Print on Demand
Print-on-demand has evolved from flimsy productions to professional quality, all based on digital print technology that allows companies such as CreateSpace, Lulu and Ingram Spark to automate the printing process and produce limited numbers of copies to meet demand on an as-needed basis. Lulu and CreateSpace offer free setup; Ingram Spark offers a low-cost setup with an equivalent refund if 50 books are ordered. All three offer self-publishing tools to help you prepare everything yourself, although optional fee-based services are available if you need help with the layout. You need to get an ISBN for your book, although these platforms help you with that process as well. You need to format the manuscript and design a cover, and then you're ready to set the price, hit the "publish" button and start selling. The result is an attractive, physical book, which you can sell directly, through your own website or through the publishing site's author storefront. Traditional publishers still have most of the market cornered on getting books into physical bookstores, although Ingram Spark gives you the option of making your book available to its network of global retailers.
All three print-on-demand platforms also offer the option of publishing as an e-book as well; or you can go with platforms such as Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords and Kobo that deal exclusively in e-books. Designing an e-book is a little different from print-on-demand, because the e-book hardware determines how it looks, rather than your own formatted file. The layout conventions you use in print, such as the two-page spread with a running head on the inside page margin, no longer apply, as the e-book reader displays only a single page at a time. Every e-book publisher requires a specific type of digital file, which is often proprietary to that platform. There are plenty of free tools available such as Mobipocket eBook Creator and Calibre, which convert a Word file into the appropriate e-book format.
Sales and Distribution
Both e-book and print-on-demand platforms provide basic distribution. With the possible exception of Ingram, they won't get you into physical bookstores, but they provide you with a handful of useful tools for selling both print-on-demand and e-books online and for getting the word out. If you want to sell printed books yourself at in-person events, you'll have to purchase them wholesale ahead of time, but all print-on-demand platforms allow you to use their own author portal pages to sell a copy at a time, with the platform doing the fulfillment and without any advance cost. They simply give you a payment once a month for your share of the sale after publishing costs. Naturally, the issues involving shipping and procuring physical books are eliminated if you publish exclusively in e-book format. Keep in mind that Kindle and Nook together make up almost 80 percent of all e-book sales, with Apple iBookstore and Google Play also taking up a big piece of the market, so these platforms offer a distinct marketing and convenience advantage.
Self-publishing is remarkably easy, but the simplicity afforded by these platforms does not mean you will sell any books. That is decidedly the hardest part of the process, and you won't get any marketing help from the POD or e-book platforms beyond basic availability of an author portal. Many have fee-based marketing packages; however, these tend to be limited in scope. In reality, marketing, especially for self-published authors, is a grass roots, personalized task that still requires direct contact with reviewers, editors, bloggers and key influencers. Boilerplate marketing packages based on mass emails, vanity interviews on Internet Radio shows with few listeners, search engine optimization and making posts to multiple sites with low readership will not generate results.