For writers 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 for private distribution, a POD service can be an excellent option.
The best of them provide attractively-designed books at a far lower cost than traditional self- or vanity publishing (although costs are steadily rising, and 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 produced only when ordered, you don’t risk winding up with a garage full of unsold volumes.
A POD service can also be a good option for niche nonfiction projects. These can be a tough sell for commercial or academic publishers, but they can do well for the motivated self-publisher who has a way of reaching his or her audience, and is able to devote time and money to marketing and promotion. Writers who can exploit “back of the room” situations may also do well with a POD service–someone who lectures or conducts workshops, for instance, and can sell books at these occasions, or a restauranteur who wants to make a cookbook available to his or her customers.
There’s another, relatively new self-publishing phenomenon: established writers who are abandoning their commercial print publishers and going it alone. The most talked-about recent example is probably Seth Godin, author of 12 traditionally published best sellers, who is now running his own publishing company in association with Amazon.com.
For successful writers with major platforms, who are actively followed by their fans and readers and can market directly to their target audience, self-publishing can be powerfully attractive, since it allows authors to keep a much larger share of profits. Not many writers have this kind of clout, however–or financial resources. DIY does not mean cheap. Professionally publishing and marketing a book is an expensive proposition.
So there are a number of situations in which POD self-publishing can work as well, or better, than traditional publishing. If you’re a new writer looking to establish a career, however, it is probably not a good choice, except possibly as a fallback option for a manuscript that has failed to find a home.
POD services’ policies on pricing, marketing, and distribution severely limit their books’ availability and are likely to result in tiny sales and readership, even for authors who diligently self-promote. It’s unlikely that a book published by a POD service will be considered a professional publishing credit, or that, as many authors hope, it will provide a springboard to commercial publication.
If you spend time on the Internet, you will probably encounter people who are eager to dispute this. They’ll tell you that self-publishing is the way of the future. They’ll claim that the stigma traditionally associated with paying to publish has all but disappeared, and that it’s becoming ever more common for self-published books to be acquired by bigger publishing houses. They’ll often be able to point you to a news story about a self-published writer who transitioned into a lucrative commercial contract, or who sold so many books he or she didn’t want one.
But like the hype from so many self-publishing evangelists, articles about self-publishing success are often biased, inaccurate, or overstated. And there’s nothing new about big publishers picking up self-published books that sell robustly (just Google What Color Is Your Parachute? or The Christmas Box). As for the pay-to-publish stigma–unfair though it may be in many cases, it is not yet gone.
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.