Stop the Presses!

What Aspiring Authors Must Know About Print-on-Demand Publishing

Want to publish your Great American Novel or that can’t-miss professional book? The growth of the print-on-demand (POD) publishing industry means it’s never been easier, but beware—POD publishing is not as simple, nor as profitable, as you might think.

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Print-on-demand (POD) publishers offer a simple hook: Write a book, and they’ll publish it. POD (the label describes both a production method and a form of self-publishing) publishers print each copy as it’s ordered, so you don’t have to foot the bill for printing large runs or fill your garage with unsold books, as in traditional self-publishing. Nor do you run the risk of repeated rejection from the big publishing houses.

For some, the enticement of using POD is that no one will reject your words—unless they’re libelous—but others choose POD because they think they can make more money from book sales compared with traditional self-publishing houses. However, that’s often wishful thinking, because traditional publishers pay money upfront—an advance against royalties—which sales from POD books rarely exceed.   

Another thing POD delivers is control, but that’s a double-edged sword: Authors have the potential to make higher profits from each sale and have their products look exactly how they demand, but they also must do all their own marketing and promotion. POD publishers are, at their heart, just printing services, and although they tout marketing and publicity packages, those extras are expensive and probably won’t do much in terms of increasing sales.

After you choose a printing method, the rest is a cliffhanger. Could you be the next Brunonia Barry, whose self-published first novel, “The Lace Reader,” was picked up by a mainstream publisher for a reported $2 million? (Barry decided on a traditional self-publishing approach, rather than POD, and she and her husband reportedly spent more than $50,000 on printing and marketing.)

Your chances of replicating Barry’s success are slim. A bestseller is unlikely even for an author who has an agent and is backed by a large publishing house with a good publicist. Authors going it alone typically fare worse.

Consider this: Of the 800 books POD publisher iUniverse publishes a year, only two or three a month  get picked up by traditional publishers, says Susan Driscoll of Author Solutions, which operates POD publishers AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Wordclay.  

SHOW ME THE MONEY. Clearly, POD publishers aren’t making the bulk of their profits from authors selling copies. They also might not make any money even from assembling it. For instance, you can publish your book free at Lulu, a POD publisher, but you’ll have to do the work yourself—editing and proofreading the text, formatting the book and designing the cover. And, of course, ordering copies costs money.

Stacking Them Up: A Sampler of POD Publishers

Stacking Them Up: A Sampler of POD Publishers

It’s in the process of helping you transform your manuscript into a book where POD publishers appear to make most of their money. Splurging on a deluxe cover at Lulu—one “designed from scratch, by a professional with considerable knowledge of how to attract both publishers and buyers,” will cost you $1,000. You can spend another $250 formatting the pages and chapters, deciding on such things as the typeface, or font, chapter headings and margins. Then add $350 for an editor’s analysis, which includes only a five- to eight-page sample edit of your work, meaning it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to editing costs.  

Writers Weekly reports that, realistically, publishing a POD book costs between $295 and $1,852 for getting the manuscript set to print, designing a cover, creating a print proof of the book, using a limited number of photos/graphics, obtaining an ISBN (International Standard Book Number, which all books have) and bar code, getting listed by a book distributor and getting into print in 6 months.

“The POD companies are printers, not publishers,” says Jerry D. Simmons, a former Time Warner Book Group Executive and founder of, a social networking Web site for independent book authors. Additional services easily tack on $1,000 to $1,500 to the typical fee, Simmons says. To recoup the initial investment, you would have to sell around 350 copies. Most iUniverse titles sell about 240 copies apiece, a number that drops to about 180 at other companies, Driscoll says.

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