24 million adults in the United States consider themselves creative writers but less than 5% have ever been published anywhere. 172,000 titles were released in 2005. It has been estimated that at any one time there are between 5 to 6 million manuscripts looking for a publishing home. Many writers are turning toward publish-on-demand (POD) houses like iUniverse, AuthorHouse and Publish America to get their books into readers’ hands. About 25,000 titles will be released by POD houses in 2006. Does a publish-on-demand book, sometimes called vanity or subsidy publisher, help a previously unpublished writer get closer to the brass ring of a commercial publishing contract? Or does it bump them down a rung on their climb up the publishing ladder?

Writers often comment that a publish-on-demand book will at least “get their name out there” or that a POD book will show that they are capable of writing a 50,000 to 100,000 word manuscript. But does a POD book really help get a writer commercially published? That question was asked of nearly 60 successful literary agents in the Hill and Power 2006 Survey of Literary Agents.

These agents’ collective opinion is that a publish-on-demand book seriously hurt an author’s chance at being commercially published. Agents were asked to rate their response from 1 – significantly hurt, to 5 – significantly helped. The average rating was 2. 28% declared a POD title to be neutral (a rating of 3) but half of those specified that a POD title would only help if the sales reached a significant level, from 5,000 to 10,000 copies. Just a handful of publish-on-demand titles have reached that level of sales. The average number of copies sold for a POD title is around 100.

The book publishing industry has never been easy to break into and these same literary agents see the environment getting a bit more challenging in the next year or so for unpublished writers. Combine that with the significantly increased number of unsolicited submissions agents say they’re receiving and writers need every boost they can get toward agency representation and the ultimate goal of commercial publication.

Unfortunately, contrary to what quite a few writers think, that boost isn’t going to come from a publish-on-demand book.