POD websites – gotcha!

April 21, 2010

It’s been a while since I blogged about how to sniff out a POD publisher by looking at their website, and I’ve had a few questions about it recently. Additionally, there is a great chapter in Tackle Box about the signs to look for and I have the whole POD Series you can read under the Classic Posts section off to the right of the screen.

In this day and age, it’s hard to figure out what a publisher is really about from their website unless you know what you’re looking for, so I thought I’d give a breakdown for easy digestion. Most of them are a template and this makes your job a lot easier. Here are some of the things you may see on the POD website:

  • POD websites are geared toward attracting authors, not readers. This is geared to excite the author out of their skivvies because they feel they have a chance at their dreams. Keep in mind that PODs make money off their unpaid sales force – their own authors – because their books aren’t in bookstores. They need a fresh meat supply at all times.
  • They may mention with great pride that 10o% of their authors are unagented. This is also meant to excite authors because most don’t have agents, so many believe they have a chance at their dreams. Sound repetitive? A commercial trade press will NEVER consider this a bragging point.
  • They may offer a higher percentage of royalties, but they may not say what those royalties consist of. Net? Retail? Net can be iffy. For example, paying on Net should mean that the author is  paid royalties on what the book actually sold for – the discounted price that the publisher sold to the bookstore. However, some POD publishers will extract their production and incidental costs, which are hard, if not impossible, to verify. This means the author is could be left with a few nickels to rub together.
  • They may state, “Professional covers and layout.” Puhleeze. This isn’t a selling feature. This is simply a part of doing business for the commercial trade publisher. It’s like having a car lot saying, “Oh heckititeetoot yes, we even include the tires with your car!” Well, gee, I hope so.
  • They may also say, “Our average lead time is less than six months from acceptance of the contract to books on the shelves.” This is a dead giveaway. There is no way I can accept a book and get it on the shelves within six months. For starters, my distributor needs a four to six month lead time just to get it into their catalog, which goes out to the genre buyers. We allow for three months to edit a book, design the cover, do the layout and interior design. Then we get the ARCs out to reviewers, who need a four month lead time. You see where I’m going with this, right? Anyone who hands out a short lead time like this more than likely isn’t a commercial trade publisher. Mind you, I’m talking US publishers.
  • “Tired of being turned down?” Commercial trade publishers don’t exist to ease the plight of the unpublished. They exist to buy great books and sell them to our lovely readers. It’s very common for PODs to use this type of verbiage in order to make them look like they’re the Great Savior to the downtrodden and defeated. Commercial trade publishers feel that if an author is rejected over and over again, it may not be suitable for publication.
  • “Give us a chance.” That is something you will never hear from a commercial trade publisher. We know who we are, so you either want to work with us and believe you have a book that will tickle our fancy, or you go elsewhere. We don’t beg to be given a chance. Instead, we have to prove ourselves by getting your book on store shelves and into readers’ hands.
  • There is no reading fee and we never ask authors to subsidize the publishing costs. Anyone who tells you this is someone who doth protesteth too much. I’m not saying they’ll do this because they probably won’t. But my point is that they even bother mentioning it. It’s pedestrian, and commercial trade presses don’t say these things because, like, um, why would we?
  • We want to be your publisher! Now this just makes me squidge because I want to ask, “how do you know you want to be my publisher? Do you have any standards, or is this just a general cattle call?” If I were to put up anything of this nature, it would be more akin to, “I am a snarly old bat with incredibly high standards who will bite your ears off if you send me junk!” The POD blurb gives the idea they’ll accept anyone as long as they have a constant pulse. We, OTOH, have an acceptance rate of 1%.
  • Genre. Most small trade presses limit the genres or niches they accept because they don’t have the editing staff to adequately edit Westerns, SF, Fantasy, Horror, Historical, etc. The POD press will accept just about any genre in existence. Be mindful of this. You want a properly edited book, and I guarantee that a POD press has very few editors on staff, and they can’t possibly do justice to every genre. No way, no how.

