Susan Daffron

In the publishing world, the term Print on Demand or POD has become increasingly confusing. Print on demand is a type of digital printing technology used for books. Essentially, books are printed from a very high-tech copier one at a time. Books are only printed when they are ordered so the publisher doesn’t have to carry a large inventory of books.

The problem is that the term “POD Publisher” is also used to describe what are essentially vanity presses. It’s a matter of confusing a technology (digital printing) with a service (producing a book). A vanity or subsidy press is a company that takes a manuscript, charges a (often high) fee, and produces a book for a writer. Basically, the author “subsidizes” the publishing of his own book. This process is unlike the traditional publishing model where an author writes a proposal and submits it to a publisher. If the publisher opts to publish the book, it takes on the costs of producing it. The author receives an advance and also royalties if the book sells.

Over time, vanity presses have acquired a bad reputation in the publishing industry because the author often makes little or no money from the book. Any author with money is accepted, and the quality of the finished product frequently is low. The books are often poorly edited and widely panned by readers. Plus, some vanity presses have been out and out scammers who simply take the money and run.

As a result, every book on self-publishing tells you to watch out for vanity presses. These days with the advent of digital (print on demand) printing, the vanity presses have a new twist. Now they can use the technology to print short runs of books. Sometimes they charge a fee to lay out (or “set up”) the book and pay royalties if any books actually sell.

The big difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing is that a self-publisher owns the publishing company. Instead of paying a vanity press to produce the book, he produces it himself. Most importantly, the book’s ISBN number is registered to the self-publishing company. When you publish with a vanity press, generally the vanity press owns the ISBN number.

A self-publisher may use editors, artists, copywriters, and layout designers to help produce the book, but it is a work for hire arrangement and these service providers have no ownership rights to the book itself.

People who are evaluating the various paths to publication need to understand their options. Here are a few definitions to recap:

• A self publisher is an author who starts a publishing company to produce his or her own books. The printing technology used may be print on demand or traditional offset.

• A vanity press is a company like iUniverse or Authorhouse, which may use print on demand technology. Authors pay to have a book produced, but are not the publisher.

• A print on demand printer is a company like LightningSource, which uses print on demand technology to produce books one at a time. LightningSource is a printer that works with publishers, not authors.

Here’s a run down of the definitions using me as an example. I am an author named Susan Daffron. I am a self-publisher; my publishing company is Logical Expressions, Inc. Our books are printed using POD technology by Lightning Source. What that means is that Logical Expressions, Inc. owns the ISBNs of my books. Lightning Source is simply the printer I use to produce them.

Editor’s Note—for more on this topic be sure to participate in the upcoming NAMW Member-only Teleseminar on July 16, 2010 featuring Susan Daffron!