These are great services now. But is it a good idea? There are many advantages, especially as you can make your book free (on Smashwords) or very cheap. POD means that physical books of very high standard are delivered to the buyer in two or three days at less than £5, minimum price. Contrast this with academic publishers who charge £100 in hardback, only printing a paperback edition over a year later when they’ve extracted as many sales as possible at the hardback price. This limits accessibility and contributes to the huge profitability of some academic publishers: Harvie et al, 2012, show the staggering profits of academic publishing – higher than brewers, cigarettes and even search providers like Google. You can update your e-book easily, and those who have already bought it via Amazon get the update free on their Kindle. You design its look and feel, including the cover, and you get feedback from buyers which helps you think about improving the impact your work has. And if you want to charge above the very low base price (and Amazon insists you do make a charge – though with short periods free if you want), then royalty rates are high – typically 70% as against less than 10% from traditional publishers.
Risks are small or non-existent. There is no warehousing to do – POD books don’t need to be stored, and if there are no sales your only investment has been your time. True, you have to do everything – proofreading, indexing and the rest, but the same is increasingly true in traditional publishing – the author does more and more, with freelance copy editors helping to a greater or lesser extent. If you want an index done in traditional publishing, you have to pay for it anyway, and the quality is usually worse than if you did it yourself.
Something not much talked about is the tyranny of size in traditional publishing. One would think that academic knowledge comes in only two sizes – small or large: 8,000 words (academic journal article) or 80,000 words (book). This is very like another sector which has undergone parallel changes – the music industry. But in academia we are still in the world of the single or the LP as pretty much the only options. There are no such restrictions on e-books and POD: you can write to the size appropriate to what you want to say. My books for doctoral students seem naturally to fall out at between 10-12,000 words, though I have no idea why.
But the downside is primarily to do with ‘marketing’: getting your book out there. If your name is well-known in the academic world, and/or you have a specialism that people want to know about, this is less of a problem. But if not then raising awareness about and interest in your book enough to download or order it means considerable effort, primarily through social media of different sorts as well as networking both online and in person. You may not feel cut out for that and be happier to see your book in the publisher’s catalogue, their website and marketed through their extensive lists.
Then of course there are issues around evaluation of quality. In the UK the next Research Excellence Framework rules will be an important issue: will such publishing really ‘count’? (Though open access work will be required – and in some formats you can make your book free). Your book may be brilliant, but there are plenty of e-books that are rubbish. Distinguishing yours from that pack can be a challenge, though you could rely on readers’ feedback.
In the past ‘vanity publishing’ had a very bad name, rightly, and traditional publishers, faced with Amazon’s threat, try hard to raise that spectre. But in reality that is a discourse from the distant past, from different times. Not that manipulation of discourse is one-sided: createspace talks about ‘independent publishing’ by authors on its home page: but it is not really independent, especially as e-publishing becomes increasingly monopolistic, making even established traditional publishers very afraid.
For some Amazon’s reputation about its tax affairs and its increasing dominance in the market (around 70%) may make them want to avoid that company. Of course ‘other brands are available’ so there are options. But if Hardie et al (2012) are right, that kind of fiscal activity also happens in traditional publishing...and worse beside, as Altbach and Rapple’s account (2012) of the dealings between Elsevier and Merck shows. It seems unlikely though that Amazon will lose its dominant position in the near future at least.
So is it a good idea? For me, a mixed economy works: publishing e-books and POD books for some purposes and traditional publication outlets for others. For other academics that will not be so attractive – for a variety of reasons. Increasingly, though, I resent signing away copyright to highly profitable business who take for granted academics’ work writing, reviewing, editing for them, for free. I hate to see traditional publishers charging thousands for open access to a single article and for journal subscriptions. This is charged to the very academics and institutions that have produced the material and done the quality-control. And I get irritated by constant requests to review articles. This is an unpaid extra marking load done for businesses that can well afford to pay for that academic work. But there is a moral pressure to do it – after all, my own work is reviewed by others who are similarly exploited.
But if the music business is any indicator (and the excellent book by Talking Heads’ David Byrne suggests that it may well be), we are unlikely to see the demise of traditional publishing any time soon. Instead there will be increasingly diverse provision, with some major players dominating the different sectors.