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Publishing: Now for the Masses 2
April 16, 2008 - 2:55am


Print on Demand (POD) books have been around for several years, but their production quality wasn’t good, since they’re not printed on offset presses in quantity but individually as needed on industrial inkjet printers. Until recently, binding glues often didn’t hold, cover inks were misregistered, and the paper had the look of the outhouse. Using POD—especially for self-publishing—has meant risking scam.

This hasn’t mattered to amateur writers who wanted to leave grandpa stories for the extended family or soft-core pornographers writing for the erotically challenged, but no one with an eye to enduring quality would have it. Now, with better printers, inks, and bindery methods, nearly everybody is using POD, from big publishing houses keeping their backlists in print, to small indie presses with highly specialized missions, to a collector who wants a catalog of her treasures. Posters and broadsides can be printed quickly and cheaply for non-recurring events, and specialty promotions printed for one-off ad campaigns. Unsurprisingly, the taint of earlier uses of the technology persists, and I rarely hear established publishers speak openly about their use of POD, even when there are other new ways in the air, such as simultaneous electronic and print release of titles.

POD is another form of the Just in Time business model, which lets rapid response to the market by technology and systems compensate for lack of physical inventory. With POD, per-unit costs are stable (though higher than even medium-sized offset press runs), and there’s no waste, since the book isn’t printed until the order is received (and paid for).

The technology will only get better, smaller, and cheaper, like everything else. Just the other day the Times reported on a new version of the old Polaroid. It’s a tiny printer that puts snapshots from digital cameras on special paper “in about 30 seconds.” “Beam a photograph from a cellphone to the printer and, with a gentle purr, out comes the full-color print—completely formed and dry to the touch,” they say. (They also quickly suggest no one wants prints anymore, since we post photos on blogs and attach them to e-mails instead.) These sorts of innovations will take POD even further.

In theory, anyone can now publish books at relatively low cost that look nearly indistinguishable from those produced by the big houses. (Whether one can get them distributed, marketed, reviewed, or sold is another matter entirely. Many are called but few are chosen.) I’m not going to address whether those untested by the fires of mainstream publishing should or shouldn’t be given the chance to inflict on their families the words, “I’ve published a book this year.” That’s for another post and should be tied to a discussion of blogging, since both technologies allow many kinds of writers, from professional to this person, access to platforms that can look very similar.

I will make an assumption about POD for which I’ll get the same grief as I do for my views about blogging: With training, talent, and self-discipline, someone will self-publish a book that is as good and as handsome as—maybe even better than—anything made by corporate publishers. It’s not a new idea, and the technology will help.

Corporate publishers, wholesalers, and retailers know all about the democratic nature of the technology, of course, which is why Ingram started its own POD service, Lightning Source (“average print run is 1.8 copies”), and Amazon has BookSurge. Other POD companies, such as Wheatmark, have sprung up, and in a sure sign of profitability, Amazon a couple of weeks ago pulled a Microsoft and began refusing to sell POD books on their site unless they came from BookSurge. This led to quite a flap.

As I said a couple of posts ago, I’ve been watching all this out of the corner of my eye, since I think sometimes it would be instructive to run a small press, the way it would be instructive to stick my finger in a socket just to see what would happen. When I asked for a sample of their work, Wheatmark sent what I assume to be the most professional-looking title in their bookstore, Rangers in Combat: A Legacy of Valor, by J.D. Lock, Lieutenant Colonel U.S.Army (Retired). Colonel Lock is a little bit of a ringer; parts of this volume are from a previous book of his published by Simon & Schuster, and the foreword is by “Medal of Honor recipient and former senator Bob Kerrey.”

The prose and design are as good as in any book of its kind in a Borders bookstore. It does have the mark of sin on it—the logo of the POD publisher—which a company rep says can be replaced with your own logo for a mere $2,000. If I look really hard, the cover is off by a good quarter-inch, so a picture on the front cover that should butt to the fold does not, and a pic on the back bleeds onto the spine when it shouldn’t. For the real test, I’m going to run the Colonel’s book through the dishwasher a couple of times to make sure it holds up to our expectations. Rangers think they're so tough.

The future won’t all be descendants of the Kindle, but real books might not be printed on printing presses. The Barnes & Noble of the future could still claim to stock 100,000 titles but would have only one copy of each, and a POD unit in the basement would print copies as they're sold. The potential waste (and sensual pleasure) of stacks upon stacks of books would disappear.

After perusing the single copy of Oronte Churm’s You Did What to the Who Now? Tales of Life After 100, you’ll press a button, a scanner will debit the chip buried in your neocortex, and as you walk out, the robot in the minidress that’s bolted to the door frame will hand you a bag with your freshly-printed book in it. You’ll never even know it’s from my own publishing house.


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