript. In that case, editors would not have to gauge how salable your book is from intuition and experience, they could see hard numbers that show the potential clearly. In reality, this is extremely rare.

    Another reason applies only to authors who have been published before. These authors had a book published the traditional way, and then it went out of print. This happens even with books that are still demanded by many readers - if the demand is too low to sustain the high print runs needed by publishers, it is labeled unprofitable and dropped. Almost every reader has wondered why even the most popular books go out of print, and this is the reason: generally only the frenetic buying pace of a newly-published book can bring enough profit to make it worthwhile. These authors will often try to get another publisher interested, but they all sing the same tune: they want the book to remain out of print for 10 or 20 years so that a new base of readers can develop. In this case, these authors sometimes decide to self-publish. If the book has been a success at a real publisher, it has already been promoted enough that it will probably sell reasonably well without much additional promotion. How much profit depends on how much of a demand still remains, but even if the demand is small, many of these authors would rather be making some money from the book instead of impotently sitting on it for a decade or two, and readers are grateful for the opportunity to buy it. The fact that even popular books eventually go out of print has long irked many readers, and self-publishing seems to offer a way out of that problem for authors and readers alike.

    A few authors self-publish purely because of time restraints, even if they have been traditionally published before. For example, if they are working on a book that ties into recent events. True life crime, and that sort of thing. If they wait the usual two years for a traditional publisher to put the book out (even assuming that the book is accepted for publication immediately) they will likely miss the window of opportunity, and everyone will be interested in different things by the time their book comes out. But if they go with self-publishing, they will not have to wait around for acceptance, and the book might be available in just a few months, before the buzz dies down. Other authors have more compelling time restraints, such as those who have been diagnosed with cancer and given a few years to live. If they went the usual route, it might take an agent three years to sell the book, and then a publisher a couple more years to bring it out, so that they might die before they ever see their book in print. For reasons like this, you should never tease and deride authors who choose self-publishing if you don't know anything about them. They might have a very compelling reason to self-publish that will make you want to take back your words once you find out about it.

    My Own Experiences with Self-Publishing:

    Initially I was very excited about self-publishing, even though I knew the odds were against me and that I'd have to work extremely hard to promote my book. Over time, my enthusiasm mellowed. Since I was a POD self-publisher (using a self-publishing company to help me publish instead of owning my own self-publishing business) I basically ended up getting caught up in the failure of the POD self-publishing model.

    There are several reasons why I decided to go with self-publishing. One reason is that I was hoping to lay the groundwork and create the word-of-mouth buzz that will make my book a much better success whenever a traditional publisher becomes interested. A second reason is because I felt I was working within a time constraint. I had been trying to market my nonfiction werewolf book to publishers for some time when I saw the beginnings of a werewolf fad. A large number of werewolf novels were being published, and Hollywood had about a dozen werewolf movies in the planning stages (very unusual). I knew that, if I could manage to get in at the beginning and ride this trend, it could really help my book succeed, but, conversely, if I managed to get my book accepted for publication as the fad was winding down, it would be the kiss of death because I would look like a latecomer who was trying to jump on the bandwagon (even though I had actually been ahead of the trend). Rather than risking being a latecomer, or putting my book aside entirely until the fad had fully faded away, I decided to take the risk of self-publishing and try to catch the wave at the beginning. Fortunately, time has shown this to be a much slower-building fad than I anticipated. It looks like the werewolf film fad peak might be at least 3 or 4 years in the future.

    Before deciding to self-publish, I went the round of medium-sized and large publishers that don't require an agent (a tiny handful nowadays!) and then sent my book to most of the small publishers that have folklore books and don't require an agent. At the time that I started seriously considering self-publishing, I felt like I was running out of options. Every year, more publishers began requiring an agent, and I didn't have one. I had only a few remaining choices: to get an agent, to keep sending out my book to the few publishers still open to me that published folklore, or to try randomly sending queries to publishers that don't normally publish folklore (I'd tried this before, and got bad responses). At the same time, I started hearing more and more good things about self-publishing. It was on the news and my friends kept suggesting it to me. Even my mother-in-law told me I should self-publish, and a woman I met at an art show tried to convince me to publish with her own tiny company (I declined).

