Friday, August 5, 2011

Why Do Authors Bother with Publishers?

Subtitle: I'm surprised more authors don't use print on demand.

For the third time in six months I find myself going begging to get a hold of a newer, already out of print book.  It's really frustrating to have to go through hoops to get a copy of a book that should be fairly easy to get. 

First, I had to use local connections to get a copy of Dartmouth: The Early History of a Massachusetts Town by Beverly Morrison Glennon.  Then I had to go begging to the author to get one of the last copies of Joanne Hulbert's book Holliston, A Good Town.  Now I find myself in the same position as I try to find a copy of Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War, A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies edited by Eric Grundset.  This is no longer available from the DAR website.

Ironically, as books are on the way out, as I've heard people say, I find myself trying to buy books faster and faster.  I'm in a race against them going out of print before I've bought a copy.  Perhaps someday (I say with a meniacal laugh) my books will be worth more because very few people will actually have copies.

The thing I don't get is why authors are doing the very old fashioned thing of using publishers instead of print on demand.  Publishers don't seem to be able to make the numbers work to have enough books available for the people who want to buy them.  They are going for a fast hit of a climactic sales in the first year after publication and abandoning the book after that.  With local history books in particular, researchers or history buffs might need the book five, ten or even fifteen years down the road.

Print on demand seems to be a win-win for everyone.  The author gets their book in print and the reader gets the chance to buy it when they need it.  In the meantime there is very little overhead for maintaining the book.

I hope more local history and genealogy authors will choose the print on demand option.  Let me tell you I am getting pretty tired and frustrated of tracking down books that are no longer available first hand for second.

Photo Credit: Photo by Stefan Baudy used under the Creative Commons license


  1. Thank you for sharing this...As a new writer, and one day publisher..I really think that print on demand or through electronic means will be the best way to publish and sell one's book. Thank you for your foresight and wisdom

  2. The reality is that independent publishers and small press publishers can't afford to do large print runs of books that they can't sell right away. It's the same in the major publishers too. When I started in the bookstore business twenty two years ago there were far more novels marked down as bargain books then there are now.And up until recently self publishing wasn't affordable for the authors. That's changing but it won't
    help us find older titles that didn't sell well enough for the publishers to keep them in print.

    Good post!

  3. I have a copy of "Forgotten Patriots," if you need something looked up.

  4. BTW, did you call the DAR Store to find out if they have any left in stock? I could swear that I saw them on sale when I was there in June. Call 1-888-673-2732 to find out.

  5. I’ve been an honest-to-God owner/publisher/bookseller since 1977 (with many thousands of old out-of-print local histories in stock). What you describe is actually a very complicated issue that is still working itself out and will continue to change as technology/markets evolve. In fact, many genealogical publishers already use print-on-demand for pretty much everything; however, there’s a print/binding quality issue, since not all P-O-D printers are created equal. And surprisingly, it has not lowered the cost of books very much, if at all. Or made them any more readily available.
    Publishing/selling books is a tough business these days when buyers want instant gratification, but at rock-bottom prices. Plus, self-publishing is tricky, especially when many self-published authors choose to do it on the cheap, sans designer or editor or expert marketer. As I used to point out to the folks I hired, having a college degree in English does not a writer make!

  6. Mel,

    I hear you! And believe me I am paying top dollar for these hard to find books. I'm just frustrated. There must be a better answer somewhere.

  7. Print-on-demand is the path I hope publication of bilingual dictionaries will eventually take. For many of the best/classic dictionaries, we are at the mercy of Amazon and the like - if we are lucky and there is a used copy or two - or cannot get our hands on them at all. And now I'm starting to find that the same thing holds for some of the books I need most for my research ... just can't win!

  8. The funny thing is that at least three genealogy book publishers, including two large nationally "known" brands, are actually themselves now using print-on-demand almost exclusively for their own books.

  9. Print on Demand has 'solved' the production issues (except as Mel mentioned on 'quality' issues, perhaps), but distribution and marketing are two areas where, when they choose to be involved, major publishers still have a huge advantage. Marketing has begun to shift to the authors, but, without distribution nationally, an author cannot promote and sell nationally very effectively at all. VERY complex issues... still shaking out... for sure! ;-)

  10. @Dr Bill-very true. I used to deal with a lot of local writers and occasionally there'd be some who didn't know what an ISBN was or how to get one. Borders required ISBNs and would assign books a BINC (Borders Internal Numbering Code.) I had to explain to those authors how ISBNs would make it easier for thjem to get their books not just into our local store but throughout the entire chain and other bookstores as well.

  11. Just for the record, I'm not really against publishers at all. I'm just really frustrated with the current situation of not being able to find the books I need. If only I had known about them or knew about them when they were published. I feel like I have a new task now in addition historical research, I have to monitor book publications so I don't miss my window. No easy task because if you saw my earlier post about the History Press books get published and I don't hear about them. Is there a consolidated way to learn about new publications related to history and genealogy (besides random book reviews in magazines)? There is no possible way that I can monitor every individual publisher on the topics I need.

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  13. I have gotten some books from Higginson that are print on demand...they tend to be expensive. The problem is that too many authors are too anxious to be published. Certain standards must be attained in order to be published by a big name publisher who can afford the number of printings needed to make a book highly accessible.
    But big name publishers, and University Presses only publish titles with a wide appeal. Straight genealogy doesn't cut the grade. From the business perspective, they see that the market is too small...not because of it being a genealogical book, but because they usually tend to be regional.
    In order to make your work "publishable" you need to write it in a way that is salable. Also, having connections with award-winning authors and others in the industry doesn't hurt. I contact EVERY author whose books I enjoy.
    Books published by genealogical societies, i.e. the DAR or SAR, etc. are very limited runs. They are usually collections done by volunteers.
    What I like to do is find the book via Inter-Library Loan and photocopy the parts I need...including the cover page, bibliographic information, index and bibliography.

  14. Thanks for your post, very interesting! I work for a publisher in a different field, and I can tell you, book publishing is at a huge crossroads. Publishers are scrambling to adjust to the new order of things. Their main concern will be to replace old revenue streams with new ones (you can't blame them for that). But it's not going to be pretty watching them figure it out. As consumers and bloggers, our best bet is to keep each other informed about good products.