Writer Beware

Links checked/Page updated: 5/1/13

Print-on-Demand Self-Publishing Services

Print on demand (POD) is the commonly-used term for the digital printing technology that allows a complete book to be printed and bound in a matter of minutes. Digital printing makes it easy and cost-effective to produce books one or two at a time or in small lots, rather than in larger print runs of several hundred or several thousand.

Digital printing has a number of applications. Commercial and academic publishers use it to print advance reading copies, or when they can’t justify the expense of producing and warehousing a sizeable print run–for instance, to keep backlist books available. Small presses use it as a more economical production method, trading minimal startup costs against lower per-book profits (due to economies of scale, digitally printed books have a higher unit production cost than books produced in large runs on offset presses).

Last but not least, there are the print-on-demand self-publishing services (I’m going to call them POD services for short) that utilize digital technology to provide publishing services to writers. These range from DIY services like, which provides free online templates that allow anyone to upload and format a book, to super-fancy publishing packages that include not just printing and online distribution, but editing, custom cover design, enhanced marketing, and other (not necessarily useful) extras.

A few POD services are free or very low-cost, but most will set you back anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Typically, POD services’ contracts take only nonexclusive digital rights, and can be terminated at will. Low-cost POD services such and Createspace let authors set book prices and control profits, but other services determine the prices and pay the author a specified percentage of the net (cover price less discounts)–recouping their manufacturing costs at the point of sale.

Though POD services began to appear only a little over a decade ago, they’ve become what many people think of when they think of self-publishing. However, it’s worth remembering that there are important differences between using a POD service and self-publishing the traditional way.

  • Control. With true self-publishing, the writer controls all aspects of the publishing process, from cover art to print style to pricing. With POD services, choice is typically limited to the package of services the publisher offers.
  • Revenue. With true self-publishing, the writer keeps all proceeds from sales. With POD services, the service keeps the lion’s share of sales proceeds to offset printing costs, and pays the author a percentage–either a percentage of income (a royalty) or a percentage of profit. Basically, you’re paying twice: once upfront, and once with each book produced and sold.
  • Rights. With true self-publishing, all rights remain with the writer, who has full ownership of his/her books, including the ISBN number. With most POD services, the POD service owns the ISBN, and has a limited claim on digital and/or electronic publishing rights.

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POD Service Pros and Cons

For writers who want a printed book, and who don’t want to go through the submission process required by commercial publishers, or who aren’t concerned about sales volume, or who want to produce a family memoir or genealogy or recipe book in print for private distribution, a POD service can be a good option.

The best services provide attractively-designed books at a far lower cost than traditional anity publishing (although some of the fancier POD packages are eye-poppingly expensive), and offer many of the same benefits, including guaranteed publication and the absence of editorial interference. Also, since the book is printed only when ordered, you don’t risk winding up with a garage full of unsold volumes.

Niche nonfiction projects–which can be a tough sell for commercial or academic publishers–can also do well via a POD service, especially for the motivated self-publisher who has a way of reaching his or her audience directly (a restauranteur who wants to make a cookbook available to his or her customers, for instance), or who can exploit “back of the room” situations (someone who lectures or conducts workshops and can sell books at these occasions).

POD services also offer an opportunity to established authors seeking to bring their out-of-print books back into physical circulation. A number of POD services offer programs specifically targeted to such authors, often in association with professional writers’ groups. The Authors’ Guild, for instance, has teamed with POD service iUniverse for its Back In Print program, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors offers a similar program via ASJA Press.

If you’re a new writer looking to establish a career, however, you should be aware that the tide that has lifted electronic self-publishing, making it a viable path to sales and recognition for some authors, has not done the same for print self-publishing. POD services’ high prices may make their printed books unattractive to consumers, and their limited distribution all but guarantees their books won’t land on bookstore shelves (see the Issues section, below). Tiny sales is the likely result, even for authors who diligently self-promote or who are enjoying success with self-published ebooks (see the Sales Statistics section, below).

