Unaware, perhaps, that they no are no longer reaping rewards for their creator, used hard copies of my novels find their ways into online used bookstores and resell and resell. I am all for recycling, in theory, but not in this particular. Neither publisher nor author gets a cut of used book sales. What an author can do is buy up all the used copies, which are sometimes priced as low as a penny, and resell them at a higher price. I have tried my hand at this, but I make a lousy bookseller. I refuse to bubblewrap, doublebox or otherwise over-package books the way Amazon does (they seem to think books are potentially able to explode if jostled in the post), and I don’t get orders in the mail very quickly. Although it might be of some benefit, I’m not too keen on spending a lot of energy learning how to be a bookseller as well as a writer. Gone are the days when some publishing-house intern with nothing better to do took care of things for the pampered writer. These days most authors, be they with small or large publishers, have to do a lot of their own PR, dealing personally with book stores and reading groups. I don’t want the added responsibility of resale management.
But the used book as a problem may only be an artifact of the old way of approaching literary fiction publishing. The print-on-demand book may offer some solutions.
Print-on-demand is perfectly suited for slow-growing projects like literary fiction. Literary fiction readers make up a small portion of an already small number of readers in the US. It takes time to find them. Literary fiction can’t afford to follow the model of traditional publishers which tend to flood the market with a title, hoping it will catch on due to some media fluke. If it doesn’t, it gets remaindered and they try their luck with a different title. It isn’t luck when a literary fiction book finally catches on; it’s usually due to some actual quality the book has in and of itself. Literary fiction publishers are better off introducing their books slowly, carefully choosing appropriate reviewers to solicit, and only printing as many copies are needed at any given time.
With POD there are no remaindered books if a title fails to sell out in six months. I remember once walking past a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan seeing boxes of new books on the street for the trash with their covers ripped shamefully from them. (Stores get refunds from publishers for returning only the cover: they don’t have to return the whole book.) I don’t like to see trees and hard work wasted in this way.
POD is cost efficient, resource efficient, and there are other advantageous side effects beyond these obvious savings and conveniences. Authors can make revisions and create new editions as needed fairly painlessly. More and more small presses that have started to use this method are finding that they can accept more titles for their catalogs. As long as the publisher is not committed to a large PR budget, it can publish any book it fancies, even those not expected to exceed 1000 in sales.
However, most small press publishers remain happy with hardcovers or their better quality paperbacks, which are both printed in small, efficient runs. The main criticism of print-on-demand publishing is that the binding is not top-quality and books are likely to fall apart after a couple of years.
Hey, wait! That’s great. That minus is actually a plus for authors and small presses. Books that eventually self-destruct! What could be better for the author who is doomed to lose out on recurring sales of high-quality hardcover volumes? This might even mean some fans buy more than one copy of your book. Ah, but such planned obsolescence is a practice of commercialism that I cannot quite fully endorse. It may however be a necessary evil that I can endorse provisionally and temporarily.