Print-on-Demand, One Year Later

 by Adam Barr

On April 2, 2000, I read a Seattle Times article by Cynthia Rose about print-on-demand publishing. At the time, I had never heard of either print-on-demand or, the company featured in the article. Still, I was wading through rejection letters from agents for my book, Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters, about my ten years working at Microsoft, so my ears perked up.

The article sounded quite positive. It stated that one iUniverse book was stocked at several local independent bookstores, and was selling well. The article explained that books were normally available only for order, but “if response from iUniverse staff members is positive or buzz about a book develops, it is also often stocked by brick-and-mortar sites.” The article also claimed, “When it came to so-called vanity publishing, the means by which authors self-publish books, iUniverse products were beginning to shift prejudices.” Included was an estimate from Publishers Weekly that in the next three years, 30 percent of publishing might be done via print-on-demand.

It sounded great, and at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in July 2000, I met an editor who worked for iUniverse. He had some of their books on hand, which appeared identical in quality to any trade paperback. He told me that of 60,000 books published in the previous year, iUniverse had printed 6,000. After some more discussion with him, and a few more rejections (“too many books about Microsoft,” they all said), I signed up to publish my book with iUniverse.

First the good news: A year later, my book is finished and available for order from a variety of online booksellers, and even is stocked in a few local bookstores. The content, for better or for worse, is exactly what I wanted it to be. Even the cover design is my idea. My upfront costs were precisely the $99 that iUniverse advertised (although iUniverse actually has final say over the cover, and has recently amended its publishing contract to allow it to charge a yearly “title maintenance fee” of $18).

The process was fairly painless. In essence I acted as my own general contractor on the book, directing the tasks normally undertaken by a publisher. I hired an editor, several proofreaders, and a publicist from a professional directory on iUniverse’s Web site. Most of the reviewers simply edited the Word document that I was going to submit to iUniverse, using the “Track Changes” feature, so applying their edits was easy and I could see exactly what had been changed.

Submission of the book was also easy. I was assigned a Publishing Service Associate who helped me with any questions. I submitted the book on October 31, incorporating some last-minute changes I made in late October. After the book was produced I was given 14 days to make corrections, and on December 27 my book went up for sale on iUniverse’s web site. I can still remember the tingle that went down my spine when I first saw it listed there. By January 13 I had a copy in my hand. Three days later the first online bookseller stocked it, and on Valentine’s Day it went up for sale at

So my book is available, which is great. According to, a book price comparison Web site, it can be purchased from online sellers in such exotic countries as France, Germany, and Canada. So what’s the bad news?

There are two main problems: It is hard to get the book reviewed, and it is hard to get it stocked in bookstores.

One issue with reviews is that some reviewers don’t like to review books after they are available to the general public. Traditionally review copies are sent out months in advance, but with iUniverse, nobody can get a copy until it is available to everyone.

Furthermore, many publications that print book reviews will not review self-published books, and at the moment, print-on-demand is lumped together with self-publishing.

I contacted the book editor at a Seattle newspaper, inquiring about listing my book in the quick summary they print of books with local interest. The reply was, “So is it self-published?” I sent a long response detailing how print-on-demand differed from self-publishing—iUniverse does do some checking to make sure books are not hate literature or pornography, the quality of the books is high, and you have a real company fulfilling orders, not some unknown author who may go on vacation for a month or disappear with the money.

Evidently none of this mattered, since the exchange ended there. The clincher may have been the fact that rather than receiving an advance, it was me paying iUniverse the initial fee to publish the book. Seeing who writes that first check is as good a way as any to distinguish self-publishing from traditional publishing.

Luckily there is no real underlying reason why publications can’t review print-on-demand books (or self-published books for that matter). It is simply a matter of limited resources. There is hope that this attitude (which even now is not universal) may eventually change. Certainly if 30% of books are published via print-on-demand, you would expect to find something worth reviewing in that pile. My publicist has been working away trying to get some reviews and reports that she is getting some good responses, so I remain optimistic.

