Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Invasion of the POD people

Twice in the last week I have been asked for advice about publishing. Normally, I will oblige and try to be as encouraging as I can given my somewhat wary attitude. (i.e. This is not a business for sissies, the thin-skinned or people who still play old LPs of Janis Ian's song Seventeen

But these two poor souls were asking my advice about self-publishing. Or as it was known in my salad days, vanity press. Now, let's get our terms straight first. POD (print on demand) is NOT the same as self-publishing, though we all tend to use POD as a shorthand for what is now vanity press operations. POD is only the technology that makes self-publishing possible. So I guess we should be using SP here for the process by which any monkey with an IMAC can publish his memoirs.

That last sentence should give you a hint about where I line up on the self-publishing debate. I can hear the grumbles out there: Well, of course she thinks SP is a scam...she's already made her big bucks and didn't get enough rejection slips to paper a john. Wrongo, pulp-breath. I am neither rich or famous...or without rejection slips. I still get 'em on occasion.

So why do I hate POD and SP so much? I hate the way they prey on dreamers. I hate that they overinflate expectations. But what I really hate is that they make it possible for people to think there are shortcuts, ways of circumventing the craft, hard work and legitimate editorial process of becoming a writer. Becoming...that's the key word here folks. Like way Tiger Woods became a great golfer. The way Renata Scotto became a great soprano. The way your Uncle Morty became a doctor. Or the way your mom became a great cook.

Here is what set me off:

At a Mystery Writers of America meeting, a woman asked, "Should I go POD?" I drew in a long breath so I wouldn't start screaming and spewing spittle. Then I asked her: "Do you want to publish a book or do you want to have a career as a writer?" She looked at me like I was nuts and said, "Well, the latter, of course!" So I told her: "Then do your homework, learn the craft of writing, educate yourself about the market place and your genre, submit your manuscript, get rejected, rewrite, rewrite again, throw out a book and start over, do it all over again and again and again until you are a legitimately published writer."

Wash, rinse and repeat. She walked away. She didn't want to hear it.

The second question came a couple days later. The guy had already PODed his book. And now he was asking me how to "promote and publicize it" and "get it into Barnes & Noble." I didn't tell him the truth, that he had almost no chance. I just didn't have the energy. And you know what? He wasn't going to listen to me anyway.

So what I did was direct him to two websites about PODs and self-publishing. These people can preach the gospel much better than I can.

Writers Beware . This is a site run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It is chockful of great practical advice about agents, PODs, self-publishing and scams. I can't recommend it enough.

The second site is POD-Dy Mouth . This published author brings some balance to the POD debate by offering great advice and warnings but also with her reviews of those rare POD books that deserve notice.

In her words: "So, why am I here? To tell you about an entire world of books we are all missing: self-published titles -— specifically, POD titles. For those who do not know, about four years ago the self-publishing world took an awkward and potentially regrettable turn: Publishing on Demand. This means anyone with a word processor and a few hundred bucks can create a book that can be distributed on Amazon, and various other online venues without having to pre-print a single book (at an inflated price—about $3 to $5 more per trade paperback.) As a result, however, the world has seen an influx of some of the absolute worst writing known to mankind....

[BUT SHE ADDS]..."There are some good books in there. But it’s like trying to see a constellation through a cloudy sky. There is just so much crap in the way. Well, that’s why I’m here. We’re going to find the good ones."

I beg you. Go read these sites. Before your soul is sucked dry by the POD people.


Anonymous Mark Terry said...

Generally speaking I stay out of the self-published, POD debate. But, well, you ladies are only trying to provide a service. However, I imagine, as you said, you can be accused of having a career, so what do you know?

