The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues #14: Print On Demand

NOTE: this article first appeared in the pages of SFWA Bulletin 154, Summer, 2002. Long before the emergence of Amazon.com’s CreateSpace option.

MIKE: I’ve been writing a bi-monthly column for beginners for more than seven years now, and every now and then I deliver up a truth that has them screaming like stuck pigs. I recently did it again, so I thought maybe you and I might discuss the subject rationally, like two undistressed professionals.

The subject is Print-on-Demand books, and there are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to make use of them and those who publish them—but there is one area, the area that seems most attractive to beginners, that I consider professional poison, and that area is selling your original novel to a POD publisher.

Most of the beginners have explained to me, at hysterical length, that at least their books will see print in a field that is stacked against newcomers, and they have come up with bold and unique new ways of publicizing the novels once they’re published, and the main thing is to get it out on the stands.

The beginners also point out that even though they’re getting almost no advance (and in many cases, not a single penny up front), why, look at Catch-22, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and The Hunt For Red October, to name just three megasellers that were bought for rock-bottom advances.

The answer, of course, is threefold:

First, they got minimal professional advances, but those advances were still many multiples beyond what POD publishers pay for original science fiction novels.

Second, those three books roll off the tongue because they are among the very few megahits that surprised even the publishers.

Third, and finally, the rule that those titles are the exception to is that sales are made in the contract, not in the writing.

For example, if a publisher pays $3,500 US for a first novel—about what they’ve been paying for better than a quarter of a century now—and gives the book a piece of cheap generic cover art, and budgets minimal (or no) advertising, the only possible way he can get hurt is to pay for printing and shipping 150,000 copies and gobbling 138,735 returns of a heavily advertised flop a few months later . . . so of course he doesn’t do that. He prints what the contract suggests will be the proper number: maybe 16,000 paperbacks. And with precious few exceptions, the author will sell under 10,000 copies and never see a penny’s worth of royalties.

Go to the other extreme. The publisher pays $500,000 US for a mediocre novel. Good, bad, or mediocre, he stands to take a serious red-ink bath if the book doesn’t sell enough copies, so he’ll print maybe 800,000 copies, he’ll give it the best cover art he can obtain, it’ll get raised metallic type or cut-outs or whatever (it varies from year to year) so the distributor will know that this is the major opus the publisher is pushing this month, there will be dump displays and full-color posters in every bookstore, full-page ads in a dozen major publications, a 20-city author tour, maybe even TV ads in New York and Los Angeles, and the road men will be told that this is the title they’ve got to sell. And, of course, because of this effort, the book sells 500,000 copies in 10 weeks and quickly goes back to press for another quarter million.

Like I say, the sales are determined by the contract. Minimal variations in sales will occasionally be determined by the quality of the book and the number of favorable or unfavorable reviews, but, also like I say, they’re minimal.

Now let’s consider the typical POD novel. The publisher pays little or, more often, no advance, so he has no money to recoup other than paying for a tiny print run. Being a small press, he will do almost no advertising. Since it’s print on demand, you can figure a first printing of maybe 200 to 250 copies if the book’s a trade paperback, maybe 100 if it’s a hardcover. Hard to get rich on even a 75% sell-through.

Ah, say the beginners, but we’re sending out all kinds of promotional material to the chains—and it may well be that the chains will order copies. After all, it doesn’t cost them anything to order 55,000 copies and return 53,000 a couple of months later. The publisher pays the printing bill and shipping costs both ways—and while a New York mass market house with deep pockets and its own sales force might take that kind of chance, no small press will. If the publisher wants to stay in business, he’ll place a few copies with Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com and let it go at that. He can’t afford a multi-thousand-copy print run; that’s why he’s POD.

So what does all this mean?

First, that the newcomer who places his novel with a POD small press will earn far less than a substandard first novel advance from any mass market publisher.

Second, most people, seeing the novel, will assume, rightly or wrongly, that it wasn’t good enough to sell to mass market, since even the casual reader can figure out that a small press can’t match advances with TOR, Ace, Bantam, Del Rey, Eos, Baen, Roc, DAW, and that whole crowd. (In fact, the casual reader will have a hard time finding any of those 200 copies; they’re certainly not going to be in his local bookstore.)