As noted above, a POD service can be an excellent option for some writers and some projects. For others, however, it’s not the right choice. What’s important is to know the facts, assess your goals, and make an informed decision. There are some suggestions for doing that below.

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POD Service Sales Statistics

The average printed book from a POD service sells fewer than 200 copies, mostly to “pocket” markets surrounding the author–friends, family, local retailers who can be persuaded to place an order–and to the author him/herself.

POD services’ own statistics support these low sales figures. AuthorHouse’s online Fact Sheet reveals that it has signed up more than 40,000 authors, and issued more than 60,000 titles. According to a January 2009 article in the New York Times, AuthorHouse reported selling more than 2.5 million books in 2008–which sounds like a lot, but averages out to around 41 sales per title.

iUniverse’s 2005 Facts and Figures sheet, which Writer Beware has seen, reported that the company published 22,265 titles through the end of that year, with sales of 3.7 million: an average of 166 sales per title. Obviously some titles can boast better sales (Amy Fisher’s If I Knew Then sold over 32,000 copies)–but not many. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, iUniverse’s VP, Susan Driscoll, admitted that most iUniverse authors sell fewer than 200 books.

As of 2004, stats for Xlibris were similar. According to a Wall Street Journal article, 85% of its books had sold fewer than 200 copies, and only around 3%–or 352 in all–had sold more than 500 copies. Things looked up in 2007: according to Xlibris’s own internal reports, obtained by Writer Beware, 4% of its titles had sold more than 1,000 copies. However, the averages still aren’t good. As of mid-2007, Xlibris had 23,000 authors and had published 23,500 titles, with total sales of over 3 million–around 127 sales per title.

Once independent companies, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Canada-based Trafford Publishing are now all owned by Author Solutions Inc. In the January 2009 New York Times article referenced above, Kevin Weiss, Author Solutions’ CEO, put the average sales of titles from any of the company’s brands at around 150., one of the most popular and cost-effective of the POD services, and still independent despite the apparent trend toward consolidation, is explicit about its long tail business model. In a 2007 interview, its founder, Bob Young, identified the company’s goal: “A publishing house dreams of having 10 authors selling a million books each. Lulu wants a million authors selling 100 books each.” He also admits that the average Lulu “print run” is fewer than 2 copies.

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POD Service Issues to Consider

In addition to the lack of sales and credibility discussed above, there are a number of issues to consider if you’re thinking of using a POD service.

- Booksellers don’t like dealing with POD services.

E-commerce accounts for a hefty share of printed book sales–nearly 44% in the USA, as of November 2012. But brick-and-mortar retailers–including large-chain and independent bookstores–still represent a significant sales source: around 35% in the US, and nearly 60% in the UK. For volume sales, most paper books need a balance of online and offline presence.

By long tradition, booksellers are accustomed to a particular set of buying protocols–discounts of 40% or more, 60- or 90-day billing, and full returnability. Many POD services don’t offer industry-standard discounts, and most require that orders be pre-paid. And while some services do offer returnability if authors pay an extra fee, it may be a restrictive policy that booksellers won’t find attractive. Along with the lingering prejudice against self-published books, these factors make booksellers reluctant to stock a book from a POD service.

Authors who are willing to go door-to-door can be successful in persuading local bookstores to stock their books (though often they must sell on consignment, or agree to buy back unsold copies). By and large, however, printed books from POD services are available mainly online.

- Your book will receive limited distribution.

Most POD services claim to provide “worldwide distribution.” And generally they do, through wholesalers such as Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Bertram. But wholesalers are only half the distribution picture. The other half is a distributor with a sales team that sells books directly into bookstores.

Without that direct sales component, brick-and-mortar booksellers will never know your book exists, unless you tell them yourself (though they will be able to order it if someone asks for it specially). This is a frequent source of disappointment for POD authors, who often assume that wholesale distribution equals bookstore presence.

For a more detailed discussion of the differences between wholesalers and distributors, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog.

