Is Print-on-Demand More Important than Ebooks?

Richard Curtis at Digital Book World had a post yesterday about the possibility of falling prices of print-on-demand:

LightningSource Inc., a subsidiary of Ingram, has been E-Reads’ POD printer of choice since our founding in 2000. And because – through no fault of LSI’s – the high cost of on-demand printing has prevented the process from achieving its full commercial potential, our hearts beat a little faster when LSI announced in Publishers Weekly a number of initiatives suggesting POD prices could come down.

I think, outside of publishing circles, print-on-demand services aren’t talked about enough. Ebooks get all the attention, and of course they’re a major disruptive force in the publishing industry. But print books are still the vast majority of sales, and personally I don’t see a future in which they are in the minority. (Maybe 50%, but that’s the limit.) The codex is just too good a piece of technology. It works extremely well for what it’s designed to do: store and allow easy access to information. Ebooks save shelf space, but the technological infrastructure needed to make them work is far from “more efficient” than print. Think about it: apart from designing and maintaining standards for what ebooks are (the IDPF), there’s the work of actually housing ebooks as petabytes of data in servers (currently work done mostly by the likes of Amazon and Google), creating a system in which to distribute this information (also the work of Amazon, Google, etc.), and building and maintaining devices on which to read it. I love ebooks, but they are not inherently more sustainable than print.

Why should that matter if the infrastructure and technology surrounding ebooks are improving? Can’t we all expect these issues to be ironed out in the next couple of decades? Well, maybe. But even if they are, print-on-demand gives you all the advantages of the codex’s technology without the surrounding logistical hassles of offset printing. This has been discussed a lot on the web, already, but without massive print runs and warehousing costs it becomes much easier for small or DIY presses to work. And although some of the big POD printers are owned by the giant e-retailers (i.e., CreateSpace and Amazon), they aren’t all, and building a business around POD does not require you tie your entire enterprise to the whims of an Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Maybe this will change if J.K. Rowling or someone else figures out how to expand the Pottermore experiment into an easy-to-use online platform for authors (which Porter Anderson rightly suggests would be revolutionary), but until then print is still king, and POD allows the little guys to stay in the game. I’ve discussed before the many things ebooks have the potential to do, and I stand by that, but the digital age in publishing is still primarily a story about the means of production, who controls it, and who gets to profit from it. Again and again the trend is for new technologies to get co-opted by the big guys. POD is an example of things going the other way, in which the historically expensive and laborious process of printing a book is transformed into an easy and, hopefully soon, inexpensive option.


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