Okay. My experiences with self-publishing. 5-6 years back, I had a book contract with Write Way, a small press in Colorado, for "Blood Secrets," a novel featuring Dr. Theo MacGreggor, a toxicologist. As part of my promotional efforts--given a long lag time 'til publication--I decided to put together a website and serialized a 12-chapter novella prequel to Secrets called "Name Your Poison." So I wrote Poison, got the website going, started the serialization and promotion. It more or less coincided with Stephen King's "The PLant" and "Riding the Bullet," so I got some media attention and a fair amount of hits on the site. Then Write Way went bankrupt and canceled my contract (I was lucky; people who's books had actually gotten published by them really had a hassle trying to get royalties owed them and rights released). Right around that time Mystery Writers of America announced a 6-month deal with iUniverse (a self-publishing entity that uses POD technology). For those 6 months they would publish or re-print a title for NOTHING, zero dollars. Okay, what the hell. Any port in a storm and it's not like there's a huge market for novellas. So I cranked out a second novella, also a prequel to Secrets, but after Poison, and had a book published by iUniverse and it cost me no money. The book, "Catfish Guru," is a nice book, great cover art and sold, I don't know, 100, or 200 copies with me doing all the selling. Book stores will carry it if people order it, but they don't want to. Why? Well, editorial is one rationale, being that booksellers don't trust that you're a good writer if you come from POD, although a bigger issue--Hey, it's a business, remember? If they had to sell shit on tinfoil and call it a book, they probably would if people wanted to buy it--a bigger issue is that iUniverse does not have a returns policy. They also do not offer booksellers a standard retail discount. Which essentially means if they don't sell them they're stuck with them, and even if they do sell them, they don't have a large enough profit margin.

iUniverse books are also overpriced, in my opinion, Catfish Guru going for $17.95. I gave a talk to a bunch of writers about publishing and they were great guns about iUniverse, which when it's not free like I had it, only charges a hundred bucks or so to publish.

Does it make you an author? Hmmm. Better define author. Will you sell books? A few, but it'll be backbreaking work. If your goal is to have a book on your shelf that you wrote and to sell to family and friends, hey, take this route. If you want a career as a writer, then this is absolutely not the way to go.

Happily, my next book, "Dirty Deeds" was published by a legitimate small press. Their editing process was eye-opening at High Country, I had a good relationship with them, and the book is well produced, though distribution is a major problem with small presses. I decided not to go with them for the follow-up and my agent is shopping it to the NY publishers now.

In the meantime, I also recently signed a 2-book contract with Midnight Ink/Llewellyn Worldwide for a pair of thrillers, "The Devil's Pitchfork" and "The Serpent's Kiss." I received advances for both of them. They have a marketing department. They have publicists. They have distribution, regular discounts, etc.

Would I go through iUniverse again and publish some of those other manuscripts on my shelf? Only if I gave up on a writing career (I have one, I'm a fulltime freelance writer) and just wanted those books in book form for my retirement or my grandchildren. Can you get ripped off by a self-publisher? Yes.

Look. Something like 195,000 books published in the U.S. every year. 1900 or so are mysteries or crime novels or thrillers. This is a seriously competitive business. If you think of it as a race, with a major or legitimate publisher, you probably start at the same starting line as everyone else. A few huge advances, etc. for a lucky few, get some sort of head start, though they have very high expectations to carry on their shoulders, too. If you're published by a small press, you're probably starting the race about a half a mile from the starting line. Sure you can catch up, but you're going to have to work awfully hard and be awfully lucky and I wouldn't bet money on your chances. If you're self-publishing--you want honest? I'm not even sure you're in the race. And if you are, you're so far from the starting line you'll be lucky to reach it before the race is over for everybody else.

Don't self-pubish unless you're writing nonfiction about manufacturing T-shirts or wicker baskets. If you're a novelist, don't self-publish. Learn the craft. Learn how to get an agent. Be persistent.

Don't like this from me either? Oh well. I won't post here or anywhere else on the subject again. Most aspiring writers don't listen to good advice anyway.

Ladies, thank you for the indulgence. I've taken up far too much of your bandwidth.

Mark Terry

3:42 PM  
Anonymous --john-- said...

People that won't/can't discern the difference between printing and publishing should sign-up for the flat-earth society. And hey, if you two can be the Olsen twins can I be Robert Crais?
Disclaimer* This post is a side effect of the canned pork brains in milksauce incident that occured on a trip from Michigan to Ga. If you don't remember it from the Hardboiled board feel free to blame it on wine; or the mind altering fumes from Post-It-Notes.
And Mark,I enjoy your blog,no matter what p.o.v. I'm writing from.

9:40 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

I'm glad you wrote to give your experience Mark. It shows that self-publishing can bring some results if the writer is willing to work like a dog to make things happen. That's why I directed readers to POD-Dy's site for a more positive view. And I think POD has the potential to save a lot of good backlist books. My complaint with it, however, is that some of these SP businesses really do prey on people. As for small presses, they may be the only way fiction will survive the mega-bestseller mentality. We can only hope...

