The 600-Pound Gorilla in the Publishing Industry

When it comes to small presses today, there is a 600-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room, and everyone is trying to ignore it. They point to the pretty pictures on the wall and to the bright new books on the shelves, but there the gorilla sits, filling the place with its heavy breathing and strong animal scent.

What is this gorilla? POD. Print-on-demand. A technology for printing a single book at a time in a matter of minutes. Because of this new printing process, small presses with vision and little capital are able to publish good books that otherwise would never reach a readership. Just a few years ago, a small press would only be able to publish a book or two. They would have to print a thousand or five thousand copies and hope to break even somehow. And of course, they would have to find a place to store them. Now, with new technologies, they can publish many books and have them printed up as needed.

Traditional publishers who still print books the old way — in offset print runs of 5,000 or 20,000 for debut authors — have no advantage over the new presses, except, of course, when it comes to promotion and publicity. They can reach vast numbers of readers. Still, in the end, 25% of all books published this way end up as pulp, so it makes one wonder if they really know what they are doing. The publisher will save a few copies of each, of course, because that way they can keep the rights to the book indefinitely, even after they stop promoting it.

To me, print-on-demand is something to be embraced, not ignored. Small presses should brag that they print as demand requires. As long as the publisher and author agree, the book can be available to the public indefinitely, with no exorbitant upfront printing costs, no storage costs, no unsold books to be pulped.

If one mentions book burning, people get indignant. Books are sacred! One cannot burn books! But who besides me (and the traditional publishers’ accountants) cares about the books that are pulped? No one — it’s an acceptable part of the business, though it shouldn’t be. It’s wasteful and shameful. So you’d think small presses would brag about printing on demand. Instead, they try to hide it.

And there sits the 600-pound gorilla. You can ignore it, but you can’t hide it. The size of the book — trade paperback — is one giveaway. The cost is another. A POD book is more expensive than a traditional paperback (though not much more expensive than other trade paperbacks). That it’s not available in most bookstores is another tell.

A POD book is special — perhaps a book that only a few thousand would love, perhaps a regional story that no one in New York cares about, perhaps a book whose time has not yet come. And every single one of them has been filtered through the publisher’s submissions department, and every single one of them has been accepted on its merits. They are chosen.

Print books are not going to disappear any time soon, but how they are printed will change. POD will become the norm rather than the exception — it’s a much better way to conduct business.

So why the reluctance to admit small presses are POD? Because of the other POD — publish on demand. These POD people will publish anything — for a price. (Some POD companies and vanity presses are owned by the major publishers. A nice scam. But a lucrative one. Why not prey on the millions of authors who want to be published at any cost?) Since I don’t want to incur the wrath of all the self-published authors out there who are doing a good job, I’m going to stop here.

Except to say one more thing.

If one cannot hide the gorilla, change its name.

Since there are two distinct meanings to POD, I suggest calling publish-on-demand PLOD and print-on-demand PROD. That way no one will ever get them confused.

(March is Small Press Month. So, this month, let us pay tribute to all the PROD publishers out there.)

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13 Responses to “The 600-Pound Gorilla in the Publishing Industry”

  1. A. F. Stewart Says:

    Amazon seems to agree with you; it’s been actively seeking a slice of the POD market.

  2. ~Sia McKye~ Says:

    What amazes me about the technology is it’s ability to produce a book in a matter of minutes! Minutes. This technology has set the publishing world in a tizzy.

    With the financial difficulties the large publishers are having, why in the world aren’t they utilizing this technology? Wouldn’t this technology increase profits? Couldn’t it be adapted and used? I know places like Australia release their paperbacks as trade sized paperbacks. For the US markets they are released on lesser quality paper and Mass market.

    But you are correct Pat, it is certainly a 600 lb Gorilla.

  3. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I believe there will be PROD machines appearing in most of the major booksellers as well as upmarket cafes, travel hubs and campus bookstores. You browse the collection, swipe your credit card and in three minutes walk away with your freshly printed book. That will be the watershed for PROD, and it is going to happen sooner rather than later.

  4. joylene Says:

    I wish I were a visionary. I’d foresee what the future holds for books. I do embrace POD. I embrace small independent publishers. I just wish I knew whether the price of books will ever return to that number we can all afford again. But that’s a topic for another day.

    You’re on the mark here, Pat. As usual. Pity the business is full of so many dummies.

  5. Laurie Foston Says:

    A Few years back I began a web based think tank for Authors. I set up a public one on my web site but used a real web based think tank for my private think tank. At that time, Dr Cortson accepted my invitation to join a few of us. We never kept in touch much as he stays in constant pain and yet he gives motivational speeches.. He was not published through a traditional publishing house at that time. He was selling himself…on his radio shows, giving motivational speeches and many guest appearances on TV or else where. He has a miraculous story to tell. I won’t tell it. Only his books can tell you why. Anyway, this is how he saw it three years ago. I wonder if someone would like to interview him as to his opinion for today?

