In many ways, I’m not the best person to be weighing in on the issue of POD (Print On Demand) services. I’ve yet to try POD out as an individual writer, and as a publisher, my plans for putting out POD products are still evolving. Nonetheless, I’ve done a lot of thinking about POD: what kind of market share it might occupy in the future, how viable it is as a model for emerging authors, and what it actually means for publishing as a whole.
I’d definitely agree with SF author Damien G Walter’s recent post, talking about his experiences at the SF writers’ bootcamp, the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. Damien argues that “…being a great writer takes real work and dedication and sacrifice.” Damien is a writer who has already travelled a great distance towards the goal of being a well-paid professional writer: at some point in this journey, he decided that he wanted to be: “a great writer.” You’d have to ask Damien what exactly he means by that, but one can assume that what he is talking about is that he wants to write fiction that is worthy, original, and not just a rehash of worn-out genre tropes.
Now, Damien is a good writer to wish to emulate: he has sold his work professionally, is linked in to several arts organisations and writers’ groups in his local area, and has taken steps to build his career and reputation. Therefore his advice to emerging writers is of excellent value.
Later in the same post, he writes: “If Star Trek franchise novels are truly how you express yourself then go ahead and write them.” In other words, there is room in the literary world for writers whose work is derivative or formulaic. There should be no surprises here: it is a well known fact that one of the most lucrative areas in SF publishing is in tie-ins and spin-offs. It’s also not correct to assume that all of these books are substandard, or mere hack-work: as someone who has immensely enjoyed Michael Moorcock’s take on Doctor Who, and Charlie Higson’s take on Bond, I would be loath to write off all commercial tie-ins as mere pap.
What Damien’s post says to me is that the business of being a writer is all about how seriously you take yourself, and how hard you work. That applies whether you want to be a ‘great writer’ like Damien, or if your goal is a little more modest – simply to be a working writer. I’ve read elsewhere that the best way to get a job writing these tie-ins is simply to publish a strong, creator-owned novel in the mainstream press, and then to seek opportunities in the field via an agent. In other words, in order to become a ‘writer for hire’ you must first earn your spurs as a Creator (an iteration of a ‘great writer’ in Damien’s terms – someone who produces inventive, original content).
How does this all relate back to POD, you ask? Stay with me.
In 2007 I started my website Weaponizer, in an attempt to energize my own writing practice, to meet and network with other writers online, and to provide a place for emerging writers to showcase their work. Because the site is Creative Commons licensed, none of the contributors are paid – writers donate their work, and in exchange they get a profile on the site with a list of their contributions.
After 4 years, many of the writers are themselves beginning to experiment with POD / small press solutions to publish their writing – K. Patrick Glover‘s collection ‘Parenthetically Speaking‘ contained some of his Weaponizer submissions, while the insanely prolific Paul S. Grimsley is working on a POD book now (not his first either, I believe). Many of the writers who joined Weaponizer already had their work published in journals or via POD – many others had never seen their work in print or online before. Now, as these writers start to find their voices, they are beginning to seek avenues to push their work further, and find new readers.
If I am unable to provide a viable POD / small press solution for these writers, they will either find their own, or will gravitate towards more mainstream, traditional publishing. Inexorably, they will all travel down that same road Damien talks about in his post – towards becoming a working writer, perhaps even a great one. As the curator of the site that has helped, in some small way, to nourish and grow these authors, it would be immensely satisfying if I could now provide them with a paying market for their fiction – preferably a more viable and profitable one than they could find elsewhere.
This is where the money comes in. I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but the apocryphal legend tells of the fact that successful POD authors keep a great deal more of the profits from their books than authors going through the big publishing houses. This works exceptionally well for established authors – if they take a project outside the mainstream and people follow them, they stand to make a decent amount of profit. For an unknown writer, POD has few risks, but equally, it will be difficult to market the book, so sales will likely be low. This is where POD risks looking like ‘vanity publishing.’ If the book only sells to friends, is it a ‘real’ book, or just a self-indulgent exercise?
What I want to achieve by starting a POD-powered small press publishing imprint is to find the middle ground between self-starting, arguably self-serving POD projects and the more traditional publishing industry. A place where we survive and hopefully prosper on the strength of our writing, and the support of the community we have built.
To that end, I am going to attempt three POD projects this year – a quarterly magazine published via MagCloud, a graphic novel published via Smallzone, and an anthology of the best of Weaponizer, probably through Lulu or a similar service. I am sincerely hoping that the 1000 or so monthly visitors to my site support these products, enabling me to funnel some money back into the site, and to give me the confidence to start publishing actual novels by the writers on my site, and making some proper money for them.
Is this achievable? Only time will tell. With little in the way of a marketing budget, I’ll be relying almost entirely on social networking and local events to promote the products I’m trying to sell – our Facebook group, our Twitter feed and various online forums will be the battleground in terms of sales and promotion.
Hopefully, the products will stand or fall on their quality. This has to do not just with the individual pieces by the writers, but also my own abilities as a curator. Recently, while interviewing the rapper Beans of Anti-Pop Consortium for The Skinny Magazine, I asked the question: ‘What do you miss about the way music was consumed before the internet boom?’ Beans’ answer has as much relevance for fiction publishing as it does for music: “I think the act of making music and putting it out there is somewhat easier now, which is cool for people who are just starting out, but I miss a certain amount of quality control.” In other words, the signal to noise ratio has been increased by the advent of LiveJournal, Blogger, and sites like my own.
There are more bad writers and bad stories than there were before – many, many more. There are some truly talented individuals too, but finding them is almost more difficult, because they are no longer all grouped in specific places, and are commonly not subject to any form of editorial scrutiny at all.
In a sense, that is my mission as a publisher – to attract and publish writers whose work might be overlooked by the mainstream, or could disappear in the chaotic world of literary blogging, and to collect their works in one place. To tread the line between traditional publisher and independent POD dillettante; and build something resembling the small press / indie companies that inspired me to start my site, such as Avatar, Mutation Press and Rebel Inc.
I suppose this ambition will stand and fall on the quality of the work I choose to publish… which is why, at the very start of this experiment, I feel overwhelmingly positive. With the likes of the aforementioned Paul S. Grimsley and K. Patrick Glover, and Aaron Jacobs and Matthew McLean on board (to name but a few!), I think Weaponizer has a lot to offer, in terms of celebrating voices, techniques and approaches that are defiantly outside the mainstream.
What we’ve achieved so far, and what we are aiming at, is similar to Ziggy’s manifesto in an earlier post – we want to be Indie, to distance ourselves from both Big Publishing and Vanity Press. To be neither, with aspects of both: the creative freedom of self-publishing and the quality control of a traditional publisher.
And if that one day leads to myself and my fellow authors writing Star Trek tie-ins for dirty fistfuls of cash? Well, I’ll be one happy motherfucker.
About Bram E Geiben
Bram E Geiben (AKA Texture) is a writer and emcee based in Edinburgh. He is the curator of fiction site Weaponizer and the netlabel Black Lantern Music. Bram blogs over on the WPNZR Feed. Go bug him on Twitter. If you really want to know, read his rant-based LiveJournal.