October 01, 2004

Print on Demand or Why Does This Book Cost So Much and Have Such a Bad Cover?

by Alan Beatts

Several years ago a company called Lightning Source started printing books.  A new printing company wouldn't normally be worth much comment but Lightning Source (which was originally called Lightning Print) isn't a normal printer.  They're in the business of what's called Print on Demand publishing, (or POD) and that's not anything like normal printing.

Unlike traditional printing, POD works like this -- a publisher produces an electronic file that is a representation of a complete book; cover, table of contents, layout, the whole deal.  This file is sent to Lightning Source where, for a modest fee (as low as $300 in the early days), they store it and make it ready for the next stage.

The book is announced as being "in print" (despite the fact the no copies exist at this point) and title and price information is then sent to Books In Print and the various book distributors and wholesalers.  Eventually someone will order a copy of the book, either the publisher or a bookstore.  In most cases they will be told that the book is "back ordered" but that it will be available in a week or two.

Then the final stage of POD publishing kicks in.  An order is sent to Lightning Source by the publisher or distributor and the electronic file is sent to a machine that looks a little like a copy machine back at the dawn of time when, instead of fitting on a desktop, they took up a small room of their own.  This machine incorporates, among other things, a really fast laser printer, a big roll of paper, a color laser printer (for the cover) and an automatic fold, glue, and trim unit.  I think you can see where this is going -- electronic file in one end and a finished softcover book spits out the other end.  Needless to say, this is a very simplified explanation of how the whole thing works but it will do to convey the idea.  In short, no copy of the book is printed until and unless there is an order for it.

At first look this seems like a huge boon to independent publishers everywhere.  Instead of having to pay a large printer's bill up front, ship the books somewhere, store them, and then ship them out to your buyers, the POD publisher invests a small sum for the set-up costs (plus, of course, an advance for the author, payment for cover art, and typesetting, proofreading, and layout fees) and then never has to think about the book again.  This publisher doesn't even need to worry about collecting payment for the books sold.  Lightning Source will do that for them and then send them their share of the payment after the production costs have been subtracted.  In all honesty, there are almost no down sides for the publisher other than the cost of the books.

Cost of the books, you ask?  Yup.  Printing using this method is much more expensive on a per copy basis than traditional printing.  As a result POD titles are usually much more expensive than a "normal" book (i.e. $18-$22 instead of $12-$16).  This price difference tends to reduce sales, especially when the price climbs over the magic $20 mark.  Though this is a problem, the typical POD publisher seems to feel that the other benefits outweigh this one down side.

However, when one changes viewpoints to consider the author and the reader, the downsides of POD are much more extensive.  For a first time or relatively new author any book contract may seem like a good deal.  And it's interesting to note that the vast majority of titles published in POD are by relatively new authors or are works in the public domain (which means that the copyright has expired and anyone can publish them without needing the author's permission).  But the problem with a POD contract is that a POD title never goes out of print.  Though this is often touted as a positive quality of POD, it means that it may be difficult or even impossible for an author to get the rights to their book back in their control.  The POD publisher can keep supplying copies of the book for years and years without changing the royalty structure and without ever paying another advance.  Imagine if Stephen King had sold his first book to a POD publisher.  To this day and despite King's success in the field, some small publisher could still be printing copies of CARRIE, sending Mr. King a tiny royalty, and laughing all the way to the bank.

The other problem for an author is the quality of the book's presentation.  "Presentation" is bookseller-speak for things like proofreading, layout, design, and most importantly, the cover.  We all know that we're not supposed to judge books by their covers and we all do it anyway.  Covers are important.  Frequently it's the cover that makes someone pick a book out of all the other books on a shelf and no one buys a books that they don't pick up.  For a new author the cover is even more important since they have no chance of someone picking up their book because they've read the author in the past.  Of secondary importance is the proofreading and layout.  A good layout make a book that is easy to read and bad layout can make an otherwise good book almost unreadable.  Proofreading reflects directly on the author because the average reader doesn't realize that it's primarily the publisher's job to make sure that things like spelling and punctuation are correct.  So, when something is msispelled, the reader thinks that the author didn't know how to spell.  This is not something that convinces a reader that they're reading a quality piece of writing.

But why would the presentation of a POD title not be as appealing as any other book?  Remember my list of the publisher's expenses for a POD title?  Most of those items affect the quality of the presentation.  It's unfortunate, but POD publishers don't seem to think that since they're reducing their outlay for printing from $10,000 to $300 it means that they have $9,700 extra dollars to spend on cover art and top quality proofreading and layout.  Instead, the POD publisher often chooses to keep all the costs as low as possible.  End result?  Proofreading by the publisher's roommate, who has "always been a real good speller" and cover art by the lowest bidder.  Of course there are exceptions -- POD publishers who employ exacting proofreaders and outstanding artists -- but they seem to be a rare breed.

But what does all this matter to readers?  Consider -- POD titles are expensive, often poorly designed and proofread with poor cover art.  More importantly, the authors whose works are published this way are often relatively new and as a result, inexperienced.

But the real crux of the matter is this -- because of the financial risk, a publisher who invests thousands of dollars on a conventionally printed book is very careful about what they publish.  The thing that they are most careful about is the quality of the stories that they publish because, if the book is bad, they stand a chance of sitting on thousands of copies for years and never making their money back.  The POD publisher doesn't have this worry.  The initial investment is so cheap they can take a risk on almost anything and have a good chance of breaking even in a year at the outside.  So, the most astonishingly poor writing is good enough for POD.  This phenomena is further aggravated by the way that POD is often used by authors to publish their own work.  Once again, there are exceptions to this rule, but in general, if you can't convince someone else that your book is good enough to publish, it probably shouldn't see print.

In a nutshell, POD titles are frequently a comprehensively shoddy product at an inflated price.  So, how can one avoid them?  There are a number of POD operations out there but the biggest, Lightning Source, makes it easy by putting an unusual piece of barcode on all of their products.  If you look at the back side of the last page of a book (not the back cover) and see a barcode at the lower right corner, that's the sign that you're holding a Lightning Source product.  You might be well advised to put it right back on the shelf.  On the other hand, there are some excellent publishers who use POD and there are some great books from otherwise poor POD publishers.  Thankfully, if you're getting this newsletter, you know an independent bookseller who can help you find the jewels amid all the junk.

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