I should really have called this article ‘It Depends’, because Print On-Demand (the technology and its application to business) is so new that there are not yet any conventions. There is no one right way to do things. Each POD company has a very different business model and idea of its place in the publishing industry. So bear with me, as I give three different answers to every possible question!
One of the main differences between the companies is ideology. Some consider themselves merely a service that helps you with the technical aspects of self-publishing – like a book packager. They are simply a service that you hire, as you self-publish your book, much as you might hire a designer, an editor and a promoter. Others consider themselves full publishers, simply using a new technology. Most of the others fall somewhere in between. Each of these ideologies informs what services the companies offer, what rights they take and what they can do for you. I have referred to these types of companies as ‘publishing services’.
If they take rights they are a publisher (you’ll find more about rights in the next article, ‘What’s in a Publishing Agreement?’). If they are a publisher they should offer all the services a publisher offers: editorial development and editing; funding the full cost of publication; promotion and marketing; marketing any sub rights they take. I have referred to this type of company as ‘POD publishers’.
An advance is the amount of money your publisher thinks you will make during the first print-run or the first few months of your book’s availability. You are paid the advance up-front, but it is just that: an advance against future projected earnings. You do not start earning royalties until your sales surpass this projected number.
It is unlikely that any company offering POD services will offer you an advance. Publishing Services are allowing you to self-publish, so they would not give advances. A publisher using POD to keep costs down, is unlikely to have the spare cash for advances. However, you should start earning royalties (or earnings) as soon as your book starts to sell. If you had received an advance, you would not start earning royalties until you had ‘earned out’ your advance.
Companies operating as publishers and simply using POD technology to make it cost-effective, (POD publishers) will decide whether or not to publish a book based on its content. Some author like this model, because they feel that the reader can then trust the imprint to turn out quality (or at least readable) books.
Other companies, those that work more as book packagers or publishing services, will publish almost anything. Their reasoning is that they are allowing you to self-publish and therefore you should be allowed to publish your book exactly as you want it to be. In these cases you should contract with an editor before you send the book to be printed.
Publishers will probably work with you to edit or at least proof the book. Publishing services, will not. They may offer editorial services for a fee, or they may provide links to editors, but the responsibility still lies with you, the author/self-publisher. There is an advantage in this. If someone else was publishing your book, you would have to work with the editor they chose, even if you did not feel they were sympathetic to your work. When you are self-publishing, you hire the editor and therefore, you are more likely to end up with someone you like.
If the POD company does provide links to editors, or copy-editors, find out whether these are links to people they have tested and approved, or if they are just random links, pulled from a database somewhere.
When contracting with an editor independently, try to find out what professional organizations they are a part of; if they routinely work on books; and get some references from previous clients.
FORMATTING (creating the interior layout)
Some companies format your manuscript for you, some don’t and this can be both good and bad!
If you have a specific look in mind for your book, you probably want to format it yourself or contract with a graphic designer who can prepare the book you want it. If you do not have the skills to do a professional job yourself (and few people do), and if you do not have the money to hire a graphic artist (think $$ thousands) you should look for a company that will do more than simply convert your word-processor file into a format the printer can read.
Companies that offer to create your layout usually charge more than companies that simply convert your file – and rightly so. Even with a template-based system, it takes the companies one skilled worker and a minimum of an hour to create a layout. If they simply convert your layout, it takes about five minutes and a nodding chicken — to peck the button.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can create a professional book layout because you managed to type your manuscript into the computer without losing it too often. Unless you are a professional graphic artist, or a serious hobbyist, consider having a professional create your layout.
As with formatting, some companies will create a cover for you. Some will allow you to choose from templates and supply a photo or drawing for the front. Others will dictate the cover in-house. Still others may allow you to supply a completed digital cover file, yourself. Again, if you do not have experience preparing graphics for professional printing, you should consult a professional designer who does have this experience (and not all designers do). The company can probably supply you with detailed specifications that the cover design must meet.
The POD company will probably create the bar-code artwork too, and drop it into your cover design.
The POD company will probably assign an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from their stock of numbers. Since the POD company is acting as your fulfillment agent it is easier if people see their ISBN and contact them with orders. (Bookstores use the ISBN to locate the book in databases such as Books In Print. The first few numbers of the ISBN are associated with the publisher).
Some POD companies allow you to get and assign your own ISBNs. In these cases you can end up taking orders from bookstores and readers yourself, and passing them on to the POD company. To minimize this, you can designate the POD company as your exclusive distributor, on the form that is sent to the Books In Print database. Then, bookstores will know to contact the POD company. Some companies may accommodate this. Others, for ease of record-keeping, may not.