  6. Robert Says:

    What irritates me is the antiquated way publishers, and distributors, dole out the royalties to authors.
    Here we are in the age of PayPal, and they still sit on our money for 3 months or more. As long as they hold on to it, our money is earning them interest.
    Amazon is an example. They sit on the money for about 3 months, although the time limit for customer returns is 30 days.
    But if you list yourself as an individual seller and post your book, then when it’s sold Amazon pays by PayPal in 14 days!
    Just list your book as NEW, set your price at the cover price and Amazon can not discount it since it’s being sold by an individual.
    Amazon also takes a smaller commission, and you (the author) ends up with about 80 percent of the list price.
    I’ve had a major distributor that kept holding my money while still reordering. I cut them off after a year.
    We need to stand on our feet and shout PayPal (or any other method of fast payment).

  7. KLR Literary Says:

    The world dominated by the “traditional” publishing house might be coming to an end, and that’s not such a bad thing. Yes, the writer will have to work harder to promote him or herself. But in exchange artists can find their niche and shape the legacy they most want.

  8. Laurie Foston Says:

    Yes, you have some great thoughts on this. I live totally into the future on it.

    I think we can tell the computers what we like in a plot.

    Take this scenario:

    I go into a Starbucks and take my French Vanilla Cappuccino into a circular room having wrap around screen and white carpet. Better yet, make it a square room with a grid laid all around like Star Trek’s Holodeck. An minute computer next to the door answers on voice command. Earphones fit snugly into my ear and detects my neuro-algorithms.

    “Computer, give me a novel please… futuristic genre. I want an Alpha female Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, beta male, Asian, preferred backdrop/location mountains of the Himalayas, Earth. Give me a choice of another synopsis if this is trite. I am not sure where to start so help me along here. Make the Anglo-Saxon girl tall 5 ft 7. Asian male 5 ft 10. The story should be edgy, mysterious, and not sexually explicit, with little or no intercourse. Give me a plot that with a fast pace and opens with something I have not seen in a while. Show me a preview in narrative form first, then holographic preview. Then we will work from there. Engage!”

    Computer stars narrative: “The female’s scream echoes into the mountains and doesn’t stop until the infant starts. The camper stops and looks in the direction of the child’s scream…”

    “Computer, leave off narrative prose. Sounds too familiar! However, I have not seen anything start out like that in holographic form. Make the story holographic and enhance all drama to surpass the limits of the previous elements selected in my projects.”

    Computer replies: “Are you sure you want to change to holographic form?”

    My reply: “No, I’m not sure!” Give me a preview!”

    A slightly higher pitch in the earphones tells me the computer is all ready to show me my story.

    Holographic images fade in:

    My interest perks up. All lights are out. Sounds on heavy breathing and branches cracking on the ground, along with the running footsteps of a man are seen and heard. The feminine scream echoes through the mountains.

    “Computer, freeze program and give this holographic rock some substance so I can sit a moment please.”

    A large rock nearby glows until I sit down on it.

    “Resume program!”

    The room takes on shape and forms with live action scenery. Only the man’s sandaled feet are showing. He stops. Full image shows he is looking around in desperation. The screaming starts again and so does the runner. The screaming stops abruptly. So does the runner. A faint but distinct scream from an infant follows behind the abruptly cut off screams from the female.

    Fades out:

    “Computer, this is good. Make the antagonist somewhat predictable with the use of deductive logic. Change deductive into inductive so that the viewer has the satisfaction of being engaged with prediction, then becomes challenged with twist to work out a solution. Make the solution something that surpasses average viewing but a good author may be able to detect. Keep viewers engaged to formulate all possible conclusions. Make the solution simple, spiritual and heart reaching after a complicated plot. Make delivery uplifting and memorable by adding a romantic touch. During fade out, show an element that is surprising to the author and bonds the author with the computer’s ideals for romance. Send copy to my home address and charge it to my account. Credit my account after sufficient viewers makes contribution to upgrade the database.”

    I remove my earphones, take the last sip of Cappuccino, and go back too work editing manuscripts.

  9. Laurie Foston Says:

    Actually, …”Computer, send it to my own holodeck and make it snappy!”

  10. J.L. Richardson Says:

    This is great, useful information. POD and PROD must be embraced. After self publishing my first book, I am definitely considering this for my next.

  11. J.L. Richardson Says:

    Pat, have you or other bloggers done POD or PROD? If so, I would like to hear more.

  12. allanmayer Says:

    Thanks for your refreshingly balanced comments Pat. I’ve just published a POD book, a novel called ‘Tasting the Wind,’ with YouWriteOn. The scheme is causing controversy elsewhere, but I am happy with the quality of the book and as all that I have parted with is £39.99 I don’t feel ripped off.
    The book isn’t over expensive- £8.99 for 408 pages, and I get 60% of the profits.
    I have obviously had to market the book myself, but having blogged well in advance of publication I am enjoying steady sales and, unlike the critics would have me believe, am receiving requests from around the world- not just from friends and family.

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