INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES AND PRINT-ON-DEMAND: ONE EXCHANGE
The following exchange seems so rife with controversy over independent
bookstores and POD (print-on-demand) that I thought I'd pull it out of
the Letters department and run as a full story.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm a self-published author through iUniverse, and I receive the Book
Passage bookstore [Corte Madera, California] newsletter. I posted the
following essay on my own site, but I thought it was something you'd be
interested in as well. You may have covered bookstore versus
print-on-demand (POD) already but I think as the popularity grows for
POD and self-published and self-promoted works, this controversy will
I am disappointed by Book Passage's sanctimonious premise that a book is not real and the reading experience is not valid unless the book is found on their shelves.
An article in the July-August edition of Book Passage News and Reviews states: "Little Demand for Print on Demand. What do Iuniverse.com and Xlibris.com really do for authors?" Book Passage attacks print-on-demand, explaining, "The most characteristic feature of POD publishing is this: the company does not actually print a copy of the book until a customer orders one. Because of this, these books are never on display anywhere and rarely find their way on to bookstore shelves. Unless a potential readers (sic) know where to find the book on some Internet data base, he or she probably won't know that it exists."
The article continues by listing all the wonderful free services that Traditional Publishers provide for authors like paying for book tours, booking radio interviews and securing favorable quotes. "The main job of the traditional publisher is to get the books into bookstores where they can be read by the staff, displayed attractively, and sold to customers. Authors desperately need this service, and POD publishers simply cannot provide it."
Authors who chose to print POD do indeed desperately need services; we also know they will not get it from a Traditional Publisher anyway. There isn't enough money in the publishing industry to help an author who is new, untested and not currently on the bestseller list; it was all spent on Hillary Clinton's advance.
Authors who chose to put their work out through POD have listened to representatives of Traditional Publishers explain that they really can't publish or promote an author or book that doesn't have an impressive sales record. Writers have listened to talented mid-list authors who had high hopes of increased sales or at least increased help with promoting their second book, only to be cruelly disappointed to learn that because their first book did not sell at a certain level, the traditional publisher won't even buy the next book, let alone promote it.
There isn't a single author who doesn't work to promote his or her own book. It's part of the deal, and this is not a big secret. Writers who chose to publish their own books through Print-On-Demand figure that if we are already on our own, why not just cut to the chase and do it all ourselves? Book Passage states clearly that authors should not do it ourselves, we should not use Print-On-Demand because it's impossible to place a POD book into bookstores. So don't do it.
Book Passage is right when they point out that this first generation of POD is difficult for booksellers to access and gain a decent profit margin to make it worth their while. Authors who choose this system already know this. Authors who chose Print-On-Demand love bookstores and support the efforts of independent bookstores. But for our own purposes, we have the Internet. There is a wealth of information, help, encouragement and avenues of sales for the POD author; very little of it is found on a bookshelf.
For the author tired of sending his/her life work into the slush piles of New York to disappear for three months and then be returned. For the writer exhausted by agents who flat out inquire "Are you Tom Clancy? Because I only want to represent Tom Clancy." POD is nothing short of a godsend. Are there trade offs? Of course there are, but don't underestimate the talent and determination of writers who know what they have to say is valuable and they will work harder than any indifferent (but certainly Traditional) publishing house to get their message into the world. Authors who work through the POD system to get their books out into the public (albeit a small public to start) may be naive to think that they'd be supported by bookstores, independent or not. But Book Passage is equally naive in assuming that authors should only use Traditional Publishers because Traditional Publishers will help authors. Often that is not true.
Print-On-Demand is not a threat, it's just new. Independent booksellers advertise that they are under siege by the large chains. "Help the independent" is the cry. "We will give you new voices and alternative reading experiences", is the chant.
Yet when something different comes up, an Independent Bookstore response is to disparage the efforts of authors choosing this avenue, then condescendingly recommend that a new author should not try something new and in fact, just give up. Did the writer of this essay feel no sense of irony in promoting a system that is large and traditional at the cost of the small independent author? Have the Independent Bookstores considered that they could help new POD authors, who often are some of your best customers? To print your own book and promote it yourself takes nerve, determination and a devotion to books and reading that would serve any bookstore well.
>From the Print-On-Demand authors, the next generation Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot, we'd like to respond to Book Passage by stating that your way is not the only way. A book doesn't need to fall from a bookstore shelf to make it real. Real is a reader writing to the author and telling how they related to the story, how the book changed their perception of the world. How they laughed. To be worn and loved, that makes a thing real. It doesn't matter how the book got into the reader's hands.
