Print-on-demand and donations -- report on DIY publishing business models

My latest Publishers Weekly column, "Heuristics," documents the success I've had with a pay-what-you-like donation model for my With a Little Help DIY short story collection, and looks at how it might be applied to other books:
But it's the success of the donations program that has me thinking hardest--specifically, about the value proposition of the donations. Could donations form the basis of a new retail channel for e-books? Perhaps a widget that commercially published authors could embed in their own Web sites and social media pages based around this pitch: "Buy my e-book on a pay-what-you-like basis, and I'll split the take 50-50 with my publisher, still a much better take than I'd get from your e-book purchases on Amazon, Nook, or iBooks."

Why not? Commercial entertainment conglomerates understand that "pay creators, it's the right thing to do" is a better pitch than "pay multinational entertainment conglomerates, they deserve your money." This is why so many antipiracy ads focus on creators, not on corporate profits. Authors who collect directly from readers have a commercially valuable moral high ground, and figuring out how to incorporate the special relationship between creators and their audiences into a business model has the potential to rebalance the current relationship with the existing online retail channels.

It's not unprecedented--pay-what-you-like programs like the Humble Indie Bundle (video games) and Radiohead's In Rainbows and Nine Inch Nail's Ghosts I-IV (music) have been runaway successes. The pitch from these projects, "pay the creator you love," is a message that clearly resonates with my readers, some of whom have donated as much as $200. And this can help with the "pig-in-a-poke" problem. Without locked-in channels or DRM-laden works, authors and publishers can put together new titles in a single package to cross-promote their works--new writers could be bundled with established ones, for example. The Humble Indie Bundle has been very successful with this strategy. Readers could even nominate some of their payment for charity--say PEN, a library friends organization, a literacy trust, Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or ACLU.

With A Little Help: Heuristics


  1. It’s not unprecedented–pay-what-you-like programs like the Humble Indie Bundle (video games) and Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Nine Inch Nail’s Ghosts I-IV (music) have been runaway successes.

    Certainly there have been successful PAYL programs, but IIRC there have been unsuccessful ones as well. The key question then becomes this: If you decide to implement a PAYL program, what’s the probability of it increasing revenue?

  2. A new author trying to get a decent deal on publishing and royalties soon finds out he has no leverage. And an established author gets screwed by experts.
    Anything that would change the publishing and marketing food chain has got to be an improvement. Please tell us more.

  3. Interesting that you reference alternative payment schemes from the music world (Radiohead, NIN, etc.). Check out what Kaiser Chiefs are doing:

    You pick 10 out of 20 available tracks and design your own cover to make an album. When other people by your album, you get a cut.

    Think this could ever be incorporated into literature: “choose (to publish) your own adventure”? Admittedly, is sounds like a formula for some pretty crappy endings. But it is sort of intriguing to wonder how alternative payment schemes might influence not just distribution but content.

  4. What frustrates me about the discussion of indie publishing is that it’s presented as a binary world, where you’re obliged to either work with a corporate publisher or with a corporate print-on-demand services/e-book distribution network.

    People can produce their own books at home with common materials. For the past year or so, I’ve been showing the whole process I’ve used to write, make, and sell novels by myself; the podcast is available for free on iTunes (“DIY Book”) or on You can also get lots of information from Jim Munroe’s, or just start Googling for “bookbinding jigs” or “perfect binding”. There’s a lot of free information to show authors how to do this.

    Sure, it’s not scaleable, but let’s face it, authors without a platform don’t usually sell majillions of books. And doing everything yourself teaches you about the publishing process from end to end — which is good knowledge to have should you should end up going big. Meanwhile, having a real, physical book to sell lets one start locally and work from there.

    Submitting to others, hoping to win permission/salvation/discovery? Spending all of one’s savings on a predatory publishing “package”? Not fun.

    Making stuff yourself? Fun!

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