POD vs. author services publishing

In the most recent issue of ALA’s email newsletter, AL Direct, there is an item (“More authors turn to web publishing”) about the growing popularity of author services companies like Lulu.com and Author Solutions as mainstream publishers cut back on the numbers of titles that they take on during the economic downturn. That’s true as far as it goes, but AL Direct explained the distinction between these author services companies and traditional publishers inaccurately. They wrote,

Unlike traditional publishing companies, these publishers only produce hard copies of the books when a customer buys one, a process known as print on demand…

In fact, traditional publishers are using print on demand technology rather heavily. The distinction to be drawn is that traditional publishers select what they publish based on their view of the market (often initiating book projects based on editors’ ideas), work with authors on the development of the books, edit the books and market them, while author services companies make much of their money from set-up fees paid by authors, initiate no book projects, do no selecting or rejecting, do no developmental editing and no copy editing. Author services companies operate on a modified vanity press model. This business model is not new, but has become a stronger business model because of the invention of print-on-demand technology.

Print on demand, for its part, is of greater importance in traditional publishing than in author services publishing. Traditional publishers are increasingly turning to print on demand to print books with expected sales of fewer than 1000 copies. (For an academic book to be profitable it generally needs to sell 500 copies at most scholarly publishing houses.) Print on demand has become the norm for academic publishers who print paperbacks or who keep a backlist of titles, as well as for small, independent publishers. Academic and independent publishers are using the same companies for POD printing that the author services companies are using, and make up a larger part of those printers’ overall business. Chances are, if you have a paperback from McFarland or any of a large number of academic publishers sitting on your desk, it was probably printed using print on demand technology. Some hardcover books from well-known publishers that you may own are also printed using POD.

The publishing industry as a whole is changing because of a range of factors, and technology is one. Rather than focusing on author services companies, though their rapid growth is a new development, I would like to see AL Direct or American Libraries focus on another, perhaps more important new trend, which is the rise of small, niche-based publishers (like Library Juice Press and Litwin Books) who publish books for specific audiences and in specific subject areas, and are able to operate with low overheads. New technologies and economic pressures facing the larger publishers are cooperating to breathe life into this trend. It’s something that librarians ought to be cognizant of, because it is quietly reshaping the world of publishing…

5 comments on “POD vs. author services publishing

  1. Rory,

    Another distinction is important. Lulu’s basic model requires no up-front payment whatsoever. While “author services” are available, they’re not at all necessary–and, speaking from experience, Lulu’s FAQs, free templates and step-by-step instructions are good enough for many authors not to pay a dime up front. (The only money I’ve ever paid Lulu is for one proof copy of each book.)

    Most other “author service” models do involve significant up-front fees. I’d consider Lulu a self-publishing support company, while some of the others are indeed modified vanity presses.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Eberhart.

    Two comments regarding that. First, I am not sure it was clear that the snippet of text in AL Direct was taken from the original article. Perhaps it was clear and I didn’t notice, or am not remembering it. Or, perhaps AL Direct should be clearer about when it is summarizing and when it is giving us a snippet of text from the source.

    Second, it is no less inaccurate for coming from a CNN story; AL Direct has propagated the inaccuracy, which is based on a common misconception rather than a set of facts which a journalist writing about the topic should learn.

    Nothing out of the ordinary here in terms of the standards that apply to blogging or the expectations of most readers. However, these are standards that I think we should probably be trying to raise.

  3. Leaving the accuracy of the ALA article aside, this is interesting. It makes me think of what MIT is doing with it’s DSpace and how the faculty have collectively decided to publish their work online in real time. http://www.campustechnology.com/Articles/2009/03/23/MIT-Faculty-Adopt-Open-Access-Policy-for-Scholarly-Articles.aspx This is HUGE, people sit up and listen with faculty at places like MIT. The face of pulishing is changing and if publishers are not careful they may get left out of the conversation.

  4. You make a very valid point that POD services (e.g., Lightning Source) can provide a very low-cost approach at very good quality for niche publishers to enter the field. Librarians should certainly become more aware of that. But I noticed that many of the blogs I follow from the publishing industry fail to even acknowledge this trend.

    I think this use of POD to lower the entry barrier for small publishers is going to have as significant and possibly larger impact in the future than e-books.

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