Publishing and Print-on-Demand:
What POD is, what it isn’t,
and when it might be right for you

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Techno-jargon: print runs and print-on-demand

Print run and print-on-demand are printing technologies rather than business models.

“Print run” is the conventional method of printing a book. A publisher prints a batch of books using offset printing technology, i.e. a printing press. The number of books printed depends on projected sales. When the first batch of books is sold, another batch is printed. You may have noticed several printings listed inside the covers of popular books, e.g. “First Edition, 17th Printing.” This refers to the print run. Most commercial publishers, and certainly all the major ones, use print-run technology.

“Print-on-Demand” (a.k.a. publish-on-demand, POD) is a newer method of printing a book. Its rise in popularity can be traced to the advent of digital printing technology. Like the name suggests, books are printed “on demand,” or after an order is received.

On a per-book basis, POD is more expensive than print run. This means that cover prices of POD books are generally higher than print run books. However, because the technical set-up is less expensive than print run, it can be cost effective to use POD if very small quantities of a book are required and/or the anticipated demand for the book will be sporadic.

Because digital technology is used, it’s generally quicker to print a book on demand, however, it also often means that the quality of the book suffers.

POD saves the expense of storing books and means that there’s no waste when books go unsold, but because there’s no space reserved to store books, returns can be problematic.

Because it is so cost-effective, most vanity publishers have turned to POD technology. This association has led to the common assumption that any publisher that uses POD technology is a vanity publisher. This is not true. Some small commercial publishers do make use of POD technology. More on that below.


Different kinds of publishing: trade, vanity and self-publishing

The three general publishing business models are commercial (or trade) publishing, vanity (or subsidy) publishing, and self-publishing. All three types of publishing can use either print run or print-on-demand technology. However, it is much more common for commercial publishers to use print run and for vanity publishers to use POD.

Commercial (Trade) Publishing

Commercial publishing is the accepted method of publishing, and the only one respected by the publishing industry itself. A commercial publisher:

  • derives its profit from book sales, so it must be highly selective in what manuscripts it chooses to publish—a commercial publisher must choose works that will sell!
  • purchases the right to publish a manuscript (and often other subsidiary rights, e.g. movie rights) from an author.
  • usually pays the author an advance (a sum paid prior to the publication-and sometimes the writing-of the book). Note that some small independent commercial publishers cannot afford to pay their authors advances.
  • assumes all the risk of publication and production costs. There are no costs to the author.
  • edits the manuscript.
  • designs the book, including layout and typesetting, cover and interior design, binding, paper quality, etc.
  • satisfies all legal formalities, such as acquiring an ISBN, registering copyright, etc.
  • pays a printer for the initial print run and warehouses the books until they are sold. (The publisher owns all copies of the book printed.)
  • markets (promotes) the book and distributes it under its own imprint.
  • pays the author royalties based on the sales of the work.

As mentioned earlier, most commercial publishers publish books in print runs. However, they do use POD technology in some limited circumstances, when the expense of a print run isn’t justified, e.g. to print advance reading copies or to keep backlist books available.

Additionally, some small independent publishers use POD exclusively as a more economical publishing method. This can lead to confusion. If a publisher publishes books using POD technology, how does an author know if it is a legitimate or a vanity press? Over and above all other considerations, remember: a legitimate commercial publisher will not ask an author for money, regardless of the technology used to produce his/her book.

Other clues you’re dealing with a reputable publisher:

  • The publisher’s website is focused on selling books, not attracting new authors.
  • It has been in business for years rather than months (if it has a good rating on the BBB website, all the better).
  • It offers authors a standard publishing contract. If you’re not sure what to look for, consult a lawyer who specializes in publishing.
  • It pays advances. (However, remember that a very small publisher may not be able to pay its authors advances.)
  • It has its authors work with an editor and requires manuscript revisions prior to publication.
  • It focuses on particular genre or market and publishes a small number of titles per year.
  • Its books have been reviewed by reputable reviewers and are available in off-line bookstores and libraries.
  • The quality of the publisher’s books is good. (Buy or borrow a published title and check it out!)
  • Its book prices are in line with similar books published by other publishers.
  • Its staff is happy to answer your questions.

One final note: Be wary of any publisher that calls itself “traditional.” This is a term vanity publishers invented to make themselves sound more legitimate, and is not one commercial publishers use.

Captus Press is a commercial publisher that uses POD technology. From their website: “We design and typeset hard and soft-cover books with a state-of-the-art page-imaging system, that allows efficient traditional print runs as well as “print on demand” for customized editions.” Among other things, they publish textbooks, one of which I happen to have on my shelf (Criminal Law & Procedure by Jennie Abell & Elizabeth Sheehy).

