Print on Demand and Self-Publishing: Frequently Asked Questions

Printing press 16th C engravingIn my last post I came out as a POD person – a print-on-demand author. Strictly speaking, I may not have used the term correctly. As several writers have reminded me, print-on-demand refers to the technology, not the business model. Perhaps I should have called myself a self-published author, but the new technology is changing the publishing field so rapidly that definitions are in flux. So I’m not going to back down – I still like the term POD for the publication method I chose. In today’s Q&A, I’m addressing some basic questions.

What is Print on Demand, anyway?

Print on Demand is a printing technology that came into being with the advent of digital printing. In POD, copies of a book or other document are not printed until an order has been received. It’s now possible to produce single copies or very small print runs at a fixed cost per copy. This wasn’t possible with traditional technologies such as letterpress and offset printing, which involve much higher setup costs.

Who uses Print on Demand technology?

Although the term’s commonly used to refer to online publishers who help authors self-publish their books, more and more traditional small presses have switched to POD technology, often contracting their printing out to POD service providers. According to Wikipedia, many academic and university presses are using POD. Large publishers may also use it to reprint older titles or for test marketing.

What’s the difference between Print on Demand and Self-Publishing?

Many companies have sprung up that offer POD services to authors who want to self-publish. Their services include design and layout, printing, shipping, handling copyright and ISBN numbers, and listing the books with online services like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Borders. Self-publishing, on the other hand, can refer to any technology. I know many poets who produce small chap books using the machines at Staples or Kinko’s, and some authors who have self-published by shepherding their own books through the design, printing and distribution process from beginning to end. To me, that would be like slogging through hell, and I’d much rather pay someone else to handle the technical and business aspects.

Will a POD company edit my work?

Edward Munch

Edward Munch

Probably not, unless you pay extra. Most companies offer editing packages for an additional fee. Patricia Stoltey posed the question well: “I’ve read some great books from POD publishers (mostly nonfiction), and also some not so good. The big difference is usually in the editing (or lack thereof). My questions: Do the POD sites make an effort to tell beginning authors that they must not only self-edit, but should often hire a professional editor as well? Or do they offer editing services as part of their contract?”

My publisher, Virtualbookworm, is selective in choosing which manuscripts to accept for publication, and they refuse to publish anything pornographic or excessively violent. Other publishers will accept just about anything that comes their way. The owner of a local independent bookstore established a print-on-demand company several years ago. She’s candidly admitted that she started the new business because she doesn’t expect the bookstore to survive more than another decade. She refers to the POD firm as a printer rather than a publisher, and makes no judgments as to the quality of the books she prints, at least when communicating with the aspiring authors who comprise her customer base. Privately, she’s told me that 90% of what she publishes is crap.

Morgan Mandel, who published two previous books with a small press, posted an interesting comment on Friday’s blog. She said in part, “This time, I went the self-publishing route for Killer Career. It’s very liberating to call the shots myself, but it’s a lot more work than having a publisher do it for you. . . . I received a thorough edit three times from Helen Ginger and I’m confident my book is the best it can be.”

People often ask me who edited my books, and I reply, “I did.” However, I have professional experience in copyediting and journalism, and both my mysteries went through exhaustive critiques in three writing groups, so I’m confident of their quality. Feedback from readers has validated my judgment.

With so little quality control in the POD field, how do you convince people your work is worth reading, let alone buying?

Good question, but I’m going to save it for Wednesday’s post. In the meantime, keep sending me your comments and questions. What’s your experience with POD publishing?

17 thoughts on “Print on Demand and Self-Publishing: Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Hi Julie,
    Excellent info here. I self-published and the company I used did all the things you mention the POD company did. I also paid for editing as well as marketing services. Truly, things are changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up. I like having the hard copies of the books on hand for book signings and other events. It’s quite personal, isn’t it?

    • Hi Karen,
      Yes, I love the personal quality and the speed of POD. It reminds me of my former career as a visual artist in terms of the immediacy.

    • Hi Nancy. Lulu’s one of the top companies, and one of the ones I considered seriously when I chose my POD publisher in 2006. I’d be interested in hearing more about your experience with them.

      Seeing your name here and on FaceBook this AM reminds me: I’m going to the Post Office today to mail off the copy of Eldercide you won last week. After that I’m actually going to have lunch with author friend M.E. Kemp at the Cheesecake Factory. These days it seems so strange to meet people live and in person. And using the Post Office? It’s been ages!

  2. These are thoughtful comments, Julie, and I think they are generally on the money. But I would use the term “self-published author” rather than “POD author” because while both are accurate, the fact that you caused your book to be published (my personal definition of self-publishing) is more germane than the fact that the printing outfit chooses to crank them out on demand.

    What you call it, though, is a relatively small point. More important by far is how well the book is edited. As a technical writer, I once had a boss, a non-writer herself, who insisted that writers are inherently incapable of editing their own work. I have always believed that to be false. That said, I do believe that critiques are essential and that editors are invaluable.

    One point I do not see when I read about the need to hire an editor is that there are multiple levels of editing. There is developmental editing, substantive editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Hiring a top-flight pro to do all of that might require a writer to take out a second mortgage, and there would be no guarantees of great success. If you are self-publishing (okay, POD publishing), if you get the fundamentals right, you are far ahead of the game.

