The great American DIY novel

Print-on-demand technology makes it possible for everyone to publish a book—but maybe some people shouldn’t

Photo Illustration by Larry Dalton and Marianne Mancina

Every garage band with high hopes has a self-produced CD to promote gigs and build a fan base. Filmmakers have learned to green-light their own projects, using digital cameras and financing by Visa to get their work seen at festivals and by studio bigwigs. It’s expected that new artists in most mediums will produce their own first works. But tell someone you’ve self-published your first novel, and the reaction is a bit different.

Vincent M. Wales, a local author and self-publisher, understands that stigma. “You do a self-produced book, and people’s minds go, ‘Oh, he wasn’t good enough to get picked up by a major publisher.’” But there are a lot of reasons for self-publishing, and the advent of print-on-demand (POD) technology makes it easier than ever to do.

A POD service produces only as many copies of a book as are needed at any given time—essentially, a book is printed only when it’s purchased. Hence, there’s no need for a warehouse to store the books, and the up-front costs are significantly lower.

POD has other advantages. Some authors and traditional publishing houses are beginning to use the technology to keep their old titles available for purchase, ending the problem of out-of-print books. And sometimes publishers will use POD for advance review copies and galley proofs.

But there’s a difference between the POD printing technology—which has many uses—and POD publishing. In recent years, a number of companies have begun to offer POD publishing services to authors who want to see their books in print but haven’t been able to interest a traditional publishing house in their work. These writers often turn to companies with names like AuthorHouse, iUniverse and Xlibris to publish their books for them. For a fee, which varies depending on the level of marketing, editing and other services the author selects, POD publishers will set up the book and print copies as they are ordered.

Wales, who published his first novel with AuthorHouse, makes a distinction between using a POD publisher and self-publishing. “The basic difference,” he said, “is that when you use a company like AuthorHouse or iUniverse, they are the publisher. That means they own the ISBN [International Standard Book Number], and all payments for the book get channeled through them.” But because the author has paid for the publication, and the company has no input into content other than banning obscenity or pornography, according to Wales, “those companies are vanity presses.”

“They’ll set you up,” he said, “but they don’t have any sort of criteria for what’s going to be published and what isn’t.” Wales initially went with AuthorHouse (which was called 1stBooks at the time) because he’d had difficulty finding an agent or publisher for his first book, a rather epic fantasy novel. It runs more than 600 pages—more than 300,000 words—in length.

“I was told in no uncertain terms that a book of that length by a first-time author didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting read by a publisher,” Wales said. Frustrated, he decided to give POD a try, because he didn’t have the financial means to do a self-published print run with a traditional printer. “But I was a real neophyte,” Wales said. “As they say, if I knew then what I know now, I certainly wouldn’t have done it that way.”

Although Wales acknowledges that most POD publishers have good royalty arrangements, that doesn’t make up for their shortcomings. First, there are high production costs. Because the book was so large, wholesale costs meant that the cover price for Wales’ book was $20. “Unfortunately, when it comes to fiction, people generally aren’t interested in paying that much for a paperback book—even a good one,” he said. There also were limitations on cover and design that bothered him.

Wales was so dissatisfied with the POD publisher that he used for his first novel that he founded his own publishing company, DGC Press, to publish his second novel. One Nation Under God is a dystopian tale of a future American theocracy seen through the eyes of the daughter of the right-wing Christian president of the United States, who is questioning both her religious beliefs and her sexual identity. Wales takes the oldest novel form, the epistolary, and gives it a thoroughly post-modern twist by using Web pages in addition to letters, diary entries and news accounts to tell the story. Published last December, the book received top awards from the Northern California Publishers and Authors association in both the general-fiction and young-adult-fiction categories this spring.

K.G. Caddzanoff, author of That Which is Sown, likes her POD publisher, Infinity Publishing, for some of the same reasons that Wales was dissatisfied with his. A Sacramento resident and state employee, Caddzanoff published her first book—a fantasy novel featuring a magic-wielding priestess, armed warriors, elves, a vampire and an original creature with the characteristics of both a dragon and a cat—this spring.

“I get to keep control,” Caddzanoff said of her POD publishing experience. Her main complaint with traditional publishers is that they are “more interested in marketing than in writing.” She continued, “They’re on a journey to make money, and I’m on a journey to perfect my writing.”

