- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

Print-on-demand publishing is an odd new technology that allows anyone to put a book into print for almost no money within a few months.
More correctly, POD represents the coming together of several technologies fast laser printers, the Web, and online book sales. Interestingly, it cuts New York out of the publishing-and-distribution loop. How important this will be isn't clear yet, but, says me, it's worth watching.
How it works: Let's suppose you have written a book of insightful but politically incorrect commentary, and can't find a publisher. You fire up your computer and go to www.iuniverse.com, a POD company. (There are others: Shop around. I'm using iUniverse as an example because I'm familiar with it.)
You download a book template.This sounds scarier than it is. The template is just a document with places for you to paste in your title, forward, chapters, table of contents and so on.Having done so, you e-mail it back to iUniverse with a $99 payment on your credit card.The company formats it for publication, e-mails it back for you again to proofread, designs a cover for you, gives it an ISBN, lists it with booksellers and puts it on a hard drive somewhere.
At this point, believe it or not, you are a published author. Even though not a single copy exists of your book.
Suppose that I want to buy your insightful commentary. I go to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com, and find it as I would any book that is, I search by author, title or ISBN. I order it as I would any book.Amazon tells iUniverse, which here's the magic prints one copy and mails it to me.
The result is a perfectly good trade paperback, indistinguishable in quality from any other you can find in bookstores.I've done this with a book of my own. It works. The cover design was fine.Royalties are 20 percent, which iUniverse sends you quarterly.
For under a hundred bucks you get a book in print plus worldwide distribution through major book channels. This is crazy.
How is it possible for so little money?Answer: Everything is digital. E-mailing the template costs nothing.Most of the processing is done by computer.Storing the print-ready book on a hard drive costs next to nothing. To get a rough idea of how small a book is, consider a (quite substantial) novel of 200,000 words.At a newspaper estimate of five letters per word, that's a million letters, or about a megabyte of storage.A megabyte is nothing. And there's no inventory. POD companies don't print 10,000 copies and store them in a warehouse.You want a copy, it prints a copy.No warehouse.
Now, who would want to publish a POD book?First and most obviously, people who once paid thousands of dollars to a vanity press. They usually ended up with a thousand copies in the garage of a book no one would ever read.They can now get an impressive book on their bookshelves for a hundred dollars, making POD a major humanitarian service.
Second, people whose books are of value, but only to a few readers. For example, scholars with very narrow specialties.A POD book can remain available for decades, even if few copies are sold.
Third, and perhaps most important, people who can write and have something to say, but who could never be published by New York.
As any free-lancer knows, mainstream publishing is very nearly closed to new writers, no matter how good, and to writers who are politically unpalatable to the mainstream. Obstacles abound. Unless you have connections in the business, you need an agent.These are hard to find and frequently not very good. Contractwise, a new writer is at the mercy of a big publisher.New York will want to edit your copy to fit a target market. The press run will be small, marketing minimal, and you will go into remainders quickly and be out of print. All of this takes years.
With POD, in a few months you will be in print, unedited, with a good contract, and no need for an agent.The drawback is that you have to market your own book, which in practice means that you probably won't sell many copies.Selling on the Web requires exposure, which is difficult to get and almost as hard to measure. Still, iUniverse says it has now sold 750,000 copies of POD books, so somebody is buying them.Welcome to the digital world.
Fred Reed can be reached at f.v.reed@att.net.

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