In past posts, we’ve looked at some of the questions a new writer should keep in mind when considering whether to self-publish her opus. But let’s say that an author has made up her mind that pushing ahead without a traditional publisher is the way to go. With the rise of new print-on-demand (POD) technology, literally dozens of self-publishing companies, or subsidy publishers, have come into being. How should she choose which one is right for her?

The only way to know for sure, of course, is research. Look through the different POD services available, browse the packages they offer, and examine their contracts. Writers and experts alike warn to be cautious against expecting too much from a POD company. The real profits for most POD companies lie not in printing but in “extras” — so it’s no surprise that many self-published writers complain of being nickel and dimed. Most POD companies are exactly what they purport to me: print shops. They may also provide some other services you’d expect from traditional publishers — editing, advertising, or distribution — but generally only for an additional fee.

Even things that you might expect to come standard — like an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), without which a book won’t be offered for sale by many professional booksellers — are often only available at extra cost, so authors should always read the fine print to know what they’re getting into. While you’re shopping around, here’s a quick look at five good possibilities for POD publishing:

BookLocker

Although smaller than some of the other subsidy publishers, BookLocker has been getting some positive buzz from writers. It received the highest rating in The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, a manual that compares and rates the contracts offered by various POD companies. Unusual in that it doesn’t accept every book submitted to it — BookLocker does exercise some editorial discretion — it also promises authors more personalized service than some of the larger companies.

The price tag offered by this publisher tends to be lower than those cited by the larger POD companies. For about $612 (or $399 for returning authors), BookLocker authors can get a black and white book with a color cover. Graphics and photos can be included at no extra cost, and the company prides itself on refusing to “upsell authors on a bunch of products/services they don’t need.” BookLocker’s contract lets authors retain all rights to their work and allows them to cancel at any time, making it easy for writers to switch publishers if they find a better deal elsewhere.

BookLocker also offers royalty rates at 35% of the cover price on books sold through its online bookstore and 15% of the cover price on books sold through a third-party retailer. The royalty rate is higher for e-books, reaching 70% for royalties on electronic books priced $8.95 or higher.

BookLocker also maintains a blog on trends within the print-on-demand industry, with some valuable insights for the fledgling writer.

Lulu

Lulu is one of the most well-known self-publishers, with a fast, user-friendly approach that makes it a favorite for first-time writers. The website provides easy walk-throughs for creating different kinds of publications, from cookbooks to yearbooks to brochures. One big advantage of Lulu is that your book is available for purchase the moment you hit the “publish” button. (Despite advances in technology, not all POD publishers have such a quick turn-around time.)

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Lulu is good for authors interested in the most bare-bones approach. While some other companies will include fees for editing or cover design in their base price, an author publishing with Lulu has the option of foregoing those services completely. (Of course, doing so may limit the sales potential of your book, so you’ll want to consider your publishing goals carefully first.) The company’s system is easy to navigate: Simply upload a picture or Word file and Lulu will convert it to PDF. Also, it’s possible to buy only a single copy of your book from Lulu, while many POD services will require a more substantial print run to make it worth their effort.

The site includes a calculator that allows writers to input all the variables — including paper quality, binding type, and page count — to determine exactly how much printing costs will entail per copy. Printing is technically free — Lulu charges a 20% commission on sales — but authors wanting more can purchase a package deal starting at $595 that includes setup, original cover design, print proof, ebook creation, up to 25 interior photos/graphics, an ISBN, barcode, a listing on the publisher’s website and distribution by Ingram, one of the biggest booksellers in the U.S.

Some critics recommend that anyone interested in using Lulu for anything beyond basic printing instead purchase a package from an alternative publisher as Lulu’s piece-meal approach can quickly become expensive. In general, Lulu’s service seems more geared to authors looking to make small sales to friends and family, rather than looking for a shot at distribution in major book stores, but, if you’re looking for something simple, it’s one of the few advertised “free” services that actually might live up to that claim.

iUniverse

iUniverse has a strategic alliance with Barnes and Noble, so some authors might think that choosing this self-publisher will help get them a leg up in getting their work into stores. That’s an enticing prospect, though the chances of that with any self-published book remain slim. iUniverse offers publishing packages beginning at $599. Authors hoping to see their books receive more exposure in the iUniverse catalog may opt for one of the company’s premiere packages, which could give a book a shot at the Star Program. Top-selling Star Program books get shopped around to traditional publishers, according to the iUniverse website.