Bill Petrocelli of Book Passage Responds:
I'm afraid that Catharine Bramkamp missed the point of the article
that I wrote about print-on-demand books in the July-August 2001 issue
the Book Passage News & Reviews.
I did not in any way criticize authors who choose to publish their
books through a print-on-demand process. I fully support and understand
the determination of authors to publish their books any way they can.
I'm an author myself, and I know how difficult and unfriendly the
publishing process can be to a first-time author.
My quarrel is with companies like iUniverse.com and Xlibris.com that
take a fee from new authors to publish print-on-demand books and then
don't provide such authors with the crucial services they need. I am
particularly disturbed by the fact that these books are only made
available to bookstores on a very short discount and a non-returnable
basis. These are not commercially viable terms. By controlling the
selling process this way, these publishers have made it virtually
impossible for new, print-on-demand authors to get their books into
bookstores in any meaningful fashion. This is not properly explained to
authors who sign up with these companies. It comes as a shock to most
print-on-demand authors to find out that they will be missing out on one
of the most important aspects of book promotion -- the word-of-mouth
enthusiasm that is passed on from bookseller to customer.
This situation is both sad and unnecessary. The print-on-demand
companies could adjust their programs to meet the reasonable needs to
booksellers. If they did so, then authors who use their services would
have a chance to get their books into the mainstream of bookselling.
Independent booksellers know as well as anyone that the major book
publishers often miss important books. We would be the last ones to
argue that all authors should have to go through major publisher in
order to get their books published. For the health of our society, there
must be a wide variety of large and small publishers and a diversity of
methods for getting books into bookstores and into the hands of readers.
There is probably a role that print-on-demand technology can play in
this. I'm afraid, however, that the major print-on-demand companies are
not meeting this need and may simply be dashing authors hopes and
Catharine Bramkamp responds:
I agree that the terms of POD books offered to booksellers are not
ideal. There are no returns because the whole concept of POD is that
there is no inventory per se and no returns; that's why it's cheap and
that's why it's new. I think that it behooves authors working with any
kind of publishing program to gain some knowledge of what will really
happen. Most authors are pretty knowledgeable about traditional
publishers. There are enough stories circulating
around writers' conferences and writers' groups to inform the new author
that even if her book is published, little to nothing will be done to
As POD matures, and more people hold discussions concerning the merits
and drawbacks, more authors will make savvy choices.
For myself, I never once assumed my book would be placed in bookstores.
The book is listed at Ingram (wholesaler), so bookstores can order it
(perhaps this is what Bill Petrocelli is referring to), but I wasn't, at
any time, under the
impression that the bookstores would order the book. What POD offers for
a fee is editorial, cover, and marketing help. I chose to hire my own
editor and do
my own marketing. Compared to the experiences of authors with
Traditional Publishers, the goals and help offered by Xlibris and
iUniverse are far more
extensive. Authors just have to be more active promoting their books, a
requirement that may or may not work for each individual.
Is POD tailored to bookstores? Not yet. But instead of just dismissing
POD and the authors who choose to start their careers using POD and the
Passage could explain more about what its needs are. If I know what it
takes to get a book into a bookstore, or why my product doesn't work for
selling system, wouldn't I help? But what I read in the newsletter was
a message that told authors: Give up. If it doesn't work for us, the
bookstores, it won't work at all. Now that pissed me off.
Surely the more discussion and information available, the better it will
be for everyone. I think bookstores and the Internet can meet. I think
it's interesting to try and to discuss how that can happen.
MANUSCRIPT CONSULTANTS - MORE UPDATES
Here are more names of manuscript consultants (to continue the list
published in #258).
Just to clarify, to my mind a manuscript consultant is a freelance
1) hired by authors to help bring their manuscripts to the highest
standard before submitting to agents and publishers;
2) hired by agents to help authors draft a saleable book proposal;
3) hired by publishers to help authors complete or improve the
manuscript. (Freelance copyeditors are usually hired by publishers.)
Manuscript consultants are becoming more important as authors discover
that they cannot depend on agents or editors to help them get a
manuscript in shape. Too often they find that their manuscript is not
read all the way through until it reaches the copyediting stage.
What they need going in is a qualified editor who answers only to them,
is concerned with the quality of the writing and has no interest in
marketing concerns that might compromise the integrity of the work.
At least that's what I said in #248. Joe Lubow, a manuscript consultant,
believes I didn't go far enough:
“When in your article you wrote about editors, you really meant
acquisitions editors, not developmental editors, but you didn't make the
distinction. The article gives the impression that editors can't help,
only manuscript consultants. Failing to make distinctions between those
who purchase manuscripts and those who improve manuscripts makes us all
look bad; writers tend to be suspicious of editors anyway, so it would
help freelance editors help writers if we could be distinguished from
those in-house purchasers.
