The Science Bit: How Does POD Actually Work?

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If you’ve just joined us, let me try and catch you up.

[Takes deep breath]

I’m self-publishing a travel mem-wah using a popular Print On Demand (POD) service which I don’t think is going to make me rich, famous or suddenly eligible for the US Green Card that will permit me to live happily ever after in the United States (or even live there miserably; I wouldn’t mind either way) and in fact am so aware of the realities of this game – I know the most likely outcome is a sales figure of 7, all bought by my Mum – that I am referring to it not as self-publishing but self-printing, because that’s all POD really is – printing copies of something you wrote in a form that looks suspiciously like but clearly is not a proper book.

Phew. That was a long sentence.

Oh, and there’s also been some talk of Rafellius the Great.

Today we’re going to talk about how POD actually works. I’m focusing on two of the major players, Lulu and Createspace (CS for the rest of this post; I’m lazy), both of whom offer similar services but with maddeningly slight differences that one only discovers by either (a) using them or (b) trawling through their forums which as I’ve already demonstrated, is only a good idea if you happen to like the smell of bonkers in the morning.

Both services basically boil down to the following process:

  1. You write something on a Word document
  2. You upload it to the POD website
  3. You ‘design’ a ‘cover’ using their software*
  4. Magical fairies descend
  5. A book is created
  6. You are around €10 worse off
  7. If other people want to be €15 worse off, they order your book
  8. Magical fairies descend again
  9. Another book is created
  10. You are paid the difference between the cost and the sale price
  11. Repeat as required.

What’s good about POD is that you can make a physical copy of your book complete with ISBN and barcode that you can then try to coerce people into buying from sites like Amazon, and you can do it with minimal outlay. (If you take the basic route – no extended distribution, no editorial or design help, no fancy paper – you can do it for the price of your proof copy, generally around €15/£13/$20.) Therefore when it turns out that the latest New York Times best-seller isn’t going to be the story of the year you spent collecting the discarded staples you found by the automatic sheet feed on the office photocopier – Staples: A Year in Office Supplies – you’re only a few Euro/pounds/dollars out.

What’s bad is:

– The quality. Physically, comparing a book produced by an actual, real-life publishing house to a POD book is like comparing the Mona Lisa to the postcards of her they sell in the Louvre’s gift shop. Chances are your opus hasn’t been professionally edited either or in some cases even spellchecked. Simple elements like title pages, copyright notices, headings and indexes are either missing, incorrectly placed or in Wingdings. Text is sometimes larger than the books in the large print section of the library would look under a magnifying glass and the cover is about as appealing as a used wax strip.**

self published books

Quality: This is the cover of one of the proof copies I’ll be telling you about next time. This has hardly been read but the cover is already curling back; it’s nowhere near as thick as a ‘proper’ book.

– The lies. Well, lies is a strong word. They don’t actually lie, I suppose. I should say that for legal reasons. It’s more of a sin of omission.*** For example, both Lulu and CS say things like ‘Brick-and-mortar bookstores can order your book wholesale from us.’ Yes theoretically they can, but they’re not going to. It’s like me saying I’m going to marry John Mayer (which I won’t be saying anymore, mind you, after last week’s shenanigans). Theoretically it could happen – we’re both adults, straight and one of us is willing – but it’s not going to. Another example: Lulu.com’s website is heavy on advertising their premium services and light on telling everyone that you can do it without any of them. When I went to order my proof copy, I found a ‘Publishing Package’ in my shopping cart worth nearly two thousand euro (yes, two thousand euro) which I felt was misleading. It reminds me of those vanity presses that invite you to ‘submit your manuscript’ as if they’ll determine your publishing suitability on something other than whether or not your credit card authorization goes through.

You have to do everything yourself. Other than crank up the printing press, you are entirely responsible for every aspect of producing your book and then selling it. Editing, layout, design, marketing, promotion – basically all those things publishing houses have entire departments for. While on one hand this is kind of fun and exciting, on at least three other hands it’s scary, daunting and likely to induce brain ache.

– It’s embarrassing. There, I said it. I’m mortified about this whole thing. I was bad enough with self-publishing – not even a good therapist could convince me it’s different from an actor writing, directing and starring in his own movie before he’s got a part in any other ones – but publishing with a POD makes it even worse. I got a particular helpful cashier in Waterstones last week and so decided to ask a few questions about who decides what’s stocked in their stores; when it came time to mutter those god awful three letters (‘P…O…D’) you could have warmed fajitas on my face.****

But what other choice did I have? I didn’t have thousands of euro to cover the costs of printing my book with any other service and if I did, I’d probably spend it on shoes. (Or Apollo program memorabilia. Or an industrial coffee machine. Or an Orlando time share.) And maybe – probably – no one would buy it anyway. The only thing worse than being a couple of grand out of pocket is being a couple of grand out of pocket for the boxes of untouched books shoved under your bed.

