Thursday, October 19, 2006

The POD Revolution?

Writing in the October 15th Sunday Times, Bryan Appleyard predicts that the rise of print on demand (POD) technology will spell the end of the large chain bookstores he is less than enamored with. In discussing the UK book market, he argues that these stores have forced publishers to all but abandon publishing interesting, intellectual works in favor of pulp bestsellers that have a better chance of selling. As a result:

Publishers have been forced to take fewer risks. Their cheap-to-run backlists can survive on small sales, and the mass market will look after itself. But the middle element in the equation — consisting of the new, the risky, the strange, the difficult, the ambitious, the non-generic, everything, in fact, one values — has been squeezed out. As publishers repeatedly say, the number of copies of a book that now have to be sold to justify the upfront costs is getting higher and higher. New books that aren’t The Wag Diet by Jordan Beckham don’t stand a chance.

The solution to all this is POD. This does away completely with all stock and cash-flow problems. In POD, an author delivers his manuscript and the publisher edits, designs and sets it on a computer, but doesn’t actually print any copies at all. Instead, it simply waits until somebody buys one. At that point, the book — a proper one, on paper, with proper binding — can be made on the spot and delivered through, for example, Amazon or direct from the publisher. Alternatively, the buyer can get it from a printing and binding machine rather like the current digital-photo processors. The latter method is the obvious one, and Starbucks is indeed looking at it.

Essentially, POD allows the user to go to a machine, select their book, swipe their credit card, and a professionally bound copy of that book will be published on the spot. In Appleyard's view, the impact of POD "will be seismic, almost certainly more radical than the impact on the record industry of MP3 technology." In my view, this may overstate things.

POD technology will certainly have a dramatic impact on the publishing industry, and on libraries. Should libraries be able to print books on demand for patrons, it might well obviate the need for things like approval plans and selection profiles. Instead of devoting their acquisition budgets to building "just in case" collections, libraries could spend their book funds on "just in time" POD purchases, as requested by patrons. POD could also be the deathknell of Interlibrary Loan, at least as far as books go.

Will print on demand thus eliminate the need for large bookstores and libraries? In my opinion, no. After all, movie theaters have faced over 5 decades and several generations worth of home entertainment technology, and are still going strong. This is because people enjoy the experience of seeing movies in a cinema setting. In much the same way, even in a print on demand environment, many will still enjoy going out and browsing crowded bookshelves at their local bookstore or library. To echo a point Appleyard himself makes, people already have the option of buying virtually any book they want online via Amazon or other web outlets. Yet they continue to visit bookstores and libraries.

In short, print on demand will have a major impact on how libraries and bookstores do business. It will not, however, drive them out of business.


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