    Finally, how do you convince people to buy your POD book? Some entities, such as the big chain bookstores, may be unconvinceable. But if you are asking about convincing individuals, it’s been my experience that no one cares whether your book is POD, and most people don’t even know or care what POD is. At a book signing you talk to the potential customer about your work, and either she is interested or she isn’t. I have never, ever heard someone say she wouldn’t buy my book because it’s POD. Never. In fact, many people are impressed and delighted to meet an author in person.

    Specifically, I suggest that you collect reviews and reprint snippets from the best ones. It can even be an Amazon review. The biggest reviewing outfit, Kirkus, won’t review POD except for a fee, but you know what? The average reader neither knows nor cares who Kirkus is. So forget them and go for free reviews on Midwest Book Review, Rebecca’s Reads, Amazon, Kaye Trout’s Book Reviews, or any of a number of book-reviewing blogs. All your potential buyer wants is a little third-party reassurance that your book is worth the money.

    Thanks for the great discussion, Julie.

    Bob Sanchez

    • Hi Bob,
      I’m glad your post showed up too, because it’s an excellent one! I hope it’s OK if I quote pieces of it in tomorrow’s post, because I’m not sure how many people actually get around to reading all the comments.

      This query is a good reminder to others who try posting here for the first time. Usually WordPress puts comments from new people in a “For Approval” file, but this time for some reason it relegated you to my Spam folder. I don’t always check that because it’s usually true Spam – Viagra ads and stuff in indechipherable Slavic languages – but now I’ll know better.

      Thanks for contacting me about this on FaceBook. Others are welcome to friend me there as well. You can reach me at

      As for writing long comments and having them disappear, it’s maddening, isn’t it? It happens to me more frequently on BlogSpot.

  3. I’ve not self-published, but I’m not sure about my publisher, TSTC Publishing. They may use POD. I should ask them and see.

    You mentioned Morgan Mandel (and she mentioned me as her editor for her latest book). Morgan was very easy to work with. If I made suggestions, she would send me changes to look at and almost every time, she had done a brilliant job of taking what I said and going beyond that. We did a lot of back and forth with Killer Career.

    Straight From Hel

    • Thanks for the comment, Helen. Sounds like an ideal writer-editor relationship. One of these days I’m going to add a category for editors on my blogroll, and you’ll be in it for sure. Any other editors reading this, I’d be glad to add you as well.

  4. Hi Julie,

    Mark and I use both self-pub and small press publishers for our work. There is a diffence. Many small presses have more structured and detailed editing processes in place than the large presses. They don’t put their name on the book as publisher until they are confident the book is as good as it can be and meets their standards.

    Self-pub, on the other hand, will print anything. Editing is up to the individual authors. Options run the full range from no editing (this is okay if your intent is to publish your memoirs or recipes for your family), to self-edit, to professional editing. Many self-pub companies offer editing services to their authors (for an additonal fee). Mark and I use freelance editors for our self-pub work – after the work has been vetted by multiple beta readers and critique groups.

    It’s amazing what a good editor can find and/or suggest to help writers make their stories stronger. I highly recommend every self-pub writer find a good editor.

    Charlotte Phillips

    • Hi Charlotte,
      Thanks for the informative comment. I’d like to quote some of it in tomorrow’s post if it’s OK with you.

      You make an interesting distinction between small press and self-published, and a lot of it has validity. However, I believe a lot of this is just semantics, and the terms will probably be thrown around and used interchangeably for the next few years as the industry undergoes seismic changes.

      It reminds me of my former career as an art therapist. As an obedient academic type, I went back to school for an M.A. in Art Therapy at NYU, did my thousand hours of internship, then more post-graduate supervised work until I earned the credentials to call myself a Registered Art Therapist (or ATR – they probably rearranged the initials so people wouldn’t call us rats.) But if someone who paints and reads a few self-help books wants to call herself an art therapist, there’s not much anyone can do about it. Any small press can claim to be selective and to offer editorial services, but a lot of them publish junk. Any author can use his or her own imprint and set up as a publishing house.

  5. I’m with a small traditional publisher who also uses POD so I’ve had many of the chain bookstores turn up their noses when approached. However, POD makes good business sense and more publishers are going this route, which is helping to turn around the perception that POD is bad.

  6. My POD publisher, iUnverse, wanted to charge me $7,500 for editing, and I’m not convinced they would have done all that good of a job.

    Instead, I found two editors/proofreaders. They each took a turn with my manuscript, one after my initial draft and one after I made numerous revisions. Paid about $2,500 for both their services and they polished my diamond in a rough into a beautiful polished gem.

    I encourage every writer I talk with to spend the money on an editor. Even editors who are writing a book. Its vital to have a professional, second set of eyes to look over the manuscript.

    Stephen Tremp

    • Good for you, Stephen. I couldn’t have afforded $2,500, but I agree it’s a worthwhile investment for many readers.

      This talk about editing reminds me – maybe I’ll post an excerpt from one of my first chapters tonight. Then people can tell me if I need an editor.

  7. I’m very interested in this subject and will be coming back again to read these posts and comments. Since we do an anthology through our local Senior Center, and are thinking of doing one for Northern Colorado Writers, it seems to make a lot of sense to use a well-liked POD publisher, especially since we have plenty of volunteer editors for our projects. Thanks for all this good information.

  8. Very informative post, Julie. Glad I stopped by to catch up on all your posts that I’ve missed lately! I may need to re-read this in the future, depending on which publishing route I take. Thanks for being so open about your process.

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