Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chapter 3: Selecting a Print on Demand Publisher (Part I)

This series highlights aspects of my experience self-publishing The Alexandria Project.   If you'd like to read the book this series is based on, you can read the first three chapters for free here

Like just about every other step in self-publishing a book, researching and selecting a print on demand (POD) publisher can be a time-consuming and even bewildering experience.  The problem arises not from a lack of choices, but just the opposite.  Today, there are scores of publishers to choose from, with significant differences among them in business model, cost, speed, quality and reputation.  The challenge is therefore to figure out which one is just right you.

The first step in that process is to understand the high-level differences between the alternatives available.  At the highest level of categorization, there are currently three models from which to choose:

So-called “vanity” publishers:  POD publishers try hard to distinguish themselves from this category, due to the historical disdain in which the vanities have been held by the traditional publishing trade.  Basically, a vanity publisher is one that will take your manuscript and turn it into an attractively printed book, and that’s it.  Before POD technology came along, you then had to purchase the book in volume for a significant amount of money, due to the substantial costs of printing even a limited press run.  The disdain arose from the fact that those who self-published in this way had often tried and failed to interest a traditional publisher in their work, which was therefore not only assumed to be not only inferior, but also written by someone deluded enough to think that he could market the book himself. 


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POD Publishers:  The advent of the Internet, desktop word processing software, and, finally, sophisticated copiers that can economically spit out a single bound book in a minute’s time, has allowed a new type of self-publishing model to emerge.  In one sense, these new businesses are simply vanity publishers with different fulfillment economics, in that the promotion of your book will still be entirely your responsibility (unless you buy a very expensive service package).  But there is a big difference: the Internet and the Web now offer promotional and distribution opportunities to individual authors that can, at least theoretically, lead to success.  The PODs play to this opportunity by adding packages of services, such as getting your book registered with the major distribution channels, setting up a basic Web site for your book, facilitating direct sales on line, providing promotional materials, and more, that can ensure that if you can create demand for your book, it will be readily available to the marketplace on-line, if perhaps rarely in stores.


Combined POD/Distribution Channels (Amazon, Google and Apple):  Depending on your time and talents, you can upload a book directly into three major on-line retail sites: Amazon, through its CreateSpace business, Google, through its eBooks store, and Apple, through its iBooks Store.  Of the three, the Amazon venture is the most mature, reaches the largest audience and provides the widest variety of on-line tools (free) and additional services (for a fee), making it a low-end, stripped down analogue to the POD publishers.  Google is the newest kid on the block with less of everything.  The Apple site provides a great distribution channel, but is rather inhospitable to individual authors, urging them rather pointedly to submit through a POD rather than seek to work directly with Apple.

Like just about every other topic that I’m covering here, this is a baldly superficial overview.  Not only is there much important detail missing, but there are wide differences within each category. 

For example, there are new companies popping up that, for want of a better fit, could logically be placed in the vanity category.  These can do beautiful “occasional” books for family events (e.g., a wedding or anniversary) for people that only want 50 or 100 copies.  You can pick formats, backgrounds, covers and more on line and then upload your pictures and content (check out, for example).  The per-copy costs aren’t always cheap if you want to include lots of color pictures, but it’s a nice service to know about if this is what you have in mind.

In the combined POD/Distribution category, there are significant differences in services available, author royalty rates, and market reach, and more.  And you also need to do more work if you wish to access multiple channels and not just one.

That leaves the middle category, which is likely to be of interest to the widest number of authors, because the basic package that most provide includes getting you an ISBN number, a listing in the key trade catalogs, a listings at the major on-line retailers, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble  After that, though, there can be significant variations.  At one end of the spectrum there are publishers, like BookLocker, that do a basic package that covers the bare bones of what you would need for a cheap price.  At the other, there are businesses that try and sell you a much more expensive package of services, some of which may have little practical value.  Many sell multiple packages, with ascending levels of service and cost. 

So where do you start?  I’d suggest the following steps:

1.  Educate yourself about which model you are interested in, and within that model, what services you do and don’t want to purchase.  There are (no surprise) many books on the market that purport to explain, and sometimes rate, the better known PODs.  One of the better researched, exhaustive and authoritative ones I’ve found is The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing.

2.  Identify those POD publishers that fit the profile you’ve selected.  This takes time and leg work.

3.  Come up with a way to compare your first cut PODs against each other (not as easy as it should be).  Again, there are books to help.  One of the better known is The Fine Art of Self-Publishing, although its primary focus is on the rights and contractual side of self-publishing.

4.  Investigate the reputation of the ones that come out on top (expect them to vary greatly!)  You’ll largely need to do this by visiting writer’s sites and other venues where people share their favorable, and not so favorable, experiences.

5.  Contact your top choices and asking at least a short list of important questions.  Most PODs have patient sales representatives standing by, but you should ask to talk to someone you’ll actually work with instead, if possible.

In my next installment in this series, I’ll write more about the differences between POD publishers that you should know about, how to go about investigating POD publishers, and what questions you should ask before signing up with one.


Read the first installment of this series here


Read the next chapter of Adventures in Self-Publishing here


 Read Chapter 1 of The Lafayette Deception (the sequel to The Alexandria Project) here