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.)