Print On Demand: Heartbreaking Effort on a Staggering Scale

24 Sep

One of the features added recently by WordPress—they’re the free blogging provider that we use—at the bottom of most posts is a section that says: Possibly related posts: (automatically generated). Some of the links that follow will come from our blog but most come from other blogs. The interesting thing, though, is looking at our stats page in the admin section of our blog where it lists “referrers”—that is, those pages where somebody clicked a link to come to our blog—and seeing an out of the ordinary Web address and then backtracking to find that we were one of the Possibly related posts: (automatically generated) at someone else’s blog.

This happened the other day when I found a link that led back to The Lulu Book Review but from there led me to the POD Diary, another page at that site that has the absolutely epic saga—equally fascinating and heartwrenching—of Shannon Yarbrough self publishing his novel Stealing Wishes through an online POD publisher.

In a meticulous, almost Boswell-esque fashion, Yarbrough provides a detailed narrative of the journey of his novel from mid 2007 when he finished writing it through August 2008 as he’s putting together press kits and updating folks on its Kindle sales rank. In between are the problems of layman’s book design:

I added necessary pages so that my chapters always begin on the right side. I’ve noticed some traditional books do this and some don’t. Some more recent titles I looked at go straight through with no blank pages, chapters starting on the left or the right. But I did find some with blank pages so that the chapters always begin on the right. Any thoughts? I like the right side format so I went with that. I also “fully aligned” my words so I have that crisp straight line down the right page. I also added a picture to appear on my title page between the title and my name.

along with cover design:

Using the Paint program on my computer, I created a 7×10 file which would serve as my cover. The reason for the slightly larger size is for the bleed over when you start creating your cover. . . . I chose a blue background for the entire cover, then I stretched my photo across the middle from the left edge to the right. After choosing a font and size, I typed my title across the top and centered it between the top of the book cover and the image, and then did the same with my name below the image. After a few adjustments, I had a nice cover. Well, I thought it looked nice. Keep reading.

an ongoing accounting of cash in and out:

I went ahead and purchased the “Published by You” package to get my ISBN. Tack on $99.95($9.35) and chose USPS Postal Priority Shipping ($8.16). Based on the first review copy I purchased, I should hopefully receive the book this coming Thursday. That’s a total of $117.46 spent today. to my expenses. I also purchased a 2nd review copy

Total investment in this POD Project to date: $329.81

and more details of self copyediting, wading a myriad of overpriced third-party online services for self publishers, and, finally, buying copies of his own book to resell.

Without a doubt, you have to admire both Yarbrough’s persistence and good nature. On the other hand, in many ways his story is a perfect example of working hard as opposed to efficiently. That is, he did the majority of work in about a billion different areas on his own, even when the opportunity cost—that is, the value of his own time—greatly exceeds what the expense would be with a professional, reasonably priced third-party vendor. The best thing any potential self-publisher can do is buy a copy of Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual. He never posits that self-publishing is easy or necessarily cheap, but he does tell you how to do it as efficiently as possible.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m neither against print on demand nor self publishing. After all, we’ve used POD exclusively up to this point and my personal dream of dreams would be to make a living from self publishing my own post-apocalyptic novels of loss, despair, zombies, and . . . more loss. And, as well, it’s certainly possible to make money from self publishing. It’s even possible to make more money from self-publishing in some cases that going through a traditional publisher. Anyone who wants to know the ins and outs of all that should check out Morris Rosenthal’s Self-Publishing blog in general and/or this recent post of his in particular.

On the other hand, I am not a big fan of POD publishers who say things like “free to publish” and “no setup fees” and “publishing quickly and easily” but which prove, as with stories such as Yarbrough’s (despite his eternal optimism), in reality to be anything but that. For example, a couple of typical add-on services at Yarbrough’s online publisher include:

Editor’s Analysis $300.00

“With [this] service, a professional copy editor reviews your book to give you eight pages of invaluable advice. And perhaps best of all, a full edit of a few pages of your book as a sample, so that you can see what kinds of things should be changed, and the best way to make those changes.”

What’s wrong with this? Well, typically, you can hire a qualified freelance copyeditor for for $30-$40 an hour who for $300 could burn through most manuscripts from beginning to end, not just provide a general critique with a full edit of “a few pages.”

The Secret Weapon: Published By You.

“With [this] service, you literally become your own publisher. For a small fee (see pricing chart), you receive a distribution package that includes an ISBN (an internationally recognized identification code), and open the door to the widest audience of potential buyers – a global market that there’s simply no other way of reaching.” (In USA: $99.95.)

