Think Inc.
A forum for Hawaii's
business community to discuss
current events and issues.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

Off the press

Print on demand is the next
revolution in publishing

By Gene J. Parola

Automakers who had to assemble parts from widely scattered providers sharply reduced their overhead in the '80s by not having to warehouse large parts inventories at assembly plants. By ordering deliveries in sufficiently small, but regular, quantities they also avoided taxes on inventories and made corrections before huge numbers of unsatisfactory parts were delivered. This tactic came to be known in manufacturing circles as just in time, or JIT.

Print on demand is JIT applied to publishing. For many in that ever-ailing world of large staffs, expensive printing, costly warehousing, complicated distribution and accounting, and archaic retailing procedures, the operative adjectives may be destructive, prophetic and, simultaneously, remedial.

Print on demand technology cannot currently replace methods used to produce all books. It is not an answer for coffee table books that require the expert attention of printers specializing in exact reproduction of color photos or paintings. However, it deals effectively with publishing's prime problems - economically producing and marketing the hard-cover book that finds its way to Goodwill after one reader. POD production costs are not yet as low as those of the trade paperback - the so called 'pocket books' - but the tremendous savings in storage and distribution will soon make it competitive with that form.

In the matter of printing costs, print on demand equipment consists of three machines, each about the size of the common office copier. A modern offset press is a massive machine in a huge building that requires a work load allowing for printing several jobs at a time. Heating such a building for a year may cost more than the price of the POD machines when they find their market.

In POD, the three machines require about 100 square feet of floor space. A manuscript from the author's computer is prepared as a portable document format (.pdf) file and submitted electronically to the editor. That file is translated into the printer's program and fed into the machine, which prints and collates the pages. A graphics program containing the cover design is fed to the second machine, which produces a multicolor, laminated cover. The third machine is a binder. A 6-inch-by-9 inch, 300 page book costs about $8 including the wages of the various operators. Total elapsed time - about 15 minutes. The publisher's entire list of out-of-print books can also be made available.

Currently a POD book is still dumped into the archaic distributor system because retailers are accustomed to dealing with one or two of the major distributors rather than many publishers. Here is where the second huge savings occur. Conventionally, part of a print run is shipped to a distributor, part to the publisher's warehouse. The distributor ships to the retailer from his huge warehouse. Unsold books are shipped back to the distributor who ships them to the publisher for disposal. However, with POD the distributor will no longer need a warehouse full of hundreds of copies of hundreds of different titles pending a retailer's possible order. In the early stages of the evolution, the distributor may assume the POD printing task, serving a large number of publishers on ranks of his POD machinery in his now-vacant warehouse.

A new way to buy

But the real solution to distribution is much more dramatic. Borders Books and Music toyed briefly with the idea of providing POD equipment in each retail outlet. On a customer's request, a clerk will select from the menu of books provided by the publishers and produce a copy while the customer has a cup of coffee. In-house retail POD will come when the equipment price comes down. Xerox introduced their machinery in television ads last year.

Books on retail shelves at the beginning of this revolution will sell, be discounted or returned to the publisher, as always, and empty shelf space will accumulate because new titles will not be ordered by the hundreds.

Browsing copies from which customers will order POD copies will require so little space that retailers will be able to reduce expensive mall rental costs. All but the most popular authors and subjects will be browsed online at home or on in-store computers. There will be no unsold books to be returned, stored and disposed of. Some retail space currently used for storage will eventually accommodate POD machines.

The current marketing procedure is to hype a new title for a month with conventional advertising, send out review copies to metro papers and, if it is a big name author, he or she will be underwritten to make a signing tour. After that, the publisher assumes that momentum will carry the book to success. Experienced marketing people know that that is a fallacy and sales figures confirm it.

Lesser known authors must, in conjunction with retailers, set up their own signings, send out more news releases, arrange interviews and reviews and buy promotional material from their own pockets. Retailers will occasionally pay for a small newspaper ad, but they too make the authors primarily responsible for the success of their book.

Currently, a 'mid-list' author's third manuscript may be rejected.

In the best possible worlds, savings realized by POD for the publisher and the retailer will be fed into long-term co-operative marketing budgets which will result in increased profits for publisher, retailer and author.

Modern information technology applied to this reformed industry will remedy the current 150-day wait for payment by automatically generating purchase orders, invoices, payments and accounting all online in real time.

All of these savings should mean that authors, for the first time in history, will receive more than the usual 10 percent of retail price for their efforts.

There are urban legends concerning the bestseller that had circulated for years to the big publishing houses and to finally be rejected by all of them. It obviously didn't fit the model of a successful, i.e., profitable, piece of merchandise. Then someone, thinking outside the box, accepted it and the rest is history.

Escaping the box

One of the sides of the box is often the perceived limited market of a particular subject. Editorial, design and prepress expenses are currently the same for a run of 10,000 books as for 100,000, and even a lot of sales in a niche market may not be enough to recoup cost, much less turn a profit. But with POD's minimal prepress costs and books printed to satisfy the exact demand, little risk is involved.

This also allows an editor to take a chance on an unknown author because outlay is in direct proportion to demand. If the author is a hit or the niche market is larger than the publisher supposed, the system responds accordingly.

And most revolutionary: If the conventional publisher has not yet realized that POD has flung open the door to a multitude of writers heretofore ignored, he can already see them competing with him in distributors' catalogs and on the Web. The writers, like independent film makers, musicians who burn and market their own CDs, indie broadcasters, painters who exhibit from the Left Bank of the Seine to the Honolulu Zoo fence, are - in defiance of the status quo - presenting their work to the market.

The opinions of a dozen editors in New York City can no longer determine what the world's reading public may choose from.

Well, looks like we made it.

Gene J. Parola is author of the novel "The Devil to Pay." He lives in Manoa.

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