    At last I decided to do the research. I was able to find some negative information about POD self-publishing companies, but I also found a great deal of praise from supposedly objective and reliable journalists. Even though I knew all about vanity press scams, and had known for many years that money should always flow towards the author, I was really convinced by all this positive coverage in the media that it wasn't just hype - that there was a real chance that this new business model was completely different than the vanity presses of the past. One of the biggest reasons I was convinced was that real journalists were enthusiastically endorsing the idea that POD combined with self-publishing could really change the whole industry. If I had done my research this year instead of in 2002 and 2003, I really doubt that I would have decided on POD self-publishing: now, there is a lot more negative information available, with more reasons and facts to back it up. The media is starting to come around, but I still see far too many enthusiastic news articles that praise POD self-publishing and author mills.

    When I finished with my research, three leading companies emerged: Xlibris, iUniverse and 1stbooks Library (which later changed its name to Authorhouse). iUniverse was the cheapest, but I didn't feel like it did enough marketing for its authors, and it seemed to be clogged with too many uninteresting books. There were also some complaints about the quality of its printed books. Xlibris had a contract that I didn't entirely like, and seemed to include too many complications and possibilities for hidden costs. It was difficult to get my questions answered too. 1stbooks Library emerged as the best of these three. It seemed to do a decent amount of marketing, had the most helpful web pages, and answered all my questions. Its contract was more to my liking than the other two, as well.

    The next step was ordering a book from 1stbooks Library. I wanted to see if it was flimsy, or if the print looked weird, or if there was anything else wrong with it. I'm not stupid enough to sign a contract without knowing what the product looks like. To my surprise, it was higher quality than many of the paperbacks you find in bookstores. It looked entirely like a real book, and had very crisp-looking interior print. The pages were even slightly glossy, a bit like magazine pages except on much thicker paper. Strangely, the book smelled strongly of biscuits, but it was a pleasant scent.

    At first my book sold poorly, but then the sales reports started to climb. I got a lot of email from excited fans, and I was even told that my book might be used in a University class in Britain (I never was able to find out if this was true or not, but the quarterly sales report after that email was my biggest ever). Then the sales began to falter. When I called into Ingram, they were suddenly selling practically no copies. I was still selling through other outlets, but these sales were far fewer and often needed much promotional effort. Then, I had the worst quarterly sales report ever, despite that I seemed to have more fans than at any previous point in time. I started researching, trying to find out what was going wrong. It was several things, but one of the biggest was the Ingram book distribution company's near-boycott of POD books. I found out that Ingram had a new policy. What this meant in practical terms was that most bookstores would have real trouble ordering my book even when a customer tried to special order it. This policy was first announced in 2004 and was phased in, with each stage being more severe than the last. I could certainly see my sales suffering at the exact same times, with each phase being harder on my book. There were other problems, too. Like a lot of new technology, POD had been over-praised when it first came out, but its inherent problems - especially its attractiveness to author mills and the more expensive printing costs which made POD books unable to compete with the deep discounts offered on books printed up the traditional way - was leading to a collapse of the POD market. Many bookstores had turned against the technology and were refusing to stock POD books at all.

    As a result of these problems, I decided that POD self-publishing would never allow me to achieve my true goals: getting an agent and getting a real publisher. Therefore, I decided to cancel my contract with Authorhouse, making my book with them go out of print. Right now, I'm in the process of getting my rights back. I also decided to cancel plans for self-publishing another POD book. If you want to know all the details, you can read my Livejournal post on why I decided to get out of self-publishing.

    Advice to Prospective Self-Publishers:

    I would advise others who are contemplating self-publishing to do a great deal of research first. Find out the answer to every question you could possibly have BEFORE you hand over your money, not after. For one thing, you need to be sure that your manuscript is the best you can make it. Too many people jump into self-publishing before a proper amount of editing has been done, and the result is a book that is not taken seriously because of the obvious typos and errors.

