Does Print Fit in a Digital Book World?

Richard CurtisBy Richard Curtis, President of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc.; founder of E-Reads

The Digital Book World 2011 conference lived up to its billing. Each hour was filled with stimulating speakers and panels focused on every aspect of the emerging world of e-books.

Every aspect except one, that is.

As the three day event progressed I realized that one subject was being overlooked. I pored over the conference schedule seeking programming about print on demand. I found none.

Why should I have expected any? It was an e-book conference, not a print conference, right? Well yes, unless you think of PODs as e-books that are printed and bound. And I happen to think that’s what they are.

It’s not surprising that few think of print on demand as a form of electronic publishing. Because POD produces a tangible object – a printed book – we lump it together with other machine-made goods. Of course, all printed books are machine-made, whether offset in large quantities or printed on demand in small ones. But that’s where the resemblance stops.

Offset printing is designed to serve a traditional bookstore distribution model. After publishers make educated guesses about how many copies they can sell, they print copies to distribute in bookstores. Because they cannot predict how many copies will be sold, a great many will be returned to publishers for full credit. In the last few decades the return rate for trade books has soared to 50% and even higher, and if the decline of the publishing industry can be attributed to any single business practice, the consignment model of printing and distribution is it.

Contrast that with print on demand, in which copies are not printed until customers have ordered them on the Internet and paid for them in advance. Although books printed on demand are occasionally returned, the return rate in POD is negligible.

Unlike offset printing, POD is ideally suited for a book industry based on preordering – what might be called the Amazon model, a model that is transforming the retail landscape. (See A World without Inventory, Part 1 and Part 2)

The offset and on-demand business models could scarcely be more different from each other. On the other hand, POD and e-books are twins – fraternal twins perhaps, but twins nevertheless. (They were even born the same year, 1998.) The way you order a POD book is identical to the way you order an e-book. The only difference is that the printed volume is “uploaded” into your mailbox instead of your e-reading device.

When we founded E-Reads in 2000 we made POD one of our foundation stones. We were certain that until a viable popular e-reader was created, the reading device of choice would remain the printed book. This turned out to be correct. Until very recently, when the Kindle revolution took hold, POD sales represented about 50% of our revenues. It remains a significant contributor to our – and our authors’ – revenue stream. And of course it provides printed copies to those readers who prefer them to e-books. And there are still a lot of them.

It is also becoming a significant option for small presses and big publishers alike. David Taylor, President of Lightning Source Inc., arguably the largest POD press in the world, reported last spring that business was growing at a rate of 20% to 30% annually. Lightning prints, binds and ships 2 million copies a month on machines that run around the clock, a statistic all the more remarkable in view of the average number of copies per title they print on any given press run: two! And that’s just one POD company. There are others including one owned by a little outfit called Amazon. Many independent publishers are shifting to a purely POD model, and bigger houses use POD to keep books in print after inventories diminish and the cost of doing new print runs is prohibitive.

If we may therefore presume to make a suggestion to the program directors of Digital Book World, some attention to POD in 2012 would be welcome by many attendees. How do I know? Well, about 20,000 people have signed up for the On Demand Expo in Washington DC in March 2011.

Are PODs e-books? Without a doubt.

This post was originally published at E-Reads.com and has been reprinted with Mr. Curtis’ permission.

Richard Curtis, president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., is a leading New York literary agent; founder of E-Reads, an electronic book publisher; and a well-known author advocate. He is also the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction including several books about the publishing industry and is a former president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

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