A back page piece in Publisher’s Weekly has me all fired up today. It was written by an independent publisher and reflected his views on print-on-demand (POD). He stated in his article that POD books were now finding their way onto bookstore shelves and thereby limiting the room for small, independent, and boutique publishers. This comment was personally offensive to me largely because I’ve spent so much time in the POD industry and have worked very hard to do my part in trying to help raise the bar on these books which now evidentially has happened. If books are finally making it onto bookstore shelves I say: hooray! It’s about time. I suspect that the author of this piece, like much of trade publishing, is growing nervous. Yes, the competition is increasing and we’re having to get more creative with our marketing efforts to get our books noticed. Perish the thought that simply plopping a book on the shelf of a bookstore no longer serves as a viable marketing plan.
Part of his lamentation was that there was “confusion” over which books were POD (and therefore making it onto bookstore shelves) and which weren’t (which according to the author of this piece have much more right to be there than their POD counterparts). I can not help but wonder if there wasn’t a time when the big New York publishers said the same thing about small presses and independents. Their books were on the shelf, they were making good sales and (gasp!) some of them were on the best seller lists. Now it’s POD’s turn. The article certainly offered a glimpse into the hearts and minds of many in publishing these days but I dare say it certainly doesn’t give enough credit to the bookstores shelving these POD titles. I have worked in this industry long enough to know that bookstores are extremely cautious when it comes to any self-published work. In fact if you put a stack of books in front of a book buyer they could probably pick out the self-published title blindfolded. A bookstore will not shelve a book simply because it’s “mistaken for a traditionally published title.” They shelve it because they feel it will sell. Therefore I disagree with the author’s inference and would argue that there are no “accidental” placements, but rather that some of these self-published titles are actually making the grade and worthy of shelf space.
It’s true (as the author pointed out) that the barrier to entry for self-publishing is minimal these days and consequently, there is a proliferation of books making their way into the market. I disagree though that the blame for the challenges the industry faces today needs to get placed on the shoulders of print-on-demand titles or the publishers who produce them. I believe the upside down state which we find ourselves in comes from the natural growth this industry is facing. We can not support an industry that doesn’t always support the author (ok, rarely supports the author). If authors want to see their work in print they will find a way, this is not new, it’s not “POD’s fault” it’s just the way of publishing. Print-on-demand publishers have simply facilitated a momentum that was already building. Are there POD publishers ho should be drummed out of the industry for publishing nothing but high-priced science projects? Quite possibly, but that’s not what this is about. This is about making room for titles worthy of shelf space, it’s about a whole new world of publishing that’s been knocking on New York’s door for over six years now. And it’s about the publishing industry finally understanding that the way to market a book is not to let it gather dust on a shelf. No offense to bookstores but often they’re not the best place to sell books. The advent of print-on-demand technology and the publishers who utilize this printing process is forcing this industry to look at titles that otherwise would have languished in obscurity under someone’s slush pile. Not all of them are worthy of mention but the ones that are, will rise to the surface. The problem is, traditional publishers never expected there to be so many of them. This would mean that somehow the New York giants let them slip through their fingers. Well listen, nobody’s perfect. We can’t catch all the winners and that’s why I say, thank God there is an option for these authors. It’s our right to voice our opinion, in whatever form we want. Yes, we’re publishing more books than ever before. Yes, shelf space is shrinking, review windows are shrinking and the media is inundated with book pitches. This trend is now forcing all of us to dig deeper and be more creative when it comes to getting our books noticed, it’s forcing us to think outside the “book” and push the envelope. And believe it or not, this is a good thing – reinvention always is. POD will never replace traditional publishing, but this trend is forcing us to realize that diamonds come in all shapes and sizes, even in the form of a self-published book.