    Another consideration is how likely the book is to sell. For example, one of my husband's co-workers had a very bitter experience with self-publishing, but anyone could have predicted it from the category of her book. It was a collection of her own poetry. The big publishers have a great deal of trouble selling poetry collections, even when the poet is famous. It is one of the hardest things to sell, and therefore your own poetry is probably the worst subject for any self-publishing venture. You need to know that there is a market out there. Your book can be on an obscure subject (in fact, if it is, it might have very little competition and therefore have a chance to do well), but if it is in a category that is hard to sell, you need to think very seriously about how you can get around this problem before deciding to self-publish.

    In fact, nonfiction sells much better than fiction. There is a saying I've heard somewhere: that the fiction writers are more interesting people to talk with at parties, but the nonfiction writers drive better cars. This is because people like to read fiction, but they often borrow novels from a friend or the library. On the other hand, people can easily picture themselves wanting to refer to a nonfiction book over and over again, so they are more likely to buy it. In addition to this tendency, there are many more marketing tricks that you can use with nonfiction. In fact, with every book I've read about book marketing, half or more of the tricks suggested simply would not work well with fiction.

    Because of these basic facts about selling books, I would not recommend that anyone self-publish their first novel. Novels are simply harder to market and, with the additional handicap of self-publishing, it may be too much to handle. Almost all of the great self-publishing success stories I've heard involve nonfiction books.

    I also want to give a couple of special warnings to those who are contemplating self-publishing. If you ask self-published authors how successful they are, and whether they are satisfied with the company they partnered with, they are likely to exaggerate their success. Why? For one thing, many self-publishing companies pay their present authors if they bring in new authors. I can get $100 from 1stbooks for any new author I bring to them. If I was that kind of person, it would be much easier for me to talk up self-publishing to some wannabe author than to make $100 by selling my own books. I happen to know that some self-published authors lie about their success, because I've seen them do it. Also, some self-published authors don't have any idea how to accurately measure success in the publishing world. Some of them honestly think that selling a few hundred books means they've made it to the big time, yet are reluctant to quote actual numbers because they instinctively realize that others may look down on them (books at real publishers can sell in the thousands and still be considered failures).

    Another pitfall to watch out for is the hidden costs of self-publishing. Companies that help you self-publish tend to be like car dealerships that have tons of rather necessary add-ons, or like computer sellers in the 1980s who would sell you a computer very cheaply, because it didn't include a monitor. Self-publishing companies like to tell you that you can publish your book rather cheaply (often as low as $300). They get you excited about something that you can actually afford, but the more you find out about the deal, the more apparent it becomes that many of the add-ons and extras are quite necessary if your book is going to have any real chance to succeed.

    Then, even after you've paid the self-publishing company everything that you are going to pay, there are additional hidden costs. You need to buy a bunch of your own books and spend on postage to send them out for review. You need to create press kits and other advertisements to send to newspapers, bookstores and libraries. And there may be additional costs such as travel expenses for going to book signings and conventions, and things that you didn't even think of. At a minimum, you should figure a budget that allows you to buy (and mail out) 50 copies of your own book, plus $500 in additional expenses beyond what the self-publishing company is going to charge you. If you add up all this and you can't afford it, that means you can't afford to self-publish.

    Authors who are jumping on this self-publishing fad can become so dazzled by the possibility of success that they forget it is still a business risk. Just because there is a new type of self-publishing that has some pale shadows of the same services offered at real publishers, this does not mean that you will automatically sell many books. If you manage things badly, you might end up with sales to twenty of your friends, and nobody else. Self-publishing is just like any other business venture, except that with POD self-publishing the initial start-up costs are low enough that it lures in many of the unprepared. Even when self-publishing does not fail, the rewards can be modest. After all, there is a reason why most successful self-published books are soon switched to a real publisher: traditional publishing is still the best bet, and tends to be far more lucrative with less work.

