past & future
This page deals with print-on-demand, a technology that
has recurrently been touted as the cure for many publishing
ills but so far has not not had a major impact outside
a handful of niche markets.
It also deals with publishing-on-demand.
It covers -
Publishing, even more than economics, is an inexact science.
Publishers have traditionally complained about capital
locked up in warehoused stock or books sent to retailers
but then returned. And consumers have lamented that books
go out of print too quickly - some overseas academic titles
for example are out of print before the printed reviews.
In the late 1990s the academic side of Cambridge University
Press (CUP) generated revenue of around £40m a year through
the sale of roughly 13,500 titles. Over 8,000 of those
titles sold under 100 copies in the year of release, with
5,000 selling under 50 copies and 2,000 selling under
10. As noted earlier in this guide, academic publishing
is quite different to much technical publishing, which
is in turn distinct from mass-market publishing. Some
of the 'slow sellers' in CUP backlist will trickle out
from the warehouses - if they're not remaindered - for
years, a few copies each year.
CUP estimates that slow sellers are worth £3-5m in sales
each year. It has been adding around 1,500 new titles
and discontinuing between 1,000 and 1,500 titles each
year. Potential sales for discontinued titles - judging
by queries to the publisher - are estimated at around
£1 million per year.
Academic publishers, some mainstream publishers, and some
authors have thus been interested in what has been promoted
as 'print-on-demand' or POD - printing of a single copy
or an ultra-short-run (for example ten to twenty copies).
Much of the technology is not new: independent publishers
and authors have been taking camera-ready copy and disks
to local offset printers for at least two decades.
In 2008 publishing industry specialist R.R. Bowker reported that
US output of "on-demand, short run and unclassified titles"
rose from 21,936 in 2006 to 134,773 in 2007. It is unclear whether that increase represents a major trend or is instead attributable to changes in data collection mechanisms. (A perspective is provided by Bowker's report that US "production of traditional books"
increased by 1% from 2006, with 276,649 new titles and editions.)
Proquest, the former Bell & Howell/University
Microfilms, continues to dominate a market based on nicely-bound
one-off photographic prints from microfilmed academic
theses, with a Dissertation Express (DX)
arm that produces unbound shrink-wrapped printout from
PDF, distributed by express mail from regional centres.
In the 1970s US publisher McGraw-Hill,
printer RR Donnelley and manufacturer AM Graphics unsuccessfully
promoted a device known as the Electrobook Press for the
US college market.
POD will not solve the distribution problems of many aspiring
authors (yes, you can print and bind your own masterpiece
but - as even Virginia Woolf found - it's hard to get
the resulting book onto the shelves of booksellers across
the country and thence into the hands of readers).
However major publishers (and some distribution agents)
are cautiously trialling internet-based POD. That's also
being promoted by some hardware vendors. It involves downloading
of an electronic text from a publisher's server for generation
of a single copy - or a very small print run - in
a bookshop or a kiosk using a device that produces a trade
Do not expect low-acid paper or an impeccable hardcover
binding replete with superb colour illustrations. However,
if you believe vendor claims books need never go out of
print and delays while your copy is shipped from overseas
might be a thing of the past.
POD hardware and software is not cheap. Most products
and services have a proprietary basis: there are few international
standards. The technology has not been embraced by consumers
(perhaps because it has received little exposure). Publishers
are attracted by the notion of less capital sunk in stock,
warehouses and salespeople but understandably are being
cautious. However it is likely to have a greater impact
on book publishing during the next five years than e-books.
Pundit Sam Vaknin proclaimed in 2005 that
the foreseeable future, "Book ATMs" placed
in remote corners of the Earth would be able to print
on demand (POD) any book selected from publishing backlists
and front lists comprising millions of titles. Vanity
publishers and self-publishing allow authors to overcome
editorial barriers to entry and to bring out their work
The Internet is the ideal e-book distribution channel.
It threatens the monopoly of the big publishing houses.
Ironically, early publishers rebelled against the knowledge
monopoly of the Church. The industry flourished in non-theocratic
societies such as the Netherlands and England - and
languished where religion reigned (the Islamic world,
and Medieval Europe).
With e-books, content is once more a collaborative effort,
as it has been well into the Middle Ages. Knowledge,
information, and narratives were once generated through
the interactions of authors and audience (remember Socrates).
