Thursday, July 26, 2012

POD: A Means to an End—or Simply the End?

For years, the term POD (print on demand) has been controversial. Recently, it garners less animosity than in the past, but its mention can still heat up the conversation in a room full of authors. The reasons for this may be varied, but it seems that some still don’t believe that using POD truly makes one a published writer. Is that true? Let’s examine what POD really is and the role it can play in getting a book from writer to reader.

POD technology came on the scene as a result of digital printing. Before that, it wasn’t financially feasible to print a short run, or just one, or a handful of books on an offset press. POD means that books are printed after they are ordered, not before. Garages and basements don’t overflow with unsold novels, and large publishing houses aren’t stuck with huge inventories. Self-publishing authors who, in the past, have been required to pay for large print runs no longer have to do that.  They don't have to save thousands of dollars—or max out a credit card—before they can take a book to press.

Does this mean that anybody can publish a book now—without benefit of an editor, designer, agent, or the name Random House? Yes, and this may be where some of the controversy comes from because it bypasses the quality control that has marked our industry for many decades. But did you know that academic publishers, small presses, university presses, and even large houses use POD technology at least occasionally and sometimes all the time? Being able to print just the number of books needed makes great sense economically and environmentally at a time when we’re counting the cost in terms of not only dollars, but also resources.

What are some advantages of POD?

1.      Short runs are cheaper despite the higher unit price of POD because setup costs less.

2.      Waste is minimized.

3.      Storage requirements are reduced.

4.      Reprinting out-of-print titles becomes more feasible.

5.      Editorial independence circumvents publishers’ guidelines and opens the doors to topics and opinions that might otherwise never see print. (This can also be a disadvantage.)

6.      Manuscript completion to market-ready book requires much less time.

7.      Authors retain a larger share of the profits.

Of course, there are also drawbacks.

1.      Lack of gatekeepers allows the market to be glutted with poor quality books that don’t meet any standards of excellence.

2.      Many bookstores, particularly chain stores, choose not to stock POD books because unsold copies cannot be returned.

3.      Books of first-time authors who don’t have big-house backing can be a hard sell—and many who use POD are first-timers.

4.      POD books are typically more expensive and offer the retailer a lower discount rate—aka lower profit.

For the naysayers who have for years predicted doom for writers who choose the POD route over traditional publishing—which turns away almost all comers—the future looks far less dire than expected. Authors whose books grab the public interest and rack up sales often migrate to the offset press and/or are picked up by larger houses that see profits on the horizon. Others use non-traditional marketing strategies such as website offerings, motivational speaking engagements, workplace or other niche options, schools or organizations, and other creative outlets.

POD has proven itself a powerful means to an end for many writers who use the system to their advantage and sell books. For others whose marketing skills fall short or whose products are inferior, it has been the end. Whether or not any individual book becomes a success, the technology is here to stay. It’s fast, it’s effective, it’s economical—and that’s what people want.

How do you feel about POD?


Linda Lane loves to read, write, and teach writers to hone their craft. Learn about her and her team of writing mentors at

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  1. The one thing you can count on, Linda, is that the technology--and the economics--will continue to change. At one time CDs could only be burned and printed in huge runs, favoring the big labels. Then on-demand technology developed and small runs were possible. As robot burn-and-print systems got faster and more efficient and media costs fell, the differences between unit costs in large and small runs narrowed.

    The same will happen with POD. The POD systems are becoming much faster and cheaper, even as labor costs in unionized print shops continue to rise. Labor costs at overseas printers are also rising, and transportation costs from across the ocean are mirroring the cost of oil. The raw inputs--paper and ink--are pretty much the same whether you print 5,000 different books on a POD system or 5,000 copies of one book on an offset press, which then must go through a separate binding run.

    Not only will the production costs gradually converge, but retailers will be able to afford low-volume versions of the POD systems, so indie published books will become a better deal for retail booksellers.

    The last chapter on the business has not yet been written. And wait until you see the sequel!

  2. This is an option I'm exploring with my publisher for my eBook, so there is a print version available for my physical book launch.

    EBooks are environmentally friendly, which is a huge drive behind our eBook launch rather than the traditional print run.

