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Publishing on Demand Changes the Equation of Self-Publishing

by Marcia Yudkin

[Note:  Prices listed below were those in 1999.  In most cases, they have gone up since then.  However, the issues discussed are still pertinent.]

Last October, after my agent returned from publishing's annual international book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, I asked what the biggest buzz there was about. "These new machines that make it possible to print books one at a time in a couple of minutes," she replied. "Publishers are excited because they can use the technology to keep books in print indefinitely. But for authors, that means it could be harder to get their rights back. Books will never go out of print, but they may not really be available for bookstores, either. What counts as 'out of print' is going to become a battleground between publishers and authors."

Interesting, I thought, and mentally filed this information away for the time I negotiated my next book contract. Not until a few months later did I realize, after someone suggested that I visit the Web site of a company offering publishing on demand, that this new book production technology has promise for writers trying to get their manuscripts into print to begin with. To the machinery my agent had seen demonstrated, several companies have added a bundle of production, marketing and sales services tailored to authors.

Publishing on demand thus makes it possible for writers to get books that look every bit like those in bookstores out to readers worldwide for less than $1,000 up front, and without most of the hassles experienced by first-time self-publishers.

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"It's a way to produce a handsome book without tying up capital," says New Mexico writer Nelson Winkless, whose book The Elements of Business Communication is now in print from Trafford Publishing, an on-demand publishing company based in British Columbia, Canada. He's also grateful to get in print without getting taken for a ride by printers and binders, having to deal with stores that want to return scuffed-up books for full credit, struggling to get ISBN numbers and fighting business systems still largely stuck in the eighteenth century. "Trafford's on-demand system takes the curse off most of that."

Gone now is the need for self-publishers to warehouse thousands of books at a time, in order to get cost-effective pricing. M. Boughton Boone, a Florida writer who also helps organizations produce books in small quantities for fundraising or historical purposes, explains that if someone were to self-publish a 200-page book through conventional offset printing, it might cost $2,850 or so for the first 500 copies, or $5.69 per copy. Printing 3,000 copies would cost around $4,400, for just $1.46 per copy. But to get the low cost per copy, one has to scrape together those thousands of dollars and then risk not being able to sell the books.

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Boone is now planning to order books through Xerox's Book in Time division. She'll be helping an organization creating an anthology dedicated to survivors of abuse and neglect print up just 100 copies to start with for an upfront cost, including typesetting and covers and the books themselves, of around $600, yielding them a net profit of $6.95 per copy. Afterwards they plan to order 10 or 20 copies at a time to sell at meetings and speeches, which would be even less cost-effective with offset printing.

For the kind of church histories and school anthologies whose publication Boone facilitates, there's little need for the package deal offered by most other publishing on demand firms. Most other one-by-one printing companies catering to self-publishers also arrange the bar codes and ISBN numbers needed for bookstore sales, offer online sales at the company Web site, set up their books for sales through and other online bookstores, perform Internet publicity and more. Instead of packing and shipping orders, their authors can concentrate on helping to drum up sales.

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Setup fees for on-demand publishing packages range from $299 to $950, but the amount of money the author makes per book created and sold varies from different firms too. Xlibris charges $750 up front for the all-inclusive package and offers authors royalties of 50 percent of the gross profit. Trafford charges $950 for its package and pays authors 75 percent of the gross profit per book. Unlike Xlibris, Trafford allows the author to set the retail price of the book and thereby the royalty amount he or she receives per book produced and sold. UPublish charges just $395 up front but doesn't pay the author any royalties at all for the first three books sold in any calendar quarter.

For Wyoming freelance writer Don Tiggre, timing was the primary factor that took him to Xlibris for the publication of his first novel, Y2K: The Millennium Bug. Waiting for mainstream publishers to make up their minds about the book might have taken him past the window of opportunity for his tie-in with the year 2000. From August 1998 through mid-March 1999 he had sold around 400 copies of his novel, and called his experience "mixed."

Tiggre told me that while Xlibris did everything they had promised to do, they didn't do it when they'd promised to do it. "Since they don't own their own machine, it's not quite publishing on demand, but several weeks after demand. They need to save up enough orders to go do a print run, which meant in the early stages people waiting more than two months for the books they'd ordered. Now it seems to be down to them printing every two weeks or so." The other obstacle Tiggre has faced is Xlibris' pricing and discount structure. "A large distributor, Laissez Faire, wanted to take on my book, but the economics weren't feasible for them."

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Still, on-demand publishing makes great sense for books targeted to a very narrow niche. Lucas Aykroyd of Victoria, British Columbia, knew that his 1984: The Ultimate Van Halen Trivia Book had appeal only for fans of the classic rock bank, Van Halen. Through Trafford, Aykroyd has sold about 500 copies of his book to fans from as far away as Norway and Japan. He set the price so that he would get about $6.00 per copy sold, and notes that in his kind of a niche market, buyers are not particularly price-sensitive. In addition, Trafford does usually print and ship in 24 hours, keeping those raving fans happy.

For prolific author Ardath Mayhar, who has published over 40 books with mainstream and semi-mainstream publishers, the lure of on-demand publishing with Xlibris was being able to have total control of her book project. "The publishing business is no longer interested in stand-alone or non-bestseller-type books," Mayhar says. "My book A Road of Stars had gone to many publishers over the years, who found it to be 'too short' or 'not commercial.' But the multinationals can't hinder my career now."

Mayhar believes the on-demand option most benefits those like herself who already have a following for their work. She pronounces herself "very happy with the quality and look of the book, and happy, so far, with the prompt and complete royalty statements. I no longer have to worry that I am being cheated of my book's earnings, and the relief to my blood pressure is considerable."

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Others decided to go with publishing on demand because of the time-worn lure of inexpensive ego gratification. Massachusetts freelancer Rachel Barenblat became frustrated with the lack of interest from small literary presses in an anthology of pieces from a workshop she teaches, and signed up with Xlibris. Besides reveling in the complete control she had over the book's layout and design, she says, "I know there will never be piles of my book, unsold, mouldering on some warehouse floor. And that's a good feeling. We've sold about 40 copies so far, which doesn't make it profitable, yet, but we all chipped in towards the cost of publication so that we can make our work available to others, not to make money."

One possible drawback of the on-demand route is that unlike either going with an established publisher who exercises quality control, or establishing your own label through self-publishing, you might find yourself sharing a publishing label with authors whose work might not be up to many people's literary standards. At two of the publishing-on-demand web sites I visited, the first randomly selected sets of book excerpts I looked at made me shudder, they were so riddled with typos or awkward writing.

But with the quick access to book buyers, environmental friendliness, creative control and minimal up-front investment possible with this method of publishing, I'm seriously considering publishing on demand for books I could easily promote online and sell by mail or through seminars. Even with the mainstream, the stigma attached to self-publishing has faded to the extent that the Literary Guild has recently committed itself to offering a self-published erotic thriller called Lip Service, by M.J. Rose, to its book club members. And a dozen established publishing companies are bidding against each other in an auction to launch the book in traditional fashion. With publishing on demand technology, the next outrageous success could certainly be you!

Publishing on Demand Companies

Copyright 1999 Marcia Yudkin.   All rights reserved. 


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