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The Reality Of Print On Demand Publishing Today

I've been advocating the use of print on demand for new publishers and self publishers for most of this millennium. I've wasted a lot of electrons on this blog fighting over definitions, like the difference between POD technology and the author services companies that have sprung up around it, but all that now seems likely to go by-the-by as the new POD may just be renamed "Amazon printing." Tomorrow may see the "Buy" buttons for all of my titles disappear from Amazon, and if not tomorrow, next week or next month. If and when that happens, I'll put my title "Print on Demand Book Publishing" into revision to prevent new copies from being printed and think about doing a revision or a new edition. I won't play any games looking to restore my "Buy" buttons through back doors, I'm too crotchety a coot to knuckle under to the Booksurge crowd. But I won't call for boycotts or tell other publishers, and especially self publishing authors, that they should put Amazon behind them and move on.

The reality of the business is that there are only two real outlets for the majority POD book published by self publishers or author services companies. The main outlet or retailer for most of these titles is the author. Authors who choose author's service companies often forgo Amazon and distribution access to save fees, and the only sales generated therefore come through the author purchasing and reselling books by hand, or through sending customers to the website of the the author services company to purchase the books. While the number of books sold is not trivial due to the huge number of titles involved, the quantities sold for the vast majority of authors are non-commercial. Most may sell under 10 copies, but whether it's under 10 or under 100 matters primarily to the author and the readers, not the IRS.

The second major outlet for these books is Amazon. Amazon lists all of these books for sale, and Amazon is the world's biggest book retailer. Most self publishers labor under enough difficulties; lack of experience, lack of marketing, non-commercial acquisitions process (ie, writing what they want) and limited resources. For a new self publisher to ignore the biggest book retailer in the world, and the one that will absolutely stock and sell your books if you play by their rules, would be self destructive. While some self publishers may be rejected as too small by Amazon's Booksurge printer, they can sign up through Creatspace for POD or go through Amazon Advantage and supply books printed any way they want. Even though Advantage requires 55% discount and the publisher pays for shipping, it's still a decent deal by industry standards. It's just a different economic approach than the short discount publishing I first described five years ago, but it has some compensations in flexibility of book design to offset some of the financial drawbacks for a serious publishing business.

But lest you read this a defense of Amazon's practices, there is the other side of the coin. While Amazon is not a monopoly printer of print on demand books, and I'd estimate they have a low single digit percentage of market at the moment, I believe they do hold a disproportionate share of the retailing of print on demand books. I'm one of the few self publishers using print on demand I know who has been able to get some stocking of a title in bricks-and-mortar bookstores by way of regular distribution channels (Ingram). Self publishers as a group are hugely dependent on online sales, with most of the self publishers I know getting 75% or more of their sales from Amazon. For publishers like myself who count on our own websites as our marketing platforms, we can certainly shift a proportion of our sales elsewhere, though we'll lose out on the multiplier effect that made Amazon our first choice. But most self publishers have no marketing, beyond their use of the Amazon platform. Not having their books listed with "Buy" buttons on Amazon and possibly disadvantaged in their visibility as well will be the end of any hopes for real sales success they may have. I cannot over emphasize that Amazon isn't just the world's biggest bookstore, in my estimate it is the dominant retail platform for the sale of self published books.

I'm confident that my own publishing business will survive with or without Amazon for as long as I care to continue writing and selling books, but that's because my business model has always been centered on my website rather than Amazon. If Google decided tomorrow that they were only going to send visitors to websites that paid Google to host the sites in order to "better serve their users", I'd be in serious trouble. Putting all your eggs in one basket may maximize chickens over the short term, but nobody I know would recommend Blanche DuBois as a business planner.

20 comments:

Alex said...

Morris,

An apt description of your approach towards Amazon and the importance of alternative marketing & channels, such as your own website.

However, for those of us - authors, publishers, selfpublishers - for whom Amazon is still critical and are looking at the possible alternatives within Amazon such as Market place and Amazon Advantage. You mention that a 55% required discount seems decent to you . However, when compared to current LSI deal plus the added cost of shipping, I don't find it very appealling. If the choice is between zero sales and Amazon Advantage, yes than it might be a decent deal. But for the same token, a mugging victim could say he is happy that he is still alive, and only lost his money.

Team said...

Amazon is a business. Its sole purpose on earth is to make money. If the decision to force every self-published author to go through Booksurge makes them more money than they would lose, then they are doing the right thing for their stockholders. So the best way to stop Amazon from even considering that option is to hit them in their pocketbooks; reading the link to Angela Hoy's blog, that's exactly what the authors are doing.