Unfortunately, the second issue with print-on-demand, getting books stocked in bookstores, does have a serious basis. The problem is, print-on-demand publishers won’t accept returns of their books—a fact that I have never seen mentioned in any of the articles about them.

With traditional publishing, bookstores can order all the copies of a book they want, secure in the knowledge that they can return them to the publisher for a refund if they don’t sell (these days they tend to order from, and therefore return to, a distributor like Ingram, which can then warehouse them or return them to the publisher as it sees fit, but the bookseller gets their money back either way).

Print-on-demand, by its nature, isn’t conducive to allowing returns. This is one of the reasons why it is cheap, why a publisher can put out a book for only $99 upfront. Not having to deal with returns is a big win for iUniverse. But when iUniverse tells Ingram that it won’t accept returns, Ingram turns around and marks the book as “not returnable” in its catalog, which is generally where booksellers look when they are thinking about ordering a book (Ingram also gives a smaller discount than with traditional books, which is another impediment to stocking a print-on-demand book, although I haven’t figured out if this is their fault or iUniverse’s).

Someone wishing to purchase the book can certainly walk into any bookstore and order a copy. But that implies that they found out about the book some other way. You miss out on people who are just browsing in a store and say, “Hey, what’s this book with the ugly green, blue, and yellow cover? It’s about Microsoft? I’ll take one!” If you are going to order a copy at a bookstore, you could just as easily order one online (although ordering in a bookstore saves you the shipping costs).

In fact this points out a disadvantage of print-on-demand over old-style self-publishing, in which you warehouse the books yourself. Ingram offers a program called Ingram Express that effectively has it sell your books on consignment. Ingram warehouses them and reorders as needed, but can return them to the author at any time, which means that Ingram allows booksellers to return the books to Ingram. Amazon has a similar program called Advantage. But both are only available to those who still own the rights to their books.

The Seattle Times article mentioned that Barnes & Noble owned 49 percent of iUniverse, “opening a huge brick-and-mortar outlet for iUniverse.” The implication was that Barnes & Noble was eager to stock the books.

The reality is a bit different. Barnes & Noble may at one time have stocked a few iUniverse books, and may even do so now. But in general, it doesn’t, for the same reasons most bookstores won’t. You can order a copy from them, but you can order a copy from anywhere. This reality must have gone over the heads of quite a few iUniverse authors, because in February all of us received an email from Steve Riggio, Vice Chairman of Barnes & Noble, stating among other things that while publishing with iUniverse allows anyone to order your book at a store, “It does not, however, guarantee that your book is physically stocked at any Barnes & Noble store,” and that furthermore, “iUniverse and Barnes & Noble cannot guarantee authors an appearance at a B&N store.” (Guaranteed appearances, I never thought of that! I guess some authors are even pushier than I am.)

The email also promised that Barnes & Noble would start hosting New Writer’s Night events, where authors would have a chance to discuss their work with the public. Haven’t heard anything more about that, but I’m still hopeful.

I thought that perhaps the local Barnes & Noble might be interested in stocking the book. A phone conversation quickly disabused me of that notion. “Sorry, we don’t stock iUniverse books,” were the exact words I heard. The woman on the other end seemed unimpressed with the fact that the book dealt with a company that employed 40,000 people and was headquartered a mile away. The conversation ended before I could explain that I myself, while still employed at Microsoft, had whiled away many alleged work hours in that very bookstore, browsing the business section and chatting with the co-workers I ran into.

I tried some larger independent bookstores, figuring they might relish an opportunity to pull a fast one on the chains. They were more encouraging, all asking me to send them a copy, but to date I have not had any luck actually getting my book stocked by them.

My saviors, the folks who reconfirmed my basic faith in humanity, were the owners of small independent bookstores. Many of them cheerfully agreed to stock a copy the instant I mentioned the word “local author.” Feeling guilty, I borrowed some talking points that had been thrown at me by the larger stores, including the fact that they couldn’t return the book. They seemed blissfully uncaring of such mundane issues, God bless ‘em. A few of them even sounded interested in reading the book themselves! I was cheered by their genuine love of books and wish them luck in their battles with the no-good-print-on-demand-snubbing chains (somewhat ominously, a few of the independents on the list I got from were already out of business when I called).