Third, when the newcomer wises up and goes to a mass market publisher with Novel #2, the very best thing that can happen is for the editor to be totally ignorant of Novel #1. Because if the editor asks how much the first novel sold, the answer, no matter how it’s sugar-coated, is not likely to encourage the purchase of #2.

Before we get onto what I consider the legitimate and beneficial uses of POD publishers, let me know: am I missing something here? Is it possible for the next major career to begin with a POD novel?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: No, I don’t think that the next “major career,” whatever that is, or the major career after that will be launched by POD. It is possible that a writer who comes later to success will have an earlier POD publication (to be revived by trade publishing). William Gibson, for instance, published his first story in Unearth, a small-circulation semi-prozine, in l977. Did that publication inaugurate his career? Five years later, his second story was published in Omni, and that was where the career began.

Cordwainer Smith’s first story, “Scanners Live in Vain,” was published in l950 in Fantasy Book, a (very) small-circulation semi-prozine published in California; but Smith was invisible until that story, reprinted by Fred Pohl, ghost-editing for Robert A. Heinlein, placed the story in the l954 anthology Assignment in Tomorrow where it created in a small way astonishment, and the next year, Smith’s “The Game of Rat and Dragon” in Galaxy, capitalizing on the anthology, started Smith’s career. Somebody’s POD book may be reprinted after its author becomes otherwise established and may in fact become quite valuable, but POD is no launching pad.

POD is a dumping ground.

POD is where books go to die; where literary corpses go to be embalmed. It is a suitable place for the end of a career or perhaps a place of interregnum for a writer trying something else or unable to sell the trade publishers; it is not a place where a career can be born. I don’t think that it’s a place where a career can be sustained, either.

This is a drastic statement and I do not mean to give offense to the readers of this publication, honorable persons all, who are POD publishers; they mean very well and they have become a useful market for reprints if the author (note Barry Longyear’s essay in a recent issue) is willing to assume the responsibility for publicity and knows how to work the Internet. POD is certainly a step or two above outright self-publishing or the unspeakable vanity press on the hierarchy of publishing. But saying that and giving due credit to the good will of the POD publishers (I have no reason to think that any of them are dishonorable) they are no place to begin a career or to continue. They are, arguably, a place for out-of-print work and of course POD can be a market for a kind of book which would be of little interest to the contemporary trade publishers. (You’ve placed a few such titles, Mike, in the nature of offbeat collections or compilations of themed essays.) An established writer could do worse than bring her laundry list to POD (assuming that she had a pretty good idea of the kind of people who would like to read her laundry list and an equally good idea of how to reach them).

But a new novel or collection? No. I cannot make any argument for POD here. Before we get onto the beneficial uses of POD—and there are a few, trust me for the moment—let’s dwell just a bit longer on using POD for original novels.

The examples you gave above are all perfectly true, but I’m not sure they’re valid, because the Gibson and the Cordwainer Smith pieces were stories, not novels. I wonder where Gibson’s career would be had he given Neuromancer to a POD publisher and kept his fingers crossed that someone would notice it.

And while we’re at it, you’re the half of the team that has worked for a literary agent. I assume that at one time or another you’ve seen a typical POD novel contract. If we haven’t scared people off yet, what can you say about the contract that might drive the final nail into the coffin?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Before we get onto the beneficial uses of POD—and there are a few, trust me for the moment—let’s dwell just a bit longer on using POD for original novels.

The examples you gave above are all perfectly true, but I’m not sure they’re valid, because the Gibson and the Cordwainer Smith pieces were stories, not novels. I wonder where Gibson’s career would be had he given Neuromancer to a POD publisher and kept his fingers crossed that someone would notice it.

And while we’re at it, you’re the half of the team that has worked for a literary agent. I assume that at one time or another you’ve seen a typical POD novel contract. If we haven’t scared people off yet, what can you say about the contract that might drive the final nail into the coffin?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Take a look at the contract offered by one of the largest POD publishers—perhaps the largest. It gives the publisher “sole and exclusive right to license” the property in all editions throughout the world and a 50% share of the proceeds of all such licenses . . . in practical terms, and I know no other such, the publisher, for the minimum effort of printing perhaps ten or twenty copies of a book (a couple of complimentaries to the author and all the rest paid), shares equally in all proceeds of the work from all other editions. Putting it another way, the POD publisher has become an agent taking a 50% commission, a rate which exceeds all ethical boundaries. Furthermore, during the period of the license—seven years in most cases—the author may engage in no other contracts for the work: the “exclusivity” clause granted to the publisher means that the author has utterly lost control of her work. If a German agent forwards a publisher offer of €8,000 Euros to reprint an old title which has been licensed to the POD publisher, the author must stand aside in favor of the POD making the contract and taking €4,000 Euros for no expenditure and no effort. This is beyond confiscatory.

