Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Critiquing Pod Critic

Miss Snark had a link to a relatively new blogger here in her Monday post.

Miss Snark filed his post under "sucka," offering a critique in her uniquely brusque and snarky fashion.

I wrote a lengthy response in POD Critic's comment space. I don't know how long that comment will appear, but I'm going to incorporate parts of it in this post.

Pod Critic states: "The truth is this: print-on-demand technology, as I’ve told others, has the capacity to revolutionize the publishing industry; to alter it almost entirely in fact."

Frankly, I agree with him (I'm going to use the generic "him" since I have no idea of the blogger's gender) that POD is the wave of the future. Richard Curtis made that case nearly a year ago in his keynote address to the Backspace Writers Conference in July. You can read his comments here.

Pod Critic and I begin to part company when he says: "Right now, print-on-demand is an advanced printing technology and business model that is mainly in the hands of rank amateurs."

I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again: POD is a technology, not a business model. It is the technology that permits a publishing house to digitally print one book at nearly the same average price per book as it can print one thousand books. I agree it will overtake the industry, in the same way Gutenberg's printing press once did, simply because it makes economic sense. However, it is NOT a business model. The only people calling it a business model are the presses that specialize in self-publishing, who now call themselves "POD publishers" because it sounds better than "vanity presses."

Self-publishing IS a business model. The technology by which one self-publishes is called printing, whether it be POD or traditional press.

Where POD Critic and I really tear the sheets is when he says: "Many authors, and even a few publishers, employing the method are, in essence, inexpert and unprofessional. That is what happens when there is no real (affordable) training program or adequate learning apparatus readily available to the masses. The entire POD system is, in effect, abused; hence the heavy criticism and standoffish positions from those on the other side."

He's off his nut if he thinks the publishing industry doesn't recognize the potential of POD technology. Large publishers like Random House, HarperMorrow and Simon & Schuster are already busy digitizing their backlists.

Last week, Borders Group announced it is revamping its chain of superstores to create digital centers, which will include assistance for self-published writers.

The real problem with POD has nothing to do with "a lack of training program or adequate learning apparatus" for publishers and authors. Both publishing houses and POD presses know exactly what the technology can do and exactly what it means to their future.

The real problem is that POD publishers have given the technology a bad name by printing whatever dreck comes in the door accompanied by a writer with a check who says she wants to self-publish.

In traditional publishing, the READER is the ultimate end user of the publishing house. In self-publishing, the WRITER is the end user of the POD press. And therein lies the problem. A traditional publisher is betting its future by taking a chance on a writer and a manuscript. If the book bombs, the publisher loses a bunch of money. This is not the case with a POD press. Since they are paid up front, they mostly don't care whether the book sells (some of them retain publishing rights or take a percentage of sales, but that's after their costs are covered by a check from the writer).

Instead of refusing a manuscript of poor quality, the POD press accepts the check and turns out a pretty product, no matter how bad the contents, because the writer is their end user. The poor deluded writer then begins to refer to himself as "published," earning the scorn of the rest of the industry.

Until the self-publishing industry develops a filter system to weed out the garbage, even quality self-published authors will bear a stigma.

Hastings Entertainment just posted its fourth quarter results. According to Publishers Weekly, they were the last of the book retailers to announce disappointing year-end figures, following Borders' disastrous results last week.

If book retailers like Borders believe they can save themselves and inflate their revenues by printing and then selling self-published books without vetting for quality, they are sounding their own death knell. It's a very short-term strategy.

Readers are not stupid people. It will only take getting burned a few times by purchasing a poor-quality self-published book before they will associate the seller with getting ripped off. They will become more wary of unknown writers as well. Unfortunately, this is going to make it even harder for new writers to break into the industry.

Let me repeat myself: What IS needed is a filtering system by which inexperienced and impatient authors seeking to self publish are sent back to the drawing board (the way agents and editors currently handle them) instead of encouraging them by taking their money and filling them with false hope when their writing is not up to par.

Like many others, I'm grieving the loss of POD-dy Mouth. I would welcome a new blogger willing to bring quality self-published books to the attention of readers. However, if Pod Critic wants to fill POD-dy Mouth's shoes, IMHO, he will have to demonstrate three qualities: (1) An ability to pick good books; (2) An ethical compass similar to POD-dy Mouth's. Even though she was an author herself, she never used her forum to promote her own agenda (or books); and (3) A less grandiose sense of his place in the publishing universe.

About #3 above: It's fine to be ambitious and to have enthusiasm for your project. It's another thing entirely to make over-blown statements about the amateur quality of the professionals in an entire industry.

