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print on demand



Sometimes wrongly called "publish on demand", this is a relatively new term and a new technology, but I suspect we'll be hearing more of it in the future. POD makes it possible to turn that set of slides/digital images from your trip to Tuscany into a 72 page book, compete with a four-color cover. You don't even have to be much of a writer. Wedding photographers have been using POD for several years, producing elegant hard-bound volumes they charge outrageous prices for (my opinion, but the markup from their actual cost is astronomical). It also makes possible more timely publication, which in my case hardly matters, but in politics, finance, economics, etc might be rather interesting. A recent title by George Soros, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crash of 2008 and What It Means is a good example. The completed manuscript arrived at the publisher on March 24 of last year. By April 1, it was available in a host of e-book formats, and the print version went on sale on May 12. Nice.

POD has a number of applications. University presses use it when they can't justify the expense of producing and warehousing a sizeable print run—for instance, to keep backlist books available. Smaller publishers use it as a more economical business model, showing lower startup costs but at the expense of a smaller per-book profit (due to economies of scale, digitally printed books have a higher unit production cost than books produced in large runs on offset presses). A friend of mine is doing his own book for a class he teaches at a community college.

Carl Becker, an early 20th century historian, wrote a very influential essay entitled (as I recall) "Every Man His Own Historian," arguing that each era has to reinterpret the events of the past in light of their current attitudes and values. I think I read it as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, and it had a lasting impact, tho' I haven't reread it in decades. I know I still have a copy, and this mention of it may cause me to dig it out and look at it again. That's one of the happy by-products of writing—you go back to stuff that is vaguely in memory because you need to be more precise than you do when chatting over cocktails. The point is that every man, or woman, can now be his own publisher. That's potentially very significant, but not necessarily a good thing, of course—there are already too many bad books chasing too few readers; but you know what I mean. Books that once would not be published, even by a university press, now may have a life beyond a scholar's xeroxed typescript circulated among a few friends. What blogs are doing for those with a need to share opinions, observations and the (too) intimate details of their daily life, POD has the capability of doing for the scholar, the teacher and those who write (or photograph or paint, etc.) for a miniscule audience. It can also enable the poet and the novelist to get their work published, even if those books never make it into the traditional book distribution system. In fact, most print on demand books sell fewer than 200 copies, and most of those go to the author and his/her friends.

POD thus is often one form of vanity publishing, but it can also be a way of keeping old titles in print when demand would never justify a reprinting. Traditional printing technology, such as letterpress and offset printing, is simply not economical for short print runs. Wikipedia tells us that "Many traditional small presses have replaced their traditional printing equipment with POD equipment or contract their printing out to POD service providers. Many academic publishers, including university presses, use POD services to maintain a large backlist." So POD is really a digital short print-run technology, but the implications of that are significant.

What it means for you
There are probably three consequences that may touch you; the fact that you've read this deeply into this page means you are unusually involved in books (you're probably unusually smart and good-looking, too).

  • One is that you will increasingly be able to find and buy out-of-print books and works on arcane and esoteric subjects with limited appeal (like the religious architecture of Sussex County, for example).
  • A second implication is that the publisher or distributor probably maintains no inventory and prints only when there is an order in hand. Instead of getting your book in a couple of days, I suspect it will be a week or two after you order before your book arrives.
  • Finally, you are probably not going to find POD books in a bookstore. That's similar to the situation with scholarly books from university presses. You'll learn about them from friends, on the web or a Google search. You will have to search them out because traditional media is not going to take notice of them.

The quality of the POD books, on the other hand, is likely to be a bit uneven, but usually pretty good. From all the evidence I've seen, POD printers do a fine job—good paper, quality printing, very nice covers, although I am usually disappointed about the reproduction of my black-and-white photographs—just fine for a reference work, but not so good when you are a photographer hoping to retain some detail in the shadows and texture in the highlights.