  3. These are excellent points, Linda. I do, however, think that people need to understand that the POD technology itself hasn't led to the lack of gatekeepers, it is the advent of CreateSpace, Smashwords and others that give some writers the ability to publish something that has not been vetted.

  4. Exactly, Maryann! POD is simply the print technology. The ability to avoid the gatekeepers comes from being able to self-publish, with or without using POD technology

  5. You're right, Larry. The only things we can count on are death, taxes -- and change. And I can't wait for the sequel!

  6. Good for you, Jodi! Our environment has taken so many hits in the last century that its well-being (or lack thereof) should be of great concern to all of us. Dani, our blog founder, sets a great example by actively supporting the protection of our earthly home. Each one must do our part to reduce our lifestyle's impact and nurse it back to health -- or we'll all pay a huge price for its untimely demise.

  7. My opinion is slowly changing, but I have seen where POD gives some truly bad writers the delusion of grandeur. They spit out 435 pages of dribble and then buy into the companies hype that they are "authors."

    Fortunately, Amazon and B&N still allow people to review and rate books whether they are in print or digital. I think as the process evolves it will not only open up new opportunities for those who should be recognized, but also keep the gate up to stop those who do not believe there is a need for editors or proofreaders.

  8. I'd like to reiterate that POD is nothing more than a printing method in today's world. Saying POD allows for bad writers to get into print is like saying copy machines are to blame for bad writing! POD technology is more affordable and, thus, an option for anyone wanting to publish a book. Quality of writing and printing method are two different issues. You will find in the next several years that large and small publishers (not just indie authors) will be using the ever-advancing POD technology to print books. There is a new publishing model developing and very rapidly at that.

  9. Dani, I'm glad you clarified that. I think too many people have just used the term POD to talk about the publishing options open to writers - CreateSpace et al - that allow a person to publish whatever, and they forget it is just a technology used by many publishers.

    I remember when the hue and cry first went up that POD was ruining publishing, there were a few of us who kept saying, "It's just technology."

    I loved Linda's example of blaming POD for bad writing being like blaming a copy machine for bad writing.

  10. I'd love to take credit for comparing POD to a copy machine as a scapegoat for bad writing, but the credit for that great comparison belongs to Dani. :-)

  11. I think we should remember that, while traditional publishing serves as a gateway that maintained a certain level of quality, it also (a) let a lot of total junk through, and (b) prevented lots of good books from reaching readers.

    As someone who's been published traditionally for more than 20 years (and has four books in the trad-pub prepublication chute right now), I was told over and over again that a new book "wasn't what my readers expected from me" or fell into a genre -- funny crime novels, for example -- that "nobody wants."

    But you know what? I wanted to write them. And with the advent of ebooks and POD, I could write them, and let them toddle out into the world under their own steam and either sink or swim on their merit.

    I don't buy the argument that self-pub has released a tidal wave of swill. So what? That's what the preview feature is for. And you know what? Pretty much everyone's first novel is terrible, but it's also the biggest learning experience of most writers' careers. Who's to say that, three or four books from now, some of the people whose books people call "amateurish" won't have found a voice and be producing something interesting?

    It's been estimated that 13 million people are writing their first novel right now. I don't know about you, but that thrills me silly. Thirteen million people undertaking a transformative experience. We should be working on ways to support them.

    Sorry about the rant. Good piece, Maryann.

  12. Swill has always been alive and well, Timothy. Good for you to point that out. I cite as an example, bestselling authors who should have retired long ago, but are still being milked for profits, no matter how pedestrian their writing. Don't get me on my soapbox about six-figure celebrity memoirs. BTW, Linda Lane wrote the article - to give credit back where it's due. LOL. Are we all having senior moments today?

  13. As an editor (somewhat retired) and a writing mentor, I applaud your rant, Timothy. Writers should be nurtured and nudged to complete their works.

    Our new ability to shake loose the shackles imposed by traditional publishing based on somebody's preconceived notion about what the reading public wants needed to go away. Besides, if all the reading public has to choose from falls within those arbitrary guidelines, how will they ever know that they might absolutely love something entirely different?