As I’ve said in the past, I hold a very tepid affection for POD companies because I’ve seen too many victims of those who made grand promises only to pull the literary rug out from underneath a lot of good people. PODs can be great for OP books or niche. But for the standard “I’m not ready for primetime publishing” PODs still make me growl. Or rather, the beagle growls, and I drink. I detest seeing authors get ripped off, and these guys do it either by design or sheer stupidity because they think they just invented the wheel.

Know what you’re getting into and know how to recognize the signs so you can say, “Ahhh, gotcha!”


POD and readership

October 23, 2009

On my wanderings through the many writer sites, I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme; readership. Boy, for the debut author, this is vital because without it, chances are slim you’ll get a second bite at the publishing apple. What concerns me about these discussions is that many authors believe the Print on Demand business plan [for further explanation, see the POD Series #1;  #2 ; #3 #4 #5 #6 #7; Print on a Dime ]will help them gain that oh-so important readership. After they have a following, they plan on going the mainstream publishing route. My problem with this logic is, how are you gonna get them?

Breakdown of gaining a readership

Gaining a following of readers means that your book reached a wide audience. That means your book was bought by the publisher for its marketable content, it was edited by an experienced editing team, was widely pitched by sales teams to the genre buyers, it was marketed and promoted on a national basis, it was distributed and placed on store shelves, hundreds of ARCs and free final copies were sent to media and reviewers, maybe you got a great trade magazine review.

With the Print on Demand business plan, none of these things happened.

Since Print on Demand business plans don’t have store placement, how do they stay in business? They rely on their authors to buy books. This is why many PODs have a ton of authors and accept every genre – it’s to balance the ratio of those authors who don’t buy their own books.

Since these publishers don’t have much money, they don’t do any marketing and promotion on a national level [and in most cases, not at all]. If the POD author shoulders the burden of marketing, promoting, and selling his/her books, how wide of an audience can they realistically reach?

I’ll hire a publicist

The problem with this idea is that the good publicists won’t take on a POD book because of the inadequate print runs. POD business plan means that the publisher prints off books only where there are physical orders. This reduces their financial risk. [Note: I am NOT talking about digital print runs, where it’s financially conducive to printing smaller runs. All publishers use the digital technology for printing ARCs and backlist titles]

You hire a publicist because they can open media doors that you can’t. If you have dreams of being on a major morning show – don’t say Oprah, don’t say it, Lynn, don’t, don’t, don’t – then you need a mainsteam publisher behind you who can meet that potential demand.

Case in point; I had a friend who signed with a POD and, on her own,  struck a deal with a major sporting goods store. She took the contract to the POD, and they turned her down. Why? Because not only would they have to print up 10,000 units, but they faced the possibility of returns. It’s too much risk. As a consolation, they suggested she BUY the 10,000 units at a 50% discount. Then she could do whatever she wanted. Needless to say, that wasn’t an option. Now this author had a perfect chance to widen her readership by thousands, but her publisher squirreled the deal.

A publicist knows this and that’s why they won’t work with POD books. What would happen if they got a Fox News Channel interview with the ever-ascerbic Glenn Beck? Demand might go through the roof. But the problem is the book isn’t available in stores, nor are there enough printed books. Result; pissed off buyers and egg on the publicist’s and Beck’s faces. Beck, I’m certain can handle that. The publicist won’t fare so well because his credibility is shot.

What are the POD author’s options?

Options are few since the publicity comes down to what kind of footprint the author can make on her own. This costs time and money. Of course there are Cinderella stories all over the place, but keep in mind that they are the exception; not the rule.

POD as a publishing credit

The thing to keep in mind is that after everything is said and done, mainstream publishers and agents don’t consider a POD book as a publishing credit. So you’ve pubbed your first book with a POD, and chances are you sold maybe a hundred or so copies. You then query mainstream agents and editors with your second book and proudly list your POD credit.

This is where the needle goes scritchy scratchy across the record. Unless you sold a couple, three thousand units – that we can verify through Bookscan – no one will care about that book. As I always suggest to authors – don’t list a POD book at all in your query.

