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ASK THE EDITOR Of Polecats and Print-on-Demand Publishing

by Susan Malone

August 2002

I’ve talked before regarding the trials and tribulations of Print On Demand and self publishing, but confusion so abounds about this subject that we need to discuss it once more.  In a business where getting published is the brass ring, and many, many writers spend years and years and years sweating blood and tears, mucking through the desert of broken dreams while grasping for any semblance of fame and fortune rather than the despair of the reality of being forever unknown, the proliferation of POD publishers becomes more and more tantalizing.  Here, at your fingertips for a nominal fee, is that prize you’ve been chasing, attainable at last.  Rest assured though, it truly is an apparition, much like that hazy-though-shining mirage across the barren plains.

Dramatic, yes?  Well, we are dealing with dreams here.  And that’s what vanity presses do—they steal your dreams and become rich off of them.  The bottom line, which all of this industry knows, is that a vanity press by any other appellation is still a vanity press.  The POD technology has made it affordable, but a rat by any other name . . .  

The technology isn’t to blame.  And in fact, that technology is surely the future of this business.  But the form that will ultimately take as far as Traditional Publishing remains to be seen.  I.e., the business has not quite caught up with the technology, so the vanity presses have jumped in knee-high while “traditional” publishers are still circling ‘round.  And the Grand Canyon now, as always, separates the two. 

How can that be, writers ask, when all of these POD places advertise that your book will be published as is any other, complete with an ISBN number and available through book stores?  Well, vanity presses always got you an ISBN number.  That just says your book exists.  But the latter half of that statement is where the problem comes in.

Your book will not be stocked in the major bookstores.  Period.  And since that’s how the vast majority of books are still sold (well over 80%, according to the best industry accounts), you’re screwed. 

I recently spoke at a large literary conference, in which many writers were somewhat up in arms about this.  Many stood to say that these “publishers” advertise that your books will be sold via Barnes & Noble, etc.  Are they lying?  Well, not exactly. But the advertising is just a shade deceptive.  Yeah, somebody can walk into Barnes & Noble and order your book.  Special order your book, to be exact.  But the policy of Barnes & Noble, nationwide, is that they will NOT stock POD books.  Period.  And if someone can’t walk in and BUY your book, you aren’t gonna sell very many. 

Your book, however, is seen as published.  So real publishers won’t touch it.  Unless of course you sell 20,000+ copies.  But then, how are you going to do this when nobody can buy the book?  Yeah, you hear of that happening.  You hear it because that person is the one in a million who makes it, therefore making the news.  But even those stories are dwindling, as the days of loading up the station wagon with your self-published book and touring the country, stopping at every book store, well, those days are over.  Remember, the major bookstores will not stock your book! 

Somebody’s making an awful lot of money with POD books.  But surprise, it’s not the authors doing so.  POD publishers know the best (and usually ONLY) market for the books they produce comes via the author himself.  Yeah, the royalties go from 20-45 percent (as opposed to the standard 7&1/2, 12, and 15 from traditional publishers).  But the first 100 books (and that’s almost always about it) are generally bought by the writers themselves.  Those writers do their best to market the books, without of course any sort of promotional reviews (most reviewers don’t do self-published books either), and without the books being available in stores.  They usually unload their 100 books, giving them to friends and family.  And of course, using them for promotional purposes—which then don’t do them any good as again, the book is for all intents and purposes, unavailable.  That pretty much depletes most folks’ resources, both from the standpoint of time and money. Oh, and friends and family too.

So who’s making the dough?  Think about it.  A POD vanity press has say, 10,000 writers signing up.  All of whom buy 100 books.  You do the math.  Somebody’s making millions. 

And writers, once again, are being left out in the cold; now, not only their dreams but their pocketbooks in tatters. 

Writers then say, well, at least I’ll be published and that’ll help my next book sell to NY.  Nope.  NY knows the score.  A writer coming to them with a self-published book gets much-less respect than one coming with no publications. 

It’s just a bad deal at every turn. 

Will all of this change?  Possibly. In fact, probably.  But which way it will go remains up in the air. The technology is too good and too money saving for it not to evolve into some viable option. But rest assured, that viable option will still be through the REAL publishers.  And the vanity presses will again be seen by writers for what they are—vanity presses.  A polecat by any other name . .

Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com