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December 18, 2017
By Brooke Warner
How print-on-demand publishing subtly marginalizes indie authors.

Print-on-demand publishing seems straightforward enough. For traditional publishers, POD allows backlist titles to be printed to order once inventory dwindles to low or zero. However, POD also functions as a sort of a status indicator—one that can create a certain stigma around the works of self-published authors, especially if it’s their sole method of printing.

On one hand, without POD there would be far fewer indie authors publishing print titles. Because it is less expensive than offset and doesn’t require authors to print a set number of books, POD makes it possible for authors of every stripe to have physical titles for sale. On the other hand, the (largely true) industry assumption is that all self-published books are POD and all traditionally published books use offset printing. If sellers check title availability in databases and find books that are in print but have zero stock, that’s a tip-off that the titles in question are self-published—and that can be a red flag in terms of purchasing decisions.

Because of this, a book’s POD status is yet another way that self-published books are marginalized—but this is such a subtle form of marginalization that most people (including indie authors themselves) are unaware that it’s happening. The stigmatization of POD was even debated at the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting this year. I sat on a panel with an executive from one of the Big Five who insisted that POD is not stigmatized. Later, a bookseller validated this opinion, stating that his store doesn’t care one way or another how a book is printed.

Unfortunately, my own experience and the experiences of authors I’ve worked with don’t align with these assertions. From the vantage point of a traditional publisher, POD is a seamless process. If a book starts its life cycle by having been printed offset, with plenty of inventory during those early months immediately following publication, its eventual move to POD will go unnoticed by bookstores. For these publishers, the act of flipping a book to POD is akin to turning down the tap on a faucet.

"As an author advocate, I’m always on the lookout for problems that certain industry players don’t view as problems. And the stigma associated with POD is one of those problems."
It is the authors who begin with zero stock who get short shrift. In essence, they are branded as self-published, which to many booksellers means extra hassles: unsold books might be more difficult to return, for example, or the author-publisher won’t pay the shipping costs associated with ordering and returning. There’s very little self-published authors can do about this stigma.

As an author advocate, I’m always on the lookout for problems that certain industry players don’t view as problems—simply because said problems do not affect them directly. And the stigma associated with POD is one of those problems.

POD’s quality is better than ever: it’s a good option for many authors, and not just self-published ones. However, as a publisher, I often find myself not suggesting POD to authors because of the negative perception—even when POD would be the better and less-wasteful option for some of them.

The publishing industry would be wise to look toward POD as a long-term solution to reducing the vast amount of waste created by pulping excess offset printing inventory. Accepting POD as equal to offset is a big leap for most industry folks, but it would result in smarter printing decisions and create an environment in which indie authors are given a level playing field rather than one that shuts out certain players.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching, and author of Green-Light Your Book and What’s Your Book?