    If you self-publish and fail, the price can be high. Not only do you lose the money that you put into the book, but you also lose a certain degree of respect. You join the vast ranks of unsuccessful self-published authors and are not taken seriously by other writers, let alone by editors and agents. You have a proven dud on your hands (even if the book is basically good but failed because of the prejudice of the industry or a bad marketing plan) and will be treated worse by agents and editors than if you were still an unproven possible goldmine. It is best not to mention such failed self-publishing ventures at all when querying agents and publishers for your next book, because they aren't publishing credits and can only hurt your chances (though mentioning them after an agent or a publisher has showed serious interest in you will eventually be required, as a normal disclosure of your publishing history).

    I've seen some writers self-publish because they believe that a finished, printed book will look more "real" and be more likely to impress an editor and/or agent. It is true that some editors have problems visualizing a rough manuscript as a finished book, and in some cases (especially with innovative or radical book ideas) it may help get a "yes" by showing so clearly what the finished product will look like. However, this is only a minor consideration, and it will mean worse than nothing if there are no sales figures to back it up. A pretty POD book with no sales is worse than an ugly coffee-stained manuscript of the same novel. Therefore, do not ever try to self-publish without a plan, especially for a vain and silly reason like the desire to have a copy of your work that looks just like a real book (there are other services you can use to produce a few bound paperbacks that look real, without actually publishing it, if this is all you desire). When self-publishing success ends up leading to success in the world of traditional publishing, it is because of sales figures, NOT because of a nice cover and binding.

    I would also advise you to read The Truth About Print-on-Demand Publishing, an article by David Taylor. All the issues it raises are things that any person contemplating self-publishing should think about. You need to know the problems inherent to this business venture if you are going to think up ways to get around these problems. And if you can't think of ways, then you'd better not self-publish.

    If you have read all this and you still think self-publishing is for you, I would advise you to hold off for at least a few months while you do research on book marketing and fully develop your plan. Good plans take time to form, and the field is complicated enough that you need all the information you can get. Also, if you still want to go with a vanity press or a POD self-publishing company (which is just a different type of vanity press, since it still makes money primarily from its authors) you should buy one book from each company that you are seriously considering. If the book looks weird or low-quality, lacks an ISBN, or the bookstores have trouble ordering it, this is a danger signal (for example, I have heard that Publish America sometimes binds one book into the cover of a different book, and sells it as whatever the cover is).

    As an additional note, if you have already self-published and are hoping to switch the book to a traditional publisher at some point, please, PLEASE do not sell any rights to it. You might be tempted to sell electronic rights (so that some e-publisher can display your book online) or translation rights, or book club rights, or other rights. This may bring more profit to you, but it also tends to lock your book into its self-published incarnation. A traditional publisher wants these rights, and if they have already been sold to someone else, this makes your book quite unattractive.

    Author Mills and Small Presses:

    Before I end this article, I should also note that many of the problems that apply to POD self-publishing ventures also apply to certain "traditional" publishers that don't charge you anything, but use POD technology to print all or most of their books and otherwise operate just like normal self-publishing companies that use the POD model. The new word that has popped up to describe these operations is author mill. It is true that even the big traditional publishers sometimes make use of POD along with the usual print runs (as POD is a technology for printing books, and is not exclusively linked to self-publishing). However, big publishers tend to try to hide it when they use POD, and they use it as a supplemental technology, not as their main way of printing books. When I say "author mill" I am not talking about traditional publishers that use POD technology in some minor ways, or reputable micro-presses that publish extreme niche books, I am talking about companies such as Publish America that seem to charge authors nothing, but accept virtually any low-quality manuscript and otherwise run themselves much more like a POD self-publishing company than like a traditional publisher.

    Instead of charging you money to publish your book, these companies are masters of the hidden costs. They tend to do little more than list your book on Amazon, trying to force you to shoulder the costs of any other method of distribution. They also have a tendency to charge super-high prices for your books (such as $30.00 for a 250-page paperback) and use all sorts of tactics to try to convince you to buy an unusually large number of copies of your own book. The book is hard to sell, but the profit margins are so big (for the publisher, not you) that they manage to make enough profits off of the copies the author buys plus the copies that the author's friends buy to make the effort worthwhile. Then, when the author runs out of friends to sell to, the book stops selling unless the author is a real marketing genius.

