To POD or Not to POD…

…One Book at a Time.

For the self-published author, the idea of print-on-demand (POD) sounds great—no inventory to store, no unsold issues collecting dust in your basement, no huge cash outlay. What’s not to love?

POD is just another hammer in the self-published author’s toolkit. Like many options in the self-publishing world, it puts much of the cost and responsibility on the author. The self-published author already has the necessary monetary cost of professional editing, or at least proofreading, before publication. E-books can be produced for free under some circumstances (BookBaby now offers a no-cost simple service). And many book publishers offer a variety of print options as well, though for a fee. Amazon’s CreateSpace is probably the best known there.

Until the development of POD, the self-published author who wanted to see their book in print had only one real option—the vanity press. The author had to take on all the tasks of a traditional publisher: manuscript editing; cover design; design, layout and production of text pages for press; printing; warehouse and distribution; marketing; and sales. They could do as much of the above as they were able, and pay for someone else to do the rest. Presses offered many of the necessary services turnkey—but at a price.

POD can eliminate the cost of mass printing.  With traditional print methods, higher quantities brought the per-piece price down. Authors often printed many more books than they could sell to end up with an affordable product for the consumer. With POD comes less need to warehouse inventory and ship large quantities of books to sellers. But this option may not be ideal. No inventory means your books can only be sold in stores with POD machines, or through the author’s website. The customer takes on the cost of printing, but the author has less visibility, if any, in bookstores.

An author who wanted to market their product with readings and book signings might still be forced to pre-print a quantity to have on hand. POD might not be the most cost-effective in that case. Even if a POD machine exists at the venue, I can’t imagine how long a group of people might have to wait to get their books printed. I’d definitely need to investigate that more thoroughly to see if it is a viable option.

And investigate I will. POD may be a cost-effective option for any book I may write under the Green Queen of Moderation umbrella. Since I am a professional publications designer I could take on all of the print production duties (we won’t worry about getting paid for my time, yet). My definite cash costs would include some editing and proofreading—things I would do no matter how I decided to publish.

Viability of POD gets more questionable when I start to consider how I would market the book. E-books offer a relatively inexpensive option, and going through Amazon brings with it some support. Print gets trickier.

I can imagine promoting the book on my website and via social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest). There I could direct potential customers to whichever e-book outlets I end up using, or offer them the option to purchase a PDF that they could then print-on-demand if they have a machine available. That would certainly be cost-effective to me. I imagine many people would like to have the PDF and print only a few pages (a recipe or craft instructions) on their home printer. I’ve purchased and downloaded a number of knitting PDf books and do just that.

To increase my market-share, I would work to find outlets where I could speak on the topic of sustainable living—environment fairs, garden shows, green living, etc. But how would I make the book available at such sites? Would it be worth my expense to print out hard copies to have on hand for direct sales? I can’t know that without answering a huge number of questions about the book—which is barely a kernel of an idea. The quantity and number of pages and color images have a direct impact on the cost of any hard-copy printing. It would probably be more cost-effective to have something that directs buyers to the website where they can then purchase the book. Sadly, that means no autographs.

Perhaps someday, such events and every bookstore will have high-speed POD machines on hand, and customers would purchase on site. At this point, it sounds like a logistical nightmare. But with the way the industry has been changing in giant leaps and bounds, it could be here before I have a book written. The future’s not ours to see, but we can strive to keep up with progress as it happens.

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About Andrea Leigh Ptak

I am a graphic designer, editor and writer who specializes in publications. My 40-year career has included stints as Art Director at a small printing firm, Assistant Art Director at an advertising agency, and Production Manager at both a national advertising agency and a large national printing company. In 1980, I forged out on my own and never looked back. I owned and operated a successful full-service design studio in San Antonio, Texas, from 1980–1992. In 1993, I moved to Seattle, Washington. As the owner of Communicating Words & Images, I work with publication clients from the corporate and non-profit worlds. I also write a blog under the moniker: The Green Queen of Moderation—living an imperfectly sustainable life. The Green Queen shares tips and promotes ideas for sustainable living without going to extremes. Topics include the "re" words (recycling, repurposing, etc.), the green garden, green living, and simple gifts. My interests include gardening, photography, knitting, music of all kinds (I sing), theater, science fiction, and everything about the natural world. Two years ago, I received certification as a Master Urban Naturalist via The Audubon Society.

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