OK, so the electronic book didn’t wind up saving the publishing industry. But IT is behind another development that’s steadily upending the way people make books: print-on-demand.
Think of print-on-demand (POD) as just-in-time manufacturing for the publishing world. Many printing houses now offer digital print-on-demand as an alternative to traditional offset printing, a painstaking and time-consuming process that’s economically best suited for larger print runs (say, 5,000 to 10,000 books). POD allows publishers to order much smaller quantities of books, even down to one, thereby providing an easy way to keep backlisted titles available and essentially ensuring that books never go “out of print.”
Digitally printed books have long been stigmatized as cheap and cheesy, but steady improvements in technology have brought us to the point where it’s getting harder to tell the difference between an offset four-color hardcover and a digital version of the same tome.
Under the hood, print-on-demand is fueled by the highest-end versions of the same digital print technologies used in millions of home computing setups, says Chuck Surprise, editor and publisher of the industry resource site PrintOnDemand.com. Adobe’s page description language, PostScript, and its ubiquitous PDF file format are combined with very high quality digital printers from companies like Xerox and Kodak, which are capable of reproducing the highest-resolution color on book-quality paper stock.
Print-on-demand is still a small piece of the printing market, according to CAP Ventures, but it’s the chunk with the largest growth potential. CAP estimates that the retail value of POD will jump from $33.2 billion in 2003 to $60.2 billion by 2008, a healthy 13 percent compound annual rate.
POD is also driving growth in another market: wannabe authors. For fees ranging from $199 to as much as $1,600, writers can publish their books, choosing from a menu of options that include hardcovers and four-color printing. With very small print runs now economically viable, companies like iUniverse, Xlibris, Lightning Source and 1st Books (now known as AuthorHouse) are aggressively marketing self-publishing services to writers.
Some publishing industry heavyweights are backing POD. Barnes & Noble owns part of iUniverse, Xlibris counts Random House as a major investor, and Lightning Source is the POD subsidiary of Ingram Industries, one of the largest wholesale book distributors in the country.
Long term, industry watchers like Surprise think digital’s day is here to stay. “There are people who value traditionally produced hardbound books,” Surprise says. “Other people would rather be able to go into a bookstore, order a book, have it printed, and come back in five minutes to pick it up. That’s the promise of print-on-demand.”