YBF, PoD and Other Such Acronyms

It was noted to me last week that this year’s edition of Year’s Best Fantasy is published by Tor.com (that is, the Web site, as distinct from Tor Books), and that it is Publish on Demand — which is to say, when you order the book, the call goes out to a printing machine, which whomps it up for you, and then presumably shipped to you whilst it is still warm. I was also asked what I thought of this particular delivery system for books.

Well, I think the more accurate question to ask is: Is it a good delivery system for this book? In the case of YBF, at this point in the series life cycle it may very well be. In a general sense “Year’s Best” anthology numbers have been declining year to year, and in the particular case of YBF, over the last couple of years it’s been distributed by a small press, which almost certainly had an impact on the series distribution and sales numbers. At this point, a shakeup in the way things are done might be in order. That being the case, there are worse things than for this series to hook up with a young and hungry imprint which also happens to be nestled in the bosom of one of the planet’s largest publishing empires.

In a larger sense there are trade-offs. The first trade-off is that when you have a PoD book, at this point you’re writing off bookstores. I imagine one could special order the book from one’s favorite brick-and-mortar store, but on a practical level, the only way to get this book is to buy it online. As someone who has sold books primarily online before (most of my limited work through Subterranean Press, for example) I think it’s doable but it comes with implicit assumptions. In my case, the stuff I do with SubPress is primarily pitched to people who already know my work, not new readers. This fine because the runs are generally meant to be limited in scope. I think in the case of YBF, they’re also going to find themselves primarily pitched to people who are already fans (both in the sense of “SF/F Fandom” and “fans of the series”).

In the short run I don’t suspect it will be a problem; in the long run it may be. One of the reasons that offering stuff primarily to existing fans is not an issue for me is that I still have ScalziProduct™ in the bricks and mortar channel to reach new people, and that my personal presence online, via Whatever/Twitter/Facebook, is still generating new readers. I’m expanding my audience, in other words. YBF also has to do this. It has an engine for this in Tor.com, which I suspect strongly is still growing, but it will still be a challenge.

As for PoD in a general sense, at the moment I think it’s still primarily going to be a small volume business; with one or two exceptions the online sales channel is still tiny relative to the other places books sell through. It will almost certainly grow, although I don’t suspect my as much as some people suspect or possibly hope; I think in the long run most of the lunch PoD is eyeing is going get eaten by eBooks.

That said, for the right project, pitched to the right audience, a PoD book could do just fine. Perhaps YBF is that project.

53 thoughts on “YBF, PoD and Other Such Acronyms

  1. How does it work for a seller like Amazon? Is it truly “Print on Demand” or do they keep a couple copies around so that us Amazon Prime suckers get our 2-day turnaround? It’s probably much easier for them to keep a couple around in each warehouse than for Borders to stock 1-2 in every store.

    Given how well the brick and mortar bookstores are doing, I’m not sure “writing of bookstores” is that much of a danger. Is the online sales channel really tiny? It is my understanding that Amazon.com is now the leading bookseller.

    (Checking…Amazon claims to have it “in stock”.)

    In general, though, I suspect “Print on Demand” is a bit misleading as my guess is that if you go 10-20 years in the future, all books will be printed to order and the days of “first printing” will be over. We’re nearing the point where it makes more economic sense to print things as needed rather than ramping up big batches.

  2. I’ve heard some bricks and mortar bookstores are installing print-on-demand equipment, which could well be the wave of the future. Problem solved!

  3. I have no idea how it works for Amazon, actually.

    Also, I doubt that all books will be printed to order unless PoD becomes massively more efficient and also equally efficient as printing in bulk. Economies of scale come into play here. For any book a publisher believes will sell more than a few thousand copies, it makes sense to print in bulk.

  4. Steve – based on my personal experiences with POD, Amazon doesn’t stock the book – they rely on what the turnaround from the printer is. Since most reputable POD-lishers are using Lighting Source, which is an arm of the giant book distributor Ingram, turnaround (and drop ship in Amazon’s box from Ingram’s warehouse) is pretty quick.

    Right now, cost-per-page for POD is triple the price for offset printing. POD is using high-speed copiers, which are more flexible but more costly.

    John Scalzi – POD is coming to stores, although at a glacial pace. This year’s candidate for The Evil Online Empire ™, Google, is putting self-serve POD machines in bookstores.

