Friday, August 17, 2012

Print On Demand (POD) FAQ: What is it, and who is it right for?

I’ve heard of self-publishing, vanity publishing, and traditional publishing. At this point, I think I’ve got a decent handling on the three. But where does Print-On-Demand (POD) fit in? Since I knew very little, I decided to interview someone who has worked in the POD industry and find out (and, of course, share with you.)

On Saturday, I interviewed Amy Howard, who started out at a traditional publisher before moving on to work in the online POD business. Amy was able to tell me about the business in general and how it fits into the picture.

Let’s start basic. What is POD, or Print-on-Demand?

POD is basically where you upload your file onto a website, which converts it into a format that can be printed. When someone buys your book (including you), the company prints a copy and sends it to them. The company only gets money when this book is bought. You do all your own marketing; they take and print the order.

Though this is profitable, many POD companies have started offering ancillary services to increase revenue. The POD companies don’t require you to purchase these services before printing you; you can sign up for as much or as little as you want. The only ones I really think offer any real value are the editing and cover design services; I wouldn’t pay for anything other than that. And, honestly, you’re usually better off finding these services on your own. It’s cheaper to cut out the middle man, which is what the POD company becomes. We’ve all got the internet; there’s no reason you can’t find good editing and cover design services online. Mostly it’s just convenient to go to one of the sites offered through the POD company, but in general, I suggest that you take a moment and ask yourself, “Is this something I can do myself?” If the answer is yes, then I suggest you do so.

Another thing POD services do is help authors set up an ISBN number. This is something, though, that I don’t think we really need anymore. It makes you seem legitimate because it gives you a bar code, but it’s unnecessary unless you’re selling in a bookstore that won’t take the book on consignment.

If I had to suggest a path for the most profit using a POD company, I’d say you should find your own editor and cover designer, buy a bunch of your own books without ISBN and sell them yourself through Amazon and local bookstores. This is the path that also gives you the most control, because you get to entirely set your own prices, do your own marketing, and decide how, where, and when to sell your books.

Who is POD right for?

If you want complete control over your business, and aren’t afraid to do your own marketing, it’s great for you.

And if you’ve got any kind of limited-run type of work, such as family memoirs or journals you just want to hand down as heritage books, it’s perfect for that.

It seems like, in my writers’ group, the people who would most benefit from POD would be self-published authors who sell mostly online, and whose fans have begun to ask for print copies. Would this be a good tool for them?

Yes, absolutely. That’s perfect for POD.

Who is Print on Demand not right for?

If you don’t want to do your own marketing, POD isn’t right for you. If you don’t want to do your own legwork, or you’re not good with computers, it’s not right for you. I once had a lady who wanted to do a POD service, but she didn’t have an e-mail account and didn’t want to get one. We couldn’t work with her; online POD companies require e-mail!

Also, a quick and pretty important note: a lot of POD sites will not allow you to publish fan fiction, because of copyright infringement issues.

What about e-books?

Well, I left the self-publishing side of the business right before the e-book boom, so I’m not quite up to date on the e-book side of things. But I know some sites, probably all these days, will convert your file into e-book format and sell it that way.

What’s the difference between “vanity” publishing and POD?

They’re pretty similar in a lot of ways these days; POD provides a lot of similar services. But POD won’t force you to buy a gazillion of your own books; it’s mostly about volume, really. The author investment for POD is lower.

That’s the major difference. For a vanity publisher, you have to pay the company to print your book. You pay them up front. For a POD publisher, they make money off each book sold. Basically, the price to print the book includes the mark-up from which they make profit; whatever additional “royalty” you add on top of that goes straight to you.

(Note: Royalty is slightly different in the POD business than in traditional publishing. In POD, the publisher charges you $X to print a book; you list it on their site as $Y, and $Y-X is what goes to you. So, let’s say it costs $7 to print your book. You want the price to be $12.99. On the POD’s website, it’s listed as $12.99; you get a check for $5.99 when it sells and the POD company keeps the rest. This $5.99 is called your royalty, and the $7 the company keeps covers their costs and includes a little profit for them. They send you the check, not the other way around, unless you’re the person buying the books!)

Some POD services will offer you a PCN, or a Library of Congress number. Skip that if it’s offered; it’s not really needed these days.

Tell me more about ISBN.

ISBN is a code used by bookstores to identify your book, pretty much a book-specific UPC. It’s a 13-digit code, used to be 10 digits about eight or nine years ago, that consists of:

The first few numbers identify your country. Each country has its own ISBN number, and each country has only one ISBN agency. In the U.S., it’s Bowker.
The next few numbers are your publisher name.
And the last few numbers are determined by an algorithm.

To get an ISBN, you first need a publisher name. Most people just use their real names; you can put the earnings on your taxes and file normally if you do this. However, if you want a different publisher name, maybe to seem like a more legitimate company or something, you register the publisher name with your state, much like setting up a small business. The method for doing so varies by state, so look up your own state’s rules.

Bowker doesn’t really like giving out just a single ISBN. It gives you a better deal if you register a bunch at one time; the more you register, the better deal you get. For one, it’s like $150. But if you go through a POD and let them bulk file, they get a great deal, and they will usually offer you an ISBN for cheap or for free. The downside is that it’s their name listed as the publisher (those middle digits!) instead of your name.

Since the ISBN is your barcode, you need a different ISBN for each version of your book: hardcover, softcover, trade paperback, etc. Once you get the ISBN, you can still edit the book. But, most POD companies won’t let you change your title, author name, or type of binding such as hard or soft cover.
It used to be, and I’m not certain if it still is or not, that you could register your ISBN with Bowker Books in Print. That way, whenever someone scanned your ISBN, information about your book would show up.

Who needs ISBN?*

If you want to be a long-term success using only print books through brick and mortar bookstores, you do need ISBN. But, if you’re hoping a traditional publisher will pick you up, you probably don’t want one; they usually want to give you one of their own. And if you’re making the majority of your sales through e-books, you really don’t need one, because no one’s scanning your book.

What’s the advantage of POD?

It’s great if you want complete control over your book. It lets you set your own rate, make all your own decisions. If you’re willing to put in the work, it can be very profitable for you.

Any parting notes?

POD is a type of self-publishing. The air of illegitimacy around self-publishing, the one that used to be there, is quickly disappearing. Many people consider self-publishing to be a legitimate entryway into the business.

Thanks so much, Amy!

What other questions do you have about POD? Are you likely to use POD for any of your projects?

*Update Note: It should be noted that ISBN is needed for e-book sales. (2013/03/07)


  1. Very helpful information -- thanks! One more thing to watch out for with vanity presses, as opposed to POD publishers, is that vanity presses will often become the copyright holder. Don't pay someone to publish your work and then give them the rights to it! The author should always retain the copyright.

    1. That's a great point! Eeek, and something to watch out for. 0.0 I can't imagine the horror of discovering I'd accidentally signed away the rights to my own work.