As a businessman, I don't see how this will help Amazon in the long run. They risk alienating their base in the hopes that Booksurge gains a beachhead. Seems rather short sighted just to prop up a small division at the expense of the business model itself. So if Amazon has smart managers, they'll do the right thing and stop this craziness. If they're not so smart and arrogance gets in the way, then this might be the opening that B&N have been waiting for. Thomas

Morris Rosenthal said...

Alex,

I'm putting the 55% in the context of what small publishers normally face getting books into distribution, discounts of anywhere from 60% to 70%, and often with exclusivity agreements thrown in.

But again, this is not a defence of Amazon. As I wrote in my last blog post, their hiding behind the idea that them doing POD in house is faster and better for customers is pure hogwash. They are doing an excellent job obscuring the point that they are simply trying to take over an established market using their position as the main retail outlet for POD books. I think my last post pegged it pretty well, they are all about mandates and reducing choice.

Next they may insist that I hire them to edit my books because their readers would prefer better writing.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

Thomas,

You don't have to tell anybody that Amazon is a business, nobody has them confused with a charity:-)

I think that it combines with the Audible acquisition and the Kindle as the first signs that Amazon is developing a coherent strategy in publishing. They've just gone about it in completely the wrong way.

Morris

Alex said...

Morris,

I know your piece was not a defence of Amazon's practices. My point was only to say that a 55% discount is really not attractive especially because we are dealing with books printed on demand and not runs of thousands of units which could merit the steeper discounts.

BTW: Jeff Bezos has spoken - http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-printondemand

Morris Rosenthal said...

Alex,

I follow your line of thought now, I just don't make the association between discount and printing cost which I see as separate issue. The small publishers who get hit with the high discounts into distribution have traditionally been printing short runs on offset, 100 to 500 books, that are even more expensive per copy than POD.

But if somebody is coming from a larger operation where they are used to more cost effective runs, say 3,000 or 5,000 books on up, and is shifted to POD with the thought that the short discount excused the higher printing cost, it would be a shock to the business model.

Morris

Barbara Frank said...

Hi Morris,

You said:

"Tomorrow may see the "Buy" buttons for all of my titles disappear from Amazon, and if not tomorrow, next week or next month. If and when that happens, I'll put my title "Print on Demand Book Publishing" into revision to prevent new copies from being printed and think about doing a revision or a new edition. I won't play any games looking to restore my "Buy" buttons through back doors, I'm too crotchety a coot to knuckle under to the Booksurge crowd."

Forgive my ignorance, but why would you put your book into revision? Isn't your book printed at LSI? Do you not trust them re: this situation with Amazon? I thought LSI (like small publishers) was getting the short end of the stick in this deal, or am I missing something?

Thanks in advance,
Barb

M.L. Bushman said...

Well, folks may not like the analogy, but Amazon is herding publishers like cows into their pen for the eventual slaughter. That's my opinion.

You read the comments on the various lists, and you see the herd, confused, milling about exactly like cows being hazed, one or two wandering toward those feeders opposite the gate, lifting their heads long enough to say to the others, this ain't so bad, really. We have to eat. As if no one believes they can survive without Amazon.

I am boycotting Amazon. Even though the grass on the open range is a bit thin right now compared to those filled feeders, it does turn lush and green eventually, especially after rain stops and the sun comes out. But those trapped in the pen and awaiting slaughter will never live long enough to learn even that much if they don't stay out of Amazon's pen.

Mari
editor-Jigsaw Press

Morris Rosenthal said...

Barbara,

A section of my book describes using Lightning Source in order to get into Amazon, hands-off. If that business model is discontinued, which still remains to be seen, I'll put the book into revision to stop LS from printing more copies for distribution anywhere. Since my books are stocked (real copies) at Ingram, there may be a dozen or two that get away, but it can't be helped.

I'd probably sell out my small inventory of copies for direct mail-order and include a sheet of paper describing the changes. Whether or not I'd want to release a new revision reflecting just the Amazon changes or wait until I have time to do a second edition that would include more of my writing on website design depends on my schedule and motivation.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

Mari,

I agree that Amazon is hearding publishers like cattle, though I think they are more intent on milking than slaughter. Probably depends on whether or not the cattle make trouble. You might have missed my last post comparing the new Amazon mandate to the healthcare mandate in Massachussets where the citizens are sheep and are just happy the taxman is coming for somebody else, this time around.