In short, when authors talk about going the POD route to gain a readership, I’ve come to think of this as shorthand for, “I’m not good enough.” Whether they are or not remains to be seen. But I can guarantee one thing; if every POD author didn’t buy their own books, PODs would go out of business. This isn’t opinion, but fact.


The caterpillar and the great cocoon incident

October 6, 2009

Life began humbly for Bart.

“Cripes, my writing sucks,” he thought, catching another glimpse of his latest rejection letter. “I’m sick and tired of being told ‘thanks but no thanks.’ It blows being a caterpillar. I want to be like that hot little Monarch butterfly that stops by in the afternoon. She has a five book deal, the wench.”

But something compelled him to keep writing. And eating. His writing matched his penchant for eating leaves in Overworked and Underpaid Editor’s backyard, and he began to grow, which made his skin too tight for his expanding body. With each new shed of his skin, his writing began to take shape – while Overworked’s backyard quickly resembled a botanical version of Bosnia.

“Hey,” he cried after shedding for the third time, “I get it now! If I use show instead of tell, my story is a lot stronger. I can see where that short story I wrote two sheddings ago was overfilled with exclamation points, and I relied on punctuation to do the job of  my writing. And I can see that my last shedding cured me of adverb-atosis.” Bart beamed. “I’m getting better each time I shed my skin.  Duuude!”

Then the day arrived when he formed a chrysalis (the butterfly version of a cocoon). As Bart attached himself to the underneath side of a leaf, he knew he was transforming into something different. Something wonderful.

“I think I’ll take a nice nap,” he yawned, “and see what happens when I wake up.”

He had all kinds of joy joy dreams. Dreams of book deals and preempts filled his head as he snoozed. He dreamed of the POV switches that used to ruin his writing, but were now a thing of the past. Notions of character development and effective backstory replaced syntax errors and passive voice. Wonderful ideas of story arcs, plot, and pacing made his slumbering chunky body wiggle with glee.

One bright and sunny morning he opened his eyes and let out a great yawn. Oh, how different he felt! He understood what pitching a story meant and how those marvelous things called agents and editors weren’t red pen wielding harbingers of doom, but smart people who were always in search of a great story. He no longer felt angry or jealous of that wench, the Monarch butterfly, and her five book deal.

Suddenly he was in a hurry to begin writing. His nap was over and his chrysalis was too confining. He wiggled and struggled to free himself. Holy mother of the Cosmic Insect; it was hard going, this breaking free. Hurry up, he silently urged his little body. I have stories to write and a new understanding of how to write them.

He was halfway out of his chrysalis, when a shadow fell across his tired face. It was a large cockroach holding a pair of scissors. “Hey ho, you seem to be in a tight spot. My name is Mr. Vanity/POD. Let me help you.” The cockroach came closer, waving his scissors in the air. “I can give you the chance you deserve. Why should you struggle so? I can get you free so you can join my team where we’re always looking for writers who are constantly locked out of traditional publishing.”

But Bart was suspicious. He couldn’t quite put his antennae on it, but something didn’t seem right.

“Don’t fall for it,” came a voice from above. It was the Monarch butterfly! She was warning him. “You have to struggle to free yourself from your chrysalis. If you don’t, you won’t have the strength to pump your wings, and you’ll die.”

“Wings?” Bart said. “I don’t have no stinkin’ wings.”

“Yes, you do,” she cried. You’ve learned so much about writing, that you’ve become transformed. Keep struggling. You can do this. Ignore the cockroach. He’ll prevent your wings from getting strong so you can fly.”

Bart did, indeed feel different. But man was he tired. He looked at Mr. Vanity/POD. Those scissors could cut him out of his chrysalis in no time. He could take the easy way out. But was the Monarch right? Would he die by taking the cockroach’s offer?

“Come on,” Mr. Vanity/POD said. “One little snip, and you’re on your way to Easy Street. I can get your book out in a matter of weeks. A month tops.”

Bart thought of all he’d learned before entering his chrysalis. It had been nothing but hard work. Oh, but the things he’d learned because of all work! How could he learn if things were made easy and accessible to him? How would he grow and become better?