  5. Chris Gerrib:

    I’m aware of the PoD in Stores plan, although I don’t suspect a huge amount of business will get done that way, since the vast majority of sales in stores are books in stock. That said, it’s much better for the B&M store to be able to print a copy than to have a customer walk out without a book they want. And while they wait they can peruse the shelves. So I approve, in concept.

  6. John – I suspect eventually most books will be POD, where “eventually” is 30 to 50 years. The current system of 50% sell-through is very inefficient. Since there is a lot of inertia with the old system and kinks to fix with POD, it won’t be quick. But I suspect that it will happen.

  7. Chris Gerrib@4: Price per page figures are misleading because one of the advantages of Print on Demand is that you don’t print things that end up not getting sold.

    If and when POD takes off, it should be a gold-mine for new or esoteric authors as it reduces the immediate financial risk of publishing a new book.

    I am half-tempted to order the book and see how fast I get it. I can’t see it getting to me as fast as normal if it isn’t coming out of Amazon’s regional warehouse.

  8. Steve – actually, price per page is very relevant. For example, POD costs around 4 cents / page for a trade paperback. Offset costs around 0.5 cents a page (yes, half-a-cent) for the same product. With that differential in price, the offset guy can price his book lower and take returns.

  9. I’m anticipating early PoD machines to appear in college bookstores, where the students would gobble up the older (and often copyright-free) classics on a regular basis. I don’t expect to see one down at my local Barnes & Noble or Borders, yet.

  10. I think POD is like Blu-Ray discs, sort of a holdover between old DVD’s and future movie downloads on demand.

    I think we’re going to transition from offset printing to electronic downloads in a decade or two(if we can’t get a decent e-reader in thirty years, we should just hand the earth back to lizards and let them have another shot at being the dominant species). POD books may fill in some of the interim transition, but the end result will be electronic books.

    At that point, all hardcopies will be small print runs, so POD will be the only thing to make sense. But they won’t be the majority of how people read their stories. It’ll be ebooks.

    The issues seem to be battery life, displays, and connectivity. I’m hoping all the hybrid-car research will find a good high power density battery that couuld be used for cars as well as portable electronics. The alternative is to reduce power consumption enough that you can recharge using the energy in radio waves all around us. (Someone was tryign this recently and it worked for low power stuff) As for display, I’m not sure what’s the best approach. Maybe glasses that work like a head’s up display, so only you can read it, but it feels like you’re looking at a huge screen in midair, rather than a 3″ screen in your palm. As for connectivity, Kindle had the right idea, but DRM idiocy killed it.

    What will probably happen is it won’t be a dedicated reader. The real transition will occur when cell phones become personal media players, with the right battery and the right display, and then you’ve already got connectivity built right in.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple’s iphone in another 10 or 15 years will be something that clips on your ear, has a little projector in front of your eye, beams the image right into your pupil, and has cell phone voice/data connectivity. At which point, ebooks will be a nobrainer.

  11. ScalziProduct™ is shelved next to the wolf urine.

    Um…to keep my post legitimate, I think that ebooks will likely render the PoD debate moot.

  12. I am actually friends with a small author who is almost precisely the type of writer whose book is better off PoD. Her genre is historical fiction— which does have an audience— but her topics are obscure enough that she does best selling to those people who have ties to the area in question, or in some cases history museums.

    She did try to get her first fiction traditionally marketed— it’s the story of the Stephens Party, the group that scouted what came to be known as Donner Pass— but ended up with the comments, “It’s good but I have no idea how to market it.” (This is not a bad thing for a publisher to say, FWIW— you don’t want a confused advocate.) Since she went PoD she’s had small but steady sales to a niche crowd, and slightly better sales for a more recent trilogy. Not enough to support her, but enough to quit a particularly horrendous job in favor of temp work.

    So for some people it’s a good thing, but keep in mind that she has to market her work like mad to her interest group. It’s very unlikely that people will just stumble across her work.

  13. Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA is have a launch party for their POD machine next Tuesday (the 29th). Apparently it will print a 300 page book in four minutes. And handle self-published books in some way.

    Interestingly enough, learned this in the intro to James Ellroy reading last night where the evils of the internets were much expounded upon.

  14. We could call creating and making available the book image publishing. Printing it out we might refer to as printing.

  15. I think there’s a distinction to be made between author-financed print-on-demand and publisher-financed POD, and I assume that the latter is what’s going on here – but I could be wrong.

  16. Publish, in my mind, equals the entire process of making a book, to include editing, marketing, cover art. It’s the business of taking a manuscript and making it something that people will buy.