If you want your books in bookstores, your POD company should incorporate a Bookland/EAN barcode on the back of the book. This barcode should have the ISBN printed above it, in machine-readable type. The POD company has probably invested in a piece of software to generate barcodes, so you should not have to generate the bar-code yourself. Even if you are assigning your own ISBN, the POD company can generate the bar-code. Since this is digital printing, you do not have to buy film representations of your barcode, as you would have had to with traditional printing.
Each company offers different amounts to you as the author/publisher, when a book is sold. The percentages range from single digits up to 35% of the net or gross price. Net price is the amount the company actually receives after deducting the cost of production and any discounts. Percentages factored on ‘gross’, ‘retail’, or ‘list’ price, are a simple percentage of the cover price of the book. These are the simplest to work out, because you always know what the cover price is.
When you look at the small amount that you end up earning, don’t jump to the conclusion that the POD company is being unnecessarily greedy. Remember that the cost of the book and any applicable discounts (such as wholesaler and bookstore discounts) are being deducted from the retail price. Of course, if the number looks really small (under 10%) then you should start thinking hard about whether the company deserves such a big cut (if they are a POD publisher, putting a lot of work into the book, they may).
Also remember that typical royalties in traditional publishing are around 6-10%, AFTER you have earned out your advance (which most books don’t).
The POD company should have a toll-free number to allow customers to call and order your book directly. It is unlikely that the number is staffed around the clock, since most POD companies are relatively small, as yet.
The company should also make it easy for your customers to order on or off-line. They should supply a mailing address that orders and checks can be sent to and they should provide some way for your book to be ordered on the Internet. Most companies supply a page for your book in their own online bookstore. Many also list your book with the major online booksellers, such as Amazon.com. If they are listing the book with the online booksellers, ask whether or not they will supply supplementary materials, such as cover art, excerpts, descriptions and author bio, or if you will have to take care of these things yourself.
LISTING WITH INDUSTRY DATABASES
If your book is to be ordered in bookstores, it will need to be listed in the industry’s standard database: Books In Print. This is a list of all books that are currently in print, along with their ISBN, publisher name and a contact point for orders. If your company assigns ISBNs it should list the books with this database. It may also list the book with wholesalers such as Lightning Source and Baker & Taylor, making it even easier for book stores to order. If you supply your own ISBN, you may find that these listings become your responsibility.
Some POD companies simply make books available directly from the company. While this means the company and the author make greater profits, it severely limits the availability of the book.
PROMOTION AND MARKETING
If the POD company is publishing your book, worked on it editorially, and takes some rights, you should expect them to do some promotion and marketing. You should still be prepared to do a lot of promotion and marketing yourself. Few authors, even those at big publishing houses, get the kind of attention they would like – unless they are in the Stephen King league.
If you are self-publishing, no matter what services your publishing service says it provides, you are still responsible for all marketing and promotion. They company may offer to send out 200 press releases about your book, or send you 500 postcards imprinted with the cover art, but this does not replace a true promotional campaign. A company that is publishing books for hundreds of authors every year, on the kind of business model most POD companies use, simply cannot devote time to promoting every copy. Yes, the company makes money on every sale and so it seems to make sense that they would want to promote your book, but in reality they cannot invest in promoting every book that comes to them.
You should think of anything that the company does as a bonus, but not very important. No one else will ever be able to talk about your book with the passion and knowledge that you will.
Having said that, you may want to consider hiring a book publicist to help you promote your book – if you know you are too close to your book to talk objectively about it.
The standard discount in the industry is 40%. This is practical for mass-produced books that achieve a low unit cost. It is less practical for the relatively expensive per-unit POD book. Some POD companies may not offer the full 40% discount on their books – especially if they offer hardback books, which are more expensive still to produce.
Bookstores expect to be able to return books at any time, in any condition, for any (or no) reason. Because POD books are printed, well, on demand, most POD companies do not expect returns. This may cause some resistance on the part of the bookstore.
Bookstores customarily buy books on consignment, meaning they only send payment to the publisher when and if the book sells. Otherwise, they can hang on to them forever or return them. POD companies, like some smaller publishers, may require pre-payment, payment in 30 days, or other payment terms. While not completely unusual, this may cause some bookstores to resist ordering.
In most cases you should not expect your POD company to act like a publisher. Most do not look at the content and simply allow you to self-publish your book through them. You should expect to take part in some of the pre-publication preparation of your book and all of the post-publication work –apart from actually fulfilling orders. You are promoter, marketer and sales rep, as well as author and, of course, publisher.