“Bite me, cockroach,” Bart said with finality. “I’ve worked this hard, and I want to continue that process so that my reward means something.”

“Have it your way,” Mr. Vanity/POD said with a sniff. “There are a lot more where you came from.”

With a final gasp, Bart broke free from his chrysalis. He felt lighter. Freer. “What the hell?” He glanced at his reflection in a puddle of water. “Good goggly moggly! I’m a Monarch!”

“Yes, you are,” said a soft voice. It was his friend, the wench, Ms. Five-Book-Deal Monarch. “I’ve watched you struggle with passive voice and dialog tags when you were a chubby caterpillar, and look at you now. You’re a Monarch whose writing flows and whose characters are three dimensional – all set against a well-thought out plot. You stayed away from the easy way out and avoided certain death – for you and your writing.”

Indeed, Bart felt different. He felt empowered. The stories running through his head were were filled with a depth he’d never known before. His hard work had paid off, and he was now the writer he’d wished to be. He knew he still had much to learn, but he now had the tools to improve.

Bart shot Ms. Five-Books a wolfish grin. “I hear the house across the street has a bed of flowers with pollen to die for. What do you say we grab a bite and you can tell me all about your agent…”

She fluttered her long eyelashes. “Oh, Bart, you’re simply scandelous.”

Moral:

Don’t let anyone cut you out of your chrysalis. You have to struggle and work to transform your writing. If someone helps you out before you’re ready, your literary growth and betterment could be cut short or irreparably damaged.


Doing da research

October 2, 2009

All good authors should research publishers. Most turn to Google, and let their megabytes do the walking. Eeek! Who are the good guys, and how are the skanks?

Read Victoria Strauss’ blog post from Writer Beware. That is all.


Things that should make you say “hmmm”

June 4, 2009

We believe that writing is a cathartic process and that you deserve to have a voice and express exactly how you feel about your life and/or your writing.

All good points, but authors still need to be edited. Our words don’t come directly from the hand of the Great Cosmic Muffin. And I’m of a mind that if there is a Mrs. Great Cosmic Muffin, she edits him as well. If you see this kind of statement on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

All of our book covers are black with a central image and white writing. We do this for branding purposes; people who see our books associate with our company. This makes your book more visually appealing and desirable.

Horse manure. This is drop and drag cover design that requires no talent, no forethought, and no ingenuity. It’s one-stop design that the beagle could pull off after a pitcher of margaritas. This isn’t branding. It’s lazy, cheap, K-Mart stuff. They are trying to compare this to say Harlequin or other niche publishers whose covers have a set tone. But at that, those covers are all unique. That’s what sells books. If you see this kind of statement on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

We are looking for the first time author because yours is a voice that is fighting to be heard.

This is double speak for “I really hope you’re too flipping stupid to see through this ruse.” You are nothing more than a profit center for these types. You make them rich by buying your own books by the truckload. If you see this kind of statement on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

We are distributed by Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

This is shorthand for “we don’t have national distribution, and you won’t find our books in bookstores unless an author was able to talk a nice store manager into taking a few copies.” Publishers get their books distributed by one of several ways; they hire their own sales teams who establish relationships with the genre buyers, indie buyers, librarians, and national accounts. They may sign with an independent distributor whose sales teams perform these tasks. Or they may sign with a larger publisher and have them distribute their catalog.

But saying that they are distributed by Ingram and B&T is a throwaway sentence that says nothing. It’s like saying you listed your bike for sale in the L.A. Times. You hope someone will come along and want to buy your bike, but you have no way of making buyers aware of its existence because you’re not out there pitching it to prospective buyers. Only way you’ll sell that bike is if a buyer stumbles across the ad. If you see this kind of statement on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

Why bother with an agent when you can submit directly to us?
Those big guys aren’t looking for fresh voices.
Publishing is broken.

They usually go on about how those greedy rat bastard agents steal a percentage of your earnings, and they’re really the root of all evil. While they, on the other hand, are the paragons of truth, justice, and the Writerly Way. I can almost hear the angels singing.

