At first blush, print-on-demand (POD) seems to be the middle-ground in the publishing revolution. It yields a physical book, much like traditional publishing, but is the result of a quasi-do-it-yourself process. To the extent that holding a book, or being able to physically transfer contents in book form, is important to an author, there are a wealth of companies providing POD services. (The big three are probably Lulu, CreateSpace, and Lightning Source, with Blurb anchoring the image-heavy end of the self-pub spectrum.)
Thinking that it would be nice to make a POD version of The Year of the Elm (TYOTE) available for anyone who wanted it, I spent a fair amount of time last night digging deeper into the POD process. What I’ve come away with today is both a renewed appreciation for the craft and complexity of publishing, and a growing conviction that I don’t want to go down the POD road, at least for now.
Clearly, if there was crazy demand for a POD version of something I’d written I would be an idiot for not meeting that demand, even if my profits were negligible. But I can’t imagine POD demand for TYOTE that would pay back the time, money and effort I would have to put into scaling the POD mountain. I know that bazillions of people are using POD, that’s it’s easy as cake, and that anything I can’t handle can be farmed out to professionals, but at each step in the process I would be compelled by my own ignorance to choose between a new learning curve, an out-of-pocket expense, or both.
Having worked through the relatively painless process of putting TYOTE up on Smashwords in e-book form, and having already gotten a bit of a surprise about the Smashwords fee structure (which I’ll be addressing as soon as I can figure out how to do so in a gentlemanly way), and having been perplexed by all the Smashwords e-book distribution options, permutations and complexities affecting my content, I’m really loathe to wade into deeper waters. Again, I know that plenty of people are doing this, but I can’t shake the feeling that a whole lot of author money is going out with the POD tide, while relatively little is coming back in terms of sales. (Yes, I know there are plenty of success stories.)
To be sure, there’s more than a little frustration in all this. I’d very much like to submit TYOTE to Jane Smith for review, but she only reviews physical books. Fortunately, Henry Baum’s Self-Publishing Review is an e-book-friendly site, so I’ve submitted my work there. (I’m looking for other sites that review e-books, so if you have one to recommend I’d be interested in learning more about it.)
This small schism between reviewing sites has mushroomed over the past twenty-four hours into a new kind of publishing paradigm for me. I no longer find myself thinking of POD as a middle ground between electronic works and traditional publishing, but as an author-subsidized equivalent to traditional publishing. In that context, I’m also hard-pressed to see how POD advances the ball for independent authors in a way that is remotely equal to the leap that digital publication and distribution represents — even as I admit that I don’t think e-books are an equally eye-friendly experience.
If I were to make a POD version of TYOTE available, what would I do with it, besides send a copy at my expense to Jane Smith? I’m not going to get in line at the local bookstore (independent or otherwise) and beg them to take me on a consignment basis. I’m not going to buy and ship a bunch of copies to readers myself. I don’t want to sink $500 into review copies and mailing costs on the off chance that I might make that money back at some distant point in the future.
The obvious answer is that I could have other companies drop-ship POD versions of my work — for a fee, or a percentage, or, more likely, both. Having already looked at the fee structures of Lulu and CreateSpace, I’m not at all convinced I could bring the p-book price of TYOTE in at a price point readers would be open to, while also allowing me a small profit. And again, in the case of a collection of short stories, what’s my absolute wild-eyed maximum windfall from sales? Probably well short of whatever the up-front costs would be to me. (Yes, I know it takes money to make money, but if big publishers aren’t pushing short story collections — or even publishing them — that’s probably a clue about the size of the market.)
So…I think I’m taking the POD option off the table for now. And you know what? It’s a relief to say that. One of the last things I’m interested in doing is getting bogged down in the ISBN nightmare, or paying a registrar a fee so that my content can exist. I know I can’t avoid the problem forever, and minimal costs have been worked out for independent authors, but there’s something about having to pay a ‘property tax’ for my own content that will always bother me. (Laura Dawson, who knows more about ISBN’s and metadata than any other ten people combined, has a good post up today about marketing books. I know ISBN’s are important, and that to publishers they’re essential, but it’s worth taking a look at the other factors she thinks are important, and seeing how those apply to e-books and digital content.)
The digital road is not without its own obstacles, but the big draw of digital is that it allows me to maintain a direct, immediate, constant connection with readers. My blog and website are digital. My content is digital. My stories on Smashwords are digital. The buzz (and hype) is about digital devices. Digital is global. Digital is (almost) free.
(I did learn today that Joe Konrath, everybody’s e-book success story, is paying $300 to $1,000 for his cover designs. I’m sure every penny is worth it, and he’s getting exactly what he wants in return for the money, but it’s probably also the case that most e-book authors can’t justify that kind of expense. In Joe’s favor, what he’s paying out-of-pocket is probably a song compared to what a publisher would have charged for creating the exact same cover on a traditionally published book.)
Relative to the small hills I’ve had to climb in order to put up my site and make my short story collection available for download, creating a POD version of TYOTE looms like a craggy, wind-ripped mountain. And I can’t imagine that making the climb will provide me any return on my investment other than being able to hold up a copy of my content in book form. And right now I just don’t care about that.
Am I wrong here? Am I missing something? Or is it really time to think about the internet and the digital publishing wave as something entirely different from print publishing in any form? Because the more I look at the two, the less convergence and fewer similarities I see.
— Mark Barrett