Making Book

First-time authors gamble on a new form of publishing taking its first shaky steps

You need not bother reading this, Stephen King. Nor you, John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark or you folks who crank out all that warm and fuzzy "chicken soup" drivel. You brand-name authors, rolling in high-dollar advances, celestial sales numbers and permanent spots on The New York Times best-seller list, aren't who they're looking for in the latest and still experimental approaches to book publishing. Likely as not, none of you Doubleday-Simon & Schuster-Random House big shots have ever heard of Xlibris in Philadelphia or 1st Books Library in Bloomington, Indiana, or Dallas' Authorlink and Brown Books.

What they and dozens like them are doing, if their press releases and many of their writers are to be believed, is tossing a lifeline to those determined to get their books published and weary of having New York's publishers slam doors in their faces.

The would-be authors' need to provide the world an opportunity to read their own attempt at the Great American Novel or philosophical take on world affairs has, in effect, created a new industry called print-on-demand, or POD, books. Some critics, including most book-section editors of the nation's major newspapers who have hard-line policies against reviewing such offerings, view them as vanity publishing disguised in sheep's clothing.

Doris Booth, founder of Authorlink, says print-on-demand is the next big thing in publishing, though she's switching to traditional publishing.
Peter Calvin
Doris Booth, founder of Authorlink, says print-on-demand is the next big thing in publishing, though she's switching to traditional publishing.
Frank Thomas hawks his POD book, Madre de Dios, at B Dalton Books at Town East Mall. Two hours of hustling netted him seven sales.
Peter Calvin
Frank Thomas hawks his POD book, Madre de Dios, at B Dalton Books at Town East Mall. Two hours of hustling netted him seven sales.

Not necessarily so, says Doris Booth, founder and president of Authorlink. "Print-on-demand, I believe, is the future of publishing. Right now, there is an ongoing shakeout process that occurs with any new business concept, but even the major publishers are acknowledging that the POD idea is here to stay."

Technical mumbo jumbo aside, it is a revolutionary new approach whereby you, the reader, can order, say, Dallas writer Frank Thomas' 362-page supernatural novel, Madre de Dios/Mother of God. A few computer buttons get pushed and, faster than you can say "royalty check," a slick-looking single copy is printed and shipped to you. For his publisher, 1st Books, there's no warehousing problem, no worry that thousands of books will sit unwanted and unsold. For Thomas, a disillusioned screenwriter-turned-novelist, it is simply a welcomed avenue to the status of published author.

For a couple of thousand bucks, 1st Books took his on-disc manuscript, converted it into book form, provided an attractive cover and alerted book distributors and Web site operators that it was available. As a bonus they allowed Thomas (and all their other authors) to retain all rights to the book. That way, if a big-time house decides it wants to snap it up or Hollywood comes calling, he's free to open negotiations.

And while he's sold only a couple of hundred copies since the novel's May publication, he's not only encouraged but at work on the second book of the trilogy he has planned.

Though generally pleased with the efforts of his publisher and the product it ultimately produced for him, the 51-year-old Thomas is quick to acknowledge the shortcomings of the POD industry. After spending four years researching and writing his first novel, he explored the options available to him: the traditional publisher, self-publishing and print-on-demand. Like so many unknowns, he was quickly discouraged by the lack of response from major publishing houses. And the cost of self-publishing ("Any author who goes that route is crazy, or very wealthy") was prohibitive. Thus he opted to go the POD route.

Aggressively working a Saturday-afternoon crowd at the bustling Town East Mall in Mesquite, Thomas views himself as a pioneer in an industry that will only get better. "At this stage of its development," he admits, "it is terribly flawed." Current POD publishers, he points out, do little more than print a book and provide little promotional help. "I hired my own editor and proofreader," Thomas says, "to be as sure as possible that the finished product was as good as possible."

M.I.T. and Kellogg School of Business graduate Jason Junge, author of the nonfiction Why Freedom, took the same route after Xlibris agreed to publish his book. The 28-year-old Dallas-based management consultant knew that his book on the relevance and practice of freedom around the world would have a limited audience. "The only traditional publisher I even approached," he says, "was M.I.T. Press. When they passed on it, I went to Xlibris."

What the contract he signed called for was $1,600 to have his book published. The expenses, however, did not stop there. Since Xlibris provides no editing (as all traditional publishers do), he paid an additional $1,700 for an "independent editor." Then there was $375 for the "marketing package," which included a press release, bookmarks to give out as promotional items and a list of suggestions on how he might find an audience for his work.

"Publishing this book," he admits, "was never a monetary thing for me. It is just something I'd always wanted to do. I knew that my subject matter was too specialized to appeal to a major publisher, so the print-on-demand idea was perfect for me."

Since Why Freedom's publication in April, Junge has sold only 100 copies. "I've just about run out of friends and family," he says with a laugh. His goal? "If I could get it in the hands of 1,000 people, I'd be happy and feel it had some impact."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help