Began today as I usually do, reading my favorite blogs. Miss Snark had written a column on self-publishing which started a discussion in the "comments" section about POD (Print-on-Demand). As usually happens, I found myself getting frustrated by the public's insistence on confusing POD with self-publishing.
POD is primarily a technology. It is the technology by which digital printing is utilized to print as little as one copy of a book. Generally, that single copy is not created until an order is received. This permits places like Amazon to accept an order for a less popular book. Amazon then contacts a fulfillment house which prints the book and sends it to the customer. The per-book cost of printing a single copy is obviously more expensive than the per-book cost of printing a run of 5,000 books. However, because that single book is only printed when there is an order for it, the sell-through rate is 100%.
The sell-through rate is the percentage of books actually sold in a printing run. To use round numbers, if a publisher prints 1,000 books and 600 of them sell, the sell-through rate is 60%. Agents and editors are always interested in an author's sell-through rate because it is a good indicator of how marketable that author is.
To get back to the cost of a POD book versus a book printed by traditional means, the traditional publisher must maintain unsold inventory in a bricks-and-mortar warehouse. This adds to the ultimate per-book cost. So, even though the POD books seems more expensive at first, the long-term cost is actually less because of the 100% sell-through.
Now, comes the confusion. The term Print-on-Demand has become associated with self-publishing or vanity press. Please, dear readers, do not contact me with comments that self-publishing is not the same as vanity press. I. Don't. Care. In practical terms, the differences between the two are moot. Vanity press refers to those persons so anxious to get their books into print that they pay personally to have their opus printed. They do this because no reputable publisher/agent will take the book on. Hello? That should be the first clue that there's a problem with the manuscript.
Some people argue that self-publishing is different in that the author wishes to maintain creative control (read here: accept no editorial advice) or because the subject matter is not of general public interest (again: no publisher/agent wants to take the book on). I know that there are some cases of self-published authors who later sold to a legitimate publisher. M.J. Rose is among the most well-known recent examples of these wunderkind. However, these cases are extremely rare.
We need to get in the habit of using the term Print-on-Demand to refer to the technology and using the term self-publishing (okay, I'll admit it does sound better than vanity press) for the process by which an author pays to print his/her own work.
By using the correct terminology, we can be sure that we're all talking about the same thing in our discussions on publishing.