  14. The good news is that POD has leveled the playing field. The bad news is that POD has leveled the playing field. I guess that means that it is now it is easier to score, but the game goes on forever and there doesn't seem to be any clear winner ... heck, I don't know what it means.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly with Timothy to support new writers. For many of them self publishing is the only means of getting his or her book out there due to a lack of financial means. Not every editor, no matter how gifted or intelligent you think you are, can provide a legitimate service to a writer of excellent caliber-first book or not. Some writers just have the 'know how' to put their thoughts down on paper with eloquence and cohesiveness without what you call 'editing skills.' Did all of you 'editors' hire an editor for your first book? Did you attend years of schooling to qualify yourselves as editors or are you self proclaimed because you've been at it for years?
    I've seen the faults of writers who say, "Don't mess with my book," and I've also seen what an editor has done to rob that writer of his/her own style. Why so much controversy over the need (or not) for an editor? Is it because you'd lose out on customers if you don't promote yourselves? I think I'm finished with reading your 'pat myself on the back' columns here. Have at it.

  16. After I wrote my first book -- I had no money for an editor -- I joined a critique group, which was the best I could do at that time. Some of the suggestions from other members were spot on, but the lady who had started the group decided that I hadn't told the story I wanted to tell. In fact, she informed me, a certain (secondary) character was my real protagonist. It was that character's story, the lady insisted, that I really wanted to write.

    Actually, I had told the story I wanted to tell, but no amount of reasoning would deter her from her opinion. I finally gave up and left the group despite the fact that some of the other members were far more helpful and much less opinionated. I was young in years of fiction writing experience and didn't know how to deal with her criticisms.

    Like members of critique groups, editors come in all sizes, shapes, knowledge bases, and abilities to work with different writers. This is not a one-size-fits-all profession. But do please remember that no good editor will rob a writer of his or her style. And no good editor will go beyond the scope of what the writer (employer in this case) wants. That same editor, however, will probably make suggestions that the writer can use or not as his or her discretion.

    Realistically, all writers, no matter how gifted, do need some degree of editing. This may be as little as proofreading for grammar and punctuation that was overlooked -- not because the writer didn't know the rules -- because the writer had proofed it so many times that he/she "knew" what was there and the eyes saw what the writer "knew."

    Minor editing may involve reading for flow, cohesiveness, gaps in story line, satisfying ending, etc., and doesn't mean making amy changes -- but only pointing out what even the excellent writer is too close to the story to see.

    I'm not here to promote myself, nor do I believe are any of our other editors. My bio info does say what I do, which shows that I have experience in working with writers. It's not a back-pat, but rather an invitation to any who have questions to ask. I don't charge to answer questions, and I never suggest that my services are better than anybody else's. It would seem that you've had a really bad experience with someone called an editor. Please don't judge all of us by that negative experience.

  17. POD certainly seems to smart way to go, even for traditional publishers. No huge warehouses full of books that have to be remaindered if they don't sell. It's a win-win, as far as I can see.

    The way a self-pubbed author gets around the bookstore returns is by consigning the books and taking them back yourself. Even with a small press publisher, I find myself doing that in many cases.

  18. "In fact, she informed me, a certain (secondary) character was my real protagonist." So, Linda, did you ever try that just as a writing prompt to see where it might lead?

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  20. I had intended to feature that secondary character as the protagonist in a second book that dealt with recovery from domestic violence -- the subplot in book one. So, yes, I did play with the idea. One of these days I hope to develop it. In fact, I'm planning to rework book one this coming winter. After that, who knows? :-)

  21. I mentioned this on my monthly post ... POD is TECHNOLOGY. It has nothing to do with quality of a book, or vanity presses, or anything else. It's just the means used to put the words on paper.

    Once more people understand that, more of the connection of POD with Vanity Press might leave people's minds. I hope.

    Terry's Place

  22. I'd just like to add my appreciation for Timothy's comment. As a developmental editor (one who deals with story issues as opposed to finish polish) I love to find the nugget of creativity at the heart of each story, and give the author the tools to bring it forward. I've never yet failed to find it.

    That so many people want to write is encouraging for anyone who cares about the health of publishing and the sale of books. As long as all those 13 million realize that the strongest component of their education is to read widely, and as long as they choose to invest in that education by purchasing books and recommending their favorites to their friends, we should all be in good shape.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.