This is called salesmanship, and PODs and vanity presses do it better than anyone else. Why? Because commercial publishers don’t target authors. They sell to book buyers. That’s how the beagle keeps her running inventory of designer chew toys and tequila.  Since PODs and vanities don’t have distribution or bookstore presence, they get their money from authors, and that is where they aim their sales pitch. They put up outright lies as the ones I pulled from various POD sites, hoping the author believes it. If you see these kinds of statements on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

“They are so nice!”

If I had a dime for every time an author told me this, you all would bowing at my feet calling me Madame Editor Who Rocks All. Of course these folks are nice. But compared to what? How many editors have most authors spoken to? In spite of my snarkitude here, I can really be quite charming. Even friendly. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I drank an author’s blood just for kicks.

In truth, we really are nice, polite people. I have to be decent, or my mother would kill me. And so would every other editor’s mother. So the nice thing doesn’t hold water. Having a nice personality doesn’t equate to a quality book and sell through, yet I see many authors fall into this trap. Only too late do they see that Mr. Nice Editor really has green drippy fangs and a bad temper if you don’t get your butt out there and market and promote your book. You may find yourself the recipient of nastygrams if you aren’t selling many books because you are their unpaid sales force, and you need to keep feeding the monster. If you find yourself saying this, you should say “hmmm.”

We’ll get your book published way faster than the big guys.

This is true. A POD or vanity press can crank out your book in a matter of a month or two – faster if they skip the editing. So if speed lights up your personal flashlight, by all means go for it. But keep in mind that the quality will mirror the amount of time it took to print it up. Also bear in mind that your book won’t be seen by any of the trade reviewers.

This, to date, remains one of the biggest surprises of the POD/vanity author. Well, that and finding out their books won’t be in the stores. New authors don’t realize that there is a set of criteria that results in a book being eligible for review, and one of them is that reveiwers need at least four months lead time before the book is published. If your book is hot off the presses within a month, you can be assured that you won’t be reviewed.

Trade reviewers require an ARC (advanced reading copy), and PODs and vanity presses don’t produce these because it costs money that they will never recoup. They are very stingy about sending freebie copies to anyone because it’s a loss. Where we may send out 300 freebie copies of a single title, they may send out five – after some grousing. This is because the general reading public isn’t their target market. You, the author, are. If you see this kind of statement on a publisher’s website, you should say “hmmm.”

“We are late paying royalties because our distributor is late paying us.”

I have seen this statement from both POD and commercial presses. For PODs, this isn’t surprising that they can’t (or won’t) pay up if their vendors (PODs don’t have distribution) are late paying because they don’t often have enough cash reserves. Even if they do, it’s more advantageous to make the authors wait. I’ve seen PODs who are busy buying imprints, yet they are consistently late paying their authors’ royalties.

For commercial presses, the notion that the distributor is late paying the publisher is bunk – yet I have seen this happen as well. This kind of statement should tell the author one thing; the publisher is hurting for cash. I don’t know of a single reputable distributor where publishers can’t get their current sales status online, so they always know how much money is coming to them. If you get an email with this kind of news, you should say “hmmm.”

There are a million other things that should make you say “hmmm,” but these are the main offenders I see time and time again that result in authors being confused or cranky. Remember what your mama told you. If something appears to be too good to be true, it probably is.

Be safe out there, and never be afraid to take a step back and say “hmmm.”


POD – are you going to pay me my royalties or not?

June 3, 2009

I hear this a lot from authors who are with Print On Demand publishers – among all the other issues I discuss regarding this particular entity. For any newcomers – I’m not talking about the digital printing process, but rather the business plan. Thar be a difference.

POD business plan, in a nutshell, operates on little money, and that means they don’t do large enough print runs to make them distribution worthy, they don’t have sales teams, marketing, promotion, reviews by the large trade magazines, or shelf space in the bookstores. Since they can’t get into the bookstores, they need to make their money somewhere, and that income stream usually comes from their own authors, who need to buy their own books in order to make sales or bring stock to signing events.

