With print on demand (POD) book publishing, books are only printed when they are ordered. A small publishing company like mine no longer has to spend thousands of dollars purchasing thousands of books that may or may not sell. The advantage of POD is that it removes a lot of waste from the publishing world. The disadvantage is that POD also has caused a huge amount of confusion among authors.
The problem is that many subsidy (or vanity) presses are using the term POD. However, keep in mind that the term really is just talking about a printing technology. An entire "POD industry" has grown up around this technology and most of them use the same printer: Lightning Source (LSI).
The reason both legitimate publishers and subsidy presses use Lightning Source is simple. LSI is owned by Ingram, which is the world's largest wholesale book distributor. Getting your book into the Ingram database via LSI gets your book into Amazon and other online booksellers. It also means that bookstores can order your book, even if they don't stock it on their shelves.
Subsidy presses like iUniverse, XLibris, AuthorHouse, and Lulu use LSI as their printer so they can take advantage of the fact that your book will be in the Ingram database and available for sale online. They feature this fact prominently in their sales material. Publishing "packages" from iUniverse for example start at around $600 and they tout the fact that you get "channel distribution including Barnes & Noble.com, Amazon.com and 25,000 retailers worldwide." That channel distribution is thanks to Lightning Source. Subsidy presses often try to upsell you on various additional items like editorial or marketing services.
As I've written in the past, subsidy presses have some disadvantages. Because many of the books they publish aren't good, the industry suffers from a serious low-quality stigma. Plus you often aren't the publisher of record and your individual book price is high. Because you are going through a "middle man" each book is marked up.
For example, a 200-page book that costs me less than $4 to print through LSI costs about double that (or more) if you are working with a subsidy press. In other words, my profit per book is considerably higher. Even worse, after charging you to create the book, some subsidy presses then offer "royalties" on sales, which are often pathetically low. In contrast, I get all the money for every book that sells, minus the cost of printing.
Once you realize what is really going on with the "POD industry," an obvious solution is to simply avoid the middle-men and sign up for Lightning Source yourself. If you own a business, the process is easy and it's exactly what I did. After you're signed up with LSI, it works like any other printer. You upload PDF files of your book, in much the same way you might upload graphics to online printers like Vista Print or Printing for Less. Instead of uploading a PDF of a brochure, it's a PDF of a book interior or book cover. Plus, LSI has extremely detailed information about how to prepare your files properly. It's in their best interest to help you do everything you can technically to make your book look good.
For some people, it may make sense to opt for a subsidy press like Lulu. If you don't want to own a business and just want a few copies of a book for your friends, along with design and layout help, it makes sense to sign up with Lulu. However, if you want to make money from your books and be a publisher as I did, buying your own ISBNs and working with Lightning Source directly is a much better option.
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