In reality, Bowker is only agent in North America who can assign ISBNs. Instead of paying $100 to buy one ISBN, just go to them and buy one directly. Otherwise it’s like paying someone a dollar for stamp that you could get (and they are getting) for 42 cents at the post office.

In the end, call me old fashioned: I think publishers should make money because their authors are making money; that is, everyone is making money because books are being sold. I don’t think publishers should make money off of their authors in lieu of selling books. Because, I mean, really: otherwise you’re not really a publisher at all . . . you’re a glorified printer masquerading as a publisher. But, what’s even worse is make money off of authors by offering overpriced services that appeal to ego . . . that is, a desire for credibility and/or “success.”

All that being said, I can say one final thing for sure: I wish Shannon Yarbrough the best of luck. He’s learned a lot of valuable lessons through hard work and he should get as much out of it as possible.


9 Responses to “Print On Demand: Heartbreaking Effort on a Staggering Scale”

  1. shannonyarbrough September 26, 2008 at 8:01 pm #

    Wow, Mark, thanks for the excellent mention of my blog and The POD Diary. I sincerely appreciate this, and thank you for reading.

    However, I have to disagree with your comments on working hard vs. efficiently. Yes, unfortunately, Lulu is one of the few “self-publishers” that require you to wear all the hats…writer, editor, formater, marketer, bookseller, artist, etc. I would like to point out that my financial investment was not spent mainly on services offered from Lulu. I spent $100.00 on the ISBN. I spent another $122.00 on a dozen copies. And I spent another $167.00 for the Book Cover Pro program (not offered through Lulu), of which I made back my investment and a profit after offering my services to help other Lulu authors with their book covers.

    Sure, I could have saved TIME by hiring an editor or paying someone to design my book cover, but like many authors who choose to publish this route, my funds were limited. One of the joys of self-publishing is and should be doing a lot of the work yourself. I could have certainly paid a POD company like Xlibris another $900.00 to format my book, or another $200 for editing, or another $200 for a nice book cover. But this isn’t necessarily working efficiently, especially when the margins with these companies are so small and would prevent me from making back my investment as quickly.

    The word “efficiently” is defined as performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least amount of time and effort. It is also defined as being satisfactory and economical to use. So, self-publishing basically comes down to time vs. economics based on these definitions. I admit…I did spend a lot of time on this project. I’m still spending time on it now 4 months after publication of this book. Self-publishing has been a learning experience and maybe I did waste time by editing the book my-self or designing the cover my-self. But I saved money by doing it…yes…my-self. I consider that economical at best. And so, that is efficient enough for me.

    Thanks again,
    Shannon Yarbrough

  2. Mark Long September 29, 2008 at 10:59 am #

    Hi Shannon,

    You know, you are absolutely right . . . with that hard work vs. efficiency comment I basically just sounded like a big jackass. And for that, I do apologize. I know that in my mind–for example, when you were talking about the ongoing problems of getting your cover designed to be the right size and be accepted as opposed to being continually rejected–it reminded me of an incident a years ago. I had a friend who knew something about auto repair offered to help me replace a water pump one weekend on a car of mine. It shouldn’t have been that complicated but two weekends later we were actually done. It dawned of him that, in theory, he could’ve worked–he was a sign painter–for about 1/4 that time and made more than enough money to just pay somebody else to do it.

    I do have to add that I think one thing the POD Diary shows is how well you’ve done in maximizing your investment. Despite all the potential money traps–cover design, copy editing, different software–you’ve done a really careful analysis of what you really wanted/needed vs. stuff that might’ve been nice/cool but not for the price.

    In the end, I think my take on so much of the effort/time/money you’ve invested in the project just goes to show that online POD publishing is neither quick nor easy as POD Web sites like to claim. And, especially when folks like Lulu average 1.8 copies sold per title (I think this number was at your site?) that means all these add on services on their end are there to make money off of their authors as opposed to helping produce a book that is going to actually sell more copies.

  3. Anne Wayman January 13, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Mark, this is such a helpful post for prospective self-publishers… I recognize everything you point out here because I’ve done it myself.

    And I even appreciate your apology to Shannon.

    Anne Wayman, now blogging at

  4. Tom Brown April 5, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    It seems the threshold for market entry is even lower. It is now possible to publish a new magazine by printing one copy at an almost affordable price.

  5. Thomas A. Williams May 4, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    Good advice in this post, but it also contributes to the confusion that unfortunately exists between print-on-demand as a technology the so-called “POD publishers.” We all ought to be clarifying this distinction instead of perpetuating it.

    When you say “we have all used pod at one time or another,” do you mean that we have all used a publisher like IUniverse or Lulu. Or do you mean that we have simply sent out short-run books to Lightning Source or Fidlay-Doubleday to be printed?

    It is important to all of us to be clear about this.


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