So POD it was. I was kinda smart, right? (Well, caffeinated anyway.) I’d find a way to make this work for me.

*More on those quotation marks in a later post. **Before you start scribbling your hate mail, I’m talking about the majority of books self-published with POD services – NOT all of them and NOT books self-published in other ways. ***Tangent warning: disappeared there for a few minutes to look up Sins of Omission by Irish writer Gemma O’Connor on Amazon. Looks like it’s out of print now but Boy George was that a good book. Still remember the shock of the twist and I read it 15 years ago. Must see if I can get my hands on a copy…****If it’s soooo embarrassing, I hear you say, then why do it? Because the pain of leaving the book to biodegrade in a drawer is much, much worse.

Read all my self-printing posts or read about the book I self-printed.

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6 thoughts on “The Science Bit: How Does POD Actually Work?

  1. movienewsfirst says:

    Hiya, good post on Lulu, etc. Didn’t print mine with POD service though did think about it. The cost element is definitely a plus and not having to pay a large sum of money up front. Just to let you know, there’s a new company http://www.theauthorsfriend.com/ in Ireland, which does “assisted publishing” They charge different fees for printing, binding, etc and sales/marketing. Know a girl who has her own publishing company who has used them for short print runs and found them reasonable. Can’t say myself, but maybe would be worth checking out?

  2. catherineryanhoward says:

    I’ll definitely have a look at it. I’m going to go the POD route for this because I’m stoney broke and because my sales expectations are minimal! 😉 I also want to see if it’s possible to produce a quality book using their service, one that doesn’t look too POD, if you know what I mean! I know you’ve been through this so any advice at all you can swing me way, please do!

    Cath 🙂

  3. Josa Young says:

    As extensively available all over internet, I dabbled in POD via Authorhouse as they offered me a very cut price ride. This was due to writing a piece about self publishing for a magazine. They do a bit more than Lulu, which I also investigated. Anyway, as soon as the real thing started happening I cancelled it. Odd thing is I got royalty cheque yesterday – I had forgotten that part of package was putting books in a Waterstones somewhere in West End. At full price of £10.99 (with some typos and a rather weird cover I designed myself). All seven had sold. Why? Who buys self-published books in Waterstones for £10.99? Wish I knew. Also, I only received 59p ‘royalty’ Why? It is all so mysterious. You are very funny and maybe should aim higher?

  4. catherineryanhoward says:

    Why thank you Josa! 🙂 59p sounds a bit low alright! I am aiming higher – just with a novel. Poor Mousetrapped (the book I’m self-publishing) is non-fiction and has been rejected all over town due to its audience being so small. It just wouldn’t pay a publishing house to take it on. But I worked so hard on it and it’s the first book I ever finished, I just couldn’t face leaving it to languish in a drawer so decided to try this instead. However I have just finished a novel which is sitting somewhere in an agent’s office right now awaiting judgement (!) – you definitely won’t catch me self-publishing that. I’ll be submitting that until I get a yes/until the world comes to an end. 😉

  5. Josa Young says:

    It took me nearly 15 years to get One Apple Tasted published, and readers really seem to like it. Don’t give up. But do start writing the next and the next ones before you get a response. Good luck. What is Mousetrapped about? And POD is find for niche audiences, can work really well for organisations etc.

  6. catherineryanhoward says:

    What Mousetrapped is about is kind of the problem! In a nutshell, it’s about the eighteen months I spent living in Orlando and working in Disney World, but it’s also about NASA, Space Shuttles, New Urbanism, learning to drive, the Ebola virus and “searching for happiness in the happiest place on Earth.” If you visit http://www.mousetrappedbook.com you can read the first chapter and see the table the contents – that should give you an idea.

    I have quite realistic expectations and see this as more an experiment than anything, i.e. can you produce/market/sell a good quality book using something as cheap as POD? We’ll soon find out!

    One Apple Tasted is on my (ever-growing) list of Books I Want to Read By People I Follow on Twitter. I can see from other people’s tweets about it that it promises to be a great read! 🙂

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