Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The POD Experience

I had always intended on using the AoaN Blog to share details about my experience with Print On Demand publishing, and since lately I've been contacted by writers in this regard, I will post my response to someone who emailed me the other day.

The following is the gist of my response:

I certainly did put an effort into getting my book published along more traditional channels - finding an agent to help, knocking on large and small publishing house's doors, entering contests. A year and a half of organizing mass mailings of query letters and “first 50 pages,” but to no avail. Eventually, I decided it was time to publish it on my own.

I have a history of professional work in film and television, as both a writer and in development, so I know both sides of that business. Currently, I have an agent as a screenwriter, but have found no success in finding a literary agent as a first-time writer of literary fiction. What I learned is that the exclusivity of the two worlds of books and movies is quite similar. It strikes me as though the Literary Fiction slice-of-the-pie is nearly perfunctory, set aside for those who have a big enough name to make the marketing of their work an easy sell. And even then its a risky business venture. Without a true genre, most agents and publishers are not very enthusiastic about trying to sell a book, regardless of the quality of the writing (the business of film and television showed me that the quality of a piece means very little).

One of the reasons I decided to start writing novels is because I grew tired of writing screenplays that sold or went into development but were never produced. I liken it to an architect who has a successful career of drawing up their ideas, only to never have a building built to reflect their ideas and creative effort. Such an architect can show people the blueprints of their vision, but that is not what the drawings are for. They intend buildings.

So as I approached the completion of my novel, I not only researched brick-and-mortar publishing, I also began looking into Print On Demand publishing, excited that there was a new technology that made it possible to order a book from an online company that would print it, bind it and ship it to you in the same day. Naturally, I wanted acceptance into the world of traditional publishing, and I still do; but I was nonetheless attracted to the idea of being enabled to turn a completed piece of writing into what it is intended to be: a book someone can hold in their hands.

As I’m sure you know, there are a number of companies that offer POD publishing with varying degrees of payment scales, I went with Booklocker for a number of reasons.

1. Exclusivity. Their claim is that, unlike companies such as iUniverse and XLibris, they do not accept all writers. Nor do they accept all kinds of writing. I had already tried to get a number of my plays published and they rejected me. This exclusivity, however considerable, lends a bit of credibility to the end product. Also, the fact that other companies will print anyone and anything, only serves to discredit the effort of companies trying to create a standard of quality in POD publishing

2. No hard sell. Booklocker does not try to upsell you. That is their claim and I’m here to tell you that that is the experience as well. Just get on XLibris’ mailing list and you’ll be hounded about specials and offers. Even when I hadn’t committed, they were already trying to push me into more expensive packages.

3. Booklocker was the least expensive. I was all in for $217. That’s an amazing figure comparatively. Granted, one is on their own as far as editing is concerned (which tends to be the major expense with other companies), and there are not a lot of chances to change what is submitted. But I saw that as a fair aspect of part of the deal, and thorough preparation makes this less of an issue. I’m also not sure that it is too different with any other company.

4. It is a mom-and-pop operation. I am more suspicious of large, sales-driven corporations. I liked dealing with Angela and Richard Hoy very much. They are fine people and want to work with you. They did with me, particularly with some exceptions to their own rules, such as footnotes and pagination. I always felt as though there were real people on the other end of my emails. Good response time, positive attitudes, a real pleasure to work with.

5. Word on the Street. Through a women writers’ ListServe that my wife belongs to, there were occasions where authors either recommended them outright, or berated POD publishing, but then added the exception about Booklocker and Angela Hoy specifically.

6. Exclusive Rights Remain with the Author. Most POD publishers have this agreement. It’s great if you change your mind and want to go another route, or if a big publisher finds your book and wants to reconsider their rejection of you. You are not obligated to Booklocker and the agreement can be ended in 24 hours.

So, I recommend Booklocker. Now here are some of the areas that I would advise other authors to be aware of when going with them, and possibly with the process at other companies.

1. Get an Editor. They won’t do it for you and expect that you can take care of it on your own. I don’t recall if they recommend someone, but I’ll bet they have some leads if you need it. There are a few typos in most books, there are in mine, but there is nothing more likely to break the trust of your reader than a lot of basic mistakes.

2. Don’t Expect Brick-and-Mortar Perfection. It’s laser printing, not offset, so it will look different on the page to real bibliophiles. Also, the paperback cover is a bit flimsy and shiny for my aesthetic taste.

3. My Cover Art. I designed my own cover because I have some experience with design and printers, so I knew what to expect. But this could be impossible if you have no idea what you doing. When my first copy arrived in the mail, the cover was printed off the dimensions I specified. There are two tabs of color above and below the image on the front color that are supposed to be identical - sometimes they come out unequal and it drives me crazy. I suspect that the technology for printing the cover is less than ideal. Also, you have no back-and-forth with a proof as you would in other printing circumstances - that is, unless you want to pay more money. They likely do it this way to keep the overall cost down, and probably don’t believe in the need for a professional looking cover, since they are an online outlet for books - no shelf space, or eye-catching images to worry about. But the lack of a sign-off on the final artwork is a frightening idea to anyone who has worked with print materials. As it was, my cover turned out more dark than I’d hoped. In the end, I would have liked to have the chance to tweak it some; however, I was not bothered by any of this to put in extra money to fix it.

