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The Stigma of POD

A Hard Look at the Discrimination Against Print on Demand by Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Other Bookstores

By Aaron Shepard

Excerpted and adapted from the book POD for Profit: More on the NEW Business of Self Publishing, Shepard Publications, 2010

For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Publishing Page at www.newselfpublishing.com.

Copyright © 2009, 2010, 2012, 2014 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted, but it may not be posted online without permission.

This article is now outdated. The Borders bookstore chain, of course, is no longer with us; and as of early 2015, the data on Lightning Source books found on the computers of Barnes & Noble stores is scheduled to come from Ingram instead of directly from Lightning, thereby ending the certainty of POD labeling. Still, I’ve left the article here because of (1) historical interest, (2) its illumination of a kind of misunderstanding that new self publishers are subject to, and (3) I like the writing.—Aaron

Book cover: POD for ProfitNowadays, there’s an odd belief circulating that self publishing a book as print on demand will keep it out of bookstores. Actually, the opposite is true.

Let’s follow Susan Self-Publisher as she visits her local Barnes & Noble, book held proudly in hand. Her mission is to convince Michael Manager to schedule a book signing for her. She’s pleased to find that Michael is interested, and she waits happily as he goes to check the store computer. But Michael returns to tell her apologetically he’s not allowed to order POD books for special events. Susan goes home fuming over this discrimination and bewildered as to how Michael could know her book was POD. (These names have been changed to protect your innocence.)

But Susan is looking at this from the wrong angle. She doesn’t understand she has run smack into a major advantage of POD, not a drawback. And Michael may not realize it either, or just not have time to explain.

You see, the actual B&N policy is that a store can’t order a book for stocking or a special event unless the book has been reviewed and accepted by a nationwide B&N buyer. How does Michael know a book has been reviewed and accepted? The book is in the store computer. It doesn’t get into the store computer unless it has been reviewed and accepted.

That is, unless the book is from Lightning Source, the kingpin of the POD industry. Lightning handles printing and distribution for thousands of independent self publishers and nearly every self publishing company in the U.S.—Lulu, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, you name it—including the one Susan signed with. And that’s not to mention the traditional publishers that are increasingly coming to rely on it.

Barnes & Noble has a special arrangement with Lightning to list all its books in B&N’s computers—meaning all the books handled by Lightning for the small and large publishers and self publishing companies it serves—and by far the greater number of those books have not been reviewed and accepted. All the ones not accepted are prominently labeled in the computer as Print on Demand. It’s this label that tells Michael that Susan’s book cannot be ordered for a special event.

But that’s not why it’s there. Susan’s book is labeled Print on Demand so any clerk in any Barnes & Noble store will know it can always be special ordered.

In other words, the POD label is not the sign of discrimination Susan believes. On the contrary, it’s what puts the book into the store computer in the first place and makes it available for special ordering throughout the chain! Without that, any customer asking for the book would be told it was unavailable, or just “out of print.” Which is exactly what used to happen before B&N’s computers started listing Lightning books.

Now, this is not to say Barnes and Noble likes POD. In general, it doesn’t. That’s because most POD books—including the ones from self publishing companies like Susan’s—are sold to booksellers at reduced discounts and with returns disallowed. This means B&N generally can’t make as much money on a POD book as on others. So, the policy that kept Michael from ordering Susan’s book isn’t discrimination, it’s good business! (This is not to mention that many POD books are not up to professional standards, even with the additional paid services of a self publishing company.)

If Susan really wants an event at Michael’s store, she can manage that without abandoning POD. She could leave her current self publishing company, find a new one that offers standard terms to booksellers, and put out a new edition. Or she could put it out while working directly with Lightning Source and set those terms herself.

In either case, she would then submit her book for review to B&N’s Small Press Department. That department is quite happy to consider any POD book that is offered on standard terms and that can be ordered from a major wholesaler—which all Lightning books can, since they’re listed by Lightning’s sister company, Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the U.S.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the Small Press Department will accept Susan’s book. And if it does, the terms that Susan has obligingly offered may lose her more than she gains. But all that’s a different story.

OK, now let’s follow Barbara Book‑Lover into Borders, where she’s going in search of Susan’s book after reading about it online. Barbara doesn’t find the book on the shelves, so she asks Clark Clerk, who looks it up in the store computer. (Oops! Forgot to change the names!)

Here in Borders, Clark doesn’t see that the book is POD—in fact, he doesn’t see the book at all. Borders has no direct relationship with Lightning, and the primary wholesaler it relies on is not Ingram but Baker & Taylor. As for B&T, it lists only some of Lightning’s books and stocks almost none—and the data it sends to retailers includes only books in stock. So, Susan’s book is not in the Borders store computer, and like B&N clerks in the past, Clark tells Barbara the book is out of print.

But unlike at B&N, Clark also tells Barbara she can have the store track down a used copy for her. Barbara decides to do this. Her request is then passed on to Clark Clerk, Sr., who handles special orders. (Good, I remembered to change that one.)

Unlike Clark Jr., Clark Sr. can check any number of sources, including Ingram. But like Michael over at B&N, he is under a constraint of his own—a strict Borders policy against backordering. In other words, if the book were listed at Ingram but shown as out of stock—even if clearly marked print on demand—Clark Sr. would have to ignore it.

But guess what? Susan’s book—like most Lightning books—shows 100 copies in stock at Ingram. (All of them show at least 100.) Now, Clark Sr. has been around the bookstore a few times, and he knows well enough that those 100 copies are “virtual”—or in plain English, imaginary—and that they’re a dead giveaway of POD. But that makes no difference to him. In fact, he’s relieved to see that stock number, because it allows him to order the book. So, Susan makes the sale.

The hard truth is, self publishers have always had trouble getting books into bookstores, and especially into the chains. Far from keeping self publishers out, POD for the first time makes most self published books obtainable through almost every bookstore in the U.S.!

But all this skirts the most important point. The primary market for self publishers today is not bookstores at all. It’s online booksellers, and particularly Amazon. And POD is by far the most efficient and profitable means to sell to that market.

So, look to where your sales are, not to where they are not. Truly, self publishers have never had it so good—and that’s thanks to POD.

Book cover: POD for Profit
Read the book!

POD for Profit
More on the NEW Business of Self Publishing
By Aaron Shepard

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