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Setting a Standard

Should print-on-demand companies take a more aggressive role in weeding out unsavory business practices in their industry?

The opportunity to put out a good-looking book cheaply and quickly, without going through traditional publishing channels, has made the print-on-demand (POD) industry an attractive option for a lot of writers. But some confusion, skepticism and mistrust have crept into this corner of the publishing universe, as service providers and writers debate what it means to be a "published author."

Print-on-demand service providers (such as iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Outskirts Press, Lulu.com and Infinity Publishing) offer writers a one-stop shop to have their books put together and made available to buy. Depending on the package purchased, writers may have access to different levels of editing and design services, marketing advice, etc. While many such companies are very clear about their policies and promises, others are purposely vague and even outright deceitful—hopeful writers are led to believe that using these companies' services is no different from getting a traditional publishing deal in terms of instant prestige and reaching the marketplace.

When major POD companies and other players in this market convened for a "Book Summit" in late September 2005, the question of standards and legitimacy was raised. Do respectable POD companies need to band together and set standards for their industry? Could self-publishing—and the authors who use POD—improve their reputations with an industry-sponsored code of ethics?

Ron Pramschufer, publisher of RJ Communications (which provides services for self-publishers but isn't a POD company), proposed the concept. "If POD companies see themselves as "the little brother" or outgrowth of traditional publishing, as they all claim, a code of ethics is necessary," he says. Adds Eugene G. Schwartz, editor at large for the independent publishing magazine ForeWord: "Authors need to know what to expect and what they're expected to do; businesses need to be accountable for standards. This sector is responsible for more new titles in the marketplace than any other and needs the positive visibility that comes with self-respect."

The POD companies themselves have mixed feelings about creating a universal code. Says iUniverse CEO Susan Driscoll, "I think a code of ethics would benefit the industry, but it will make a difference only if there's also an impartial 'board' that would review businesses [and grant] a 'good publishing' seal of approval, if you will. Providers would have to apply to be reviewed and, assuming they meet the criteria, could post the seal on their Web sites. It's essential that the group work with some independent third party to develop and monitor the standards."

AuthorHouse CEO Bryan Smith prefers to keep the responsibility on service providers to manage the expectations of their clients. "It's really been a key emphasis for us over the past several years to set appropriate expectations for our authors, to make sure people understand what they're buying and why, and what they might hope to gain from it," he says. "It comes down to the behavior and thought process of each individual company."

Tom Gregory, president of Infinity Publishing and sponsor of the Book Summit, suggests: "The inconsiderate actions of a few service providers focused on selling overpriced publishing-related services and books to dream-driven authors has tainted this branch of publishing. Rather than a wordy code of ethics, I believe a pledge of service would be a more positive approach."

Whether or not a code of ethics is standardized across the industry, it's clear that many writers are confused by the particulars of POD publishing. Some Book Summit participants had specific suggestions for practices they'd like to see all POD companies embrace. For starters, Schwartz says, "Any type ofcode should define the rights and responsibilities of all parties."

Beyond that, he says, "The realities of marketing efforts and probable sales outcomes need to be made absolutely transparent." Pramschufer elaborated on this theme in the October issue of his monthly newsletter for small and independent self-publishers. In it, he called on POD publishers to "clearly point out the odds of being successful. An average number of books sold would be a start. If the publishers don't think this is fair, then the average number of books sold by the top 25 percent of their titles in print and the middle 33 percent."

Penny C. Sansevieri, a media-relations professional who's been working with self-published authors since 1999, would like to see more clarity on author rights and royalties. "All rights should remain with the authors—always," she stresses. "And I think that with royalties, there needs to be a standard on when they're paid and how they're monitored. POD publishers have been called into question on whether they're paying an accurate amount to the author. Unfortunately, mismanaged author expectations lend themselves to this assumption; authors believe they've sold more books than the publisher is paying them for."

As of yet, no clear steps have been taken to bring about any sort of industry-wide standard. If this were to happen, Driscoll contends that it should ideally extend beyond the POD industry. "Remember, POD is just a printing technology," she says, referring to the digital printing process by which on-demand publishers have traditionally been defined. "The code of ethics should encompass all the areas of self-publishing. There are a lot of agents, sales and marketing services, and small presses that have unethical practices."

Ultimately, the world of self-publishing remains something of a "Wild West" (to quote Sansevieri), and authors need to keep their eyes open when considering any service provider. It's up to the writer to read all the fine print on company policies and contracts; follow up with other writers who've used that particular service and get recommendations; and make educated decisions based on careful comparisons and research.

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