Monday, May 18, 2009

Print on demand - the industry's saving grace

The blog of literary agent and author advocate Richard Curtis has an interesting article today regarding print on demand and how it could prove to be the publishing industry's saving grace, something that I have stated for a long time.

What he has to say makes interesting reading, for he suggests that contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with the publishing industry, despite its current decline, that a different form of distribution would not solve. The different form of distribution that he proposed has nothing to do with wholesalers, but is rather, a different printing method - namely, print on demand.

To those who are not in the know and do not understand why this would be so, it may seem like an extravagant statement, but the reasoning behind it will be clear to those who understand how it works, and there are some statistics to back this theory up, recorded in an interview conducted by Liz Thompson for Bookbrunch, with David Taylor, President of Lightning Source in the UK, the largest print on demand operation in the world. Lightning Source have printed 70 million books in the ten years since their operations began, and their facilities in Tennessee and Pennsylvania hold almost one million digital files.

While the rest of the industry is in the doldrums, Taylor claims that their business has grown by 20 to 30 percent in the last six months alone. Lightning Source print, bind and ship 10,000 books each day on machines that run around the clock. At their plant in Milton Keynes, they are building new, improved facilities the size of a football pitch. Lightning Source continues to thrive at a time when the industry is reeling from an epidemic of returns, with a system based on the exact opposite.

As Taylor told his interviewer, "the recession is focusing publishers' minds on cash, on the amount of inventory they have sitting in warehouses, on the cost of transporting stock. Most global publishers in the academic and STM (scientific, technical and medical) markets are saying they want to get out of inventory, and some pretty radical discussions are now taking place which will allow publishers to do just that. Believe me, it's an exciting time to be part of the business."

The most obvious solution to this problem is not to print so many books in the first place, and to ensure that those that are printed are sold - the best way to ensure that both of these happen is through print on demand, for you know that the books that are printed have already been sold.

In the future Taylor sees the creation of vast digital warehouses, which are in essence a network of servers containing vast archives of POD files linked to Espresso machines, which Blackwells are currently trailing in their Charing Cross store. These are like miniature print on demand machines (known as ATM's for books) that enable books to be printed and bound in a matter of minutes, the time it takes to have a cup of coffee, hence their name.

There is no reason in the future, why such machines should be confined to book shops; they could be set up anywhere, and could be particularly beneficial in developing countries that do not have the same infrastructure and distribution channels in place that we do in the west.

The full article can be read here.

Curtis also provides a useful and interesting link to You Tube where you can see the Espresso Machine in action.

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