POD = DOA?

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2010

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. 🙂


Magazines2.0 – does print-on-demand spell doom for the news-stand?

Paul Raven @ 06-04-2009

magazines at the news-standIt’s no secret that a big part of the problem for science fiction magazines – and many other sorts of periodical publication – are the cost and logistical issues attached to printing and distributing the final product. You can buy the best fiction on the planet, hire the best columnists and artists… but if you can’t get that final product into the customer’s hands (or at least in front of their eyeballs), you’re going to struggle to sell copies. [image by Diane S Murphy]

Enter Hewlett Packard, who describe their new MagCloud service as “YouTube for magazines”. MagCloud has similarities to LuLu.com as well; basically, you upload your finished magazine as a PDF file, which MagCloud then lists in its catalogue for no charge. When a customer wants a copy, they log in, pay the cost… and get a printed version made especially for them.

Arch-fan (and Clarkesworld non-fiction editor) Cheryl Morgan can see a route ahead:

Where I do think that there is a potential business case is with small press magazines. The sales pitch would go something like this: yes, you can read it for free on the web; yes, you can download a PDF and print it yourself, but if you really want something glossy and physical then order it from MagCloud.

I’ll go one step further – there are server-side software engines that can be used to stitch together PDFs from HTML files, so you could allow your reader to custom-build a magazine to their own specifications from your stock of stories and articles, and then buy a unique printed version. If nothing else, it would mean you could avoid paying for a magazine which contained a story by an author whose work you just don’t enjoy.

Of course, as TechDirt points out MagCloud’s potential success is predicated on the assumption that interest in magazines among people tech-savvy enough to be aware of the service will continue for long enough for the business to grow (and, more importantly, for the currently prohibitive unit costs to fall)… and while I’m convinced that dead-tree books will last for a good few decades yet, I’m not so sure that the magazine format will have the same longevity.

What do you think? Would you be interested in a print version of sites like Futurismic – a story or two a month, a couple of essays and a sprinkling of blog posts selected from your favourite tags and search terms – or is the webzine at its best in its native non-physical environment?