To give you an idea of the quality, this book looks like it was printed directly from a Word document. It’s 8.5 x 11″ size. The cover is solid burgundy, with black and white type. There are no graphics inside or out. The table of contents looks like one auto-generated in Word. The fonts are a mixture of Arial and Times New Roman. It’s an unattractive book, but beyond that, it’s hard to read because the text is arranged in two columns without intuitive breaks between sections.

The only way this book would sell is to a captive audience. Since that was exactly what the publisher had, it was probably a good deal—cheap to produce, thereby increasing the profit for both publisher and authors.

Vanity (Subsidy) Publishing

Note: “Subsidy publisher” was originally used to denote publishers that were in all other respects like commercial publishers (selective, edited manuscripts, provided marketing & distribution, etc.), but required authors to pay part of the cost of printing and binding their books. These subsidy publishers usually published niche non-fiction or academic books, i.e. books that had merit, but a tiny target audience. The term “subsidy publisher” has now been co-opted by vanity publishers in an effort to sound more legitimate. True subsidy publishers are rare.

All fee-based print-on-demand publishers are vanity publishers. A vanity publisher:

  • derives its profits from authors’ payments, not from book sales. Authors are its primary source of income.
  • does not purchase manuscripts. Is paid by the author to publish the author’s book, i.e. authors pay for the cost of publication.
  • often asks for the same rights as a commercial publisher, without offering any of the same benefits to the author in return.
  • is not selective. Will publish any author’s work as long as the author is willing to pay for the service.
  • does not edit manuscripts.
  • may charge authors separately for each aspect of the publication process, e.g. design, printing, marketing, distribution.
  • generally expects authors to market and distribute their own work, while setting the book’s price, controlling discounts, etc.
  • distributes books under its own imprint.
  • if publishing via print run, owns all copies of the book printed, retains all copies except for a few “author copies” (and probably charges a storage fee). If the author wants additional copies, he/she must purchase them.
  • (theoretically) pays authors royalties.

These days, most vanity publishers operate exclusively online and use POD technology, e.g. iUniverse, PublishAmerica, xLibris. However, there are still some vanity publishers that publish in print runs, e.g. Vantage Press.

Advantages of Vanity Publishing:

  • Content-wise, vanity publishing offers more independence for an author than commercial publishing—there’s no editing!
  • Fee-based POD is much less expensive than both print run vanity and self-publishing.
  • Since vanity publishers are designed to attract authors, the vanity publishing process is easier to navigate than self-publishing.
  • It’s a reasonable option for small projects that an author doesn’t intend to market commercially, such as a memoir intended for friends and family only. (Self-publishing may be a better option.)
  • It can be an opportunity for established authors to bring out-of-print books back into circulation (the fact that work has already been published reduces vanity stigma).
Disadvantages of Vanity Publishing:

  • Fees paid are unlikely to be recouped by sales.
  • It’s often more expensive than self-publishing, because vanity publishers charge more than the actual cost of production in order to make a profit.
  • Publisher has no incentive to design a quality book, because its profit has already been made. Vanity publishers generally offer standard templates for interior design, typeface, size, cover, etc. and charge extra to vary from those templates, if they allow it at all. These templates are immediately recognizable to those in the publishing industry.
  • Because vanity publishers are not selective, their books are not respected by the publishing industry. Most offline bookstores and libraries will not accept vanity-published books, and reputable reviewers will not review them.
  • Author does not have the same control over the publishing process that he/she would if self-publishing.
  • There is an extremely wide range of vanity publishers, from those who are honest about the service they offer to scammers that attempt to look legitimate and promise fame & fortune. It can be difficult to know with whom you are dealing.

Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is often lumped in with vanity publishing. Authors who have used a print-on-demand vanity publisher often say that they’ve “self-published” their books. This is a misnomer. Self-publishing is the publishing of books by those who have written them. Self-publishers are personally responsible for every aspect of the publishing process from writing to distribution. A self-publisher:

  • is the author.
  • pays all costs of publishing the book.
  • retains all rights to his/her book. (Note, however, that if the author is looking to sell to a commercial publisher later, the book will be considered previously published, so he/she couldn’t sell “first rights.”)
  • is responsible for editing his/her own manuscript or hiring an editor to do so.
  • has complete control over every aspect of the production of his/her book, including cover design, interior design, typeface, paper quality, etc.
  • hires a printer or book manufacturer to produce a professional-quality book. A reputable printer charges only for the printing and binding of the print run.
  • or prints books him/herself using a photocopier or computer printer. In this case, books may be printed on demand, but they will be of a lesser quality than a print run.
  • can choose a name for his/her “publishing house.” Only this name or the author’s own name appears as the publisher of the book. (The book printer’s name does not.)
  • is responsible for all marketing and distribution. However, self-publishers set their own pricing and discount terms, can make special offers, etc.
  • owns all copies of books printed. Responsible for storing them (some printers offer warehousing). Self-publishers may do whatever they like with their books at no further cost.
  • receives all proceeds from the sales of his/her books.

