Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- PODs Under Fire

A lot of you will probably already have heard of AuthorHouse's recent troubles. According to yesterday's Publishers Weekly, a Kansas jury has found the POD publisher guilty of publishing a book that libeled bestselling author Rebecca Brandewyne (Paperback Poison: the Romance Writer and the Hit Man by Brandewyne's ex-husband Gary D. Brock and his current wife, Debbie Brock). Despite the fact that AuthorHouse’s contracts contain a provision absolving the company of any liability for "loss, damage, injury, or claim to any kind or character to any person or property" resulting from the books it publishes, the jury held it liable, and ordered the company to pay $230,000 in actual damages. Punitive damages have yet to be awarded.

What does this tell us that we don't already know? Not much. It's not exactly a news flash that AuthorHouse doesn't read the books it publishes (not even when, as is apparently the case here, the author actually informs the company that the content may be libellous). Why should it? Whether you call it a vanity publisher or a self-publishing service, its services are provided to whomever is willing to pay--and apart from certain technical considerations, quality and content are irrelevant in a pay-to-publish model. Plus, AuthorHouse apparently believes it's protected not just by the waiver in its contract, but by the First Amendment. On that basis, the company is considering an appeal.

The implications, though, could be significant. If the verdict stands, will POD services feel the need to vet incoming manuscripts for libellous material--not to mention other lawsuit-inspiring problems such as plagiarism? What would happen if the PODs were forced to actually READ the manuscripts submitted to them? Imagine the additional staff they'd have to hire. Imagine the legal fees they'd incur for examining suspect works. Imagine the potential dent in profits. Imagine the fee hikes that might result! Imagine the companies that might shut their doors, feeling it wasn't worthwhile to continue under such a burden.

AuthorHouse isn't the only POD on the spot right now for not exercising adequate care with its product. Booksurge, a POD dogged by persistent reliability issues (which apparently have not been much improved by its recent purchase by Amazon), is also feeling some heat. The company and its parent are being sued by one of its clients for producing a book riddled with errors, typos, and out-of-sequence pages. The client, who happens to be a well-known local lawyer, is seeking $11 million in damages. Not only is Booksurge not reading the manuscripts it publishes, it evidently isn't proofreading them, either.

Writer Beware's favorite POD, PublishAmerica, is also on the hot seat (again. PA's previous brushes with the legal system include a successful arbitration action by one of its authors, and a trademark infringement suit by Encyclopedia Britannica over PA's use of the PublishBritannica name for its UK branch). According to documents filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, the multitudinous relatives of Jacqueline Shumacher are suing her and PA for libel in connection with her book, White Trash Tales of the Paranormal. Yet another problem that might have been avoided by pre-reading, for yet another publisher that we know doesn't scrutinize the manuscripts it publishes.

Not that I expect that the arrogant people over at PA will be chastened. Despite proof to the contrary, they seem to believe themselves above the law. Don't look for them to start reading manuscripts any time soon, no matter what happens to AuthorHouse.

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Edited to add: Over at Scrivener's Error, intellectual property attorney Charlie Petit has an entry about the AuthorHouse verdict.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

POD stands for print on demand. It's a printing process, not a publisher category. I love everything Writer Beware does for writers, but this misinformation could confuse people. There are lots of legitimate small presses out there who use the print on demand printing process to produce books instead of investing in large print runs through offset printing that can be extremely expensive. The POD process allows a small publisher with limited funds to print only a few books at a time for a reasonable cost.

The publisher you describe is not a POD publisher (there's really no such thing, unless you want to call all the other publishers offset publishers, which just describes their printing process, not their publishing process). Writers House appears to be an unscrupulous publisher that just happens to use the print on demand printing process to produce their books.

Bernita said...

Thought Vanity Press was the defining term - not POD.

--E said...

What anonymous said.

I think in this case in particular we must be careful with terms. There needs to be a bright line between vanity publishers, who claim to be publishers supposedly doing all that word implies (e.g. editing); and ordinary printers, who just do the work for hire, with no claims of editorial anything.

Too bad the risk of libel suits makes a point of commonality between vanity publishers and real publishers.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Words and their meanings come into being through use by the public. As writers, we should recognize that while endeavoring to use words correctly. As it stands now, many people refer to PA and other vanity publishers that rely mainly upon print-on-demand as POD publishers. It's a usage that has come to be accepted, so there's no sense in getting upset over someone, writer or not, using the term even though vanity publisher is significantly more correct and meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but its usage has not come to be accepted "yet," but it will be if professionals in the industry don't correct its misuse. There's a large electronic publishing community that relies on POD for their printed books. It's to their detriment that potential readers may be confused over the quality of their legitimate, royalty-paying publishers and their books because misinformation is spread by those who disregard the real meaning of POD. Please help them by setting the record straight. As you know, with your invaluable service to authors through Writer Beware, plain and clear communication of the facts is key to providing good, usable information to writers who need it.

Thank you for your help.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Professionals really don't have any choice in determining what the public accepts. While we might try to steer, the momentum is provided by the public and it often reaches the point of acceptance before any professionals can even begin to apply corrective action to the steering.

Victoria Strauss said...

Anonymous and --e, until a couple of years ago I would have agreed with you that "print on demand" described only the technology, and "POD publisher" wasn't a term that had a particular meaning. However, I don't think that's true any longer. "POD publisher" has acquired a particular meaning. Rather than make a long argument here, I'll refer to the Print on Demand page of Writer Beware, which discusses this in detail.