The main drawback, from her point of view, is the difficulty of getting the book in stores. “The return policy makes a big difference,” Caddzanoff said, referring to the fact that, unlike traditional publishers, POD publishers will not take back unsold books. The books must be purchased up front. “Bookstores are reluctant to take books and display them if they can’t return the unsold books,” she said.

Of course, most bookstores will be happy to special-order POD books for their customers; the problem is that the customer has to know about the book in order to ask for it. While POD publishers are quick to tout the success stories—The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, for instance, started out as a POD book before being sold to a traditional publisher—the reality is that, like self-publishers, authors who go with a POD publisher have to take on most of the marketing and publicity work to get their books sold. Some POD publishers offer publicity and marketing packages to authors at an additional cost, but, as Caddzanoff attested, “Most of it is your own work. I’ve been out on the Internet, using my Web page.”

Gregory Blecha, a local software designer whose first novel, Love in the Time of the Apocalypse, was published by iUniverse, also is looking for ways to push his book. “iUniverse has a Web site that no one goes to, as far as I know, and bookstores don’t carry them,” he said. “I’m going to start working with a publicist, which I hope will help.”

Blecha took advantage of the editorial process offered—for an extra fee—by iUniverse. “The reviewer brought out that Brian, my main character and narrator, was unbelievably non-introspective. And so, I developed his inner life a bit more,” said Blecha.

The review paid off. Blecha’s novel is a delightful, genre-busting look at an apocalyptic United States where the federal government has defaulted on the national debt, the Amish are running casinos in Las Vegas, eco-terrorists are bombing landmarks like the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, and poor Brian is dodging all kinds of armed wackos as he tries to get back to his girlfriend.

Love in the Time of the Apocalypse, like Wales’ first novel, was rejected by several agents. According to Blecha, “The reaction was that it wasn’t marketable. In spite of the title, it’s not going to appeal to the people who are reading ‘end times’ novels.” Blecha’s book is certainly no Left Behind clone. Rather, it’s a philosophical look at emotional life during the end of the world. It is apocalyptic, but more in the style of Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon than that of Tim LaHaye.

While the accessibility of POD publishing makes it at least possible for interesting books like these to find their audiences, it also has created a wave of what can only be described as vanity publications. Many would-be authors decline to use the editing services offered by POD publishers—either because it costs extra or because they think, wrongly, that editing isn’t necessary. Without the agents and editors of the traditional publishing system to weed out the unprepared and unworthy, some really bad books are out there. Unfortunately, they often look just like the good ones.

Sherman D. Manning, an inmate at Mule Creek State Prison, has deluged the editors at SN&R with press releases and review copies of his book, Creating Monsters: A Touch of Evil—The Making of the Monsters. This self-proclaimed “Best-Selling Author” has published a couple of books using POD publishers. The problem is that, although Manning has a story to tell, without an editor, a copy editor and a proofreader, it’s almost unreadable.

With little in the way of organization, Manning jumps from topic to topic. For instance, he stops in the middle of a description of what life inside the prison is like for younger offenders to insert “Just in!!! The Federal Court of Appeals has granted Kevin Cooper a stay of execution!!!” Then he goes on to list everyone from Jesse Jackson to “the people who protested in front of the governor’s house” as responsible for the stay before turning his attention to why everyone needs to read his book. Lost altogether is the original—and interesting—story of the adjustments and abuse 18-year-old offenders face in prison.

And this isn’t the only example of a book that needs more than just to be published. Even Blecha, who’s satisfied with his POD experience, noted that “there are some of the iUniverse books that have problems. You’ll start reading a bit, and there are things like subject-verb disagreement and other grammatical problems, and you just can’t stand to go on.”

Wales echoed that sentiment. “There are some of these books that are garbage, just trash. I’ve had the misfortune of reading a few.” But there are also a lot of good books that are published this way, he noted. “And how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? It’s a hard process.”

POD technology gives readers a chance to engage in that process. Since the publishing industry has become so difficult for new authors to break into, at least POD publishers give writers a means to get their books before an audience, however small, and build from there. There’s something inherently democratic about the ability to publish without constraint.

Of course, finding that readership is another matter altogether, as Caddzanoff noted. “I know it’s going to be a long road,” she said. “I’m not quitting my day job.”