4. Booklocker Cover Art. Obviously, I don’t know what a writer’s experience is working with their cover artists. It will cost you more money to use them (though $100 is cheap), and I assume most people use this option. To put it mildly, I was not at all impressed with the aesthetic of most of the books I saw on their site, but I cannot say that this was due to the work of their artists.

5. Turn-over time. It went a lot faster than they had said it would and Angela is always quick to reply with emails, a novelty in the world today.

6. Marketing Assistance. I had assumed there would be more specific information on how to market a book, as they promise access to a marketing area on Booklocker once you have signed. As it turned out, it was a blog run by Richard that was informative, but not to the degree I’d hoped. It has a lot of links to other pieces of advice, most of which I found intuitive. I’d anticipated a procedural plan of some sort. A checklist. Regardless, Richard is very informed on online marketing, and was also quick to reply with good answers to questions. He helped me a lot with the setting up of my blog and its promotion.

7. Reviews. Angela and Richard are convinced that reviews do not help their writers much and that energy and money is better spent in other marketing areas. However, if you are interested in giving it a shot with the big companies like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, make sure you get them a manuscript 3 months prior to your date of publication. Otherwise, they won’t look at your book. Having spent my years in development perusing PW every week, I’d been looking forward to seeing a paragraph or two on AoaN, but I missed the boat, not realizing the 3-month rule. Nonetheless, I’m currently in the process of going out to lesser known reviewers and will answer any questions about it once I have a couple of those under my belt.

8. Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Getting content on your Amazon and B&N page was easy. Angela and Richard are very helpful in this way. As they advised, it hasn’t at all affected the sale of my book; and all my sales have gone directly through Booklocker, which is what I prefer because it means more money for the author and for Booklocker.

9. Websites & Blogs. Richard is an excellent resource if you are planning to set up an online presence. He’s helpful and informed and will advise you to go with a blog instead of a static website, because there are an entirely different search capabilities for blogs and the constant update of content has a higher potential for driving traffic to your site. However, the San Francisco Chronicle recently ran an article on blogs for businesses and the first rule they listed was “try to talk yourself out of it.” A blog requires writing content on at least a weekly basis, and that demands a lot of creative effort. I know. I am currently working on my next novel and I find that this blog is taking away from that time in a big way. I love the writing of the postings, but they are time-consuming, and I can see a point in the near future where I might have to reconsider this. I’m actually considering serializing my new piece on a blog as a way to tie in deadlines to its process.

For my next novel, I’m going to go down the same route as before: do whatever I can to find an agent, perhaps even before I complete it, and pound the pavement to get it published. Everyone wants to get published. And I try to be honest with myself enough to realize that, aside from creating a marketability of myself as a writer (once one gets published, its easier to be considered by publishers), getting published by a big name is simply an ego stroke. In truth, it is a novel, regardless of who prints it up. But, it does need to be printed up, and I will not hesitate to go the POD route if I am passed over again.

The POD technology is now only in its infancy. I predict that major publishers get on board with it at some point in the future, given that competition and more specific markets make the risk of printing a book a terrifying prospect for any business. We’ll see.


Blogger Robert Jacoby said...

I'm one of the writers who contacted Jonathan about his experience in the POD world. I want to say "Thank you" very very much for such a detailed and lengthy reply to my questions. You've given me more to think about. Thanks for sharing this experience. It's at the same time encouraging and disheartening; encouraging that one can go this route, but disheartening that quality writing isn't given a chance to stand on its own. Which is what I know to be true, but it's never easy to take. It's been close to a year now since my meeting with those two agents, and I'm just now getting my head wrapped around the idea that if this is going to happen, it's going to take an enormous amount of work on my part. Which is ok. I'm more than willing to do it. Happy and excited even. (The alternative is to let the novel sit in my box in a room.) It just seems that sometimes I'm "on my own" in this wilderness among the self-publishing crowd of memoirists, housewife romance writers, and grandpa's recollections of WWII. Which is fine, there's a place for that, of course, but after stumbling across your blog, I was really encouraged to see a serious writer of fiction going this route, too.

March 30, 2006 7:30 PM  
Blogger Steven LaRose said...

I'm not a writer but I found these observations interesting/telling for the future of "thing makers". POD works like a giclee. We have an intersting 40 years ahead of us. But, the main reason I'm posting is: I appreciate the care you put into your images. This posting is likely lost on the callous. Open with Groucho/Narcissus head-shot and pan down ending on Narcissus's pining hand. Nice brackets.

April 01, 2006 9:50 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Foster said...

Thanks, Steven. That means a lot coming from you.

I cannot wait to see how the technologies transform the experience of the creator. An interesting 40 years indeed. And here's to the both of us still working then!

April 02, 2006 8:53 PM  

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