Print on demand as a technological revolution in small-scale publishing

Throughout the centuries, there have been several major changes in the way that information is both displayed and disseminated. Much has been written about the ‘Gutenburg’ revolution – the advent of movable type and printing technologies in the 15th century. Although there were of course were much older printing technologies with roots in China and elsewhere, Europe and North America became the international centre of publishing as a profession, and it spread widely throughout the industrialised world. As it did so, it embraced several changes in the technologies of communication.

Publishers large and small – both then and now – have had to be adept at embracing such changes. If they do not, just like many other human endeavours, they face decline as newer, more nimble, individuals and agencies take over. However, as new paper technologies and book-binding techniques were developed, making print-on-paper cheaper and more easily mass-produced, traditional publishers were more-or-less able to absorb these revolutions. Also adjusted to were ways of typesetting, layout and printing – from wood block, to hot-metal typesetting, lithographic techniques, computer compositing, etc. Economies of scale have also helped as the advent of colour on the printed page came down in cost.

With the advent of personal computers (PCs) in the 1970s, innovative software development gave birth to ‘desktop publishing’ (DTP). DTP software, mostly Xerox-inspired WYSIWYG (‘what you see is what you get’), promised complete control over how the information was displayed both on screen and in printed format. It seemed to put power back in the hands of those outside the professional publishers’ hallowed circles and was often heralded as a ‘threat’ to traditional print-on-paper publishers. Nevertheless, publishers have not only also embraced this technological revolution but have also contributed to it with their professional use of computer technology to typeset and manipulate layout in a way that significantly enhances readability. Appallingly laid out material, rendering it unreadable, is all too often manipulated in the hands of those without typographical/layout experience.

Print-on-paper publishers nowadays face momentous challenges – exacerbated by the increasing speed of technological development. Social media has matured and presents new and sometimes unfamiliar marketing techniques and new ‘channels’ to markets. The globalisation of markets and innovative advertising and selling techniques, plus the challenges of increasing opportunities to ‘self-publish’ (sometimes pejoratively called ‘vanity publishing’), can all seem overwhelming. eBook technology has added a further dimension to the challenges facing print-on-paper publishers (the subject of a different article).

Print on demand (POD)

One technology that has come of age in the last decade or so is that of print-on-demand (POD). Quoting John B. Thompson’s book Merchants of Culture: “As one of the senior managers involved in setting up Lightning Source – one of the pioneers of POD and still a leader in the field – put it, ‘It used to be print book, sell book. We say no, no. Sell book, print book.’” One section of the publishing industry in particular, that of the small, independent publishers, has embraced this technology successfully.

In its early days, POD had a bad press in that the quality of the printing and binding was quite poor compared with books printed and bound conventionally. It took a while for the quality to develop – driven largely by the demand for POD books. POD companies – the largest of which is Ingram/Lightning Source – have improved how POD books are produced. It is therefore now a viable – and growing – sector of the printing industry, for both large and small publishers.

The advantages of POD, especially for small publishers are many – and I’ll mention the downsides as I go along.

Perhaps the most important is the storage and dissemination of ‘metadata’ to all of the major suppliers of the books, such as Amazon, which is the largest supplier worldwide. Metadata is the ancillary information about the book, such as the ISBN, the blurb (short and long), any review quotes (or ‘endorsements’) by other writers, the book’s readership, the codes that allow it to be categorised (e.g.  ‘BIC’, ‘BISAC’, ‘Thema’), etc. This ancillary information, which crucially includes a low resolution version of the cover image, is vital in the selling of the book via outlets such as Amazon, Book Depository, Abe Books, etc. Sales of any published books can of course be supplied direct by the publisher – via their own website, etc. – but the beauty of POD is the direct selling by suppliers without any intervention by the publisher.

The downside of this is that the supplier takes their cut. This can be controlled somewhat by specifying a discount but the publisher has no real control over the price at which the book is sold by the online supplier. Moreover, the actual payment to the publisher – and for ‘cash flow’ reasons, this is a particularly difficult problem for small publishers – can be several months after the book has been bought and sold via online suppliers. A further problem is when a particular currency ends up being lower against £sterling after the period between the sale and the payment to the publisher, it’s the publisher that loses out financially.

Second, POD, as the name implies, means that there is no need to stock the book in a warehouse (or, for small publishers, typically in stacks of boxes in a spare room, if you have one, or the living room!). A small number of published books can of course be kept to fulfil direct orders to the publisher, but the bulk of sales are direct from the online suppliers and thus fulfilled by the POD printers without any intervention by the publisher.

Third, ordering books in almost any quantity – even very low quantities such as singleton copies – is economically viable. Before the advent of POD, printing very low quantities of books was prohibitively expensive. Economies of scale meant that the printing (and warehousing) of just a few hundred copies of books was not really an option for publishers, but now printing very low quantities of books is possible. POD therefore reduces the financial risk which is of especial importance to small publishers.

Additionally, POD means that a title can be kept ‘in print’ more or less permanently. Because the books are kept as data by the POD company, not as physical printed books, these data can be called upon at any time to be converted to printed and bound books.

POD companies such as Ingram/Lightning Source have improved the quality of their service so that the print quality is virtually indistinguishable from a conventionally printed book. To be sure, some books – particularly those of non-standard size and shape or some other design elements – cannot be reproduced by POD companies in a cost-effective way, but the bulk of conventionally sized and designed books can be.

Finally, any updates to books is simply done by uploading a corrected file to the POD-company’s database. This avoids the embarrassment of having to destroy a bulk of unsold printed books with a ‘typo’. Moreover, if the book enjoys a great review that you wish to quote from on the cover of the book, or if you wanted to add a ‘sticker’ to the cover of the book as (say) a special offer, since the cover is also held as data by the POD company, a correction/change can easily be added to the file and the corrected file uploaded.

Bob Carling
Managing Editor, Cultured Llama Publishing