    Printing is the physical putting of ink on paper, binding, etc. It’s a part of the publishing process, but not the whole process.

  17. I want to see the PoD machine set up in a corner of the local Borders. Sure, they have a ton of stuff ready to go, but let’s say I want a copy of Edgar Rice Borroughs’ fake autobiography. I can’t find a copy of it anywhere and it’s presumably been out of print for a good long while. I want to pay a fee to an online text distributor, another $5 or so to get it printed, and it’s in my hands 10 minutes after I order it.
    Subterranean Press would be another text distributor.

  18. As much as I love me my physical books, I’m with John on this one, ebooks are going to score where POD is trying to go.

    The advantage that large volumn prints have over POD is that they are:
    Cheaper per page
    and cheaper to ship (shipped in bulk)
    therefore: overall cheaper

    The advantage of POD is that:
    Small scale ventures can flurish (ie, don’t have to convince Big Publishers (TM) to take your book)
    and Out of Print books become a thing of the past.

    Ebooks combine the two. It costs an ebook vender vitually nothing to keep an old book on file. (memory is really, really cheap)

    There’s little to no risk for the ebook publisher for small scale ventures (again, a web page is way cheaper than printing / shipping a book you aren’t sure is going to sell.)

    And: Printing and shipping costs = Zero.

    So I think that ebooks will eat up what POD wants.

  19. Steve – I ordered my copy from Amazon on the 14th. It shipped on the 15th. I received it (not amazon prime, but i forgot to click ‘super saver shipping’) on the 18th.

    the last page of the book has a note in the lower left hand corner in small font indicating the location of the printing facility and the date printed, 14 September 2009, right above something which looks like an inventory control number.

  20. I know this is not a popular consensus, however I hope that ebooks never replace paper books. I love technology. Without technology, I would not have my job. However for me part of reading a book involves curling up with the book and a blanket on the couch (regardless if it is fiction or non-fiction). There is also something comforting about the smell and feel of the paper, and books become so beautiful as they age. Ebooks are cold. For me reading a book in electronic format is a chore, not a pleasure or an advantage.

    I guess for people like me, that is where PoD will fill the void.

    As for someone who use to work for a small publishing house that decided to make the switch from bulk printing to PoD, they actually ended up making more money on PoD than bulk. Larger publishing houses can afford to print off thousands of copies with the cost upfront and then wait 6 months for turn around and reimbursement for sales. Small houses cannot and there seem to be more and more of them cropping up.

    I personally am for PoD. I think more people should self publish for the same reasons why many musicians are deciding to remain independent instead of signing away to a label. In a day and age where you can get instant feedback from peers regarding any type of media instead of having to wait for reviews from the “experts”, it makes sense for consumers to be able to go directly to the source to purchase their goods and get rid of the middle man. Not saying the experts do not provide a valid role, but I listen to my peers reviews before the experts as my peers know my tastes better than an expert.

    I am sure many middle men will hate my opinion as it could put them out of work.

  21. Totally off topic, but how the heck are you doing that thing where your face shows up as a watermark in your (and only your) comments? It drove me crazy for a while thinking something was wrong with my monitor.

  22. Jules, paperbacks didn’t replace hardcovers, and I don’t think e-books will replace paper books either. But . . . I have a lot more paperbacks than hardcovers. And while I have fewer e-books, the number is growing faster.

    Note: you can curl up very nicely with a Kindle. After I’ve read a few pages I forget it isn’t a book.

  23. Since even the best bookstore can only carry a minuscule number of titles available, I can see in-store POD making a fair number of sales and a lot of customers happy.

    And yes, POD’s may be an interim measure until e-books rule the future, but that happy day won’t come until, 1) DRM disappears; 2) publishers agree on a standard e-pub type format instead of the hell for confusing mishmash of proprietary formats; 3) quality control improves (you want me to pay hardcover prices for a scanned book that was merely jammed through optical character recognition software without passing under an editor’s eye for mistakes? I don’t think so…) and 4) a SIMPLE purchase process as opposed something thought up by a publisher. And this is the short list.

    Music went from LP’s to CD and on to mp3 files quickly because each iteration was a significant improvement over the preceding format. E-pubs have, to date, too many drawbacks to make that fast track change we saw with music. And DRM was a horror show for the mp3 transition.