An example of self-publishing is What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles, which “was first published December 1, 1970 — self-published, in fact, with the author using a local copy shop (CopyCopia) in downtown San Francisco.” Notice that the author printed the book himself; he did not rely on a vanity publisher to do the printing. Ten Speed Press later picked up the book, which comes out annually.

Two examples of printers / book manufacturers are Western Printers and Centennial Bookbinding. Notice how they’re all business. No hype, no hard sell, no rants about the “evil” publishing industry.

Advantages of Self-Publishing:

  • Self-publishing is a more reputable alternative to vanity publishing.
  • Although expensive, it may be cheaper than vanity publishing because an author can shop around for individual services and is not paying a middle-man.
  • Authors have full control over the process, which often results in better-quality books. For example, an author could hire a graphic designer to design a unique cover, rather than being stuck with a template.
  • Authors retain full ownership of their rights.
  • In some circumstances, a book may have a greater chance of success because the author is more committed to promoting it than a publisher is.
  • If your book sells well, or wins awards, a literary agent or commercial publisher may pick it up. (Check out Writer’s Digest’s annual “Self-Published Book Awards.”)
Disadvantages of Self-Publishing:

  • While not as maligned as vanity published books, self-published books still suffer a lack of respect in the publishing industry, because there’s no third-party screening. An author may have difficulty getting his/her book reviewed, placed in bookstores and libraries, and accepted by wholesalers and distributors.
  • Self-publishers are responsible for the entire process of publishing, promoting, and distributing their books. It takes a huge commitment of time, money, and energy.
  • To cut costs, self-publishers may choose printing and binding techniques that are not of trade quality, e.g. computer-printing and staple, comb, or wire binding, rather than offset printing and perfect binding.
  • Costs are unlikely to be recouped by sales.

If your reasons for wanting to self-publish are more about serving a niche market, less about wanting “to be published,” and you consider any profits that you earn gravy, then self-publishing might be for you. Niche non-fiction is non-fiction with a small, but real, target audience, e.g. books tied to a very localized market or esoteric technical manuals.

Most major commercial publishers aren’t interested in niche market books regardless of their merit, because they simply won’t sell enough copies. Do, however, try smaller independent publishers before going it alone.

Self-publishing may be a good choice for an author who:

  • Is an expert in his/her field.
  • Is familiar with the target audience for his/her book.
  • Has a built-in or guaranteed market, e.g. a professor who can assign his/her book as a required text.
  • Has fan base and direct access to his/her target audience, e.g. an inspirational speaker who can sell books after his/her talks.
  • Intends to promote his or her work personally, and has contacts with publications and reviewers.
  • Wants to get his/her book on the market quickly because it contains time-sensitive material.
  • Wants to use the book as a promotional tool, e.g. a chef/restaurateur who has written a cookbook.
  • Wants editorial and/or design control.
  • Is reprinting a book that was commercially published, but is now out-of-print.
  • Has created a compilation of pieces that previously appeared in commercial/trade publications, e.g. a poet might want to publish a chapbook of poems that have been published in literary journals to sell at poetry readings.

Self-publishing is not a good option for authors who think that:

  • They’re going to get rich.
  • It’s easier than finding an agent or publisher.
  • “Commercial publishers just don’t understand my genius.” If commercial publishers are rejecting your book, chances are, it needs more work. Revise, revise, revise.

Arthur T Cushen‘s The World in My Ears is the perfect example of when to use self-publishing: the author was an expert who was famous in his (obscure) field, the amateur radio hobby of “DXing.” He had a tiny, but fanatical, target audience. The book would never be a commercial success but it’s a classic to those “in the know.”


What you might be asking yourself about getting published

Q: I really want to be published—now! What’s the best way for me to get my book into print?

A: Slow down! The first question to ask yourself, before “how do I get published,” is “why do I want to be published?”

