Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Rejection of Digitally Printed (POD) Books: A Step Backward for the Publishing Industry and the Environment

POD stands for print-on-demand. It is exactly what it sounds like—a method of short-run printing that allows a publisher to print only the number of books ordered.

There is no such thing as POD publishing. Some publishers use POD printing for some of their books, and offset printing for others. Some use POD printing for all their books. Some use both POD and offset printing for the same books, depending on the size of the orders.

What is a POD book? It's a book that was printed by a digital printer rather than an offset printer. POD is simply a technology. As such, it has nothing to do with anything about the book except the printing. Most people can't tell whether a book was printed offset or digitally.

For me as a self-publisher, POD was a welcome innovation. We had long since tired of storing thousands of books in our attic, but wanted to keep our popular stress-management book in print. By using POD printing, we can have books printed as they are ordered and sent directly from the printer to the customer.

Printing books using POD technology has a number of advantages. Here are some of them:

  • Prevents the waste of ending up with thousands of unsold books—many of which (including books from large traditional publishers) are shredded.

  • Saves money on storage.

  • Cuts up-front costs, which makes it easier for a small, independent publisher to test the market for new books.

  • Allows for quick no-waste changes to a book's cover (to add new blurbs or reviews) and/or interior (to correct errors) because the publisher doesn't have thousands of books already printed.

  • Provides a cost-effective way to keep small-market niche books in print and to bring back out-of-print books.

The main disadvantage of POD printing is its cost. Obviously it's going to cost more to print a few books at a time than it is to print a thousand or more books at a time. We don't make as much money on our book sales as we did with offset printing, but we are happy to make that trade in order to eliminate the hassle of storing and shipping books.

The trade I'm not happy to make is the negative meaning that is being attached to POD printing. Here's an example. Last week Sisters In Crime (SinC), an organization that was founded to combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, informed its members that its board has voted to change the criteria for books included in the printed version of SinC Books In Print (BIP). They plan to include only printed books "that meet established marketplace standards"—which they say are "books that are accepted by booksellers and librarians." They say they are making this change "because these same booksellers and librarians have told us they no longer find the BIP useful in its present form."

According to the SinC board, in order to meet marketplace standards and appear in the printed version of BIP, a book must: be returnable; be offered at standard industry discounts; be available through a national wholesaler, such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor; be competitively priced; and have a minimum print run of 1,000 copies.

I understand and do not object to the first four criteria. But requiring a minimum print run of 1,000 copies is nothing more than a way of excluding books printed with POD technology. SinC explains this requirement as follows: "We believe that the minimum print run of 1,000 copies shows a publisher's intent to place the book in the marketplace. It is the same number used by Authors Coalition to determine a 'published book."

The SinC board made this decision without asking for input from its members, many of whom have books published by small independent publishers who may use POD printing or by subsidy publishers who definitely use POD printing. (See my Jan 17 post for more about SinC authors.)

It makes no sense to me that the SinC board has decided to evaluate my business model rather than my books. As a small, independent publisher, I think I should be able to decide how many copies of a book I want to print, without that number having negative consequences for the book.

Oddly, in many cases having items made individually is seen as a plus—for example, designer clothing, cars, or jewelry. Yet in the case of books, mass production is apparently seen as a major indicator of quality.

In today's world as we try to conserve resources, save space, and eliminate waste, why print thousands of copies of a book you don't have thousands of orders for? Why not print them as you need them? This rejection of digital printing by the old guard is a step backward for authors and publishers everywhere.


  1. Excellent points. I'd be interested to know how the SinC Board obtained its input from libraries and bookstores. Did they do an objective survey or just report random comments from mystery conferences?My county library includes POD books in its collection. The big chains and Indie bookstores around here regularly host signings by POD authors. My newspaper highlights books by local authors (including POD) on the book page every Sunday.I'd wager that the input came from the two library and bookseller Board Members, both of whom are heavily involved in the mystery community and influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by the POD prejudice/paranoia that has swept traditionally published genre authors.

  2. While requiring a print run of 1,000 copies does not technically preclude POD, it certainly makes offset printing a more attractive option. However, as a publisher who relies on POD, I completely agree with your stance.The thing that I find rude about the SinC requirements is that the first four criteria are deterministic, while the last is arbitrary. Why does it take an investment in 1,000 units to prove that you are serious about marketing a book? Why not 500, or 100, or 50,000?On the one hand, I feel that SinC is just trying to protect the perceived integrity of BIP, but it does seem that they are doing the authors a disservice by reinforcing the FUD caused by the confusion and misinformation surrounding POD.

  3. Hi,I know I'm jumping in a little late but I just came across your blog today through the Abs Write forum.I agree with you and have also made the point in the past that unlike so many other areas of business, writers are discouraged from doing thing independently, and there's no good reason for it.In the fashion world for example, designers are encouraged to do their own thing and it is celebrated when they do. People can start by selling at local art fairs, open a small shop on or offline. Sometimes, these little indie shops are also some of the most popular and people come for miles (including celebs) just to shop there.If all of these designers waited until they could put the "right lable" on their clothes, where would we be?Thanks for your post.

  4. Forcing a POD run to the 1,000 mark to meet a criteria defeats the purpose of POD and I'm sure you could then go and get a 1000 books printed in China for cheaper.The real issue is competition - POD is effective - and any attempt to sideline it as actually a good thing. It shows that the major players are a bit scared of POD moving in on their market share, which proves that POD works and is gaining market share, which means indie authors and indie publishers are adding diversity into the market.

  5. The buy guys are very conservative. That's what they do. Print-on-demand is new, exciting, empowering. Of course they're not going to like it. But that doesn't change the fact that it does give us the power to compete.Eventually, listings like that will be irrelevant.