    As for the comment about the love of the look and feel of paper books…please remember – the story is all important, not the format. Plus, unless all your lovely books were printed on acid free paper (and they weren’t) they’ll start yellowing and deteriorating within a very short time. Take a look at the edges of some of your not-so-old paperbacks and you’ll see what I mean. Digital copies have their problems, but falling apart in your hands isn’t one of them.

  24. Jules@26: With the right eInk display, I enjoy an eBook as much as a paper one and it’s lighter to carry.

    But I really hope eBooks succeed because more because electronic publishing (like PoD) lowers the barrier to entry for publishing, and thus makes it easier for niche works. With an eBook, you really just need an author and an editor and nothing more.

    Aphrael@25: if it’s good, can I borrow it? :-)

  25. I have a short story in this YBF, and I received a copy of the POD as soon as it was available. I found a bunch of errors in my story, and elsewhere, and reported them to Tor, who promptly uploaded corrected files to the POD provider. Supposedly every copy printed from that point on is more correct than the first version, making me feel a bit like I received a nicely bound ARC, while eroding whatever notion I might have had of First Editions. (I have not ordered a second copy to confirm the corrections.) It’s good to have this level of responsiveness and to know those errors aren’t sitting permanently on B&N shelves waiting for an entire edition to sell out before there’s any chance of correcting them. I find myself contemplating a world in which authors have access to their own POD files and continually revise at will, so that each printing is slightly different and there is no definitive edition except possibly the very latest one. Dhalgren 2010 anyone?

  26. @Tazistan Jen, I have more hardcovers on my shelf than paperback. But I still see your POV. I am just speaking to my personal preference. As I said, it may not be a popular one. I do see why e-books are appealing, do not misunderstand. To me, they are not.

    @Steve, call me nostalgic. Hell, I still carry around boxes of VHS even though I have the hardware to convert them all the DVD. I do see the benefits of e-books but I doubt I will ever make a permanent switch to them. As I said, I find it a chore to read in electronic form.

    @Marina, the yellowing is something I enjoy. Maybe that comes from memories of when I was small of my mother reading an ancient copy of Winnie the Pooh to my sister and I. The pages were yellowed and the book had a wonderful musty odor.

    For me personally, reading is just as much a tactile experience as a visual one. And I find books to be an artist form that goes beyond reading words. A lot of work goes into not only the exterior design but the interior design as well. I have seen some nicely presented e-books but I have yet to see one that matches print when it comes to design and aesthetics.

    Maybe I am romanticizing it.

  27. Greg London @ 34

    Meh. I prefer glyph punk myself. Unk Gibson, like, totally predicted writing in 48,000 BC.

    “Who Wintermute*?”
    “Wintermute make drawing of words on wall.”

    *No relation.

  28. Sounds like this book won’t easily get into libraries either. And libraries are the sorts of places that like “Best of” anthologies. Makes them feel like they’re buying quality stories, already vetted by a third party.

  29. J. Andrews @ 36 – If Tor.com has given the book an ISBN and gotten a review from Booklist, libraries will probably get it. Most libraries order via the same distribution channel as bookstores.

  30. On ebooks and their readers, and them not feeling like books. Provided there are (and there are and will be) people who like the look and feel of a “classic” book, wouldn’t there eventually be a market for ebook readers that look just like books… except that there’s only one place where you can open the book, and the words there change when you touch a corner? Wouldn’t think it impossible to eventually make e-ink paper that looks, feels (maybe even yellows) just like regular paper. (You’d of course need three “screens”, at least one in color — the left-hand page, the right-hand page, and the covers-and-spine!)

  31. I have a Kindle. And yesterday, I ordered the leather bound edition of the Once and Future King from Easton Press. And I will never give up my tattered, yellowing, paperback edition. More formats, good.

    Also, I think the real innovation with the Kindle is not the e-ink or wireless delivery, but the Itty Bitty Book light that you can clip to it. Helps maintain peace in the bed when one wants to sleep and the other wants to read.

  32. Mike@39,

    Okay, maybe I’m a dummy and I admit I’ve never seen a Kindle in person- but why would one need a clip-on booklight? No backlight?

    Doesn’t this seem like a pretty obvious feature, allowing one to read in the dark? Adjustable to save battery/user preference and all that.

    Similarly, I’m kind of amazed that no one seems to have released an e-reader with a ‘leatherette’ surface and/or two screens that close together to mimic the feel of a hardcover book.