3:24 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well I'm the reason Pod-dy has no comments now. I kept reciting the points you made just now on a weekly basis. I was swarmed by POD people. I still am. I don't agree with Mark either. But then if I made 50K freelance writing as he claims I wouldn't worry about my publishers being small. My iU book is reasonalbly priced it's just that a POD book at any price is worthless. That's the take home message in this so-called debate. Jenna Glatzer banned me for saying that, to give you an idea of how shallow thses waters run.

Nice work.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Violet Strange said...

At least the self-publishing world is less dangerous for the unwary than the indie film world. People spend six figures on a work that will never get farther distribution than their own TV.

The only people I know who have found any level of satisfaction from self-publishing/POD are those who have successfully run businesses. They are realistic about the nature of a niche market, serve to fill it, and are happy that their work is finding any audience at all.

8:47 PM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

Here's my experience with POD. I was slack-jawed by the end.

11:10 PM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...


Damn! I really wanted to read more about Gerry the Gimp Indian! Listen, that offer to ghostwrite my hen lit book is still open. I'm thinking of setting it in Paris so I can write off my trip. She's an old menopausal broad like me who falls for a young French cop (they call them "flics" over there). I am sure you can be appropriately un-PC and undoubtedly hilarious. I've enclosed a SASE for your response.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Lee Goldberg said...

PJ -- Check out what you've started!

12:13 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

y'all have an excellent blog. Thank you for sharing so much information about the field and the craft.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Skylar said...

POD was a satisfying experience for me, but I know I am the exception to the rule. I had a work of literary fiction targeted to a specific niche audience. I made back my initial outlay in about three months, and I continue to sell copies and profit regularly--I am now nearing the 1,000 mark. Because of the high royalties associated with some PODs, I have made more money than I would have made with a small press--if I had sold the same number of copies. (But the question is--would I have sold more? Probably.)

I have not spent any money to promote my book, and I haven’t made very many efforts to promote it either; it just happens to have a ready audience and to be one of the better books written for that audience, and that was all I needed.

Would I do it again? Maybe. I will certainly try to query traditional publishers first for my second novel in this genre, but if I sense an impasse after some investment of time, I may POD publish again because I know the market is there and that I will not lose money.

Would I recommend it for other writers of fiction? Only in very rare cases. But I do believe POD has its place, and that if used with discretion (and full knowledge of the limitations), it can be beneficial to some authors in some circumstances. Most, however, will suffer disappointment.

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Stephen said...

So why do I hate POD and SP so much? I hate the way they prey on dreamers. I hate that they overinflate expectations.

Hey, I work for a POD company and I am in utter agreement on this piece of your critique. The company I work for has tried to eliminate the BS and to focus instead on making POD technology available to the broadest number of people. But the world of self-publishing is swimming in BS. Some of it even floats into our office now and then.

But what I really hate is that they make it possible for people to think there are shortcuts, ways of circumventing the craft, hard work and legitimate editorial process of becoming a writer. Becoming...that's the key word here folks.

Ok, here I have to take issue with your vitriol (even though you temper it in your later comments). It is a mistake to confuse the business of publishing too much with the art of writing. There are no shortcuts to becoming a great writer--but that's not really what we're talking about when we talk about the publishing business, is it? Publishing is about money, plain and simple. That's true even though the business is peopled with book lovers and devotees of the craft of writing. I think it's a mistake to romanticize too much the role that publishers play in the market for books.

10:35 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

First off, sorry I am late in replying to recent comments here. Got knocked around by Katrina down here but am back on line today.

So thanks to Skylar, Mark and Stephen for keeping the POD debate lively.

I wanted to reply to something Stephen said: "It is a mistake to confuse the business of publishing too much with the art of writing. There are no shortcuts to becoming a great writer--but that's not really what we're talking about when we talk about the publishing business, is it?"

Actually, it is. Stephen was questioning what I said about self-publishing making it possible for people to circumvent the hard process of learning one's craft.
Believe me, after being in this biz for more than 20 years, I don't have a single romantic notion left about it.

I still maintain that being able to write a check to have your manuscript bound DOES, in fact, lead some people to believe they do not have to take the time to learn the craft. I have come to this perspective via my experience speaking at writers conventions and by doing many author critiques (usually for writer charity auction events but sometimes for acquaintances). I always try to show a novice writer where their story went off track, what they need to learn. I might get a thank-you but too often, a year later, I get their POD novel in the mail -- with no changes at all. They don't want to become a writers; they don't want to rewrite, rethink, maybe throw it out and start over. They type THE END and just want to get it out there, thinking that is what it is all about. And too many unscrupulous POD companies indulge their misguided notions.