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iUniverse offers authors a standard royalty package that includes 20% of net sales, but, in exchange for an author agreeing to instead accept 10%, iUniverse will give booksellers an increased discount when ordering your book — something that might encourage stores to take a gamble on an unknown writer.

Like most POD services, authors should expect to pay more for additional services, like cover design, proofreading, and advertising. iUniverse offers advertising help packages, starting at $200 and running as high as $2,500. That higher package includes ads in major daily newspapers, although many veteran self-published writers are skeptical that such ads generate sales.

BookSurge

For many aspiring writers, self-publishing giant BookSurge is the POD of choice. A subsidiary of Amazon, BookSurge appears to have the connections that could get a self-published book on store shelves. (And indeed some BookSurge writers have gone on to great mainstream success) But writers should remember that it’s not the choice of publisher so much as an individual book’s quality — and its author’s luck and savvy — that land it in the big time.

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Booksurge is unique compared to most other POD services in that it owns its own equipment and distribution channels, but BookSurge’s affiliation with Amazon doesn’t guarantee sales. It offers a number of standard options, but the most popular are the Total Design Freedom packages, starting from $799, which include custom cover design, interior formatting, and ISBN assignment and barcode placement. For additional fees, BookSurge will also write press releases, create advertising, and handle distribution.

The company also offers some unique sales gimmicks that may or may not assist you in moving books off the shelves. One possibility for unknown writers is Amazon’s “Buy X, Get Y” program, that will pair your book with another, already successful book. It might be good for generating some interest, but reportedly costs $1,000/month to join, putting it off limits for most writers on a budget.

In addition, some writers complain about BookSurge’s royalty rate: Authors get a 35% royalty rate on books based on retail sold through Amazon.com, Abebooks.com, and Alibris.com, but only 10% for books sold through all other bookstores. Amazon last year notified publishers that it would soon only carry self-published books printed via BookSurge, so this may be your best bet if you hope to sell your book primarily through the Amazon website.

DogEar Publishing

Another small self-publisher, DogEar boasts a more transparent and responsive process. DogEar claims to be the only self publisher “offering a financially viable model for self published authors.” While it admits to higher up-front costs, it says that this is balanced out by lower printing costs and higher profit margins.

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One unusual aspect of its business plan that might prove attractive to authors is that DogEar does not pay royalties; instead, it only charges for printing, allowing authors to keep the profits from their work. However, the company admits that authors will need to sell more books to be profitable through DogEar than with its major competitors. Although its initial price of publication is higher with DogEar, the company says it averages 10 times as many “per book” units sales than its main competitors. This company may thus be better for the writer focusing more on long-term sales rather than quick returns.

DogEar’s basic package runs $1099, but includes some features that often cost extra with other self-publishers: a custom interior and cover design with up to 30 images, a Library of Congress control number and U.S. Copyright information on the copyright page, and an ISBN number. Books published with DogEar also appear in Google Book Search and are registered with Books In Print database. An expedited quick-turn around package is also available for $500.

Other POD Services

Of course, these aren’t your only options. Other POD companies include:

Xlibris
Xlibris’ most basic publication services start at $500, although for additional fees the company will give authors a wider choice of cover templates or even input in designing a custom cover. Xlibris does not acquire any rights to your book, and the agreement is non-exclusive, so writers can publish elsewhere simultaneously.

Authorhouse
Authorhouse is the largest POD company in the country. Its cheapest package starts at $698; the company charges an additional $20 per year per title for distribution costs. In other regards, Authorhouse is among the more expensive of the subsidy publishers, charging $150 to file a copyright, $1199 for custom cover design, and much more for marketing.

Ka-Blam
A POD service catering specifically to comics, Ka-Blam also prints mousepads, T-shirts and other promotional material. Ka-Blam published comics can be offered for sale through its store, Indyplanet.com.

360 Digital Books
A small digital printing service that specializes in print runs of under 1,000 books, 360 Digital Books offers a variety of trim sizes and binding styles.

Lightning Source
This POD service is owned by Ingram, making it easy to get your book to any bookstore that orders it. Lightning Source has a $100 setup fee and the printing cost per paperback is $1, plus around a cent and a half per page. To keep your book listed, LSI charges $12 per book each year.

CafePress
Mainly known for printing mousepads and T-shirts, this online print shop also offers easy book binding and printing.

What publish-on-demand companies would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.