But my blog and my writing on the publishing subject isn't about making politics or trying to tell people how they should feel about the world. It's about helping self publishers and small publishers make a living. I cannot tell them to boycott or otherwise ignore Amazon, that would be very bad advice indeed. Amazon is the main retail outlet for them.

Some people have the attitude that if you don't like the weather you should stay inside and complain about it, but people who need to work outside don't have that luxury.

Morris

Barbara Frank said...

Thanks for the explanation, Morris...now it makes sense.

Barb

Morris Rosenthal said...

Barbara,

You're welcome. But a funny thing just popped into my head. Do you remember the big lawsuit of the independent bookstores against Barnes&Noble and Borders? The grounds was the Robinson-Patman Act, a part of anti-trust law that prohibits certain types of price fixing. As publishers, we have to offer the same discount on similar sales into retail (that's putting it very roughly).

Amazon is dictating the discount at which publishers must sell to Amazon when signing with Booksurge. That might amount to forcing publishers into changing their discount for all the books they print, or at least, all the POD books they print, and sell to other retailers. Otherwise, the publishers may be in violation of Robinson-Patman. Wouldn't surprise me if there's a peg to hang a an anti-trust complaint against Amazon there.

Morris

Charles Eisenstein said...

While waiting for the other shoe to drop for my own modest book listings (2 books), I discovered to my surprise that my book, which is only discounted 25% to Amazon, is now being sold at 10% off on Amazon! It used to be full price. This is weird.

M.L. Bushman said...

I did read your other posts, Morris. I think you're very reasonable in your position that you're not telling any one of us what to do. I just hate to be hazed as if I'm stupid.

Now, I'm working on an idea that came to me this morning, and if the details pan out there may be an alternative in the near future to Amazon for self, small, and independent publishers, an alternative that offers equal or better discounts to customers with a lot more profit for the publishers.

However, I still have a major detail or two to sort out before I get going on this. But I am committed to finding an alternative to this, one that's based on honesty and fairness to both customers and publishers versus the Amazon model.

Mari
editor-jigsawpress.com

I tell you, I'm so excited about this idea, my brain hurts...LOL

Morris Rosenthal said...

Charles,

Yes, believe it or not, I think this may be an infantile attempt on the part of Amazon to set up a "..and we're losing money on these books" defence. Of course, they've never been sold at a discount previous to last Friday, and have sometimes carried extra fulfillment fees in the past.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

Mari,

I think this must be the longest comment thread on my blog. I'll have to post an interview with an academic author tommorow to slow things down:-)

I'm sure that there are various work-arounds available. We had several books in Advantage in my old offset publishing business. However, I do think publishers need to be careful about potential anti-trust violations if they start supplying books to Amazon at a better discount than to other retailers.

If you mean avoiding Amazon altogether, I think I can make it work for myself, and you might be able to make it work for you, but it's a bad idea for most publishers, whatever the size. Amazon is the world's biggest bookstore. My decision not to sign with Booksurge or CreateSpace is based on my willingness to go out of the book business if that's what it results in. That's would be a very stupid gamble for a publisher who was intent on remaining in the book business. What really bothers me is that I was thinking of signing with CreateSpace for video, and now I'll have to forgoe it.

Morris

Alex said...

Morris,

I think your comment about "publishers being careful about potential anti-trust violations if supplying books to Amazon at better discounts than to other retailers" is another critical key to this situation. Not only would Amazon "force" publishers to forego the effective use of alternative pod printers if they want to reach the Amazon audience, not only to do so by paying more for a possibly inferior product, but last but not least by forcing terms which could be potentially illegal.

If this is not enough, to say "enough is enough" I don't know what else to add.

Alex

Bryan Rosner said...

Morris has an excellent point. I for one am in publishing to make money. I won't spend $1.00 to get revenge on amazon if it means that $1.00 comes off my paycheck. So, sadly, even if amazon bullies people, I will gladly receive the bullying to keep my income.

Some things I do for fun: mountain biking, reading, traveling. Not included on the hobby list: insignificant and miniscule protests against corporate politics sure to cost me money.

:-)

Bryan
http://www.biomedpublishers.com

Morris Rosenthal said...

Alex,

It is a comment and not a legal opinion, and I doubt Amazon will see it as a straw could break their back. They'll do what they think is best for their "vision" and litigate to protect that vision. It would take a seriously optimistic legal opinion from a specialist to get me to start writing checks for an anti-trust lawsuit.

Morris

Morris Rosenthal said...

Bryan,

That why I keep saying,

"Do as I say and not as I do"

Morris