  • Do you want to share your book with tons of people?
  • Do you want to see your name on a cover?
  • Do you want to make money?
  • Do you want to wash your hands of this book so you can work on another?
  • Do you just want to say “I’m published” and leave it at that?
  • Do you want respect from writers, editors, and agents?

One huge fact about POD, whether it’s vanity publishing or not, is that a lot of people in the writing business see it as vanity-based. Going the POD route can place a stigma on your book as well as on you.

If you finish “My Masterpiece” and POD-publish it, then write “Another Glorious Work” and attempt to sell it to agents or trade publishers, they may look at your past publishing history and say, “Why didn’t she sell that first book? Is it that bad? Is she that impatient? Did she refuse to edit for publication?” Your fellow writers (and maybe some potential readers) may have the mindset of “It’s in print but it’s not really published” — kind of like putting a story in your family’s holiday newsletter and calling it “published.” If you don’t care what people think and you really can’t wait to get published, POD may be for you.

If you decide to use a commercial (non-vanity) publisher who uses POD, you might not have any say in whether POD technology is used to print your book. If this is the case, give some more thought to whether this publisher is the one for you. If everything else about the publisher feels right to you, it’s probably still a good fit. Be ready to explain the publisher’s screening process, compensation, and other assets to those who challenge the validity of the publication.

Q: I still want to publish my novel but I’d like to do a chapbook of my short-shorts. Should I not go the POD route because of what an agent might think?

A: Agents worth their salt will not hold that against you. They’re probably not looking to publish a chapbook or an anthology of your short stories or poems; they want to sell your novel to a publishing house. This is the flip side of the previous question. In a case like this, an agent could see this as a sign of a serious writer looking to get her feet wet in the publishing world. If you do well selling copies (at readings, for example), an agent might say to himself, “She’s got the drive to make it happen.” It’s when you POD a major project—your life’s work—that an agent might say “Hmm…”

Certain POD publishers do send up red flags with agents and commercial publishers. Before working with iUniverse, xLibris or similar wide-scale POD outfits, consider that they come with a built-in stigma that can be tough to shake. Small publishers who use POD technology do not carry that same stigma and can be worthwhile, depending on your situation. A little research in this area goes a long way and you’ve already started by reading this article.

Q: Agents/publishers want me to change my book. I like it the way it is. Wouldn’t I be happier going the POD route and preserving my work the way I want it?

A: You might be happier… at least today. The question to ask yourself here is, “Why don’t I want my book edited?” If you think the editorial changes being suggested will substantially change your book, even bring about a major rewrite, you might want to step back from the book and look at it with fresh eyes. The agent wants to sell your book. The agent knows what will get the book sold. If she didn’t see potential in your work, she’s not going to be interested in being your agent. By saying, “I want to work with you to make this book great and here’s how we can get there,” she’s doing her job. Remember: she doesn’t make money unless the book sells.

I have a few books by a writer who desperately needs an editor. Her storytelling is great; she writes about ghosts, urban legends, etc. in central Pennsylvania and her tales are compelling. Unfortunately she does not know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” she uses pseudonyms for real people and forgets to makes all her changes (someone called “Susan” in one paragraph is “Sally” in the next), her stories often lack basic structure and the list of editorial gaffes goes on and on. I own three of her books (which I just want to go through with a big red pen) and all three have different publishers. I know people who would enjoy reading her stories but I can’t bear to give a copy as a gift because the lack of editing is embarrassing—for me!

She might not realize how bad it is since she publishes time and again. I don’t understand why she won’t have an editor look at her work (or even run it through Word before sending it to the publisher) but if I were an agent who saw her stuff, I’d insist on editing before publishing. She now has a reputation for doing slipshod work, even among those of us who enjoy the storytelling. Writers in similar genres who have quoted her or quoted portions of her stories in their own work have often made side comments that they’ve had to “extensively edit” the source material. I certainly wouldn’t want people to tackle my book with a big red pen and then snark about it. I’d rather say “Yes, give me some editorial feedback.”

I bring this up because I feel that having an editor look at your work is never a bad idea, even if you have luck at getting published. You might gain new insight about your work. An editor might catch that you have a continuity error. If you absolutely, positively refuse to do one lick of editing (“it’s perfect the way it is”), your only solution to seeing your work in print might be going the POD route. Self-publishing is a second option but it can be expensive and a writer who won’t pay for an edit probably isn’t interested in paying to self-publish either.

If you decide to go POD but do your own editing, keep in mind that some POD publishers limit the number of times you may go back and make corrections. If you’re paying up front to have your book published, get it as ready-to-print as possible. If you go back to fix things one time too many, you may have to pay again.

Q: Won’t I make more money if I go POD?