Or take a look at the contract of another very large POD publisher. Here the author is charged “production costs,” which will be deducted from any proceeds and the proceeds are split equally between the publisher and the author. Once again, the POD publisher has become an agent taking 50% commission . . . and the assumption by the author of complete production costs means that this POD publisher is offering absolutely nothing whatsoever but the opportunity for the writer to give away half of her property for a very long time, if not in perpetuity.

Say, in this latter case, that “production costs”—graphics, setting, scanning, printing—are a thousand dollars; say that the book sells over a two-year period 400 copies (a generous estimate) at, say, $l2.00 US apiece for trade paperback format. That’s a gross of $4,800 US, an author’s share of $l,400 US less $1,000 US “production costs” . . . the author has realized $400 from the sale of those 400 copies. And yielded fifty percent of all subsidiary rights.

You may call this “publication,” Mike . . . or at least your Ask Bwana correspondents may call it that. I have another word or words for it but we’re writing a gentlemanly column of gentle advice and we will let our equally gentle readers use their extrapolative imagination, okay?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: No, I don’t think I’ve ever called that “publication,” and yes, a lot of beginners have. Hopefully enough of them are reading this dialogue so that they’ll not only learn a little something about the contract but also tell their friends.

(Of course, all contracts are negotiable—but if you are new enough and naive enough to place your novel with a POD publisher, you probably don’t have very much bargaining power.)

OK, so much for new novels. What do you use a POD house for? I mean, hell, I can read a contract, I can count, and I use them. So it’s a fair and valid question.

The most obvious answer is that I give them books that I cannot sell to mass market.

But that’s too simplistic an answer. After all, I’m not an egomaniac—or at least, I’m not an exceptionally stupid one—and only a stupid egomaniac would go to the trouble of preparing a manuscript, any manuscript, for a POD publisher without some reason beyond merely wanting to see a few copies of it in print.

Let me break it down by the types of manuscripts I’ve given them.

The first is what I consider my charity work. In this field, as has been said so many times, you can’t pay back, so you pay forward. So, starting a couple of years ago, I’ve been doing one book a year of “how-to” advice, either artistic, technical, or financial, for new writers. These are not new books, or rather the material isn’t new. One was a study of first and final drafts of award-winning and award-nominated stories, which showed beginners how you edit and polish your own work. One was a collection of successful outlines and synopses, edited by me but contributed by about 20 SFWA members, each of which resulted in a major book sale, so beginners could see exactly how it’s done. One is a collection of 40 of those Ask Bwana columns you mentioned. And so on. Eventually these dialogues will become one. Charity work. (Though I have to point out that even after taking my editorial fee, I was distributing pro rata royalties to those 20 SFWA members only 4 months after that book of outlines was published. So sometimes even charity work sells.)

The second is collections. If your name isn’t Bradbury, Silverberg, or Willis, it’s harder than you think to sell a collection to mass market. Oh, I’ve done it, you’ve done it, we’ve all done it—occasionally. But I don’t write occasional short stories; I write frequent short stories. Enough for a collection almost every year. But my mass market publishers don’t want a Resnick collection every year, and I suspect my mass market readers probably don’t either, since they’ve been conditioned to reading short stories in the magazines and novels in book form. But while I may place most of my collections with small press or POD publishers in America, the rest of the world doesn’t view collections the same way American publishers do, and once I get my hands on a new collection, it goes off to a couple of dozen countries, and invariably sells to one or more of them. So in this case, POD is a marketing tool—and of course, if you have any clout at all, you make sure that the contract is not the type you listed above. You share no subsidiary, electronic, or foreign rights, you lease the collection for only 3 or 4 years, never more than 5, you demand enough author’s copies to send to the reviews to all your potential foreign markets, and so on.

The third—and the only difference here is content—is reprint novels. Again, most of us have resold some of our work to mass market, but when you’ve been around as long as you and I have, we’ve got too damned many books to constantly resell to mass market. I wouldn’t want to anyway; if there are 40 Resnick novels to choose from, invariably too many buyers will choose the reprints that have already earned out rather than the new ones that have to earn out if I am to keep my creditors in mink.

