POD is to Self-Publishing what Free is to Music

The concept of self publishing is as old as books. Before the advent of modern publishing companies, people ended up publishing and distributing their own work.

It is said that the publishing industry has remained more or less the same since Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing in 15th century. Of course the printing presses have become increasingly sophisticated with the advance of technology, but the basic model has remained the same. This model can print many copies of a book quickly and cheaply once a certain amount of time has been invested in setting up the type. With the advent of mass market retailing in 20th century, this technology proved to be just the right match : print in bulk, distribute, return the unused, destroy. Books are printed in runs of few thousands and distributed to offline stores which can return back the unused copies later. The minimum number of copies required to make this process work ( to generate a profit for everybody along the chain) primarily determines which books get published and which are not. Self publishing, which would have been a norm before the publishing companies came along is quite unsustainable in this setting since that usually means one man (author) replacing the whole chain of publishing industry (printing, distributing, sales).

Enter the digital printing and suddenly, very short print runs are feasible, down to hundreds from thousands required in offset printing. In fact, there are companies who will happily print 20-25 copies for you. This allows publishers to become a lot more inclusive and a lot more adventurous. However, given that they are still part of the old supply chain and given that profit still needs to be generated for everybody in the chain, very small print runs are still not viable. So although the technology is now in place, business practices of traditional publishing still need to evolve.

But does the self publishing become a viable option with these very small print runs? After all the financial risk is almost negligible now, most authors can afford to pay for 100 copies easily, so a print run offering of 25 should suffice. I would argue that although that would seem to be the case, it is not so. Let me draw an analogy with music industry.

Let us say, you are a independent band who wants to release your songs yourself through the net. Suppose you decide to charge only 1 cent for every song you sell online. This is a very reasonable price tag. Almost free. But would it work like free? No. Because the moment any money is involved, you need an online payment system in place, you need to maintain accounts, your customers have to have a way to pay you (credit card, net banking), you have to build the whole security system in place so that people can not share, steel songs from you for free of cost and n number of other things. The point is : Making something free is a totally different business model that charging 1 cent for it although in terms of money they look almost the same.

Now coming back to publishing, a similar contrast can be seen between true Print on Demand vs a short digital run (20-25 copies). With short digital runs, somebody ( which is the author in most cases) has to maintain inventory, do the distribution, ensure delivery, bear losses on any unsold books, maintain accounts and promote his books. With POD, he only has to promote his books since there do not exist any unsold, pre-manufactured copies of the book. With short digital runs, books can go out of print, for short durations while you get a reprint, for long durations, when you no longer have energy left to fulfill the one off demand that comes once a month. With POD, it always stays in print. Even if it sells no copies for 1 year, it remains as much in stock.

The self-publishing in which author pays the publishing house to print their books, also known as vanity publishing has been around always. It can be offered with as many bells and whistles as one wants, it will remain what it is : a financial burden and hassle for the author. The game changer in this picture is Print on Demand. So if you are considering self-publishing your book, ask for true POD, because even 5 copies a bunch won't cut it.

Disclaimer : I am one of the founders of pothi.com which provides true Print on Demand supported services to self-publishing authors in India.

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Anonymous said…
PoD is an interesting concept. Maybe this site could tie up with some other sites to promote the books too.

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