Print On Demand (POD)

What Exactly Is POD?

What Exactly Is POD? This month begins a preliminary look at this major phenomenon that is about to sweep the publishing industry. Next month we'll follow up with more info.

Print On Demand, or POD, is an exciting new technology that promises to revolutionize the publishing business almost as much as the Web is doing, at least in the short run.

The POD industry, as a subset of the publishing industry, will be defined by the players who step into the arena with large sums of money and figure out how to maximize their profits. That's one way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is that POD will enable a publisher to avoid gambling on huge print runs that require large investments/commitments up front.

Both views can ultimately benefit authors, in that a more efficient publishing industry should result from both facets of the paradigm.

Let's clarify terms a bit. If you'll check out the website of Ingram, the nation's largest book wholesaler, you can check through their programs. Look at *LightningPrint*, a subsidiary of Ingram. They offer two programs - short runs and POD. As one of the earliest and biggest players in the game, they are already defining terms.

Short Run printing is a traditional term for just what the name suggests - a short print run. What does that mean? In traditional printing, the more units you print in one run, the cheaper the cost of each unit - it's called economies of scale. That's because there are many costs involved - setup, union wages for some printing employees, etc. It's cheaper to order large amounts of paper, ink, and binding supplies in one order. Big commercial book publishers have traditionally tried to guesstimate as closely as possible the anticipated sales of a title, to get their initial press run as close to that figure as possible, and thus be most economical. Short runs, therefore, have the automatic implication of higher unit costs.

The kind of short run printing offered by Ingram/LightningPrint is something new - as we understand it, the printing is done in a machine designed for this kind of operation. In other words, it's not using a hammer to kill an ant. We asked for an estimate on one of our titles - 400 pages, quality paperback size, perfect bound, four-color separation cover - and we were quoted $750 for 100 copies (the minimum) from start to finish, including delivery to our door.

Get the implication of this last? To the door - that means we do the fulfillment. Also, the price assumes we deliver camera-ready copy and cover.

This short-run printing certainly fits into a doable format for the small ebook publisher, who can advertise the book on their website, accept customer purchases, and mail out the book to the buyer.

POD, according to Ingram/Lightning Print, is rather different. In order to qualify, when last we checked, the publisher had to have at least 25 books in LP's system, at a cost of something over $100 a piece to get started...not negligible for most shoestring publishers. Once you're there, LP takes a customer order and fulfills exactly one book at a time. It seems a much more seamless and automated system.

The books are manufactured in a machine designed to produce one book at a time. Xerox is one manufacturer that said they were making such a device, as of last fall, and unit price per machine was expected to be around $30,000.

That brings us to the next step in the saga. Sprout, Inc. has announced that they will be placing such machines in thousands of large bookstores and other venues around the country over the next year or more.

We've looked at the economics from the standpoint of the buyer and the small press, and we find it to be an eminently doable system.

What does this type of POD mean? Unlike the LightningPrint system, where fulfillment so far seems limited to mailing your single copy to you, here you walk into your local bookstore (or airport, or ...?) and, if you don't find the book you want, you go to this kiosk. You browse a web interface that connects to a remote database where all the available texts are located. You use your credit card to buy the text, and Sprout downloads the text and cover art to the machine before you, which, in 10-15 minutes, prints your book, crops it, binds it, glues the 4-color sep cover on it, and pops it out of a slot - tadah! Science Fiction!

At Deep Outside SFFH, however, we feel - regardless how marvelous this technology - in the long run the electronic book will win the day. When the perfectly ergonomic ebook arrives, that can outdo the print book on its own terms (at least in regard to what buyers are used to, and want more of), then POD will probably go away...after all, those $30,000 machines will require maintenance, paper, ink, etc., by highly trained technicians...get the picture? It's a bandaid. As much fun as it sounds, it's a patch on the way to a seamless connected world.

One little footnote: I smile to think that, in the future, some publisher, anxious to figure out new ways to promote his ebooks, will latch upon the idea of short-run printing as a way to advertise. Long ago, attractive young people used to stand on city street corners handing out free cigarette packs. Maybe by the 2030's or so, their descendants will be doing the same - with the latest horror and SF titles!


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