Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Looking at POD

I've always believed that POD technology is the future of publishing, but that POD vanity press as a way for authors to succeed on their own has limited value.

For the uninitiated, POD is a way to manufacture books one at a time, using a high-tech copy machine. Traditionally, books have been printed on presses. Presses are expensive, large, and only cost-effective when they're printing many copies of a book.

POD as a technology is a good thing.

But then things become tricky.

Many companies have sprung up over the last decade that use POD technology to create books.
But most of these companies thrive by selling dreams to authors, rather than technology.

Publishing is a difficult business to break into, and this is important, because it means the quality of the work that traditionally sees print meets certain standards and criteria.

POD allows authors to bypass this vetting process. As a result, much of POD's bad reputation is justified. I've read hundreds of POD books (don't ask) and the 99% of them aren't very good.

POD also goes against one of the basic rules of writing: the goal is to get paid, not to pay someone else.

The problems with POD as a business model are twofold:

1. Higher prices for a mostly inferior product. The books aren't professionally edited, vetted, or typeset, the covers are often amateurish, and the books usually cost 20% to 60% more than traditionally published books.

2. Lack of distribution. In order to find readers beyond the author's own scope of influence, the book must be widely available. That means brick and mortar bookstores, drugstores, supermarkets, airports, and so on. POD doesn't get into these venues.

That said, I think that POD has some advantages, and I'm impressed by the rapidly evolving technology.

Traditional publishing, as a business model, is outdated and inefficient. Any company that destroys half of what they produce (based on an average 50% sell through) is wasting a lot of money.

Looking ahead, POD technology will probably be fully embraced by publishers. It's already being used for galleys and ARCs. The lack of warehouse fees and shipping costs, and the elimination of returns, could conceivably make books more affordable, as their costs are already built into the cover price.

Plus, the long tail that many authors fear (their rights never reverting back to them because their book stays in print forever with POD) will result in more book sales over the course of their careers. I've got 5000 books in my personal library. About 90% of them are no longer in print. In order to acquire titles I've been looking for, I buy them used. In most cases, I'd love to get a fresh, new copy, which would in turn make sure the author got paid. POD would allow this to happen.

Authors fearing that they'll never get their rights back need to take a reality pill and realize reselling lapsed rights is a rare exception, not a rule. And if an author suddenly becomes hot, and their out of print backlist is worth money, POD production of backlist titles would undoubtedly increase to meet that demand, ensuring royalties. Plus, backlists can be bought and sold.

That said, I'm speaking of POD as a technology used by large publishers, who will be able to keep the costs down, have a vetting process, and make sure the book is professionally produced.

When the author attempts to do these things for himself, the results don't measure up to traditionally published books. Paying POD presses for extra services such as "editing" or "cover design" sucks more money from the author's pockets, but still often fails to produce error-free, attractive books.

But I'm going to try an experiment, because that's the type of guy I am.

For the past few years, I've had a virtual store on my website, for people who want to buy signed copies of the Jack Daniels books. I also sold back issues of magazines and old anthologies I've been in. (Believe it or not, since 2003 I've sold over fifty stories and articles.) I created the store because I got a lot of emails from fans asking me to offer these things. Over the years I've sold a few hundred items.

Unfortunately, many of those magazines and anthologies I've been in are out of print, so the stories are difficult to find.

I collected my old stories, with the intention of getting them published as an omnibus, but I decided not to try to sell it. My reason is simple. Story collections don't sell as well as novels. If I published a collection, those lower numbers will follow me, resulting in lower bookstore orders for my next novel. I don't want that to happen.

I also get a lot of email about my previously unpublished novels---so much so that I made them available on my website as free ebooks downloads. My unpublished technothrillers ORIGIN and THE LIST have been downloaded over three thousand times. Reader response has been surprising, and many folks have told me how much they enjoyed these books, and asked when they'd be published so they could buy hard copies.

ORIGIN and THE LIST already had their shot with big publishers years ago, and big publishers passed. I'm pretty sure I could approach a smaller press and get them published, but like the aforementioned short story collection, those numbers would follow me. A smaller press means a smaller print run and smaller sales which could result in smaller advance orders for my next Jack Daniels book. So I didn't pursue it.

But then I got to thinking.

There are a few POD companies that function simply as printers. You do your own editing, typesetting, and cover art, then upload it to their site, and a week later they send you a printed book. The books are still overpriced, and they still don't look as good as professionally published books, but this still suits my purpose.

So I've just made three titles available on my website. ORIGIN and THE LIST can now be purchased, along with another unpublished novel I wrote called DISTURB. I've also collected fifty-five of my previously published short stories into an omnibus called 55 PROOF, which will be available this Halloween.

You can buy these books for $16 to $19.

You can also download these books for free. I've made them available as pdf downloads. So if you don't want a bound and signed copy, go ahead print them up yourself. The layout is the same.

Because these books are only distributed through me, and because they have no ISBNs, they are off the publishing grid. I can cater to the requests of my fans, without harming my overall numbers.

Since I don't think that the average fan is savvy about POD, or knows the difference between POD and traditional publishing, I've stated on my website what the difference is.

It will be interesting to see how many people download these books for free compared to how many purchase them. It will also be interesting to see if a midlist mystery author, operating solely from his website, can sell his older, out-of-print (or never in print) work in enough numbers for it to matter.

Your predictions?