Throughout my career I have had several books published by traditional publishers as well as self-publishing a half-dozen through the on-line process. I have found numerous advantages and disadvantages to each method, but I will restrain my comments to the on-line version in this article.
One of the principle advantages of on-line publishing is that you choose to do it without the necessity of convincing a traditional publisher that your work is worthy of their investment of time and money. Virtually anyone with a computer and a little time can publish a book. Also, you can elect to have only one copy of your book published or as many as you wish. And you can decide at any later time to print more copies. A traditional publisher may print a minimum of 3,000 copies in order to take advantage of the costs of production (which is why they try to determine the market for your book prior to committing), and once that number is determined and printed, it’s unlikely to be re-printed unless the original print run has sold out and additional sales are projected.
Also, you have total control over the basic components of the book, within the limitations of the on-line publisher’s template constraints: you choose the cover image, write all the text, captions, sequencing and number of images, cropping, etc. It can be off-the-wall or more conservative, as you wish. And many on-line publishers facilitate the process with drag-and-drop technology. With a traditional publisher there is usually an editor who works with you to decide such critical features. This cuts both ways, however, as the editor can serve a vital function to enhance the design features of the book by offering constructive suggestions or demands. After all, it’s their business to understand the book publishing world and they deal with it every day.
Some on-line publishers offer the advantage of using PDF’s to produce the book. So, if you are adept at using commercially available print design software you have complete freedom of page layout, typeface, colors, image placement, etc. Just save your design to PDF then upload to the publisher’s site. Also some photo-editing/management software allows you to design a book within the program then either upload directly to an on-line site or export to a PDF. An advantage of the PDF process is you can save it to disk/drive and use it at other sites or for other purposes—you are not tied to a particular publisher.
Budget is another advantage of on-line publishing. Since you can opt to have as few as one book printed, your total cost can be minimal. Some sites offer small softcover books, sized 7”x7”, for as little as $15 (plus tax and shipping). There is often a volume pricing strategy where the unit price of that same book drops if you order, say, 10 copies, and even lower if you order 25 copies, etc. However, the per unit price will be considerably higher with an on-line publisher than with a traditional publisher, regardless of the type of book produced. Also, you can advertise your book for sale and sell it directly through some on-line sites. You determine the price (either equal to or above the cost of production) and your network of friends/clients can order directly off the site.
Time is another issue that accrues to the on-line world, since the book can be in your hands in ten days or less after ordering (using expedited shipping), while several months may pass before you see a book from a traditional publisher.
Finally, if you calibrate your monitor and utilize the color profile offered by some on-line publishers, you can come very close to matching the color quality of your images.
One disadvantage of on-line publishing is the limitation of book sizes, which may be as few as four or five offerings. And the page count can also be limited. Other disadvantages are the choices of papers, paper finishes, dust covers and hardbound material are very limited.
Furthermore, not all sites offer special image features such as drop shadows, borders, background colors, unusual cropping, text in the image, etc., although if you have third-party design software you can adjust these features within the program. Another work-around is to incorporate desired features into the image structure in a photo editing program.
And just as the color quality of a traditionally-printed book can vary as the press churns out the print run, the color and general quality of an on-line book can vary from one order to another. Many traditional printers allow on-site press run monitoring, press checks, so that you will have the greatest likelihood of achieving acceptable results. If you can’t monitor the press run, perhaps because the printer is in another state or even another country, you will likely be sent color proofs to examine and sign for approval. No such option is available with on-line publishing. Since no proofs are available, your only alternative is to print one copy of a book, make corrections to the original file, and then order another copy with the corrections. With some traditional publishers you work directly with an editor or print broker who is very knowledgeable about the entire process, and who usually sign off on proofs prior to production.
Trouble shooting is another weak link in the on-line publishing world. You’re pretty much on your own, though some sites offer FAQ’s and/or forums and will respond directly to email questions.
I have found that on-line publishers readily admit production problems and quickly resolve issues by sending another copy to rectify the situation. With a traditional publisher you must catch those problems at the proofing stage to ensure an acceptable result.
Traditional publishers also offer a variety of printing processes directly affecting the print quality, whereas on-line publishers have only one process, though they may have a number of presses at different locations around the country. Complicating the on-line issue is that one particular size of book may be printed in one location while a different size is printed elsewhere, and the quality control may differ from location to location.
Altogether it’s a mixed bag of choices and limitations using on-line publishers. But it can be very rewarding as well.