Nowadays, there’s an odd belief circulating that self-publishing a book as print-on-demand will keep it out of bookstores. Actually, the opposite is true. Let’s follow Susan Self-Publisher as she visits her local Barnes & Noble, book held proudly in hand. Her mission is to convince Michael Manager to schedule a book event for her. She’s pleased to find that Michael is interested, and she waits happily as he goes to check the store computer. But Michael returns to tell her apologetically he’s not allowed to order POD books for special events. Susan goes home indignant over this discrimination and bewildered as to how Michael could know her book was POD. Susan is looking at this from the wrong angle. She doesn’t understand she has run smack into a major advantage of POD, not a drawback. And Michael may not realize it either, or just not have time to explain. How does Michael know that the book is POD? He knows because it’s in the B&N database. Books get into that database when they have been reviewed and accepted by a B&N national buyer. That is, unless the books are from Lightning Source, the POD kingpin. Lightning handles printing and distribution for thousands of independent self-publishers and nearly every self-publishing company in the United States—Lulu, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, and even CreateSpace, for its Expanded Distribution Channel—including the one Susan signed with. And that’s not to mention the traditional publishers that are increasingly coming to rely on it. Barnes & Noble has a special arrangement with Lightning to list all its books in B&N’s computers—meaning all the books handled by Lightning for the small and large publishers and self-publishing companies it serves—even though most of those books have not been reviewed and accepted. All the ones not accepted are prominently labeled in the computer as Print-on-demand. But the point is that that they are there, which tells any clerk in any Barnes & Noble store that these books can always be special-ordered. In other words, the POD label is not the sign of discrimination Susan believes. On the contrary, it’s what makes her book available for special ordering throughout the chain. Without that, any customer asking for the book would be told it was unavailable, or just “out of print.” Which is exactly what used to happen before B&N’s database started listing Lightning books.
Today’s Easier Entrée
Now, this is not to say Barnes & Noble likes POD. In general, it doesn’t. That’s because most POD books—including the ones from self-publishing companies like Susan’s—are sold to booksellers at reduced discounts and with returns disallowed. This means B&N generally can’t make as much money on a POD book as on others. So the policy that kept Michael from ordering Susan’s book isn’t discrimination, it’s good business. (Not to mention that many POD books are not up to professional standards, even with the paid services of a self-publishing company.) Also, Michael was telling the truth when he said it’s B&N policy that a store can’t order a book for stocking or a special event unless the book has been reviewed and accepted. Still, if Susan really wants an event at Michael’s store, she could manage that without abandoning POD. She might leave her current self-publishing company, find a new one that offers standard terms to booksellers, and put out a new edition. Or she might put out that edition while working directly with Lightning Source, and set those terms herself. In either case, she would then submit her book for review to Barnes & Noble. B&N is quite happy to consider any POD book that is offered on standard terms and that can be ordered from a major wholesaler—which all Lightning books can be, since they’re listed by Lightning’s sister company, Ingram, the largest book wholesaler in the United States. Of course, there’s no guarantee that B&N will accept Susan’s book. And if it does, the terms that Susan has obligingly offered may lose her more than she gains. But all that’s a different story. The hard truth is, self-publishers have always had trouble getting books into bookstores, and especially into the chains. Far from keeping self-publishers out, POD for the first time makes most self-published books obtainable through almost every bookstore in the United States. But all this skirts the most important point. The primary market for self-publishers today is not bookstores at all. It’s online booksellers, and particularly Amazon. And POD is by far the most efficient and profitable means to sell to that market. So Susan, like every intelligent publisher, should look to where her sales are, not to where they are not. Truly, self-publishers have never had it so good—and that’s thanks to POD.