Print on Demand

The New World of Internet Publishing

    by Thor Hanson (Uganda 1993–95)

    MY FRIENDS WERE ASTOUNDED. Not because I’d written a book. Not because they could order it from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or any local bookseller. They were simply amazed that a notorious Luddite like me, who heats with a woodstove and thinks that Palms are something read by fortune tellers, had leapt into the burgeoning new world of on-line publishing. The fact is, it was a cinch.
         When my agent first recommended iUniverse.com, I had to borrow a computer to look it up. But within days I was reformatting files from the ancient Macintosh I write on, and a few months after that I was holding the first printed copies of The Impenetrable Forest, a memoir of my Peace Corps years in Uganda. This rapid transition from computer files to publication reflects an equally dramatic transformation underway in the publishing industry. Using new printing technology that can create a high quality trade paperback in thirty seconds, “publishing portals” like iUniverse are changing the very way that books are made.
         The graphics and word processing files I sent to iUniverse entered a production queue that moves from editing to printing in one to three months, much faster than the lead-time at traditional publishers. By designing and storing books digitally, on-line publishers can print individual orders on demand, avoiding the high production and distribution costs of an initial print run. Print-on-demand (POD) helps keep their investment low, but most companies still ask authors to share in the editing and design expenses, which can range from as little as ninety-nine to more than a thousand dollars. Once the book is completed, however, on-line publishers boast that their titles will never go out of print, remaining perpetually available in an ever-growing digital catalogue. The emphasis now is on trade paperbacks, but Internet publishers are also well positioned to offer paid downloads and eBook (which are readable on your computer or eBook device) formats as those markets develop.
         Critics argue that, like the Internet itself, digital publishing opens the door to a flood of unfiltered information, lowering the standards of the literary marketplace. Others believe the change was long overdue. iUniverse founder Richard Tam has called POD technology the first real innovation in the publishing business in centuries. It has allowed his company not only to introduce new writers, but also to reprint titles by established authors as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Judy Blume. A recent partnership with IDG Books, publisher of the Frommer’s travel guides, Cliffsnotes, and the popular “For Dummies”series, hints at ways that POD may permanently change the industry. With IDG’s titles available digitally, consumers will have the opportunity to browse by chapter and print customized books — a travel guide, for example, tailored to the stops on your itinerary.

    Publishing made possible for niche book
    The rise of Internet publishers comes at a time of consolidation and narrowing content at traditional publishing houses. With the spate of mergers and takeovers in the past several years, over 80% of the American book business now rests in the hands of a half-dozen media conglomerates. Publishers find themselves pressured to match the high profit margins of other media divisions, leaving less room for niche and small run titles. While I found several traditional houses enthusiastic about my writing, none could risk investing in the modest market for a Peace Corps story about mountain gorillas and African jungles. Working under the demands of parent corporations and shareholders, editors are far less able to publish a book simply because they like it.
         POD has stepped in to help fill this gap in the marketplace. Perusing the bookstores at iUniverse, xLibris, Chapbooks.com, and other e-publishers, I find novels, non-fiction, poetry, travel and self-help, as well as an array of reprinted titles. The bestsellers and staff picks include a history of the 1918 Boston Red Sox, a series of Westerns, and a guide to building robots. One Internet-published financial guide recently broke the top five on Amazon.com’s bestseller list.
         Ironically, the conglomerates that helped create the need for the POD market now seem to recognize its potential. Last year Barnes & Noble purchased a 49% stake in iUniverse, and Barnes and Noble.com now offers a direct link to iUniverse titled “Publish Your Book.” Random House now holds 49% of xLibris, and Time Warner plans to launch its own POD site, iPublish.com, within the next several months. With the entry of these big industry players, on-line publishing has taken a large step towards the mainstream. Publisher’s Weekly recently predicted that POD may account for thirty percent of all publishing within three years.

    The good news and the bad
    For writers, there is good news and bad news about publishing with an on-line firm. The good news is that POD provides a quick route to get new work in print, and the royalty rates are often better than those offered at traditional houses. The bad news is that on-line publishers offer very little support for their titles in terms of marketing and distribution. Most have bookstores at their web sites and also cooperate with the major Internet retailers. iUniverse makes their titles available to local booksellers through a major wholesaler, and chooses certain books to stock at the brick and mortar outlets of their corporate partner, Barnes & Noble. In general, however, POD authors can expect to face many of the same marketing challenges familiar to self-published writers.
         Working with on-line publishers definitely feels like pioneering in a new frontier of the industry. From their constantly expanding programs and new corporate partnerships to the shifting face of their websites, these companies are evolving rapidly to define their niche. There will inevitably be glitches along the way, like the computer error last April when 400 iUniverse titles disappeared completely from the database and had to be re-designed from scratch.
         Currently, the biggest challenge facing all POD publishers is simply keeping up with demand. Manuscript submissions to iUniverse rose a whopping 29% in September 2000 alone, and have increased over 200% in the past year. Printing facilities often cannot keep pace, making delivery of shipments unpredictable. (POD authors can take some consolation in imagining that the glut of orders must be for their book, but this fantasy only goes so far.)
         With POD, on-line publishers have brought the information technology revolution to the world of books. As with all new ideas, it will take time to see just how this innovation changes the industry, but skeptics and advocates agree that Internet publishing is here to stay. In the long term, it may make concepts like POD, customized content, e-books and other formats an everyday part of the publishing equation. In the short term, it gives authors an excellent way to get their work in print and into the marketplace. And if a computer-klutz like me can pull it off, anyone can.

    Thor Hanson is a writer and naturalist from the Pacific Northwest. After his Peace Corps service, he lived and studied in Kenya and Tanzania. Hanson graduated from the University of Redlands and received his M.S. from the University of Vermont's Field Naturalist Program. His book The Impenetrable Forest was published in October 2000, by iUniverse.com