A: Not necessarily. As mentioned above, POD is often pay-in-advance. You’ll have to hustle to recoup those costs, giving up writing time, personal time, etc. to promote your book and sell copies. Having a website where people can order simply won’t be enough. You need to be out there pushing yourself and your book if you want to break even. As we mentioned, POD publishers often set a high cover price. Very, very few POD writers make any money back, much less a significant profit.

If you have the patience to go through a trade publisher, they pay you royalties from the sale of your book. No matter how you publish, educate yourself on how royalties work and what you can expect to reap from sales. Read your contracts carefully.

No matter what publishing route you take, prepare yourself not to ask, “Would I have made more money if I’d gone the other route?” Second-guessing your rewards won’t do you any good after the fact.

Q: I’m not publishing to make money. I’m publishing to get my art out there. Since I don’t care how much money I make, wouldn’t POD be a good choice for me?

A: It might be the perfect answer for you. If you have the money to POD several copies of your work and hand it out (or sell it for less than you paid), the very idea that people are reading your stuff can give you a real high. You could get your book out there, get a following, and then print your next book however you like (you might want to POD again). If the artistic pursuit is most important, go for it!

You also might be publishing for other reasons than making money or seeing your name on the cover of your Great Novel. If you’ve gathered Grandma Louise’s recipes (along with her interesting stories, of course), maybe you could turn to POD. The next time one of your cousins asks you for the sweet potato pie recipe, you can tell him to get his own copy.

Café Press has a POD-like program that is free to you. You can buy copies of your own book to distribute or link to Café Press from your blog or Website and allow people to buy that way. It might be a good way to do POD without sinking a lot of money into it.

Q: I want control over the way my book is marketed so I think I should go POD.

A: Good idea, so long as you have the time to get out there and sell, sell, sell! Ways to promote your POD book include creating a website (with order form), going to bookstores for signings and readings, attending festivals (not just book festivals but anything relevant to your topic) and doing radio or TV interviews. Keep in mind that promoting isn’t free. You’ll have to get to all these places, transport copies of the books, buy gas or even plane tickets.

Some bookstores, usually major chains, refuse to carry POD books; I heard a staff member at my local Borders discussing this with an author the last time I was in the store. It’s part of that POD stigma we mentioned. Smaller, independent bookstores are more flexible. Some might consider doing a consignment type of deal with you. See the AB article on zines for more info on self-promotion, working with bookstores, etc.

Q: I’m a little wary about publishing at all. How do I know if I’m getting taken?

A: If less-than-complete confidence is holding you back, take a deep breath. If you aren’t confident about getting an agent, you probably shouldn’t rush to a publisher instead. It’s okay to get a few rejections first; don’t let the possibility of rejection stop you from trying to get your book to a publisher. The first part of this article gave good examples of what to look for in a legitimate publisher.

Learn as much as you can about your publisher, POD or otherwise. Unless they’re absolute scam artists, they are not going to take “My Masterpiece” and run with it. Even a scammy vanity publisher will hang around long enough to get paid. Once you pay them, why do they still need your manuscript? Don’t sink your money into publishing unless you’re confident about the publisher with whom you’re working. If you’re unsure about it, keep querying those agents (See AB articles The short, sweet guide to writing query letters and So You’ve Finished Your Novel: Now What?)


I’ve decided to go POD. Now what?

  • Familiarize yourself with the legal aspects of POD. If you’re publishing Grandma Louise’s Best Cajun Recipes, this might not be relevant to you. If you’re doing a POD novel, for example, you need to learn about contracts, rights, payment, “fair royalty” etc. We have included a list of relevant URLs at the bottom of this article for your reference. You might also want to speak to a lawyer before you sign anything, especially a check.
  • Tell yourself that you’re probably not going to be 100% happy with the artistic aspects of the book and that’s okay. Sure by skipping the editor, the content is exactly what you want—the cover, typeface, paper quality, etc. won’t be (unless you’re very lucky). If you want more say over these cosmetic aspects, think about holding out for a trade publisher. You might not have much more say but in general the quality is better and you’ll be happier with the finished product.
  • Get ready to sell, sell, sell! As mentioned earlier, you need to promote your book. If you don’t intend to get it out there, why are you publishing in the first place? Whether you’re publishing to make money or just to share your work with the world, you’ll need to let people know about it somehow.

POD can be the ideal solution for many writers. The best advice we can give, as writers to other writers, is to make sure you’re not “settling” for POD. If POD is your first choice and the best for you and your work, go for it!


Relevant links for more information

On publishing:

On POD:

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