POD or traditional publisher?

Friday night Egils and I went to an opening reception at an art gallery where I became involved in an intriguing conversation with William Sargent, the author of a number of books for adults about the seashore and its organisms and other science and nature-related topics. He was excited about a number of children’s books he was working on, some of which he had already published through CreateSpace, an Amazon print-on-demand company. Why did he choose POD rather than the traditional publishers he had worked with on his adult books? He said that he has no contacts in children’s publishing and he finds the long response times for submissions to publishers and agents prohibitive. Wait times of six to eight weeks are common, just to hear “no thanks” or to get no response at all. He is now earning $6 and $7 dollars per book by using CreateSpace, who he found to produce what he feels is a quality product and who are very easy to work with. He provides them with his text and illustrations done by someone he had found and they design and put the books together, list them with Baker & Taylor and Ingram, and introduce them into Amazon’s selling universe, all for under $800. Since the books are only printed when a customer orders them, there is no warehousing expense involved.

The advantages in his view include that he has control over the process and content, it all transpires very quickly and he earns a much higher amount per book. In the course of the conversation it did come out that he found that at least one of the illustrators he used for these books had not depicted the subject matter as accurately as he would have liked. He is unsure how he can get bookstores to take the books and we talked about the thought that bookstores, with the possible exception of those most local to the author, are wary of self published books since they lack the oversight that traditional publishers offer in terms of editing, vetting and other assurances of the book’s appropriateness.

The lack of the kind of skilled editor that a traditional publisher would have is probably the biggest disadvantage in terms of the written and illustrative content of the POD path. Especially in the field of books for children, it is critical that the material each book contains is of the highest quality and accuracy. When asked how he determines the appropriateness of the content for the age group he is targeting, his solution is that he categorizes these “children’s books” to be for children of all ages. He includes in some of them details that he knows are only going to be understood by adults, and in fact cited one type of detail that he acknowledged would only be understood by a small number of adult readers. He writes what he wants to write.

Where a good editor at a traditional publishing house can help build a writer’s career, with POD, the writer is left to his own devices. Perhaps for some writers, personal development is self sufficient, but most of us grow when given input from knowledgeable people with other ranges of experience. A good editor or agent is worth her weight in gold.

Another notable disadvantage of this POD publisher is that they only produce paperbacks. Their range of sizes is also fairly limited. These two factors are probably not so important to the format of a produced novel, and in fact the novels pictured on the CreateSpace site look consistent with traditionally produced books, but for illustrated books, the options don’t seem so appealing.

The CreateSpace website features a number of success stories where their clients have done very well with their books. One point that surfaced in some of these scenarios is that although POD clients have to do all of their own marketing, in many cases that would, for the most part, also be true for a traditionally published book. CreateSpace also ran in 2010 a contest, in conjunction with Penguin and Publishers Weekly that identified a new novel and a YA which were given traditional publishing contracts based on reviews by traditional sources as well as voting by the general consumer. This democratic approach is sensible, since we are talking about a product after all. And there is no question that CreateSpace has commercial power, since it is an Amazon company, which means wide availability with minimal overhead.

It would seem that POD publishers like CreateSpace would be of most service for well edited novels and non-fiction by writers who have affiliations that can help with marketing and who have an affinity for promotion. They will, however, have the shorter physical lifespan typical of paperbacks, which is fine for some books.

Finding a traditional publishing house and a good editor is usually much more time consuming, and this can be truly daunting, but the reward is a well produced, edited and vetted–in the case of non-fiction– hardcover book that will be reviewed and widely sold over time. There is a real weight of validation that comes with being accepted by a well established publisher or agent. This publisher invests in loyalty toward the author and can also secure a wide range of subsidiary rights that can significantly extend the value of the book. Although all authors are expected to do their part to promote their books, they are supported by the publisher’s marketing team, and so are freer to spend time developing new ideas.

Writers have more publishing choices today. This is a good thing.  The question is: which path is better for each of us?

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