The dream of print-on-demand authors is the same as for self-published authors—to have their book picked up by a major publisher. Publishing contracts offered by print-on-demand houses offer, if not explicit outs when a traditional publisher picks up the book, at least the right for the author to get back non-exclusive rights fairly quickly. Still, the iUniverse editor I met at the conference last summer admitted that at the time this had never happened to an iUniverse book.

Would I publish with iUniverse if I had to do it over again? Probably yes. I felt that with the timeliness of the material in my book, I wanted to get it out as soon as possible, and the sameness of my rejection letters made me suspect that finding an agent would take a long time—and keep in mind that finding an agent is simply the first step in traditional publishing, to be followed by the agent shopping the book around, eventual acceptance by a publisher, and then a delay of a year or more until publication. I might have tried a little harder to publish unagented with a small press, but overall I am happy with the results. Microsoft employees who have read the book have praised it, making me glad that the book is out there for all to see. A few minor annoyances, such as the fact that I only get sales numbers every three months, are more than made up for by the fact that you can order my book on Amazon!! When I write my second book, I will have some tangible evidence to offer people that I am a genuine writer. And my first book might still get picked up by a major publisher…right? (That title again is Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters, if any of you are reading this.)

The small independent bookstores were eager to talk to me about my book and offer advice on it, and from them I got a sense of the future of print-on-demand.

At first it seemed a great compromise for authors who couldn’t get their book noticed by a traditional publisher, but didn’t have the time, money, or energy to self-publish. Now, however, I have seen estimates that print-on-demand is already accounting for 25% of books printed. Some booksellers are worried that this flood of books will simply overwhelm the current system. There are some worthwhile titles that slip through the cracks and are saved by print-on-demand, but one must also assume that a whole lot of junk is being published, material that publishers had good reasons to reject.

In a sense, the bloom is off the print-on-demand rose. A year ago it was a neat new thing. An iUniverse book even appeared on a local bestseller list in Florida. Now, some more realistic assessment is now underway. Will Ingram want to deal with all those books selling five or ten copies? What will do if it is swamped with returned print-on-demand books, which it cannot send back up the supply chain?

Print-on-demand is a great way to deal with items such as rare textbooks, which tend to be ordered by readers who already know they want them, in small but bursty quantities, and often go out of print quickly. My father is a mathematician who has several out-of-print books, a perfect opportunity for print-on-demand (unfortunately the current crop of publishers are focused on text-only material that can be turned around quickly, not diagram-laden mathematical proofs). Print-on-demand allows a new publisher to get off the ground quickly with smaller upfront costs—in  fact someone from iUniverse mentioned that they were considering an offset print run for one of their books, simply because they felt demand would be high enough to warrant it. A publisher could start up a print-on-demand arm for books that it wanted to take a chance on, but for whatever reason could not justify a full print run for. This could mean slightly lowered standards, but not a complete abandonment of them.

But as it stands now, print-on-demand is indelibly linked, in the minds of almost everyone that deals with traditional books, with self-publishing. But I think it is useful to separate print-on-demand, as a way of publishing, from the current crop of print-on-demand publishers. There is no requirement that print-on-demand publishing be pure shovelware; that’s just how it seems to work now, because it can work that way.

Some publishers are working towards melding the best of both worlds. is a year-old print-on-demand publisher that aims to have the same high standards as traditional publishers. The company advertises in the New York Times Book Review and withholds publication for a few months to allow reviewers to see the books first. It teases upcoming books on its Web site. Most tellingly, although it does not pay advances to authors, it also does not charge them an upfront fee for publication. The company is even willing to consider accepting returns, as long as it feels a book is gaining momentum.

This may represent the future of print-on-demand. There is a chance that it could prosper as a respected addition to the publishing stable, and avoid being tarred with the self-publishing brush (having print-on-demand companies that don't have .com in their name would be a start). But the industry has to act quickly, or it could be smeared forever.


(c) Copyright 2001 Adam Barr. All Rights Reserved.


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