Because not every author buys their own books, POD publishers have an usually high acceptance rate – far higher than commercial trade presses. They need those numbers to maintain that income stream.

The long and short of this is that PODs are always one step shy of running out of money, and this can be seen in paying out their royalties. Is your POD paying out their royalties later and later? Is the payment schedule constantly being pushed back? Are they consistently missing deadlines? Have they sent out emails telling you royalties are going to be late because their vendors are late paying them?

This is deep-fried crap on a hot dog stick.

And this heightens my main beef with the POD business plan. PODs cannot run a company on a shoe string budget and expect to maintain any kind of viability in the long term. You are always one step away from disaster because you have zero control over your destiny. Will my authors buy enough books for me to keep the lights on? Will those online outlets pay me for sales over the past quarter? You lack the funds to sit in the driver’s seat, and virtually everything depends on outside influences. Whatever production costs the POD does have, they aren’t going to wait just because some online e-book site or database is late sending out their payments.

PODs don’t have cash reserves to weather the tough times. And when times get tough, it’s not unusual to see the “get out and market!” emails begin floating around. They need capital, and they need it fast. So guess who bites it? The author. It’s always the author. You are the first casualty in the POD plan because you are the most patient and expendable. You are the first to be blamed if your book tanks, and the last to be paid when the well runs dry. If you cause too much of a ruckus or ask too many questions, you’re dumped and branded a troublemaker.

PODs don’t normally stand behind their authors because they can’t afford to. It’s not about the book and the strength of the story, because they don’t have a wide audience to begin with, so it comes down to the author’s ability to bring home the bacon. And it’s not just the author who needs to bring home the bacon. The publisher’s vendors do, too.

For the thousands of you who I know are wondering if your late royalty checks will come in, you have my sympathies. At least you have a better understanding as to why it’s happening and that you will always be the last one considered when things get tough.


If you’re going to be grateful, make it count

March 10, 2009

“I appreciate “insert Print On Demand publishing company here” for helping me get my foot into the door of the publishing world.”

I see and hear this line all the time, and it never fails to give me gas. See, what these folks don’t realize is their foot is about as far from the publishing world as I am convincing Antonio Banderas to marry me.

Oh sure, their books were listed on Amazon and b&n.com, and such. But were they reviewed by any of the trade mags? Will their books be on store shelves? Will their “publisher” work their Victoria Secrets off to market and promote their books to anyone possessing a big mouth and a pulse? Will they go after cover blurbs? Will they cough up ARCs to radio stations and newspapers? Will they even have said radio stations and newspapers calling their “publisher” requesting to be added to their marketing list for future works? Will they discuss promotion plans and how they can support their author?

The answer to all these questions is no.

So, in truth, the only thing to be grateful for is that their “publisher” printed their book and got it fed into the online databases – a feat that takes as much time as I take to pluck my eyebrows. The editing will be substandard, but the author won’t realize that, and they’ll insist they were put through the ringer over their edits. No one has been put through the ringer until they’ve encountered my editor, who is adorable beyond all reason and the keeper of The Red Pen From Hell.

I’ve said it before; you get what you pay for, and PODs rarely have the money to pay for great anything, and the only thing authors earn is a healthy dose of cynicism. Ok, I’ll admit there are some who have money, one comes to mind who owns a helicopter, but they got rich selling to their authors, not the stores – which gives it a vanity feel on the back end. So the reality is that POD authors learn very little about how the industry works.

If you’re going to be grateful to your POD publisher, I recommend that you take a step back and ask yourself exactly how much you really do know about the industry through being affiliated with them. Do you know how books are sold? Do you understand discounting and distribution? Do you understand how sales teams operate and pitch titles? Do you understand how to keep a book on a bookshelf? Have you thought about how to make your title swim among an ocean of thousands of other books? Have you considered the competition?

I’m betting the POD author learned none of those things. So it leaves me wondering if the gratitude is misplaced. Makes me think they really need The Writer’s Essential Tackle Box, where they’ll learn far more than from their own publisher. Meanwhile, I’m so not giving up on Antonio…


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