PoD People Revisited: You Thought I Was Joking?


Walt Crawford

By Walt Crawford
American Libraries Columnist

Senior analyst, Research Libraries Group

Column for February 2003

How many of you thought I was joking in the very first Crawford Files, “Brace Yourselves—It’s the Attack of the PoD People”? Sure, I indulged in hyperbole—but maybe less than any of us thought! You can read that January 2002 column or on AL Online, but the next paragraph includes the gist of the discussion.

Eighty-one percent!

Americans apparently write 750,000 book-length manuscripts a year, of which fewer than 60,000 are published. It’s been said that every person has a book in them—but I suggested that most people really have four books. Print-on-Demand (PoD) publishing makes it feasible for everyone to publish those books. If your library collects local authors exhaustively, how will you handle the onslaught?

H2Oboro Lib Blog, the Weblog at Waterboro (Maine) Public Library, summarized a September 2002 Yahoo!Biz story based on a Jenkins Group survey as follows: “Eighty-one percent of Americans feel they should write a book. . . . The largest group think they have a self-help or do-it-yourself book in them (28%), followed by 27% each with a non-fiction book and a fiction work inside crying to get out, and 20% who think they should write another kind of book (a cookbook, a children’s book, etc.).”

Jerrold Jenkins estimates that 6 million Americans have written a book-length manuscript. That’s two percent of the population—one- fortieth of those who “feel they should write a book.” And guess what? When you write a book and hold the published results, many people have an urge to write another book . . . and another . . . and you thought I was joking?

The barriers are falling

The average person won’t learn QuarkXPress—but Microsoft Word is all you need to produce a book that looks as good as those from many publishers. If distribution agencies charge $100 to $160 to convert a Word book to PoD-ready form, get an ISBN, and enter the finished product into national systems, they should be able to turn a profit. Within five years, PoD production systems may be cheap, small, and low-maintenance enough to have one in every bookstore and medium-size library. Most of the barriers to getting that book into print are falling.

Maybe that’s a concern—after all, most (but not all) of the newly feasible books will be garbage. But if that garbage sits in your independent bookstore or public library as a megabyte of disk space until somebody wants a PoD book, maybe that’s no big deal. At today’s prices, storing 5,000 such potential books will cost less than $10 for hard disk storage or $2 for DVD-R storage—if you store them locally at all. Since you can store 20 DVD-Rs in a CD wallet that’s less than two inches thick, neither media nor physical costs amount to much.

Will 81% of your library’s patrons be asking you to buy or provide their book in the next few years? Probably not. The biggest barrier remains: Writing a book is hard work. Further, even a modest explosion of self-published and vanity-published PoD books may trivialize the pleasure of seeing your words in bound-and-printed form if you know that nobody else other than close relatives ever sees them that way.

If you think I intend to make fun of people who believe they have a book or four in them, you’re dead wrong. With 14 books under my belt (including one on the way), who am I to suggest that others restrain their book-writing urges?

The rest of PoD

The other side of PoD may be more important for public and academic libraries, and it’s reason enough to pay attention to this rapidly growing field (the only real success story in “e-books”). PoD makes niche books more feasible, since it reduces many of the production costs involved. PoD may help to keep midlist and backlist books available and even to bring classics back into print, although the latter depends heavily on copyright issues.

PoD also causes problems for traditionally published authors by negating the usual rights reversion clause (where the author regains rights after the book goes out of print). With PoD, “out of print” needs a new definition.

You’ll find some PoD gems online including detailed caveats from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association and an extensive guide to publishers.