The conversation with Leighton the other day, and Sheila’s specific questions about the Amazon/Booksurge “thing” have prompted this post.

It’s clear that because of the new publishing models available now, even we authors are tripping over definitions and labels. Some aren’t even aware of the range of possibilities to pick from. And if authors aren’t straight on it, they can’t help educate readers on the huge variety of books available to them these days.

It doesn’t help make discussions about strategies for authors any easier when “POD”, for instance, means something different to everyone in the room.


New York Publishers/publication

The traditional publishing model. These are the large scale publishers, most usually found in New York, but also in the big cities around the world (Toronto, London, Melbourne, for instance). Some people consider this model of publishing to be the only legitimate one, and many readers aren’t aware that this isn’t the only source of books.

Print runs: in the thousands, although the average print run is dropping even for these guys, who practice economies of scale.

Payment: Advances & royalties to the author. Publisher keeps the net profit.

Distribution: Varies. Usually into most major bookstore chains, and filtered into independent stores. Also carried in supermarket chains, airports, etc.

Small Press/Publishers

As the name implies, these guys are small scale versions of the New York publishers, using the same model, but with vastly reduced distribution and print runs, and payments for authors, too.


Myth #1 debunked: POD is not a type of publisher.

POD = Print On Demand. POD is purely a specialized, high-technology way of printing a book. That’s it. That’s all POD is.

Traditional printing is a long, involved process. There’s web-press printing, sheet fed printing, and often the guts of the book is printed on a web press, and the covers on a sheet-fed machine, then the book is glued and trimmed in a binder that takes up huge amounts of space and requires teams of people to run.

Printing this way requires that thousands of pages be test-printed before the presses are properly aligned, and they start producing “good” pages. So you can see that it wouldn’t pay to print less than several thousand copies of the book at once.

It’s also very expensive to print this way – the machinery is huge, expensive to buy, the ink and paper horribly expensive to supply, and every piece of equipment needed to produce the book takes dozens of highly-skilled people to operate it, to say nothing of the pre-press operations and administrative overheads.

The time elapsed from supplying the electronic files to the printer, to packed cartons leaving the printer’s shipping dock could be days, if not weeks, depending upon the printers’ schedules, the availability of staff and the right paper being available on time.

POD was a leap-tall-buildings development in printing. Using digital technology, these presses can produce a single copy of a book in less than a minute. There’s very little set-up, almost no waste, and the entire printing process, from electronic files, to binding and trimming, is handled by the one machine, that can fit into a small room.

Economies of scale also apply even here: the more copies you print at once, the cheaper each copy becomes. While the cost of printing a single copy this way is higher than off-set printing (i.e. traditional printing), it isn’t much higher. That makes printing a single copy economical, which turns the traditional printing model on its head.

This fact has created a whole publishing industry based on the POD technology, which tends to be referred to collectively as “POD publishing”.

However, even the New York publishers use POD technology when it is convenient, and the small presses have embraced it eagerly, as it is a real boon to operations of their size.

If you remember that POD is simply a style of printing, it helps keep the industry jargon straight and clear.

POD Publishers

This is the most misunderstood term flung about the industry these days, and I’ve already given you a glimpse of the reasons why.

The fact is, there are three different types of POD publisher, and dozens of hybrids, which adds to the confusion. On top of that, there’s often two or three different names for each sort.

1. Royalty-paying POD publishers
2. Fee-charging POD services
3. Self-published authors

Royalty-paying POD Publishers

These are the guys I’m most familiar with, as the majority of my books have been published this way.

They use a similar model to New York publishers: They pay advances to authors in exchange for printing their novels. But they use POD technology to produce the books, which makes the financial investment in a single title incredibly small in comparison to the cash New York has to shell out to get a manuscript to press.

That means they can take chances with a book that New York would consider “iffy”, and because they don’t have to recoup their investment in a month or two, the book can stay “in print” forever, and earn back over a number of years. They can simply print the necessary numbers to match sales.

These publishers tend to use POD printers like Lightning Source to actually produce the books. A few years ago, Amazon acquired Booksurge, another POD printer, to capture some of the market. There are others out there.

Ellora’s Cave, one of the most successful royalty-paying POD publishers in the world, took the process one step further: They bought their own small press (not POD!), and produce their books in-house.

Fee-charging POD services

This is where most of the confusion occurs. Many people, when they use the term ‘POD publishers’ are actually thinking of just the for-fee services.

For-fee companies include Lightning Source, Booksurge, Lulu, Booklocker, iUniverse, amongst others.

It’s no coincidence that the same companies printing books for royalty-paying POD publishers are also offering their services to anyone else, including authors themselves.

See why it gets confusing?

The services you get for your fee, however, range from full-service (editing, marketing, distribution and more), to pure book-printing only.

The high-service POD printers like iUniverse actually use a royalty-paying system. Not only do you pay them to print the book, and pay them extra for all the additional services, they also get to keep a portion of the revenue from every book sold, and pay you the balance.

At the opposite end, Lulu doesn’t charge you a dime for printing the books. They profit-share – they get a cut of every sale. It’s not technically a royalty system because you keep all rights to the material, but it works the same way.

Every service has a different way of setting things up. Some charge everything up front, and 100% of the revenue from sales is yours to keep.

