Making Book

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

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.

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."

"The biggest problem right now," Thomas says, "is the perception of the industry. The only thing I hadn't prepared myself for was the widespread criticism of print-on-demand books. For a while, that really threw me for a loop." With no apparent concern for the quality of books submitted and printed, a large amount of what he calls "gunk" is being produced by POD publishers. "The good books, written by people with talent and something to say, are getting lost in the flood of those without merit," he says.

It is that problem, he says, that has caused reviewers to turn away. Thus self-promotion has become a full-time project for Thomas and others like him. Seeking alternative methods for selling their books, they do signings at coffee shops, send out a flood of e-mails to potential customers and speak to any group that will offer an invitation. "If you go the POD route," he acknowledges, "you had best be prepared to become a promoter and salesman."

The POD publishers, writes skeptic Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books, know that the best market for the books they produce is the author himself. Though they offer royalties that range from 20 to 45 percent on the net sales, their first 100 or so books are generally bought by the writer (who, in turn, attempts to resell them, use them as promotional copies or gifts to family and friends). If, for instance, a publisher has 10,000 writers ordering 100 copies of their own book, they're going to realize a profit in the millions while the authors aren't making enough to cover the gas to their next book signing.

Neither Thomas nor Junge is expecting big paydays. Now at work on the second installment of his trilogy, Thomas hopes that if he can eventually sell 1,500-2,000 copies of Madre de Dios he can attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. "It doesn't take a large spark to ignite a fire," he says.

Thomas sees himself as something of a literary pioneer. "I'm not likely to ever see much financial reward, but in days to come there will be those [writers] who will."

That said, he admits that with his next book, he'll visit the traditional publishing houses first.

Authorlink's Booth, who has heard the frustration of authors she's published in the last three years, says the greatest difficulty she's faced has been the unrealistic expectations of writers and their failure to fully understand the realities of the industry. For that reason, she has decided to ease out of the POD business and into the more traditional publishing. "Still," she says, "I know the day is coming when print-on-demand is going to play a big role in publishing."

But not until a new industry mind-set emerges. "For now," she admits, "the taint attached to POD books is difficult to overcome--for the publisher as well as the author. Too many bad books, unedited and poorly printed, are being poured into the marketplace. Not only does it harm the industry, but many of the writers who are seriously trying to make a name for themselves. When a mainstream publisher learns that he or she has previously been published only by print-on-demand, they quickly lose interest." It is that "taint," she says, that recently caused her to rethink the direction of her company.

"Only when the POD industry improves its overall quality and convinces the bookstore chains and book reviewers that they're doing something worthwhile, will it gain a foothold. In this business, distribution is every bit as important as the quality of a book. And it results only when bookstore owners indicate they're ready to find space on their shelves for the books."

Inroads, though still difficult to negotiate, have been made. Several of the major book distributors have agreed to work with print-on-demand publishers, thus making their books available to stores that put in special orders at a customer's request. "In effect," Thomas says, "your book is available in thousands of bookstores across the country." It just isn't sitting on the shelf.

Dallas' Nelli Brown has, she insists, come up with a better idea for those looking for a publishing avenue that is below the traditional route and above the outright vanity presses. She calls it "relationship publishing." That means her 12-year-old Brown Books, which has published almost 400 titles to date, is a cash-up-front operation, which, on its face, sounds very much like old-time vanity publishing. "That," she says, "is not the case at all. First, we are selective about what we publish. If an author or whoever is ghosting his book for him can't write, we're not interested. We have qualified editors who work with the authors and designers from Random House who do our covers.  

I'm an entrepreneurial publisher working with entrepreneurial authors, people who don't want to deal with the business side of New York publishing."

No fan of the print-on-demand book, she sees it as a way for an author to "dip his toe into the [publishing] water without really making a commitment." "It is very unlikely," she says, "that you or your book will succeed with that kind of approach."

For fees that average from $7,500 to $20,000 (depending on the number of books printed), Brown not only promises her authors quality books but counsels them on promotion and sales techniques. "I think the landscape of publishing is going to change drastically in the years to come, and Brown Books is going to be one of the leaders," she insists. "Within the next year I plan to have one of our books on The New York Times best-seller list."

Southlake president of an executive search company, Jim Loose, who recently published My Father's Eyes, a novelized recollection of his father's involvement in the World War II Battle of Riva, hopes that Brown Books best seller will be his. While he has not yet seen sales figures since the book's February debut, he's optimistic. An article written on him and his book by a Maryland public relations firm he commissioned has appeared in hundreds of newspapers across the country; he's done numerous radio interviews and travels constantly to keep speaking engagements and sell his book.

Promoting a book, he's learned, is every bit as difficult as writing one. "But I think I'm off to an encouraging start," he says. "I'm quite pleased."

While the 47-year-old author is eager to talk about his book, he is mum on the cost of getting it into print.

And as Loose ponders his next promotional step, fellow writer Thomas is wrapping up a two-hour book signing in front of B. Dalton at Town East Mall. He'd been hustling and hawking, handing out fliers and urging Saturday-afternoon shoppers to stop and let him tell them about his novel. He was tired at day's end, but pleased.

He'd sold seven books.

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