- Your book will not be marketed or publicized in any meaningful way.

As has already been mentioned, POD services aren’t publishers, but purveyors of publishing services to writers. Their primary interest is in selling their service to you. Selling your book to readers is of secondary importance. A listing on the company’s website and with various online booksellers, as well as inclusion in a wholesaler’s catalogue, is all the marketing many POD services provide. If you want more, you must arrange it yourself.

Many POD services offer marketing packages or media kits for an extra fee. But prices can be enormous, and packages tend to be based on minimally effective methods such as press releases, postcard mailers, mass solicitation of media contacts, or group ads in magazines and newspapers (for a more detailed discussion of the inadequacies of these marketing techniques, see the Writers’ Services page). They’re usually a complete waste of money.

- Books from POD services are unlikely to be reviewed in professional venues.

Good reviews in major newspapers and magazines, as well as trade journals like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, can be a boost to an author’s credibility, and, sometimes, to sales. But as noted above, reviewers are wary of self-published books–plus, many trade journals will only review in advance of publication, and POD services rarely produce galleys or advance reading copies.

(Both PW and Kirkus have review programs that involve fees paid by the author, but these reviews are published in a separate supplement, and aren’t likely to be seen by regular readers. Writer Beware’s blog provides a rundown on these and other paid review services.)

- Books from POD services are expensive.

POD services base their pricing on the amount of paper it takes to print the book. While some do let you set your own cover price, in most cases your book will cost more–often a lot more–than a similar book from a commercial publisher. Readers may balk at paying $25 or $30 for a trade paperback-size book, especially when its commercially-printed counterpart costs around $16.

- Books from POD services may be of poor physical quality.

POD-produced books can be almost indistinguishable from traditionally-printed trade paperbacks. But some POD services skimp on paper and cover stock, and don’t pay enough attention to production standards. Books from these companies can be shoddy in appearance, with covers that curl and pages that fall out as you’re reading them (a good reason to order a book or two from any POD service you’re thinking of using). POD-produced books are also often bound with a narrow spine, so that they look more like pamphlets than books.

- There may be extra expenses.

The basic cost of a POD service can be increased by additional costs not included in the initial package: renewal fees, distribution fees, extra charges for non-template cover designs, charges for corrections in proof, etc. Be sure, when you’re assessing a service, to check for these kinds of costs.

- Income may be less than you think.

POD services typically base what you earn not on a book’s retail price, but on its net price–the retail price less discounts. What looks like a high payment percentage may not actually work out to a lot of money.

- Problems and delays are possible.

Some POD services have trouble with timeliness in book production and order fulfillment. The companies owned by Author Solutions (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and Trafford) are the subject of frequent complaints about customer service. Before choosing a POD service, it’s a good idea to scout for complaints, and to contact writers who’ve used the service.

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Electronic Self-Publishing

Electronic self-publishing has undergone meteoric development in the past few years. Self-published ebooks don’t face the challenges of distribution and price that self-published print books do; traditional ebooks and self-published ebooks use the exact same distribution channels, and electronic self-publishers can control the pricing of their books to undercut traditionally-published ebooks, in a way that print self-publishers have never been able to do.

This has genuinely leveled the playing field for electronic self-publishers. For the first time, rather than being a specialist choice or a decision of last resort, self-publishing has become a viable path for new authors seeking to establish careers, as well as for established writers looking to monetize their backlists and venture in new literary directions. A growing subgroup of authors pursues a hybrid approach, alternating between traditional publishing and self-publishing depending on the project.

Electronic self-publishing is still a new field, and the pace of change is rapid. Options and parameters are still developing. Also, it’s important for writers to remember that the success stories that preoccupy the media are outliers, rather than the norm. Ebooks give self-publishers the opportunity to reach readers on the same terms as traditional publishers–but the challenges of discoverability remain. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, the largest of the ebook aggregators and a major hub for self-publishers, admits that the majority of self-published ebooks don’t sell a lot of copies. “We make it clear to our authors,” he says.

