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Fern Reiss, CEO,

POD/subsidy publishing isn’t ideal for most books. But digital printing might be.

POD (which stands for print on demand)/subsidy publishing is the denigrated vanity publishing of yesteryear dressed up in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Though most authors know to stay away from vanity publishing, where you pay to have your book edited, designed, and printed and then it sits in your garage, for some reason, millions of authors have fallen for the appeal of POD/subsidy publishing—where you pay to have your book edited, designed, and printed, and then it sits in someone else’s garage.

Not that there aren’t good reasons to use POD/subsidy publishers—and for those authors who have books that work for POD/subsidy, it can be a fantastic time and money saver. If you’re doing a family genealogy, or a church cookbook, for example, where you have a limited audience and once you’ve given or sold the book to those 200 people, that’s it, POD/subsidy publishing is a great solution. It’s also an incredible timesaver for the busy corporate executive who needs to have a book to show the media, or for the workshop leader who wants a book to sell back-of-the-room at talks, or for a civic group that wants to do a book as a fundraiser, without investing the time-sink that is self-publishing. These are the cases where POD/subsidy is a wise choice.

But what most authors (many of whom call me for consulting, depressed and already deep in the clutches of POD/subsidy publishers) don’t realize is that doing your book this way probably precludes making many sales. Certainly you’ll have a hard time selling to bookstores and libraries—by the time you pay the POD/subsidy company, and factor in the wholesale discount that the middlemen require, the price points are too narrow for most bookstores or libraries‡. Furthermore, you’ll probably never even get as far as the bookstore or library—because POD/subsidy books are ineligible for review by the major review journals (such as Publishers Weekly and Booklist) you’ll miss out on those thousands of sales automatically, regardless of how good your book looks.

Thus, for most authors, you’re better off self-publishing yourself, and avoiding the POD/subsidy option.

But let’s distinguish between POD/subsidy publishing—companies such as iUniverse and AuthorHouse—and digital printing (also, confusingly, referred to as POD.) Digital printing just means printing small (under 1000, sometimes under 100, sometimes just one or two) quantities of books. Your per-book cost will be greater, because you’re printing in lower quantities---but your total capital investment will be much smaller. And that can be a great idea for an author.

Let’s say you’re coming out with a book on a new diet, but you can’t decide whether to call it “The Stressed-Out Diet” or “The Stress Free Diet.” Rather than just arbitrarily picking one and hoping it’s the right decision, or spending lots of time trying to get a focus group to agree, simply come out with a few copies of both titles—under different ISBNs—and see which one is ordered more frequently. You’ve just used digital printing as an easy, inexpensive way to do market research—on the very title that you’re marketing! The beauty of this is that even after you’ve committed to the “preferable” title, you can still sell the other title to whoever wants it, because both are in the system, and it doesn’t cost you anything.

Or let’s say you’re stuck between two different cover designs. Digitally print them both. And see which the world prefers.

Obviously this works with many, many other elements. You can even use it to decide between various price points.

Likewise, at the other end of your book’s life cycle, digital print is an easy way to keep just a few copies available to customers, without the capital investment and inventory requirements of offset printing thousands of books.

So let the rest of the publishing industry continue to quibble over the merits and detriments of POD/subsidy and digital printing. Me, I’m off to write my new book. Stay tuned—you’ll see it out there soon. Under many different names. You choose.

‡There’s a lot of confusion (promulgated, in large part, by the POD/subsidy publishers themselves who are understandably interested in blurring the distinctions and detriments) about whether bookstores will buy POD/subsidy published books. Although you can certainly get your POD/subsidy book into your local bookstore, the answer is no, most bookstores will not stock POD/subsidy books.

Aside from the fact that the bookstores make most of their buying decisions on the basis of reviews—and we’ve already discussed the fact that Publishers Weekly et. al. will not review POD/subsidy books—bookstore margins are quite tight. So unless they can get their regular discount (usually 40%)—and returnability—on books that they stock, it’s just easier for them not to stock any given book.

So take a 250-page paperback book that you publish through a POD/subsidy publisher. Let’s say its optimal retail price is $10. It costs you $6 per copy to print through the POD/subsidy publisher. You won’t be able to give that book to a wholesaler (who demands 55% discount) or a distributor (who takes 68-72% discount) because that would mean selling them the book at between $2.80 and $4.50 per book—which you can’t afford, because your cost is $6 per book. You could, technically, market it to the bookstores directly for their 40% discount—but you’d be selling exactly at cost (which would mean no money left for promotion, profit, or anything else) and you’d be asking them to purchase the book outside their regular buying channels.

So unless you have a book which can stand a much higher retail price and still be competitive, POD/subsidy publishing is really not a viable option if you want your book to be in bookstores.


Fern Reiss is CEO of ( and ( and the author of the books, The Publishing Game: Find an Agent in 30 Days, The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days, and The Publishing Game: Publish a Book in 30 Days as well as several other award-winning books.  She is also the Director of the International Association of Writers ( providing publicity vehicles to writers worldwide. She also runs The Expertizing® Publicity Forum where you can pitch your book or business directly to journalists; more information at  Sign up for her complimentary newsletter at

Copyright © 2011 Fern Reiss


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