Via Chairman Bruce, a piece at The Economist about the rise of print-on-demand publishing:

Despite all its advantages, POD is unlikely to take over the world. This is because in contrast to digital printing, whose per-unit costs stay pretty much the same, traditional offset printing exhibits strong economies of scale. As long as you have bestsellers with hundreds of thousands of copies, on-demand printing is not going to displace the conventional sort, says David Davis of InterQuest. Then there is regulation. In some countries, such as China, a licence is needed to publish books; others, such as Germany and France, have price controls for books.

All this makes it difficult to predict POD’s impact on publishing’s supply chain, which is already in upheaval, mainly because of the internet. Readers should benefit from the greater variety. More authors will get published, for instance, but there will also be more competition. Publishers may save money, but they may also lose their role as gatekeepers. The losers are easier to determine: used-book sellers, logistics firms and, of course, the makers of offset-printing equipment. […].

Some believe POD could spur demand for books. Dane Neller, the boss of On Demand Books, which makes the Espresso, wants to put one wherever people might feel the urge to read, from cruise ships to train stations. But he gets most excited when talking about taking the devices to poor countries. “The potential to democratise knowledge,” he says, “is huge.”

I’ll leave the incisive commentary to Bruce Sterling, as he’s umpteen times better at it than I am:

Who really NEEDS print-on-demand books? Guys outside the distribution chain. And where do THEY live, one wonders. Oh wait, look. Here at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Those young guys with the cellphones. About a billion of ‘em.

I think it’s interesting to consider the potential effects of POD technology on a niche market like science fiction (or queer lit, or Lovecraftian retrohorror, or [insert small-volume-yet-international-and-surprisingly-tenacious literary scene here]), though, because it’s easier for a scene of that size to pick up and take over the gatekeeper mechanisms that POD would corrode.Whether they’d do as good a job is, of course, a matter for lively and passionate debate… 🙂

However, the caveat here is that I don’t understand the publishing business as an insider, and that we could probably all do with reading Charlie Stross’s ongoing Common Misconceptions about Publishing series (assuming you haven’t already, natch – I need to scrape together an hour or two to sit down and take notes while going through ’em in detail).

That said, I’m not sure that inside knowledge can effectively counter the suggestion that external technological and/or economic forces might completely up-end an entire industry, and render it unrecognisable (or at least unprofitable) in short order. If you’ve got informed input (or a good question!) please pipe up below and share it with us. 🙂