Interactive e-books, multimedia, discussion lists, and
collective authorship efforts restore this great tradition.
Authors are again the publishers and marketers of their
work as they have been well into the 19th century when
many books debuted as serialized pamphlets in daily
papers or magazines or were sold by subscription. Serialized
e-books hark back to these intervallic traditions. E-books
may also help restore the balance between best-sellers
and midlist authors and between fiction and non-fiction.
E-books are best suited to cater to neglected niche
E-books, cheaper than even paperbacks, are the quintessential
"literature for the millions".
The major US academic initiative is the Consortium
for University Printing & Information Distribution
a coalition brought together by the Xerox
University Advisory Panel and now coordinated by the Coalition
for Networked Information (CNI). Xerox, Kodak, Oce, Toshiba
have promoted proprietary hardware and software.
In the UK the Virtual Warehouse project brought together
Palgrave, the academic arm of Holtzbrinck's
Macmillan group, and the Anthony Rowe printing group in
a POD trial using Xerox products. Holtzbrinck more recently
announced and alliance with Lightning.
Apart from IBM and Xerox, the two leading specialists
trialling the technology in US bookstores and libraries
are Lightning and Sprout.
Print is a subsidiary of US national book wholesaler
Ingram, maintaining its independence after foiling a takeover
bid by Barnes & Noble. Lightning has around 4,500
titles on its server, drawn from academic, general and
promotional literature flags that they are turning book
publishing and retailing upside down, replacing "the
old way - print, distribute, sell" with "the
Sprout way - sell, distribute, print!". Borders,
a US national retail chain, has recently acquired a major
interest. Sprout is currently repositioning itself as
a broad digital service-provider for booksellers and publishers.
Its major alliance is Viacom's
publishing arm, particularly St Martins Press and Simon
Barnes & Noble has announced use of IBM technology
in print-on-demand facilities in its regional distribution
centres. So far the earth hasn't moved. In July 2001 we
hype by MTI and others about about "Twelve-Minute Book
you can order your books via the Internet and printed
out while you wait (12 minutes) from an automatic vending
notion, but there have been few sightings of the vending
In late 2003 the US Borders retail chain began trialling
'Borders Personal Publishing' in stores in Philadelphia.
Its promotional literature proclaimed that "It's
easy to publish your own book!", with authors paying
US$4.99 for a kit and subsequently delivering a manuscript
to Borders along with a US$199 fee. Borders provides ten
softbound copies within six to eight weeks. A deluxe 'Professional
Publication' service, at US$499, entitles the author to
an ISBN and short-term shelf-space for five copies.
POD in Australia
Although there were isolated announcements about
POD in Australia during the dot-com boom
few proposals were implemented and none gained substantial
That is unsurprising given overseas domination of mass-market
and technical publishing (decisions are made by offshore
parents), the conservatism of small publisher and local
venture capital funds, and authorial perceptions that
their needs are satisfied by short-run traditional printing
or publication online.
The major post-bubble initiative has been the Classic
Australian Works (CAW)
partnership between rights management body Copyright Agency
Sydney University Press and the Australian Literature
The project reflects the Scholarly Electronic Text &
Image Service (SETIS),
the university's main online publishing initiative, and
revival of the moribund university press in 2003 (now
to concentrate on electronic publishing after 16 years
of inactivity). It will publish "the Classic Australian
Works series through an innovative process of digital
to print-on-demand production and sale".
CAW will allow surfers to browse an online list of out-of-print
literary works such as Boyd's Lucinda Brayford
and Ireland's The Glass Canoe, select and pay
for an item of interest and then collect the soft-bound
text from the university or receive the book through the
post. The promoters hope that in future the distribution
network will include other universities:
digital technology it doesn't matter where you are -
you just send the encoded information to wherever your
machine is. Your book emerges in 10 minutes after pressing
will be identified using DOI.
Eric Peurell's 1998 EU report
on Electronic publishing and Print on Demand: a review
of current projects in Sweden and the more detailed
by Alison Rivers on Print-on-demand: An overview of
current experiences in Europe. Jill Walker's 1999
on Diffusion of Innovations Theory Applied: The Adoption
of Digital On-Demand Technology by Book Publishers & Printers
is decidedly upbeat but of value for its coverage of the
of the First International Conference for Professionals
on Print-on-demand: A Technological Revolution at the
service of Cultural Diversity, held in Strasbourg
during January 2000 are uneven but of considerable interest.