  33. Mike@39: As an employee for one of Amazon’s competitors, I have to point out that the Kindle was by no means the first device to use eInk. Or the second…or even the third. The area the Kindle innovated in was in the free wireless delivery. (And some technical stuff about how they render content…actually invented by a guy who I work with now.)

    The Other Keith@41: The big difference between eInk displays and other displays is that eInk displays produce no light on their own. They really entirely on passive lighting, just like physical ink does. The disadvantage is the same as with physical books: you need light. The advantages are that no power is needed to leave the display “on”, it causes far less eye strain because the device isn’t shining light right into your eyes, and it has none of the washout you get with normal screens in bright light because the display doesn’t compete with external light but works with it.

    Reading an eInk device is much closer to reading a book than a normal LCD, OLED or other whatever.

    The Sony eReader ships with a leatherette case. There’s another company that announced a two-screen reader just like you say, but I don’t recall who at the moment.

  34. I really have to wonder how much of our attachment to books is sentimental and how much is neurological. If it’s purely sentimental value, you recall reading a great paperback book when you were a kid, then that will go away once kids are raised on great ebooks. If it’s neurological, as in, we’re hardwired for the structural interface of paper, then there will always be some interest in paper books.

    I read somewhere that a lot of schools aren’t teaching cursive writing to kids. Just block lettering. After that, I guess they figure kids will use keyboards and such.

    When I get writer’s block, I often will take a pen and paper and write a scene cursively, and then type it in later. But I don’t know if it works for me because I grew up writing by hand or if there is something in the structural action of hand-pen-paper that makes it different for my brain.

  35. Cursive isn’t necessary for hand-pen-paper.

    The purpose of cursive was originally to prevent quill-induced ink smudges, though it is also marginally faster. It could be argued, though, that if your are using the kinesthetics of hand-pen-paper to promote artistic thinking speed is not a particular advantage.

    There is also the side issue that though cursive is still taught many places, kids don’t use it all through their school careers like they used to and so often lose it.

  36. I learned cursive in school, but I never use it; when i do handwrite – which is surprisingly often as I find handwritten meeting notes, for example, are more useful than soft copies, as are quick jottings while I’m working more useful on paper than in Notepad – I almost always print.

    Unless i’m signing something.

  37. Same here, though glorifying the illegible loops that make up my signature as “cursive” is misleading.

  38. As it happens, this week I’m attending a trade show for booksellers with a forum on just this topic.
    It may interest you to know that a POD machine costs about $100,000. A bookseller’s margin is about 2%. (So much for booksellers “doing that well.” Think about that when you buy Amazon.) So this tech is well out of reach for independent bookstores. The college stores are where there is some attempt to use the technology. Interestingly, most of the demand seems to be for self-published books like geneologies. So booksellers would really be getting into the publishing industry, which is quite different. I don’t know if this will take off or not.

  39. John, when did you put the coffee stain watermark in your comments??

    I just noticed it – but I have a brand new monitor, there might be no coincidence there. I was staring at it for a while trying to figure out what it was, it’s got to be CSS on the comments or some such… I have better things to do than dump your site source looking for it, right now, but that’s cool.

  40. Amazon also has a POD system of their own, BookSurge; I’ve heard that they’ve tried to pressure small POD-using presses into using Booksurge if the presses want to sell through Amazon, but I don’t know if this is still the case.

    In the university press world, POD’s been a great thing; we publish many books with very narrow audiences, and POD makes it possible for us to keep those books in print when the orders are low even by our standards (and for most university presses, a book that sells a thousand copies in its first year is a runaway bestseller).

  41. PoD may work when the reader is willing to buy the title or the author on faith alone (like any ScalziProduct(tm) of course.) But even for books written by some of my favorites I want to thumb through to make sure at the bookstore. For instance i might want to make sure that the latest Ringo book is about sexy Georgian warrior women and not about those god-awful Posleen stories. Maybe those of us who get emotional and tactile rewards from riffling through newspapers and books and magazines will eventually die out.

  42. Booksurge is self-publishing though, isn’t it? PoD doesn’t refer to that, it refers to people being able to print a single copy of a book for immediate sale and I think it’s an important distinction to make given eviljwinter’s first comment and a couple of others above this.

    Mostly I think PoD will fill the gap for out of print or lightly stocked books that aren’t available as ebooks. I’ve looked for titles like this myself, but the business challenge is that I generally don’t care that much if I can’t find them, so unless it’s *very* obvious that I can easily get the book I just don’t pursue the issue.

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