Print-on- Demand (POD) is a new printing technology that enables publishers, and therefore authors, to print one book at a time. This technology is already having a noticeable impact on the industry, and like anything that threatens to cause major changes in a well established process, it is praised, feared and loathed at the same time. What does the future hold for this technology? No one really knows. But lets take a step back in order to place it within its appropriate context.
First we must try to understand the way in which the publishing industry has always conducted its business. Traditionally books had to be printed in large runs of more than a 1,000 copies, this represented a major investment and it involved a considerable risk, since publishers could only pray that those books would sell. To the cost of printing those books, it was necessary to add the cost of warehousing them for months and probably years, and a multi-level distribution system that often caused shipping costs to skyrocket. Under those circumstances it was only natural for publishers to become extremely reluctant to take chances by publishing new books by young writers. However, this situation was compensated by the fact that many publishing houses were reasonably small businesses which were, in a sense, a labour of love where books could be considered on a case by case basis. Under those circumstances, profits could be compromised occasionally on behalf of art. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, many of those small businesses merged with large multinational corporations where profits are not the top priority... they are the only one. These mergers closed too many doors for young writers, as a new figure became all-powerful: that of the literary agent.
In theory, the role of the agent was to look for new talents and then to promote those new talents by introducing them to publishers, but somewhere down the line things changed. Large publishers closed their doors to those authors who were not being represented by an agent, but in time agents also closed their doors to new writers, simply because working with established authors was easier and more profitable, and thus a Catch-22 was born: you cannot get published without an agent, and you cannot get an agent unless you have been published. There remained however, one last door open for those new writers who could afford it: they could publish themselves, and an author had two possible ways of achieving this goal. The first one was to truly self-publish, this meant learning about every single aspect of book production and becoming, in a sense, a one man publishing house. The second alternative was a "vanity press", which meant paying someone else to do the grunt work. In both cases the author was more than likely to find himself with a basement full of unwanted books that could only be given away to friends and family, because neither self-published authors, nor vanity presses, had any real means of distributing and marketing those books. There was one difference, however, between self-published authors and those who chose to go through a vanity press: self-published authors were regarded with some respect, while those who chose a vanity press were held in contempt.
After this rather lengthy introduction, lets get on with the role of POD. The possibility of printing books one at a time has changed many aspects of this equation. The most obvious change is that large print runs are no longer necessary, so the risks and costs associated with publishing a book have become almost non-existent. Unfortunately there is a very profitable, and powerful, industry built around the exclusion of newcomers, so publishers find it difficult to change their old ways. In other words, publishers still demand the mediation of an agent before they will even consider a new book. The fact that large print runs are no longer necessary has also created a shady area when it comes to the definition of "out-of print", since traditionally, when a book went "out-of-print" all print rights reverted to the author. This has caused some established authors to mistrust or even oppose this new technology, because it could keep them from recovering those rights. In light of the strong opposition from two major interest groups within the industry, major publishers have turned away from this technology. In spite of that important rejection, the technology was there, and another group found a way to put it to good use: POD became an affordable alternative for those authors who had previously been cornered into either self-publishing or a vanity press. In addition to this, virtual, on-line bookstores provided these new publishers with the thing that had been denied to them in the traditional system: an effective distribution network. As things stand at the time of this writing, it is possible to publish any book by paying a couple of hundred dollars, but there is no quality control whatsoever. In the past the doors were shut tight, now they are wide open, and both situations present some serious potential complications. With the flood of books brought on by POD publishers, finding a good book may be like looking for a needle in a haystack, however before that happened sometimes it was possible to go through the whole haystack only to discover that the needle wasn't even there.
POD publishers can be divided roughly into two groups: there are fee-charging and non-fee-charging publishers. In theory a small non-fee-charging publisher using POD technology should have given the author more credibility, but unfortunately the technology is too closely associated with a few giants of the vanity press, so there is no real way to escape the "vanity press stigma" (regardless of whether or not the author is paying a fee to get published), and the truth is that the deals of fee-charging publishers are often better for the author.
Since POD technology has been cornered mostly into the vanity press market, authors choosing this route are being confronted by a series of obstacles that were instituted to protect traditional publishers. Among the most noticeable ones are the fact that major, "established" publications are not willing to even consider reviewing a POD published book, regardless of its merit, because they assume that, by reason of the means used to make it available to the public, that particular book lacks all value and is unworthy of their time. Another significant problem is that many traditional bookstores will refuse to sell POD published books, even when they have customers asking for them, this situation is compounded by the way in which POD publishers do business, since those publishers, almost by definition, do not accept book returns.
In other words, POD-published books are often forced to compete at a disadvantage in a market that was not designed for them, they meet with a very strong opposition from a powerful and established industry, and they also have to contend with the problem created by the absence of any sort of quality control in most major POD publishers.
This is the situation that must be considered by an author who is thinking of turning to POD in order to publish. There are, however, some important advantages that shouldn't be neglected either. It is a fast and inexpensive process, writers remain in control of their own books, royalties per book are several times more than those paid by traditional publishers, there is no middleman between the author and the publisher (in fact, the role of the publisher is reduced to such an extent that there is virtually no middleman between the author and the reader), and finally, depending on the publisher, the author may even have the freedom to terminate any agreement in a matter of months, should a problem arise.
The roles and the relationship of POD and traditional publishing are still evolving. They are far from being defined, and they are being influenced by other interest groups, such as established authors, publications and agents. The one thing that is certain, however, is that the technology is already here, and not only that, it is moving forward fast, so sooner or later those groups that are currently fighting it will have no choice but to accept it as a fact, what remains to be seen is what kind of a compromise will be reached by traditional and POD printing technologies.