Michael Spring's Electronic Printing & Publishing:
The Document Processing Revolution (New York: Dekker
1991) deals with the mechanics but unfortunately is quite
dated. We will be providing more pointers shortly.
Scott Bennett's 1998 JEP paper
on Just-in-Time Scholarly Monographs offers an
economic perspective. We've highlighted other issues with
scholarly publishing earlier
in this guide.
The US Print On Demand Initiative (PODI),
a printing industry trade group, has published a 171 page
Best Practices in Personalized Print report (PDF).
The site also includes the 2000 Seybold Trends That
Will Change the Business of Print (PDF).
PODI's oriented towards the traditional offset printing
and copy-shop markets rather than publishers.
For an example of enthusiasm about POD as the basis of
new publishing golden age see Jason Epstein's 5 July 2001
article in the New York Review of Books. Characterising
POD as an "epochal event, comparable to the impact of
movable type on European civilization half a millennium
ago, but with worldwide implications" he chortles that
will permit authors to "sell their books to readers
throughout the world directly from [web sites], bypassing
publishers who may have rejected their work, while established
writers may chose to forgo the security of a publisher's
royalty guarantee in exchange for keeping the entire
revenue from the sale of their books.
... From the consumer's point of view the experience
of ordering a digital book selected from an on-screen
catalog and printed at a nearby site will differ from
buying a factory-made copy of the same book from an
Internet retailer only in being nearly instantaneous,
less likely to result in frustration if the physical
book is out of print, and at a price that includes only
a fraction of the retailer's markup.
Recurrently there's noise about POD-style production
of compact disks or even videos.
The same principles apply: information would be downloaded
from the publisher's server to burn a CD while the customer
kicked his/her heels elsewhere in the mall.
EMI and Sony for example announced in July 1999 that they
are embracing similar technology for producing compact
disks on-demand. However, implementation of this celestial
jukebox is proceeding slowly and as of 2004 there are
few venues in Australia.
publishing on demand
The dark side of POD is what might be termed 'publishing
on demand' - new millennium versions of the traditional
vanity press. They'll edit, lay-out, print and even distribute
your novel or nonfiction ... for a fee. Since most authors
aren't willing to stump up the cash for a major print
run and the publishers won't invest in works that are
unlikely to sell, they're increasingly using POD technology.
Pre-digital vanity publishing took two forms. Some publishing
houses were effectively only printers. They typeset the
author's manuscript and printed a small number of copies
at an upfront cost of between US$10,000 to $65,000. The
author owned and distributed those copies, expecting to
recoup costs through any sales. 'Subsidy publishers' similarly
required payment upfront but owned and often distributed
the print run, with the author receiving a rebate for
Digital POD updates that model. Typically the author hands
over the money (anywhere from US$1,000 to US$12,000) and
receives ten copies of a text that was electronically
submitted to the publisher. Consumers who want to read
the book visit the publisher's web site or that of the
author and order a copy; POD is used to generate the required
number of copies.
With a few exceptions (Amazon.com for example has a relationship
with iUniverse) the books are only available from the
author and the publisher's site: forget about copies in
major offline bookstores or libraries. One reason is lack
of access to traditional distribution channels. In the
US for example dominant wholesaler Ingram requires 'micropublishers'
to give it a 60% discount (sometimes in addition to fees)
or use an agent. It defines 'micropublisher' as any publisher
that conducts under US$20,000 of with Ingram (rather than
business overall) over a two year period. Only six of
iUniverse's 17,000 published titles have supposedly made
it to Barnes & Noble store shelves.
Industry majors such as iUniverse
(25% owned by Barnes & Noble), Fatbrain,
(49% owned by Random House) and 1stBooks
have been criticised for inappropriate charging (several
US and EU writers associations have claimed that a traditional
printer will print/bind more cheaply) and for blurring
problems with distribution and identification. Some of
the publishers, for example, don't bother to use ISBNs.
For many authors it would arguably be more effective to
visit the local printer or to publish electronically,
for example through sites dedicated to their writing.
Overall the majors are shifting away from authors with
unreadable (but alas not unprintable) novels and towards
more lucrative printing of corporate technical documentation.
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