There are a number of options for electronic self-publishing.

  • Epublishing services or aggregators. These services allow you to epublish simultaneously to a variety of platforms, and will often provide conversion and formatting services as well. They may charge a fee, or take a cut of your earnings. One of the largest is Smashwords, which makes ebooks available in several formats, but there are also many smaller ones that offer more limited services.
  • POD self-publishing services. Many POD services also offer electronic publishing across a variety of platforms. Many of these services charge a hefty fee, however, and don’t give you the flexibility of either of the above two options.

Whichever option you select, it’s wise to make your book available across the widest range of platforms and vendors, for maximum visibility (some platforms, such as Amazon’s KDP Select, require exclusivity). If you choose to do that through a publishing service, rather than by publishing direct to a device, it’s safest to go with the biggest and most established companies, which are not only more likely to be reliable, but to offer more options. It’s fairly pointless, for instance, to use an epublishing service that only makes your ebook available on its own website.

Beware of questionable print publishers that are looking to cash in by offering Kindle and/or iPad conversions and uploads as an extra service for a fee. Your publisher shouldn’t charge you money to produce your book in additional formats–especially formats you can access yourself, for free.

Be sure also to read the Terms and Conditions, especially if you’re using an epublishing service. Nasty things may be lurking there. For instance, you may discover that there’s no way for you to remove your ebook from the service if you change your mind about publishing it. Or there may be hidden fees.

A major resource for news and information on self-epublishing is the blog of author Joe Konrath, who began epublishing his out-of-print backlist books as an experiment a few years ago, and turned that endeavor into a substantial income stream. Konrath has a strong anti-traditional publisher bias–he believes that all authors ought to self-publish–and has used his blog to vigorously promote that position. Nevertheless, there’s much very good info here about everything from formatting to design to self-promotion, along with links to resources to help with things like cover design and ebook conversion. There are also many informative interviews with and guest posts by successful self-publishers.

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If You Decide to Self-Publish

- Know your options–all of them.

Be sure you have a good understanding not just of  self-publishing, but of commercial publishing (a.k.a. “traditional” publishing).  Many writers base their decision to self-publish on misconceptions about commercial publishing–such as the myth that major publishers aren’t interested in first-time authors. Unless you understand the whole range of options available to you, you can’t truly make an informed decision.

- Go into it with your eyes open.

Really open. Consider all the issues and challenges identified above, and factor them into your plans.

- Take stock of your goals.

Be sure that self-publishing is a good match for them.

- Have a plan.

Know what you want to accomplish by self-publishing. Draw up a list of what you’d like to receive from whatever service you decide to use. Decide what you’re able to spend–and don’t fail to include self-promotion in your budget. Decide how much time you can devote to your project, both before and after publication. Being clear on these things ahead of time will make it easier for you to evaluate what kind of self-publishing you want to do, and which service (if any) to choose.

- Do your research.

Make sure you carefully read all the information available on the website of the service you are thinking of choosing–including contracts, which are usually available online, and Terms and Conditions–so that you know exactly what’s being offered and what you yourself will be committing to. Many authors miss extra fees, for instance, because they don’t take enough time to peruse the fine print, or don’t realize that they are encumbering their rights (even if nonexclusively and for a limited time). For POD publishing services, don’t forget to order a couple of the service’s books, so you can assess physical quality and ordering efficiency.

Be sure to check out the reputation of any self-publishing service you’re thinking of using, whether POD or electronic–not all are reliable (there are resources below to help with this). If possible, contact other authors who’ve used the service to find out about their experiences. Be careful of brand-new startups–you’re probably best off if you stick with larger, longer-established services, even if they’re a bit more expensive.

- Keep your expectations realistic.