An added benefit from new editions of old novels is that many foreign editors, presented with a 1982 or 1991 paperback with a $2.25 US or $3.50 US cover price on it, will feel that your agent has been hawking this novel unsuccessfully for over a decade (and they might well be right) . . . but show them a new trade paperback or hardcover of the same book, with new cover art, and a 2002-type pricetag, and they’re much more likely to buy it—or at least, that’s been my experience.

All right, those are my three best reasons. What’s your take on it?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: Well, they’re good reasons. And remember one of the truisms of the business: Any contract is negotiable. No contract is written in stone. You can ask for better terms. You can demand better terms as the price of taking the contract. You can fight for special privileges. In all of my years signing contracts and agenting them I have found that there is only one clause which is absolutely non-negotiable . . . publication of the manuscript. It is possible to extract a delivery advance for a novel which a publisher finds unacceptable, it is possible to negotiate a kill fee equal to the full fee for an article . . . but no publisher will guarantee publication of a work. That gives the writer a kind of leverage which no publisher will ever yield and of course can expose the publisher (in the case of extremely controversial or undocumented nonfiction) to heavy legal penalties. Publishers will never agree to that clause. But I know of no other—zero percent of all subsidiary rights, a 50% royalty rate and so on and on—which in one case or another has not been granted.

That said, it might be possible to work a POD contract into acceptability . . . the two publishers whose contracts I have described might be willing for a writer or property of significant weight to make the kind of changes which would result in an equitable contract. But any writer with that kind of clout, any property with that kind of potential doesn’t need a POD publisher, will never get near POD. Heinlein’s and Asimov’s ancient backlist are happily published mass-market by the conglomerates, I’m sure that POD would offer them equivalent or better terms . . . but why would they need POD? And how could POD possibly meet the expected demand for their backlist?

It couldn’t and in the real world which I—not the Heinlein or Asimov backlists, just your humble servant—occupy, sales of POD books are almost always terrible. You seem to have done well with a couple of yours but they are the exception; I have seen royalty statements, I know these figures and a 20-copy sale of a novel in the first month of publication is regarded as a bestseller by the POD publishers. Writers whose names would be recognizable to three-quarters of those reading this dialogue are receiving semi-annual statements indicating sales of 5 copies. (And for those 5 sales they are yielding half of any money they might receive for a foreign edition.) Even if one could adjust the terms of a contract, the perimeters of POD publishing remain essentially unchanged. A sale of 200 copies of a new novel, 40 copies of a reprint over a six-month period would be exceptional. (The figures are equally dismal for electronic editions but that is another column.)

Everything’s negotiable, sure. But what if there’s nothing to negotiate?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: My experiences are a bit different. Not much. I mean, hell, you don’t go on safari with 1,200 POD sales any more than with 120 or 12.

But, as I said, I do find them useful for non-mass-market works (I prefer that term to “non-commercial,” though there’s not all that much wriggle room between the two) that I wish to sell overseas—and I should add that some of my POD collections have also brought dozens of my less well-known short stories to the attention of Fictionwise.com and others, and hence made me a few hundred dollars here and a few thousand there that I assume I wouldn’t have made otherwise.

So, leaving original novels and hideous unnegotiated contracts behind, can you in summary find no use whatsoever for POD?

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

BARRY: I find (almost) no use for POD. I’m no longer a fan of generalities in the first place, and in the second place I’m aware that a POD publisher or three may be subscribers to this Bulletin and may be reading this exchange and I certainly do not want to cause offense. The SFWA can use all the friends it can get, probably because a good number of its enemies are enrolled members.

But really: what is the point of POD? You’ve made a case for some of your own books, for the kind of projects in which a conventional publisher would have no interest and it is a convincing case . . . for you. You’re an established writer, beyond established, you’re one of the ten or twenty most successful living writers of science fiction; you can engage, like the Pope, in indulgences, and that’s what I take your POD projects to be. Because of your success you’re able to undertake projects and anthologies which won’t really pay but which perhaps deserve to be done for their own sake, would not otherwise be done, and give exposure to a few people. This is laudable but none of it has to do—does it, Mike?—with professional publishing. It has to do, as I’ve said, with indulgences. If you were struggling to build a career—let’s take a look at the Mike Resnick of l984—would you have the time or interest to go this far afield, put in this much time for this kind of compensation?