A handy measure to figure out where these services lie on the spectrum is to check who keeps the copyright for the book. If the author keeps it, then you’re dealing with a for-fee POD service. If the publisher pays you a cut of each sale and issues the book under their own imprint, then you’re dealing with a royalty-paying POD publisher.

I’m sure it’s clear to you just from this short explanation, that some of the for-fee services will print anything anyone pays them to print. It means that some of the books available for sale just stink. They’ll be badly written, will not have been professionally edited, and barely contain a story.

This is the reason why a lot of publishing professionals, including authors, wrinkle their nose when someone says “POD publishing”. The taint of vanity publishing is real, and not without justification.

Unfortunately, novels that are printed by royalty-paying publishers that have been well edited, etc, get lumped in with the vanity-published books, just because of the confusion over the terminology.

Self-published Authors

Because the cost of investment has fallen so sharply thanks to POD technology, more and more authors are trying the self-publishing route.

These are professional writers, who intend to write more than one book, market their work properly, and make a profit from the venture. Seeing their name on the front of the book is a passing moment for them. Making a living from selling their work is a higher priority, so for this reason, they can’t be considered vanity authors.

Self-published authors are also called small publishers, micro publishers, independent authors, and independent publishers.

Some authors chose to develop themselves as an official imprint, and their publishing company’s name appears on their books, and they market their site and their work under the company name. It blurs the distinction between independent authors and small presses, and helps avoid some of the prejudices and roadblocks thrown up before self-published authors, and this may be the reason they chose to go this route.

Other authors do have a company to run their revenue and for legal entity reasons, but only their name is on the books they publish, and all their marketing and promotion is under their own name only. They’re proudly independent, and don’t care if the world knows they’re self-published.

Self-published authors can be very successful, achieve professional acclaim and awards. MJ Rose self-published Lip Service, it was a huge hit, and she is now a heavy-weight in the publishing world. She’s also running her own book promotion business, Author Buzz , and a high traffic blog, Buzz, Balls and Hype.

And as Lorina pointed out, this year’s winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour is The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis, a self-published author.

The Amazon/Booksurge Thing

Booksurge was created by a group of frustrated writers in 2000, and Amazon bought the company in April 2005, when it really took off. Booksurge is a for-fee POD service.

Amazon has always been friendly towards POD publishers and services, and for many, Amazon was the only bookstore to carry their products.

In early 2008, Amazon contacted POD publishers (including self-published authors), usually by phone, and informed them that their books would have to be either printed by BookSurge, or they must become a member of Amazon’s Advantage program, or else the “Buy” button would be removed from the book’s page on Amazon, and readers would have to search for a re-seller via the “more buying choices” buttons (which takes you to off-site pages such as e-Bay).

Amazon didn’t make a public announcement.

This, by the way, does not effect any POD publisher outside the United States.

BookLocker, another for-fee POD service, filed papers to begin an anti-trust suit against Amazon in May 2008, and Angela Hoy, owner of BookLocker, has been vocal and prolific in her campaign to have Amazon remove the condition.

Angela has a blog on the subject.  Just remember that she is not a neutral party in this.

Self-published and well-known author, Peter Bowerman, has also spoken out, although he, like me, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, until the suit is settled.

Amazon also published their own clarification on the issue.  There’s a paragraph in there that a lot of the buzz seems to miss:

“Alternatively, you can use a different POD service provider for all your units. In that case, we ask that you pre-produce a small number of copies of each title (typically five copies), and send those to us in advance (Amazon Advantage Program-successfully used by thousands of big and small publishers). We will inventory those copies. That small cache of inventory allows us to provide the same rapid fulfillment capability to our customers that we would have if we were printing the titles ourselves on POD printing machines located inside our fulfillment centers. Unlike POD, this alternative is not completely “inventoryless.” However, as a practical matter, five copies is a small enough quantity that it is economically close to an inventoryless model.”

Although I’m waiting to see what happens with the suit, I’m not about to pull my books from Amazon and boycott them. 1) I’m not self-published, and don’t have that choice, and 2) my own publishers are already members of the Advantage program.

It’s hard to ignore the selling power of Amazon, or the evolution in publishing that Amazon facilitates. For that reason, I’d rather find a way to work with Amazon, than not.

The Advantage program isn’t heinous. Some parties are protesting over the terms, but really, most publishers and book sellers have terms and conditions that we have to suck up. Canada’s own big-box store, Indigo/Chapters, insists on a 45% discount even if I bring my own books to a book signing. As I only get, at best, a 15% discount from my publishers, I don’t do signings at Indigo. But I’m not self-published. If I were, and could still make a profit after the 45% discount, I would try to have my books sold through Indigo, and would do book signings.

Ditto, the Advantage program. If I were self-published and could still work a profit from the Advantage program, I’d be happy to use the program if I didn’t go to BookSurge directly. Given the thousands of POD publishers using the program, I’d say it’s possible to make a profit when you use it.

The quality of BookSurge books have improved a lot over the last few years, and there’s always the option of asking for reprints if there is a problem with the quality – it would be a hassle, but that’s business for you.

I’m still curious to see what results come out of the BookLocker suit, because while Amazon are offering an alternative, they are using their muscle to force publishers to this either/or choice.

What about you?  Have I helped clear some of the confusion for you?  How do you feel about the Amazon thing?

First appeared on Anchored Authors on June 21, 2008

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