Print-on-Demand: The Ugly



This post is the third and final installment of my series on print-on-demand publishing. So far, I’ve covered the pros and cons of POD for serious writers, but now I’m going to dive down and tickle the dirty underbelly of the beast.

Not everyone can write. There, I said it. Sure, anyone can write a cute note to their loved one in a Valentine’s card, and plenty of people can write a good English paper, but writing fiction and poetry is an art form. As with any art form, everyone can try it out, but not everyone can do it well. I like to do paint by numbers (yeah, not sure I should have admitted that on the internet), but I would never call myself a painter. I even have some natural drawing talent inherited from my father, but I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I can draw from example only, copying from a movie cover or a picture, but I can’t draw straight from my head for the life of me.

The biggest problem with POD publishing is that it provides an incredibly easy outlet for anyone to publish their first attempt. Before POD, sure, anyone could try to write a book, but that book couldn’t see the light of day unless it went through a rigorous process of submitting and editing. The writer who just wrote in the name of boredom would likely not bother to put in the effort required for submission, and even if they did, amateurish attempts were sent packing by the publishing house staff. Now a writer can get instant validation through POD, and it’s creating a dark cloud that hangs over real writers, threatening to strike them with lightening at any moment.

The Damage Caused by POD:

The stigma surrounding POD stems directly from the fact that, through it, everyone and their mother can be a published author with a real hard copy book. True, the writing community is very, very wary of POD (often to the point of unfairness), but someone who isn’t a real writer doesn’t give a crap what the writing community thinks. They just like to tell their buddies they’re a published author. Those friends look at each other and then to their friend who’s never written anything longer than a text of his own volition before now and say, “Jimmy John wrote a book? Damn, how hard can it be?” Okay, maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration. For someone to actually complete a book, they probably have to have at least a little enjoyment for writing and have experimented with it before. However, I have seen some books that could very well combat that idea. There are some books out there that beg the question, “Does this ‘author’ even read?” Honestly, some of them are so bad that the person can’t possibly be a real reader. If they were, surely they would have looked at what they had written and realized it was utter crap compared to everything else they’d ever read. But Jimmy John’s friends probably aren’t big readers either, so they probably don’t read the book, or if they do, they don’t have many references to compare it to. So Jimmy John is an author. How hard can it be?

It spreads beyond Jimmy John’s friends, too. Many casual readers don’t know much, if anything, about the publishing business. To them, a hard copy book is the real deal. A book is a book, and anyone with a book is an author. So, they are mildly intrigued by the book description on Amazon and purchase Jimmy John’s book because it’s a bargain. Then they read it and after one chapter (or even one page) go, “Good grief, this garbage got published?” This reader will now be far more wary of cheap books on Amazon, and it may drive her away from a POD book by a very talented but as of yet undiscovered author.

Worse still, she may purchase a book by Fiona. Fiona is another “author” who woke up one morning, remembered that one story she wrote in grade school that everybody loved and praised her for, and said, “Hey, why haven’t I pursued writing a book yet? I’m not doing anything today.” Fiona has a smidge of natural talent, but she hasn’t done anything to hone it. That’s far more dangerous. She comes up with an idea and sets to work. Her plot is intriguing, but her characters are lifeless because she’s never written dialogue before. It’s clunky and cliched. There’s little to no character development and the narration is lackluster, but it isn’t a complete steaming pile of poo on a hot, humid day like Jimmy John’s.

Our casual reader purchases Fiona’s book, and gets all the way through it. The reader kept going because there was something there she wanted to hang onto. She wasn’t totally engaged, but she wanted to see how it ended. The plot was interesting … but it fell flat at the end. The protagonist had the potential to be endearing … but she ended up being a bit dull. The villain had the potential to be frightening and highly dangerous … but he ended up being just a nuisance who was easily defeated. The writing itself was just ordinary, like your slightly boring friend telling you about how their family barbecue went last weekend. Too much exposition and not enough depth. The exciting parts ended way too fast and there were some plot holes. Fiona only has a vague idea of what makes a story good. She likes to read at the beach, but it’s not her favorite past time. Without POD, she probably would have still written the book because she’s adventurous and likes trying new things, but she wouldn’t have ever been able to get it published, at least not in the form it was in when she first typed THE END. Now with POD, she can. Our casual reader gets through her book and goes “Meh. Not bad, but wouldn’t recommend it.”

A little while down the road, our casual reader has an odd dream that she thinks would make a good book. She wrote a few short stories as an assignment in high school or college. She could do it, right? The danger doesn’t come from this casual reader wanting to write a book. That’s great. She ought to try and see if she likes it. But because she read Fiona’s book, she thinks, “How hard can it be? That book wasn’t even that good and it got published. I could write something like that.” The casual reader’s/would-be writer’s expectations of the quality standard she must reach are now lowered significantly. She doesn’t have to write like Stephen King or Dean Koontz; she just has to write as good as Fiona, and she can be a real author. That’s the biggest danger of POD. Publishing your first attempt at writing is only slightly harder than publishing a Facebook post or a Tweet, once you have it written down. So, even if a writer has some potential, he or she doesn’t take the time to hone his or her craft and turn those words into art. That writer just publishes because he or she has no idea what serious publishing or serious writing entails.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to mediocre and truly awful attempts being published daily through POD programs, the idea of “How hard can this be?” sticks and spreads, and it grossly undermines the talent of real writers. POD has the potential to be a beautiful thing where artists can both share their art easily and get paid for it. However, its greatest strength is also its greatest flaw. It’s built to be easy and pain free. Great! If only truly talented writers use it. Yeah, right. This is the age of the internet. Anyone can say and do anything they want online, even publish a book.

If you’re a serious writer thinking of using POD, please, use it correctly. Think of it as traditional publishing minus the politics of submission and the drawn out printing and distributing process. That still leaves rigorous editing, implementing feedback, getting a stellar cover design, marketing the product, and actually giving it your all. Don’t let the ease of POD lure you into laziness. The real tragedy is when a talented author with the potential for greatness allows the very platform that could launch them to greatness to become a crutch that delivers a subpar product.


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