Is the term pejorative? Yes, it is. It connotes either vanity publishing (in the sense of a publisher that relies on its authors for the bulk of its income, whether through fee-charging or pressuring them to buy their own books) or amateur publishing. Is the term damaging to reputable smaller publishers that rely mainly on print on demand technology? Possibly. But there's more at issue than just an unflattering term. Long before "POD publisher" came into common usage, print on demand-based self-publishing services like Xlibris and print on demand-based vanity publishers like PublishAmerica had tainted the technology in the eyes of booksellers, reviewers, and the reading public by releasing floods of substandard books and hordes of publicity-hungry authors, many of them deeply deluded about the difference between commercial publication and the kind of service provided by Xlibris and PA.

Any publisher that relies mainly on print on demand technology is going to have to confront the POD stigma. In my opinion, it's not up to people like me to pretend that colloquial usage doesn't exist; it's up to the publisher to distinguish itself from the "PODs" by behaving like a real publisher (rigorous editorial gatekeeping, competent editing and design, standard discount and returns policies, distribution and marketing to the book trade).

Ultimately, a good publisher isn't defined by its method of producing books, but by the quality of its offerings and its general business practices. If the publisher is successful, it will start moving away from POD anyway, because POD simply isn't cost-effective for larger print runs.

Sminklemeyer said...

Seriously, who gives a fart what we call them? I swear, people can get upset over the smallest details. What I took away from that post was those darn publishers who send me SPAM emails got busted. I'm glad AuthorHouse went down.

I hope these lawsuits weed out the rest of the joints serving shit sandwiches. As for the POD term, look A... you said, some small presses out there use print-on-demand publishing. What I took out of that sentence was small press not POD.

I don't compare Akashic Books, a very good small press, to Wheatmark or AuthorHouse. But all three use POD technology.

Michaelc said...

I might use the term "non-advance paying publishers," because that also is one of the defining characteristics of "publishers" who do not actually publish books, only typeset and print them, usually on demand. The business model is one where the publisher risks very little in the way of capital.

In this case, AuthorHouse and many other non-advance paying "publishers" will have to re-examine if they can afford to indemnify themselves against plagiarism and libel, because that will increase how much they have to invest.

kevin said...

Where does this leave services like Blurb and Lulu.com? I doubt anyone would consider either to be fraudulant, but they do make books availabel to the general public. Are they, too, going to be required to vet each manuscript?

roach said...

And yet there are plenty of legitimate small press publishers who don't pay advances either. Should they get tarred with the same brush because they happen to share a point of commonality with vanity presses?

On the one hand I can see Dave and Victoria's point and on the other I can see Anonymous #1's point. I'd prefer to use the term vanity press when discussing places like AuthorHouse and PublishAmerica. That's just my preference for calling a spade a spade.

Word usage is just one of those really messy subjects anyone connected with the publishing industry has to slog through. After all, I've seen people who should know better use the term "traditional publisher".

I think the more important point here is the question of how this is going to affect vanity publishers. Will this one lawsuit be enough to change some business practices? Or will bean counters consider it an acceptable risk, raise prices 10% across the board and start a "lawsuit settlement" fund with the excess?

James Macdonald said...

Here's my set of definitions:

Print or Publish on Demand (POD): A business model. Books are not printed until after they are ordered. Often associated with digital printing, but not of necessity; one could conceivably POD with linoleum blocks.

Self-Publishing: A business model. The author and the publisher are the same person. The author retains all rights, pays all expenses, receives all income. A self-publisher may or may not use digital printing and may or may not print on demand.

Vanity Publishing: A business model. The author pays the publisher to publish his book. The publisher takes some or all rights, and pays the author a percentage of income. May or may not use digital printing, and may or may not print on demand. Recently, so many vanity presses have used digital printing to print on demand that "POD" is used as a shorthand for the entire process.

Digital Printing: A technology. POD frequently uses digital printing (so much so that "POD" is often used to mean "digital printing.")

Printing: Putting black marks on white paper.

Publishing: Making those black marks on white paper available to the public.

A. J. Luxton said...

I think perhaps "(commercial) publisher" works as a fine term for any company which has gatekeeping, promotion, etc: The Things A Real Publisher Does. (Chant will commence after services.)

"POD printer" (not publisher) works pretty well for Lulu and similar, in that they're selling book-printing services and not trying to look like they're doing anything else.

I, too, think "POD publisher" is kind of a meaningless catchphrase -- because the actual words being used imply three different things, one of which is bad business and two of which aren't, but which are totally different things. "Vanity press" is a perfectly good, established term, and while PA is a stealth vanity press, most of the vanity presses out there CLAIM not to be vanity presses anyway. Using euphemisms just paints these people in a better light.

Sue said...

I think the industry needs to sit down and clarify some of these definitions, the way other industries do (such as accounting.) I personally like James Macdonald's definitions, but I have heard editors, at big houses, state that concerns such as lulu are vanity presses and not self-publishing concerns. I feel it has to do with retention of rights (and responsibilities) and perhaps ownership of the ISBN used, but others use other definitions and seem to feel self-publishing can only be thusly named if you wind up with a box of books in your garage after printing is complete. (ie: if you use a lulu model for publishing, the fact that it ships from lulu to the customer makes it vanity.)

I think intentions are as important as actual movement of product through the system, but might be harder to find a consensus.

These are important distinctions, however.

Mad Scientist Matt said...

I always thought the "on demand" part of POD was there because there is no print run - they just print a book when one is ordered. That is a business model, not part of the technology. If you take a Xerox Docutech and use it to print a batch of 200 books, then wait for bookstores to order them, you haven't really printed them on demand.

Noxi said...

I wish I had found you site a year ago when I had a run in with a a so called friend of mine who was trying to start her own POD/publishing service...Thanks for the great information.