(Anticlimatic) attack of the POD people

Here’s a little story for you.

A few years ago, I found out a friend of mine had written a book. A real-life book!

I was going to meet this person face to face, so I bought their book off Amazon, squirreled it away in my bookshelf, and when we met, I asked them to sign it.

The thing that was odd to me at the time was that this person seemed — almost embarrassed by my grinning enthusiasm. When I asked, they finally said “I just did it through a vanity press – it’s not from a real publisher.”, or words to that effect.

Now, to be fair, they work in publishing, so that sort of thing mattered significantly to them. (I shouldn’t use the past tense — I’m sure it still matters.) But me? I’m basically a consumer; I don’t know the publishing industry – I only know reading.

I’m closer to the publishing world than I used to be — married into it, you might say — but even so, I hardly ever hear the term ‘vanity press’ anymore, at least not in reference to reputable businesses like lulu.com. That’s partly because of the indie gaming industry and how it works, but also because I think people are starting to feel a shift coming in the traditional publishing world. Either way, I tend to look at the whole thing from the point of view of an outsider, and this is what I see with my outsider eyes:

Only people in publishing care how a book is published. The “POD” label is invisible to the consumer; they’re just looking for a good book.

This is a true statement. I know it, because I’ve been the consumer who bought a book and didn’t know (or care) that it was from a POD press until someone told me. It just doesn’t matter.

Is it a good or a bad book? That matters. Publishers, editors, and agents provide a filtration system that helps improve the quality of the products they (eventually) produce; it’s fair to say that the traditional publishing method filters out a lot of crap.

But it’s not the only way such things can happen.

7 Replies to “(Anticlimatic) attack of the POD people”

  1. The only market force that still distinguishes the major publishers is advertising. And that’s still powerful.

    However, with that said I envision niche marketing on specific websites and keyworded into Facebook and services like Twitter making traditional adventising ineffective.

    But how will the library decide what to buy?

  2. Thanks for the comment — unsurprisingly, I have thoughts.

    First off, I want to say this: your observation with regards to libraries is Very Important. It is perhaps the only thing that independent publishing doesn’t address. I will have to think a lot more about that particular problem.

    And I don’t really disagree with the rest of what you said, but it does bring up some other stuff I could have mentioned in the main post, but left out for the sake of flow and the TL;DR Factor.

    Contrary to popular belief, what the publisher is providing the writer isn’t advertising. (Okay, that’s not true: they provide it, but it doesn’t have the punch you’d expect.)

    What does a mainstream publisher mostly provide today?

    1. Financial backing
    2. Distribution

    That’s it.

    Yes, they market to brick-and-mortar booksellers, but those types of stores represent less than one-third of total sales into today’s marketplace, and in any case, the advertising is only a tiny tiny part of sales.

    P Nielsen Hayden (Tor – one of the most forward-thinking members of today’s traditional publishing industry, in my opinion) had this to say at the Technology of Change conference last month:

    “Word of mouth & familiarity are 85% of fiction sales, 10% is cover design, EVERYTHING ELSE is 5%.”

    That ‘everything else’? That’s where all the money the publisher’s spend on publicity goes. An author is far better served in building a community around their work than they are worrying about whether or not B&N is going to carry their latest opus.

  3. Another PNH quote from ToC, which illustrates the importance of building community:

    “Modern social book marketing is sf fandom ca. 1940.”

    I’ll be honest: part of what I’m doing when I write my blog and – ahem – *live* on Twitter is consciously building a community of which I’m a member. It’s not mercenary, but however my stories get published (via anthologies and online mags so far, or a mainstream publisher vs. indie publishing for my novels in the future), more people will SEE my stories (and hopefully enjoy them) if I’m on their radar, so I endeavor to GET on their radar.

    Not for money – I make enough of that doing what I do – like any storyteller, I just want people to hear the story.

  4. I’d quibble a bit on the advertising front. Yes, you’re absolutely correct that direct advertising is a VERY small service, but there’s an indirect advertising that the large publishers apply.
    Except for a very few well established authors who could write on stone tablets and publish via stone mason, they way people discover a book now is usually through the ‘what’s new, what’s hot’ sections of sites like Amazon.
    While the big publishers still exist and Amazon is looking to get a reduced purchase rate, any book the publisher wants to push will end up on the “Hot & New’ list for at least a little while. If it tanks from there, well, that’s the breaks.
    The privately or self published work doesn’t, currently, have the same advantage. And I don’t know how that will change.

    Another question is how will the reference network we depend on for discovering new works (Hey, you’d like this book, read it!) operate when big publishing drops out of it’s current role with the sales sites? Am I really going to trust the Facebook ads (NO!!!) and do I think SlashficFan269*8!! is the most reliable advisor on what’s a good book? (Also, no.)

    And what happens to the quality level that large publishing generally helps engender? (Yes, yes, I know they restrict WAAY too much, but imaging the ocean of dreck that never saw the light of day for every one gem that was overlooked.)

    I envision trying to drink from a literary firehose, that occasionally switches over to spewing pure sewage.

  5. Wow, I really need to edit before I hit submit. Apologies for the mistakes above . . posting from work while avoiding the boss is not condusive to the best quality.

  6. You make some excellent points — I need to mull over some more before I get back to it — maybe make another post on the subject, but I wanted to say tanks for joining in; it’s been a pleasure to read and get asked challenging what ifs.

    And for those what ifs? It’s possible there is no good answer at this time — that we might end up floundering around for awhile before we figure out how to replace the mechanisms currently in place. Maybe there are some tips to be found from looking at how people find out about good indie music today — I’m really not sure, but maybe that’s a possibility.

    Mmm. Thoughts. Good to have them after such a late night. Thanks!

  7. I’ll look forward to hearing more! I’m not throwing up roadblocks to be a pain, rather I’m very interested in seeing a true independant publishing movement succeed.

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