Know the possible limitations, as well as the potential advantages, of self-publishing, and understand what it is and is not likely to accomplish for you. Writer Beware gets many complaints from authors who believe they’ve been scammed by self-publishing companies, when in reality it’s their expectations that were faulty–whether because they didn’t read their contracts carefully enough, or erroneously assumed that self-publishing was a ticket to commercial-style success.

- Ignore the hype.

There’s a tremendous amount of hype around electronic self-publishing right now, and a lot of discussion of high-selling Kindle self-publishers and the established authors who are bypassing their trade publishers to self-publish online. Not all of this information is accurate, complete, or representative, however, and it needs to be carefully assessed and placed in context. (For a more detailed discussion of the importance of context, see this post from Writer Beware’s blog.) Beware those who claim that any author can make money by self-publishing electronically, or who present electronic self-publishing as the only viable route to publishing success, or who spend a lot of time ranting about the horrors of the traditional publishing model.

POD services hype themselves as well, often portraying themselves as a revolutionary publishing model that’s opening up a world of opportunity for writers locked out of the market by the narrow standards of the monopolistic commercial publishing industry. POD juggernaut Author Solutions has even recently begun attempting to rebrand itself as an “indie publisher” (see Writer Beware’s debunking of that particular weasel wording). But there’s nothing new about paying to get published–or about the opportunity it offers, which is mainly for the publishing service to make a profit. Most of the traditional difficulties of exposure and respect faced by vanity-published authors are duplicated in the POD self-publishing model.

More troublingly, POD services can be quite deceptive in the way they present themselves and what they offer, implying a greater potential for success than actually exists, glossing over the challenges of self-publishing, and overstating the value of the overpriced, ineffective marketing services they sell. When researching POD services, it’s important to remember that you are a consumer buying a service, not an author contracting with a publisher. As with any consumer service, the sales pitch is not intended to benefit you, but to motivate you to buy.

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POD Self-Publishing: finding a Service and Checking Reputations

  • Clea Saal’s Books and Tales website provides comparisons of a number of POD services, as well as a series of articles on the stages of the POD self-publication process (note: Writer Beware has received complaints about several of the companies listed here, including companies that this site rates highly, so be sure to do some extra research).
  • Successful novelist Piers Anthony maintains an internet publishing resource that lists and describes electronic and POD-based publishers, and flags those that have problems or are the focus of complaints.
  • E-mail Writer Beware. SFWA has assembled a large archive of documentation on publishers that engage in questionable practices. Send us the names of any POD services you’d like to know about, and we’ll summarize for you any data that’s in our files. If we have no information on a publisher, we’ll let you know that too.
  • Preditors and Editors provides lists of agents and publishers, with “not recommended” notations to indicate those that charge fees or engage in other writer abuses.
  • Google Groups is a searchable database of Usenet newsgroups, with message archives dating back to 1981. Writers often post publisher questions or complaints to Usenet. If you’re uncertain about a POD service, do a search on its name here to see what you find.

Electronic Self-Publishing

  • Joe Konrath’s blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, reports on the world of electronic self-publishing. The blog is no longer being updated, but there’s plenty of helpful info in the archives.
  • David Gaughran’s blog is also an excellent information source on self-publishing and issues of interest to self-publishers.
  • TeleRead provides up-to-the-minute coverage of the latest news on ebooks, publishing, and self-publishing.
  • Colleen Cunningham, an experienced book designer, offers a ton of resources to help you format and design your self-pubbed ebook.

General Resources

  • Publetariat, an “online community and news hub” for self- and small press-published authors, has an agenda: it’s strongly anti-”traditional” publishing. However, there are a lot of good resources here.
  • Six important questions writers need to ask themselves before deciding to self-publish, from self-publisher Laekan Zea Kemp.
  • From book marketer Kat Meyer, an incisive blog post on some of the misconceptions that lead to self-publishing disappointment, and what self-pubbed authors need to do to succeed: The Double-Edged Sword of Self-Publishing.
  • Author Jamie Hall describes her experience with a POD service. Unlike many authors who use POD services, she did her research and carefully weighed her options.

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