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section heading icon    Print-on-demand

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 , 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 paperback.

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

In 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 affordably.

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 markets.
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 (CUPID), a coalition brought together by the Xerox University Advisory Panel and now coordinated by the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). Xerox, Kodak, Oce, Toshiba and IBM have promoted proprietary hardware and software.

In the UK the Virtual Warehouse project brought together Palgrave, the academic arm of '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.

Lightning 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 religious publishers.

Sprout 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 's publishing arm, particularly St Martins Press and Simon & Schuster.

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 noted hype by MTI and others about about "Twelve-Minute Book Delivery" ...

Now you can order your books via the Internet and printed out while you wait (12 minutes) from an automatic vending machine

Interesting notion, but there have been few sightings of the vending devices.

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 market acceptance.

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 Ltd (CAL), Sydney University Press and the Australian Literature Gateway (AustLit).

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:

with 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 the button

Works 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 1999 paper by Alison Rivers on Print-on-demand: An overview of current experiences in Europe. Jill Walker's 1999 thesis (PDF) 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 US industry.

The Proceedings 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 (). The site also includes the 2000 Seybold Trends That Will Change the Business of Print (). 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

it 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.

     other media 

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 each sale.

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 ( 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, XLibris (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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version of April 2005
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