Adventures in Self-Publishing, Chapter 4: Understanding POD Business Models

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.


Albion Press, woodcut by George Baxter, Courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsLast week I identified the different types of Print on Demand (POD) publishers that are active in the market today and provided tips on how to decide which type would best meet your needs.  Before we go on to talk about how to select a specific publisher, it's worth pausing to look more deeply into what each type of POD publisher actually does, and how it makes its money. 

Why?  Because knowing what a POD publisher wants to get out of your partnership makes it easier for you to pick one where your interests and theirs will most closely align.  That's what you want, because if the POD publisher wins, then you will as well.

Let’s start by differentiating the combined POD/distributors (i.e., Amazon, Google and Apple) from the rest of the POD publishers, and also how each of these three companies differs from the other. The full service POD publishers, you’ll recall will do everything for you to get your book formatted, packaged in an attractive cover, and submitted to all of the major distribution outlets.  For extra, they’ll also edit, proofread and (to some extent) promote it.

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Now here’s what each of the combined companies does and does not provide:

This is all pretty silly, because there’s no reason why you should be anything other than proud of your work once it reaches the market.  Here’s how to make sure that happens.

But first, we need to lob a few grenades at the publishing industry for its refusal to adopt a common format standard for publishing.  Remember standards?  This is, after all, the Standards Blog.

1.  Each allows you to put your manuscript into a form that their customers can purchase through their Web site.  Only Amazon currently offers any additional  services beyond on-line tools, and it’s offerings are much more limited than the full-service POD publishers.

2.  Each enables you to sell your book in its own proprietary eBook format that only they are licensed to sell, and each gets there by a different route:

–  In the case of Apple, it’s tough to go direct, and the Apple site doesn’t really encourage you to try.  One easy way to get on board is through Smashwords, a POD publisher that Apple points to from its iBook Store.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing (other than cost-wise), because Smashwords will also turn your manuscript into the other current main types of eBook formats and then submit it to the other major on line outfits.  Apple, however, will only sell your book at the Books section of its iTunes store for use on iPhones, iPads and other Apple products.

–  In the case of Amazon, you would do your conversion through the CreateSpace Web platform, which Amazon purchased for this purpose.  If you’re only planning on selling your book as a Kindle eBook, or plan on submitting your book yourself directly to multiple online distributors, you can find out how using this brief free Kindle eBook (no surprise) from Amazon.  Amazon also provides a helpful guide telling you how to make the most out of your detail page in the Amazon bookstore.  Continuing in the no surpise category, there are many self-published, low-cost eBooks you can buy that describe how to self-publish at Amazon.  Of course, Amazon will only sell a Kindle version of a eBook.  So while you’ve bypassed a POD publisher to get to Amazon, you’ve also only gained access to only Amazon’s customers.

–  Barnes & Noble calls their self-publishing business Pubit!  The front door for authors can be found here, and the customer eBook site is here.  The Pubit! program offers tools similar to those provided by Amazon and Google for allowing you to format and upload your files, but only allows you to create eBooks.  You can find multiple FAQs, tools and other information about the program here.

–  In the case of Google, you will upload your book through Google’s Web site for sale through the Google eBookstore.  Unlike Amazon, Google will convert your book into all of the main eReader formats, and sell each of those formats.  The Google eBookstore publisher information page is here.  Unfortunately, Google currently has far fewer customers.

3.  Only Amazon will convert your manuscript into soft-cover and hardcover versions as well as eBook versions.

4.  All three companies will provide sales information to you on line, and will periodically pay you your share of the sales proceeds.

The first take away from this short list is that each of these three companies is more different from the other two in what it does and does not offer than almost all of the many full service POD publishers are from the others.  Now why would that be?

The answer is that the reason these three companies are willing to work with you at all has much more to do with their overall business strategies than it does with what they hope to earn from selling your book.  And each is a very different sort of company:  Amazon makes it’s money from selling low margin content and other products, Apple makes its profits from selling high margin consumer electronic devices, and Google sells ads.  In each case, the profits from selling books written by self-published authors isn’t going to exceed the error of their balance sheets.

So why do they do it at all?  Here’s why.

In the case of Apple and Amazon, it’s about tying their customers even tighter to their own proprietary platforms.  For Amazon, that means they want to make it easy for a customer to purchase content from them, and hard to quit doing that, or to concurrently buy from one of their competitors.  For Apple, the goal is to keep you buying its iPhones, iPads and so on.  In both cases, the bigger the investment you’ve made in their proprietary formats, the more likely you are to stay with them.  And they can continue to do this for so long as they can get away with refusing to support a common format standard.

Now let’s look at Google.  Unlike the other two, Google’s goal isn’t to lock you into using their format (remember, they support all common formats), but to provide an avenue for users of Google services and ads to escape becoming even more tightly tied to someone else’s (i.e., Apple or Amazon’s) platform.  That’s why they spent a fortune developing the Chrome browser and the Android operating system and then making them available for free.  In each case the user experience for viewing Google ads and other services is enhanced and protected.

Where this logically leads is as follows:

1.  As an author, you’re potentially more valuable to Amazon than either of the others, because selling content is a core business for Amazon.  This is reflected in the range of tools Amazon offers to prepare your book, and then to market it at the Amazon site, as well as the fact that you can sell hard, soft and electronic versions.  If you do well, then Amazon will do well.

2.  You’re not very important to Google, because Google is spread across the landscape a mile wide and a millimeter deep.  Google rolls out everything from driverless car technology to Google Earth, always in Beta, and not always on an ongoing basis.  So far, the Google bookstore is just one more in a very long list of services that it may or may not continue to invest in.  And while Amazon and Apple spend huge sums promoting their on-line content sales, Google to date has spent basically nothing promoting its on-line book sales.

3.  It would appear that Apple doesn’t care much about you at all, because it does the least to make it easy for you to access the Apple store.  True, the iPad is the newest device in the Apple line up, so it may be that with time this may change, and especially so if Apple perceives that Amazon is winning the content wars.  If that happens, then even rounding error businesses will start to matter to it.

By now, some of you will have noticed that I haven’t talked at all about which of these vendors gives you the biggest royalty share when they sell your book.  There are two reasons for that.  The first is that you can get this information easily on-line.  The second, and more important, is that the partner that gives you the best share of sales revenue may be exactly worst one for you to use.

Wrap everything above up with a bow, and here’s where I would come out if I were choosing between one of these three competitors: if all I wanted to do was get something up for sale in a quick and dirty fashion (maybe to sell for $.99 or $1.99) and figured that all of the sales would result from people clicking first on a link at my Web site, then Google could be a good avenue, because anyone could buy an eBook from them in any format.  On the other hand, if I cared about print copies as well, then I’d go with Amazon, since there are so many Kindles out there, and anyone can download the Kindle software to their laptop or phone for free anyway.

But if I was a first time author and really cared about ending up with a good looking book, I’d bypass all three of these alternatives, and use a POD publisher.  In fact, I not only would, but I did.

Next week we’ll look at how the full service POD publishers make their profits, and what that means to you.

Read the first chapter 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

Comments (1)

  1. Thanks for this!  Keep them comming!  I’m currently working on a small computer book.

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