That is why POD—if I were going to countenance it at all—would only be, paradoxically enough, for those who don’t need it . . . for writers who are economically or professionally free (by achievement or by grim choice) from the rigors of the marketplace. In that sense, I could condone POD publishing in the same way that the professional writers’ journals (I almost want to put quote marks around that one, let’s try it: “professional writers’ journals”) will condone subsidy publishing . . . if you have lots of money, if you’re dying to see your work in print and pass it on to your friends and relatives, if you’re really dying and just want to pass it on to yourself and you don’t mind the expense then go ahead and do it but understand the probable outcome. Similarly, if you’re an eager but unsuccessful aspirant who simply wants some evidence of “publication” no matter how tenuous, and you don’t mind essentially burying your work . . . then POD may be the place for you. And, at the other end, if you’re an aging or aged science fiction writer with a significant body of work but no longer able to sell new books, let alone find reprint offers for the backlist (a situation faced by more than 85% of us now) then POD for a few novels published in the l960s or l970s may not be such a bad deal . . . there are a couple of fresh copies of the book for (as you say) foreign submission and if standards of production of most POD are fairly low, such books can still look better on the shelf than Ace Doubles, copyright l957, or Berkley novels, circa l967.

But be warned—if you’re that hypothetical out-of-print, aging writer, your semi-annual sales will be somewhere in the range of a dozen copies; over l0 years you might sell a hundred and—am I being somewhat perseverant about this?—you’ve given half of the money and the sole and exclusive right to sublicense to the POD publisher. If an Italian or French publisher secretes an overaged fan of your work who wants to bring that l954 Ace Double to a new audience, you’re not only compelled to give half of the advance to the POD publisher . . . you’re compelled to send your eager, overaged fan to negotiate with your POD publisher. You have lost any effective control of your own work; that part of your backlist published POD no longer belongs to you.

As I told writers again and again when acting for the SFWA Grievance so many years ago and as my distinguished predecessor in that post, Joe Haldeman, had even more eloquently told some complainants . . . there are worse things than being not published. Many worse things. And I don’t even think of POD as “publication.”

You obviously disagree but it is this disagreement—hi there, Mr. Ebert—which renders these dialogues so lovable.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

MIKE: Hi right back at you, Mr. Siskel. No, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, provided the conditions are those you’ve laid out. But as I’ve pointed out here and in so many other forums, the most useful word in publishing is “No.” Say it and you’d be surprised at the concessions that are made. No established writer—and by “established,” let’s hypothesize a writer whose name is not totally unknown to the non-sf-fandom reader—has to give away 50% of anything. All he has to do is say “No!”, and you’d be surprised how quickly a POD publisher will decide that selling a couple of hundred extra copies of his reprint novel is more desirable than earning 50% of nothing, which is what he’s likely to get hawking reprint/foreign rights of a first novelist who came to him because he couldn’t crack the mass market.

And, whether it’s charity work, or a desire to make a few hundred copies of an old non-bestseller available to his current fans, or a need to have a current edition to show to foreign editors, once that “No!” is firmly said and properly responded to, there are some reasons to consider POD.

But, I fully agree, never as a primary source of income.

• • • ● ● ▼ ● ● • • •

About my counterpart: Barry N. Malzberg‘s Beyond Apollo was in 1973 the winner of the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year; he twice won the LOCUS Award for nonfiction books of critical history and commentary on science fiction. Several short works have been final-listed for the Nebula and Hugo and Engines of the Night and Breakfast in the Ruins, the nonfiction works, were on the Hugo final ballot for Best Related Nonfiction as is his collaborative book with Mike Resnick, The Business of Science Fiction. He was sole judge of the 1980 Writers Digest Short Story Contest.

About Mike

According to Locus, I am the all-time leading award winner, living or dead, for short fiction. I have won 5 Hugos (from a record 37 nominations), a Nebula, and other major awards in the USA, France, Japan, Spain, Croatia, Catalonia, and Poland. I'm and author of 74 novels, over 260 stories, and 3 screenplays, and the editor of 42 anthologies. My work has been translated into 27 languages. I am currently the editor of the Stellar Guild line of books, and Galaxy's Edge magazine.
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