This is a difficult question with no absolute answers. Traditional wisdom dictates that you should never have to pay to get published, recent developments indicate that never may be too strong a word. What are the advantages and the disadvantages of a publisher that charges a setup fee and one that doesn't if they both use POD technology?
All too often the question comes down to what kind of contracts the different publishers have to offer, what kind of royalties they pay, and what's your best bet in the long run (and keep in mind that there will be some generalizations here).
The obvious advantages of a publisher that does not charge a setup fee is not only the fact that you don't have to pay, but also the fact that, at least according to that traditional wisdom, it is a more respectable option. Being published by a publisher that does not charge a fee gives you the confidence that your book was chosen because of its merits.
The disadvantages are not quite so obvious at first sight, but they become apparent when you look at the advantages of some fee charging publishers.
One thing that is true for most, but not all, fee charging POD publishers is the fact that they offer a non exclusive contract, and they usually give you a chance to terminate this contract by giving them a determined previous notice (from one to three months in most instances). A contract such as this is extremely rare among non-fee charging publishers, this means that, if you get a better offer somewhere down the road you will have no way of taking it, your original choice is final.
The other thing is that, for the most part, fee charging POD publishers offer higher royalties than their non fee charging counterparts, however there are some striking differences in the royalties payed by the different publishers (regardless of whether or not they charge a fee), so no matter which way you go, you should really do some serious comparison shopping before you sign a contract (something that is a lot easier to do when you don't have to wait for your manuscript to be approved before you are allowed to even see the contract you are expected to sign, or when you don't have a publisher breathing down your neck to get you to sign up).
Now, moving on to the next issue: the most obvious down side of paying a fee is the fact that any book by a fee charging publisher is automatically labeled as a vanity press release. Unfortunately it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that the absence of a fee is far less relevant (for the time being, at least) then you would expect it to be. A number of independent bookstores, and most major bookstore chains, refuse to carry POD published books and insist that they only deal with "real" publishers. There are four main reasons that account for this:
- POD publishers, whether they charge a fee or not, often don't accept book returns. This is a policy that is standard with traditional publishers, since they work mostly through a consignment system (the bookstore doesn't pay for the book until it's sold. All unsold and damaged copies are returned to their rightful owner, namely the publisher). This system is, almost by definition incompatible with POD technology, where no books are printed unless they have been sold beforehand.
- Because the printing cost for POD published books is a lot higher than that of traditionally printed ones, a number of publishers offer bookstores a discount that is significantly lower than the industry's standard in order to offer a competitive retail price to the reader.
- The vanity press stigma is, for the most part, attached to the technology itself (with the exception of major publishers using it to keep their back catalogue available to new readers).
- And finally the fact that brick and mortar bookstores have limited shelves, and every book by an unknown author takes up part of that space (and this problem affects all small presses, POD and traditional alike). For the most part they would much rather stock a book that is likely to sell within a week than a work that might sell within six months. And this is also the main reason why they avoid "vanity press releases" like the plague.
Unfortunately solving some of these problems does not accomplish much, and there is little you can do about the third one and even less you can do about the fourth one.
As far as the different publishers' support when it comes to book promotion, the fact is that there is not that much difference between what you can expect from a fee charging publisher and a small press with limited resources. Realistically speaking, in the current media giant dominated market small presses just can't compete. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of literary critics won't even look at a POD published book and the advantages of not having a fee are almost totally wiped out.
And then you have to be very careful with the fine print that may be lurking in the contract you are offered. It is important to keep in mind that this does not apply to all non fee charging publishers (nor are all fee charging publishers exempt), but it is widespread enough to be a problem that you should keep in mind.
An example of that fine print would be the following: I have encountered contracts that have clauses that state that the author is to receive no royalties at all until a certain number of copies has been sold to enable the publisher to recover it's costs. So if the author is to receive no royalties for, say, the first 500 copies, and the royalties per copy are $3.00, then, even though there is no front payment, that author would in fact end up paying a hidden fee of $1,500.00. This is just one example of how some publishers get quite creative when writing their contracts.
This particular problem is compounded, for the most part, by the fact that authors can't usually examine the contract of non fee charging publishers beforehand, and they are often more reluctant to ask those questions they feel could compromise the deal when they are not expected to pay, or when they are made to feel that they are being offered a wonderful, once in a lifetime, opportunity they simply can't afford to lose.
Another tricky problem can be identifying a non fee charging POD publisher as such, simply because a number of them are not exactly eagerly advertising the fact that they use this technology (though that does not mean they are exempt of the problems mentioned above). My advice here would be that, rather than asking them if they use POD technology, you should ask them what kind of print-runs they do, and whether or not these are specified in their contract.
I'm not implying here that all POD fee charging publishers are good and all non fee charging publishers are bad. No matter which way you decide to go you should read your contract very carefully before you sign anything, think of what you give up, as far as your rights, and of what you get in return, and don't let prejudice blind you either way.
As far as the respect you would get as an author, I would definitely say that vanity press giants, such as Xlibris and iUniverse are probably a bad idea, since they are easily identified, but I believe that a small, fee charging publisher, with a moderate fee, that screens manuscripts is a good compromise between these extremes.