More to come on this via a blog entry this week.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Pat Mullan said...

..PJ and Mark and Joe as well:

very interesting : the heated discussion about POD continues. Mine (The CIRCLE of SODOM) is one of those few books that 'PODY Mouth' selected. I would not do it again - but why did I do it...

It's my first novel, a thriller. After a year of querying agents, I signed with a New York agent who collected a lot of reject letters from the major publishers - quite a few with personal handwritten comments saying how much they liked my writing despite the rejection. Having a thick skin and knowing that I had worked on my writing for years, I took that as encouragement instead.

At the end of a year I did not sign with the agent again even though they wanted me to sign. Instead I was accepted by a small press in the UK and my manuscript was the recipient of a superb editorial review and edit followed by a line edit from one of the top line editors in the UK. Unfortunately, as the blues were being proofed, the publisher went out of business.

So I decided to self-publish for one reason only: get my book out there, solicit reviews, get confirmation or the reverse...and it's served its purpose. I have received excellent reviews from good reviewers and authors...take a look on Amazon and you'll see. And it continues to sell. Not many but steady, despite no bookstores, no return policy, overpricing, no distribution, no marketing. But POD has served the purpose I chose for it. BARD, the Bulgarian publisher, has requested a copy with the view towards doing a translation. Read PODYmouths review and assessment of 'The CIRCLE of SODOM'...

Would I do it again? No, not now. I don't have to. It's served its purpose. My next novel BLOOD RED SQUARE will be published by a traditional small press by early 2006 and a chunk of my novel-in-progress, TRIBUNAL, will be published in DUBLIN NOIR by Akashic Books in March 2006. So I am working my way up the food chain.

...but my imagination sees a future where POD is simply a technology for producing works of literature and retaining them on a data base for subsequent traditional printing, eBooks, electronic access/browsing, ATM selection and delivery at 24/7 kiosks (the new bookstores - you could have them on the space station, on the moon, beyond!)..

..don't laugh! The present method of getting an author's work before the public is simple antiquated and ridiculous. And those who decide who qualifies: today's editors, agents, conglomorates, ...are truly unqualified to be gatekeepers. Let the reader decide. I know, I know. The market will be filled with garbage. You're right. But I'm a believer in the free market. It's an imperfect system but it works. Let the customer decide. The customer is always right.

..thanks for your time...come visit me at:

10:36 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Excellent points, Pat. And it is good to have the balance of alternate perspectives such as yours and the others posted here. I am getting an education about self-publishing!

Plenty of really good novelists come up the "food chain" as you have done. A friend of mine, Reed Coleman, has gone this route. As many have said before, perseverance often trumps talent in this business.

Akashnic Books is one of those small presses that have a great rep. Best of luck with Blood Red Square, and getting your story-cum-novel into the Dublin Noir anthology. Short stories are great way to get a foot in the door and get your name out there.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Pat Mullan said...

..thanks, PJ. I feel very privileged to be in DUBLIN NOIR in the company of such a marvellous cast of writers. Johnny Temple has (and is ) building a publisher of distinction in Akashic. Reed Coleman's 'Portrait of the Killer as a Young Man' is in DUBLIN NOIR.


5:24 AM  
Blogger Basket said...

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Merci pour est un bon blogger.

9:03 PM  
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1:09 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

With all due respect, People who sign up with POD publishers are NOT "self-publishers" it's vanity publishing with different technology.

At the same time though, true self-publishing as a business model is rarely about vanity. I've seriously considered self publishing and I can't tell you how much it's NOT about pipe dreams or getting my name on a book. It's about creative control, the love of small business and marketing, and challenging myself.

Before self-publishing is completely knocked, I'd like to point out that "what color is your parachute," "Eragon," "Lip Service," "The Celestine Prophecy" and many others were self published first.

I don't believe it's a "shortcut" to cut line, but I do believe everybody with a product has a right to sell it with or without someone else's prior approval. If it's a worthwhile product and the marketing is savvy, the product, in this case, a book, proves itself.

Honestly my biggest reason for seriously considering genuine self publishing (as opposed to any of a myriad programs that don't include setting up one's OWN small press business entity and treating it like an actual business with a business and marketing plan), is that authors have to do most of their marketing and promotion anyway. Why in the hell would I do that for the amount authors get paid on each book?

It just makes no business sense to me.

11:51 PM  

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