    This is very different than the sort of thing that happens to most people who publish with any other kind of publisher that doesn't charge its authors. It is much closer to what happens when you self-publish, except for the fact that your overly expensive book is much harder to market than a normal self-published book. For this reason, you should carefully check out the prices and availability of the books published by any publisher you are thinking of signing a contract with, especially e-publishers, companies that advertise to you, and small publishers that have just started business. There are certainly times when you should turn down a publishing contract with what seems to be a publisher that pays you, and any evidence of this variety of scam is a reason to turn down any offers. If you think you are publishing with a normal publisher, you shouldn't be forced to jump through the same hoops and shoulder the same (or worse) burdens that a self-publisher has to deal with.

    In addition to the overt, obvious author mills, there are also some publishers, mainly small ones that have not been in business long, that are not technically author mills because they don't set out to scam their authors or to develop a large stable of authors that each sell a small number of books, but nevertheless these presses suffer from many of the same problems as author mills. These "pseudo author mills" appear at first glance to be ordinary small presses, and they don't necessarily have very many authors. They are run by people who actually have a selection process and editing, and who genuinely try to market their books. However, these publishers rely on POD and/or ebook technology for most or all of their book production, and they tend to be unsuccessful at marketing their books - so unsuccessful that they would probably have gone out of business if they had used the usual offset printing that normal publishers use to print nearly all of their books.

    This is not to say that these people are getting rich off of fleecing their authors. On the contrary, unlike regular author mills, they typically have few enough authors, and spend enough money trying to market their books, that the owners of the press are hurt financially just as much, or more, than their authors. These owners sometimes continue to operate at a loss, or with no real profit, because of a devotion to the books they produce. However, unless the owners can change their business model and become successful by the standards that are generally applied to legitimate small presses, the end result for authors is much the same as if they had signed up with a regular vanity press, an author mill or a self-publishing POD outfit. The total number of copies sold is likely to be so small that the book would normally be considered a total failure (except for some specialized categories, such as certain kinds of textbooks or technical manuals where selling a couple hundred copies is normally expected).

    The most important fact to keep in mind is that POD books and books printed on regular presses are equally expensive when you print about 800 copies (depending greatly on book length, with the longer POD books being proportionately much more expensive, see a case study based on a book of 168 pages). The average price (to the publisher) of printing a POD book is about $6 per book, while the big print runs of offset printing allow book printing prices to often be driven down to about $1 per book, or even less. If you end up selling less than around 800 copies of a book, it is cheaper (for the publisher) to use the POD and/or ebook business model. If you end up selling more than 800 copies of a book, it is cheaper (for the publisher, and usually the bookstore too) to use regular printing.

    This means that, if a company thinks it will sell more than 800 copies of a book, it should generally avoid using POD technology for that book. When a company uses POD to print a book from the time that book first goes into print (instead of using POD as a supplementary technique to keep up a slow-moving backlist or to bring back an out-of-print book with an expected low demand) this means one of two things. Either the company expects the book to sell a total of less than 800 copies, or the company has so little financial health that it is completely unable to take a risk on possible unsold books from a normal print run (which is generally 5,000 or 10,000 copies).

    Normal publishers survive financially by being savvy enough at picking books to publish and good enough at promoting their books that they can survive on the economics of normal print runs. They put their money on the line, so they need to produce results or they will die. In the old days, a publisher that couldn't survive on the economics of normal print runs would go out of business. This means that you could count on them to give you a real chance to succeed as an author, because if they weren't going to give you that chance, then they probably would have already gone out of business. Today, the economics of the POD business model allows for more low-volume specialty and niche publishers to exist, but it also allows for the existence of the pseudo author mills, publishers that seem very much like normal small presses at first glance, with owners who genuinely care and do not set out to scam authors. Yet, in the end, these POD-reliant publishers can't offer you much more than the typical author mill. They can't give your career the chance it deserves.

    Home | Free Stuff | Book Previews | Link to Me | Upcoming Projects | Monster Mania | Author's Journal | My Writing | Help for Writers