“Having been an acquisitions editor in small houses, I know that
acquisitions editors often farm out work to freelance developmental
editors. So we are the working group that can help writers improve their
work. And sometimes, we can make the difference between a rejection and
an acceptance if hired directly by the writer before submission.”
Joe also directs us to the Bay Area Editors Forum, a group of some 300
manuscript consultants that “started in the late 1980s to help local
editors - both freelance and staff -- network. It's also a place to find
“The BAEF website ( http://www.editorsforum.org ) lists its members'
information by their type of work (for instance, developmental,
copyediting, proofreading, technical) and subject specialties.”
This is a sophisticated website of invaluable use to writers looking for
information on the publishing process, what editors do and (in links)
various references and style guides. Best of all is the BAEF directory
of individual editors, their experience and specialties at
Here are some other manuscript consultants:
Nancy Bereano (Ithaca NY): Editor of over 100 titiles published by
Firebrand under her ownership. Phone 607-272-1647.
Hal Zina Bennett (Bay Area): Author, ghostwriter, editor -- clients
include Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil on Oprah); Jerry Jampolsky (six books);
Judith Orloff, MD (Second Sight); Cherie Carter Scott (If Life Is A
Game...); Shakti Gawain (Path of Transformation); Gabrielle Roth (Sweat
Your Prayers). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Daniel J. Bial (New York NY): Editor formerly with HarperCollins for 10
years, two years each with Henry Holt and with Longmeadow. Email:
email@example.com; phone: 212-721-1786.
Andrew Cooper (Oakland CA): Author, journalist, co-writer, and freelance
editor with 14 years experience - main client Shambhala Publications.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone: 510-482-5746.
Shelley Singer (Fairfax CA): Author, editor -- clients include
triple-award-winner (Edgar, Anthony, Shamus) Rick Riordan (detective
novels); Orange Prize for Fiction nominee Lise Leroux (science fiction,
literary fiction); Lori Fairweather (suspense); and Susan Holtzer on a
nonfiction book. Email: email@example.com; phone: 415-456-7528.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'd like to throw my two cents into the fray about Upstart Press
Given a choice in choosing between links to a national chain or
Amazon.com and an independent bookstore, the customer will more than
choose the independent. Believe me, we know. Many of our best selling
titles from our website are outselling Amazon's sales 2 to 1. The only
thing that we ask for is a level playing field.
Many small and inexperienced publishers will go for size, thinking
Amazon and Barnes & Noble will offer them the fame and success that they
associate with bigness. They will offer a discount to Amazon and rates
not available to independent bookstores. If Amazon is offering a 30%
discount, I would bet that Upstart almost gave the books to Amazon or
that Amazon has
over-purchased and is basically dumping the extra copies. Also, I
understand that many of the small publishers are waiting and waiting and
waiting to be paid by you-know-who. The inexperienced publishers think
this is the way of "big-business."
If small publishers think that independent on-line bookstores do not
have access to the world, they must have their heads in the sand. Our
orders are from all over the world, and I do not know of a continent
do not ship to on a regular basis. It is not uncommon for single
orders to exceed $200. Please note that we are a bookstore specializing
in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender market.
Total Internet sales are projected to be only 15% or less of the
book market. If a publisher puts all its eggs into this basket and
continues to promote Amazon.com over the independent stores, guess where
its books will end up in the independent stores, if carried at all? I
think of a lot of places in a store that these publisher's books will
The independent publishers that only promote Amazon.com should go to
Amazon.com to have the author events, in-store promotions and
by clerks. We get emails, flyers and posters every day from these
publishers wanting us to post these emails, flyers and posters in our
store with the words, "You can buy this book at Amazon.com." These publishers
should realize that bookstore owners actually read the information sent
to them and really care what they post and advertise in their store.
The Open Book, Ltd.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Tim Kingston writes that Upstart Press told him: "Amazon.com allows us
to provide books to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists in
six continents of the world."
And long before Amazon.com was even a dream in Jeff Bezos' mind -- in
fact, long before there was an Upstart Press -- my own Lambda Rising
bookstores, as well as Giovanni's Room, A Different Light, and numerous
other gay and lesbian bookstores were doing the same thing. Lambda
Rising has shipped books to over 100 countries and has been doing so
since 1974. We've been doing it since the days when the big chain
bookstores refused to carry our community's books. (I was told by more
than one sneering chain bookstore manager that they didn't want "to
carry THOSE kind of books.")
But we cut way back on our mail order services when we discovered that
the publishers -- including those large and small publishers of gay and
lesbian literature who had declined for years to support our own catalog
and promotional efforts in any meaningful way -- were granting extra
discounts, longer terms, better returns deals, and much better
promotional packages to the chains and the online services than they
were to independent bookstores.
