Monday, March 15, 2010

POD: The Future of Print?

Again, sorry for my unforeseen silence last week, lords & ladies, but I've returned from my... what did Laura call it? Spiritual retreat? Arctic expedition? Whale-watching cruise? Voyage through the seventh dimension? Anyway, I'm back, and it turns out that the publishing world continues to turn regardless of whether I'm trying to insinuate myself into the center of it.

Today's news comes out of Rice University, where it turns out their academic press is switching over to print-on-demand. The reason for the move? It saves them a ton of cash.

The print runs of academic titles are only fractions of the print runs of most commercial titles, so (generally speaking) academic publishers pay more per unit than commercial publishers do when having their books printed, bound, and shipped. This is for two reasons: first, there are a number of flat-rate costs (e.g. typesetting) that are unaffected by the number of copies produced, and are therefore diluted as as the size of the print run increases; second, many printers will offer better variable rates as print runs increase, so it may be disadvantageous for an academic publisher to produce print copies traditionally (as they'll either be forced to print more copies than they can sell or to produce relatively few copies at a high price). This is where POD comes to the rescue.

With POD, publishers only produce a copy of a text when it's requested; while this may not be feasible for high sales volume titles like Twilight, it's ideal for smaller titles (e.g. most academic titles or volumes of poetry). As the technology becomes better refined and the speed with which individual copies can be produced increases, it may become a more reasonable option for commercial midlist titles, as well. Not only would this save publishers the higher per-unit cost of publishing traditionally, but it avoids the high-cost tango of shipping and returns altogether.

While it seems to me that e-books are going to become a major force in the industry over the next decade or so, I'm certain of two things: one, people will still be attached to print in some capacity, and two, if this introduces a tiered print structure in which the megabestsellers are published traditionally and as e-books, then I think any non-electronic presence that smaller titles will have will have to be through some kind of print-on-demand setup.

What do you think, author-acquaintances? Will smaller-run titles be permanently relegated to the digital world, or will POD rescue them from print oblivion?


  1. POD makes so much sense I can't see it not catching on. The Expresso thingie, for example. A bookstore could have one copy of the real thing that you take to the register and get your freshly minted copy. The only limitation I see is the wait but you could drink your coffee while you browse the print copy you're waiting on.

    Once you've recouped your investment on whatever POD device you're using the savings on shipping, etc. are huge. Plus, you could print obscure requested titles that you don't want to stock. Great solution for backstock. As a business model for online retailers I don't see a downside.

    I can't think of another business that could potentially sell a good without maintaining an on hand inventory somewhere. Except maybe Kinko's FedEx... which is kind of the same thing as POD.

  2. It's brilliant. Truly. Especially for the backstock.

    I think it's where things will go, and some publishing houses may have to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

  3. Unfortunately, the quality difference is still noticeable between POD and offset. POD is not a panacea. Finding the sweet spot where the run is high enough to have a decent unit cost (which is often higher than offset) but low enough to still fit POD (somewhere around 1,000 to 1,500) is tough. Chief benefit seems to be ease of reprinting.

  4. I've noticed with a number of Rex Stout titles I've ordered that the publisher has made them available through POD. The bottom of the very back page tells you where it was printed and on what date. The quality is very good--if not for the telltale on the back page, you'd never know that's what you're holding. The same with a book I ordered recently on British history. The back page showed it as having printed the day I ordered it, and the quality is very good.

    The technology is already quietly in use by the big houses. A lot of small houses use it as a matter of financial survival. As more houses pick up on it, perhaps the stigma that's often attached to it will drop away. I hope so, anyway.

  5. Last year, there were more POD books printed than standard run paper books. For backlist, POD is golden.

    POD will continue to grow until ebook usage becomes so popular it will overtake POD and begin to erode its numbers.

    The continuing death of brick and mortar bookstores will also hasten POD's popularity. Now that it looks like B&N may be the last bookstore standing and with its push to only shelf popular books, ordering POD online will increase in popularity, and smaller and specialty publishers won't have a reason to use standard print runs.

  6. Is it an aside before I've begun the comment? As an aside, typesetting for educational printers costs next to nothing. With composition handled by Indian firms and a guaranteed yearly page count for delivery, publishers can negotiate rates with foreign companies that would seem obscene if not taken into account with just how much volume they deliver over the course of the year.

    Pearson (parent company of Penguin) has a custom publishing division for their higher education textbooks. Don't like something about the core text (too many chapters, want chapters from another Pearson text), custom publishing will create a book specifically for you at LESS than what the original book cost. Custom publishing is averaging nearly 30% growth every year and in 2009 accounted for 20% of Pearson higher ed's profit. In the educational world, custom publishing will dwarf POD publishing if it doesn't already.

    POD has been implemented in educational publishing for years. There are no OOS designations any more. Now it's in-stock and on the back end, listed as POD, a listing a customer would never see. While POD has some restrictions still (which margins it can accommodate and the quality of its artwork), it has advanced to such a point that it is a suitable use for backlist publishing.

    Expresso never caught on. It was a novelty that seemed to make sense. Redbox caught on for DVDs so I can't tell you why Expresso didn't, but it didn't. We will not see B&N Expresso machines in McDonald's. POD book/mortar sales is the laser disk of publishing. It was a good idea, but ebooks came on too soon after to make them obsolete.

  7. What is it about your blog that I feel compelled to write such long responses to your posts? I take it as a good sign.

  8. I hope so. I work for a POD printer and we are able to do small print runs for niche publishers and academic/university presses etc--it works for them because they can print 25 titles at a time, no warehouse costs, and the print technology is so sophisticated (at least where I work) that you can't really tell the difference in color, paper etc. It looks virtually the same. Reprinting is easy because we have files on hand and no additional start-up costs. This isn't meant to be an info-comment--I really think where I work is pretty cool with no down side...we aren't preying on unsuspecting writers with self-publishing packages. We just print books.

  9. I'm an instant gratification kind of gal, I won't buy books from Amazon et al because I can't take it home and consume it then and there.

  10. My debut novel is coming out in June through a small press that uses POD and ebooks. It's a better model than traditional offset, because the POD printer my publisher uses also has a huge distribution network. I'm going to get the same exposure and access that I would have if my book had been published by one of the big 6, but with almost no start-up printer costs, which means we have more in my marketing budget. I expect that all my books will come out this way (the next two books in the series are set to come out from this publisher in the next 18 months). It's a brilliant printing strategy, whether you sell a thousand or a million copies.

  11. I absolutely see this as the future of publishing. My publisher, Lyrical Press, is primarily an ebook publisher, but they release some titles as POD. Sounds like a win win to me.

  12. But I do lose that instant gratification thing.....except with the ebooks...those you download and can read immediately.

  13. POD is green. No pulping of the remaining books since there aren't any remaining books. It makes sense.

  14. If the e-books will be sold via the agent model, then I think instore POD will have huge potential. Customer can decide on the shop if he wants ebook or printed version. If the latter, shop will use Expresso-kind POD while the customer waits. However, if the publishers will sell ebooks only online, POD will play quite small role as people will buy mainly ebooks.

    There is one not-so-niche-market for POD, and that is foreign sales. Instead the bookstore ordering book from overseas (delivery time being currently 3 - 5 weeks if not logner from US to Europe), they just order the master file and print the book out on in-house POD. Delivery time anything from 30 minutes to three-four days, depending how the publisher bills the bookstore for the master file (pre-payment, bill, e-transfer etc).


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