Ripping the Guts out of Print-On-Demand Publishing
Jim Kohl

So the manuscript turned out just like you wanted it. It's perfect. All your friends and family are convinced you are on your way to being the next <Insert Favorite Writer's Name Here>. You smile along with that, but inside you're hoping to be the first <Insert Your Name Here>.

You enjoy the potential of the printed pile that is your best possible writing. Your editor combed through it, and made redlines, some of them made you smile and the rest made you curse his name. You wouldn't have hired him if you didn't trust him, so you made all his changes (except the ridiculous ones, of course).

Now that printed manuscript sits in a box in a drawer. You typed the title on a cover sheet and it sits on the top of the first page of chapter 1.

Now what?

Traditional publishing, unless you're a known name, is a tough market to break into. You have to try to sell your book to an agent who then tries to sell your book to a publisher. Maybe you go that route. As you collect rejections, you question whether you should have started typing in the first place. You wonder why you should ever do it again, though sometimes that hot, new idea nags you to hit the keys.

I was right there with you 5 years ago when I found a miracle. An online company would publish my book, design the cover to my specifications, issue an ISBN number to it, sell it on their website, and list it on Amazon and (Barnes and Noble's site). The book would stay in print forever because it's what they call a print-on-demand (POD) title. All that means is that they'd store the text and the cover as an electronic file and print the book up as the orders came in. I'd get 20% royalties. So at the time, for 99 bucks, my dream came true.

I could get copies of my book from my publisher at a 20% discount and then resell them. I wouldn't get royalties on books I bought from them, but that seemed fair since I was getting 20% off anyway.

My book was a 302-page paperback and the retail price was $16.95. Comparable books by best-selling authors were a dollar or two cheaper. I had no say in the price of my book, and all I could say when people said, "Seventeen bucks for a paperback?" was "Yeah, I know."

But still, I had a book that was real and mine. I could open to any page and be intimately familiar with the text in an instant. Now - how can I get someone to buy these once the friends and family all have one?

As a POD author, all promotion and sales are up to you, and for the work, you get 20%. The work turns into much more than you think. I called and e-mailed every radio and TV station in a 100-mile radius. From that, I was on the radio 4 times and TV twice. Did any of these appearances help me sell books? Maybe a couple.

How about bookstores? Borders will not carry POD titles period. Their distribution woman said, "We have to make a rule because there are so many POD titles, and so the rule is we don't carry them." I ran into a similar response from Barnes and Noble, but they referred me to their corporate office, which wants you to send the book and any press it might have gotten, including professional reviews. I'm not armed with those things. I have the book, of course, and a little press here and there, but no professional reviews, which are tough to get with POD titles.

Because POD means that the author wrote the book and had the money to pay the POD publisher (which by the way ranges from $200 to $1000 now instead of the $99 I paid for mine), the books are (for lack of a better term) pooh-poohed a bit by large chain stores, book reviewers, and traditional publishing in general. With some POD publishers, you could fill 300 pages with the letter G over and over, but as long as you had the cash, they'd stick it out there. That's the feeling people have anyway.

Independent bookstores will sometimes carry POD books. I've had my titles in a couple. Some of them will sell them on consignment, which means you are splitting the cost of the book with the store for the use of their shelf space. When the math is all done, you break even at best selling books this way. So you have the thrill of seeing your book on a shelf in a bookstore that matches the thrill of holding your book in your hand after you bought it from your publisher.

Stores shy away from carrying POD books because they are not returnable. When bookstores buy non-POD books from distributors, they get a 40% discount (and you get a smaller royalty). If the book does not sell, they can return the book to the distributor for a refund. POD books are not returnable to distributors even if the publisher uses Ingram as its distributor, so bookstores that buy them have to sell them or throw them away for a loss. Small bookstores don't like that sort of gamble, and big ones, as I pointed out, won't take the gamble.

Book Festivals are fun, and you can sell some books there. I partnered with a guy that self-publishes, at the LA Times Festival of Books ($450 to share the booth). He is his own publishing company. For $3000, he gets 3000 of his books printed. He sells them for $12.95. That's $11.95 profit per book. My book is more expensive, and I get about $3.39 profit per book.

He still is in charge of all his publicity, but it's cheaper for him to send books to reviewers because they are $1 each. To send a book to a reviewer costs me $13.56 per book. Thirteen reviewers can see his book for the cost of one to see mine, and like everything in sales, getting reviews is a numbers game. The more you send out, the better chance you'll get one review. Your book mentioned in ink helps it sell.

You may be saying, "Jim, you are too obsessed with money. You're supposed to be an artist and write for the love of it." I assure you I do, but few people write a book and publish it without the dream that someone will buy, read, and enjoy your work.

My intent here is not to bash POD but to report the facts about my experiences. I want people to see its guts and what it's made of. I have 3 POD titles now, so it's not without its allure, but the math of POD should not be ignored. It's a fine way to make a book available, but the seduction of getting your book in print can blind you to the expensive facts of the proposition. My next book will be self-published. I'll let you know how it goes.

There have been successful POD books, but they are few. POD publishing is a way of cutting the corner that is blocked by the agent and the big publishing house, but few corners can be cut that don't cut back.

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About the Writer:

Jim Kohl lives and writes in Modesto, CA. He has three POD titles, Noble Poverty (Iuniverse, 2000), One Truth at a Time (Iuniverse, 2002), and Through the Fog (Booksurge, 2005). His newer titles are fiction and deal with themes ranging from compulsive lying to mid-life crisis and time travel. Read more about his books at