So now, instead of spending our own money to put two and a half million
promotional pieces in the hands of gay and lesbian readers every year,
we concentrate on our retail stores and local customers and watch while
the overall sales figures of gay and lesbian books nationwide decline,
even though our own figures continue to increase. Publishers have dug
their own grave. I hope Tim Kingston finds his comfortable.
Lambda Rising Bookstores
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Here's our very own Arianna Huffington - as she is becoming. Isn't this
the book The Great Puppet claimed to have loved best when he was a
child - except that it wasn't published until 1969, when he was sitting
around and bending the elbow at Yale?
The Very Uncurious President
By Arianna Huffington
Gather 'round little ones. It's story time. Today's is a scary one. It's
about a president utterly lacking in imagination. It's called "The Very
"Once upon a time there was the curious case of a man who was given the entire world and yet had no curiosity about it. Then he became president. He was the leader of the world, but nothing in it seemed to interest him. For instance, whenever he visited a class of school children he would always, always, always read the same book. No matter how far he traveled or how old his listeners, he never deviated from the tried and true. In fact, he was so reluctant to try another tale, his loyal retainers would sometimes clear the room of all other books, leaving only the president's favorite around. That way, George would never see a book that might make him angry or upset or confused.
"Then, one bright, shiny day, just as the very uncurious president was about to begin reading his favorite book, a young boy stepped up, handed him a brand-new book and asked him to read it aloud.
"The president hemmed and hawed, fretted and frowned, sputtered and stammered. But what could he do -- everyone was watching. So he slowly opened the new book, his eyes quickly scanning the page. It was filled with words. Words he'd never seen arranged in this exact order before. And then -- with a loud 'pop!' -- his head exploded. The End."
True story. Well, except for the part about the president's head exploding. But it's a fact that whenever George W. Bush makes an appearance at a school, as he did last week in Albuquerque, N.M., he always, always, always reads from the same book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." It's the story of a ravenous caterpillar that eats so much he makes himself sick before finally transforming into a beautiful butterfly.
Now, don't get me wrong. It's a wonderful book. Beautifully illustrated and with a nice moral about moderation and redemption. But W has been falling back on "TVHC" since he was running for governor. He's made hundreds and hundreds of school appearances over the years, and it's always the same drill: Anytime he gets within shouting distance of school kids, no matter their age -- whoosh! -- out comes "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
The book is geared toward preschoolers, but there was the Reader of the Free World in Albuquerque, reading it to a group of second-graders. You could almost see the kids rolling their eyes in unison. But Bush wasn't going to deviate from his historically narrow comfort zone, even though he admitted that his selection wasn't exactly age-appropriate. "These kids are way beyond 'The Hungry Caterpillar,'" he said after he was done.
Then, veering dangerously close to self-reflection, he added: "They read it better than the president could read it." He said it, I didn't.
I wonder what it is about the story that strikes such a cord with the president?
Maybe he sees it as a metaphor for his own life, where he clearly was a voracious consumer of drink -- and lord knows what else -- devouring enough to make himself sick. He then went into his personal cocoon, emerging reborn as a beautiful butterfly. Or, at least, as a moth with enough pals on the Supreme Court to make him President of the United States.
Or maybe he just likes the way the book comes, with little holes in it that you can stick your fingers through or play peek-a-boo with. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a caterpillar is just a caterpillar.
The problem is not that W only feels comfortable reading the same children's book again and again. It's what this confirms about him. After all, the essence of reading is encountering new ideas and different viewpoints, and here is a man who has no interest in either of those things.
But though he may see no value in being intellectually curious, he clearly sees value in seeming to be intellectually curious. I just wish he wouldn't try so hard. "I like to read," he told the students in New Mexico. "I read a lot."
Fine, maybe he does, but why do his protests feel so forced? For instance, how many times are we going to hear that the president is spending part of his summer break reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams? The White House spinmeisters have tried to work it into almost every discussion of the president's extended holiday.
Indeed, in a recent TV interview with ABC's Claire Shipman, W almost tripped over himself in an effort to toss out the fact that his "typical" day included lots of time spent reading -- especially that big, fat bio of the second president. I was half-expecting him to point out: "And, y'know, Claire, that sucker is over 600 pages long!" And when he was asked what he thought of the bulky best-seller, he responded: "I like it. It's interesting." Well, there you have it. Literary analysis worthy of the Paris Review.
The next time W visits a school, maybe he should take a risk and leave "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" behind. He could always read that kids' classic "Curious George." But I've got a feeling irony isn't really his strong suit.
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