The people at POD presses are professionals. They are professionals at selling a dream to hungry, naive and impatient writers. Their services may be overpriced and their advertising somewhat misleading, but the world runs on a "buyer beware" model. If a writer hasn't taken the time to do her research before diving into a POD contract, it's her own fault. God knows there are lots of blogs and websites that warn against plunging into self-publishing. However, there are lots of warnings against buying into silly "lose weight fast" schemes, too, but that hasn't stopped millions from purchasing foolish devices or dietary supplements.

I wish Pod Critic well. Again, in my opinion, he needs to narrow his focus and tone down his rhetoric.


Lee said...

Would that be the same filtering system that turns down midlist authors whose first books haven't managed to sell enough copies? That approves mammoth advances for celebrities?

A system, by the way, to which Miss Snark belongs. Before I trust an anonymous agent's statements, I'd like to see the quality of the authors on her list.

Maya Reynolds said...

Lee: If you've read my blogs for any length of time, you know that I don't believe the current system is perfect--
far from it.

I've known who Miss Snark is for over a year. She doesn't owe anyone an apology.

Lee said...

About Miss Snark - I'm happy to take your word for it, though her taste in books, at least based on her current reading list, isn't mine. If she's managed to help people to a Pulitzer Prize, or at least a NY Times book review, more power to her.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Excellent, clear thinking.

I am less kind than you are to POD Critic's "grandiose" (in your words) fantasy that somehow, if enough writers self-publish using POD, their books will somehow escape the prejudice usually assigned to vanity presses.

Even if a major trade publisher started publishing their frontlist tomorrow using POD, it won't legitimize self-published books.

Anyone who confuses a printing technology with a business model doesn't know what they are talking about.

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks for stopping by, Peter. I appreciate your comment.

Warm regards,


prairie mary said...

The paradigm shift (and I think that grand term is justified here) in publishing is so broad that I think few people are grasping it. POD is only part of the difference (eliminating both bookstore returns and warehouse taxes). Google and Amazon have also made it possible to find and buy books without bookstores, even old, out-of-print, unknown ones -- right alongside the new ones. This is even more important since publishers have stopped editing, proofing and promoting and instead have gone to "packaging" which means writing to what is presumed to be market demand and deputizing someone to purport to be the author of what is often pirated.

Beyond that, most of the people who object to POD and point to the ascription of value by publishers, are thinking only of a certain kind of "best seller" market that concentrates largely on novels. There is no thought for the huge industry of academic books, books for niche interests, regional books, and all the other complex markets out there.

I've had one book accepted for publication by the University of Calgary Press next fall. In the meantime i will have produced a dozen other books:
1. For my family about our ancestors. (limited appeal but those who want it really do want it and I have no way of knowing how many of them there are.)
2. Short stories meant for the Blackfeet and those specificially interested in Blackfeet history, which stories turn out to be of interest to a lot of other folks just as fiction.
3. A history reference book providing resources for those the State of Montana has mandated must teach Indian history without providing funds for those materials.
4. A chapbook from my service as a hospital chaplain, again a limited but specific niche.
5. An account of my years as an animal control officer and educator which is of interest primarily to others in that field.
6. A little journal yearbook of the seasons in this small village, meant for tourists and maybe Christmas presents for maiden aunts.
7. A guide to the Blackfeet Reservation for visitors coming in cars -- Lulu.com will publish this as a CD if I ever figure out how to prepare it.
8. A novel written by the 7th grade class I taught at Heart Butte on the reservation in 1990.
9. A retelling of the Demeter/Persephone myth in terms of a Western, pitting grain against coal.

You see what I mean. (There are others.) No mainstream publisher will clamor for the opportunity to publish these things, and anyway, I don't know how they could ever hope to decide their worthiness. They have to be judged in terms of usefulness and appeal to certain readers. Because of POD I can afford to make them available and because of Google/Amazon et al. people can find them.

Prairie Mary

Maxine said...

Interesting argument, and as ever insightful comments from Prairie Mary.
I agree that POD is a technology not a business model in itself.
Some of the points you make in your post about "credentialising" apply to my own part of the publishing industry, scientific journals. We have the relatively new and so (self) called "Open Access" movement, which is an author-pays model. This raises obvious questions, a couple of which you have posed, but there are various others.

Maxine said...

By the way, do you know you have your blog settings such that people can comment only if they have a google/blogger account? If you want to be less restrictive, you can over-ride the blogger settings to allow non-Blogger/Google account holders to comment.