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Big Books Feature

Button Pushing

Will print-on-demand technology save publishing or deliver its final death blow?

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A, Created: 2010:09:08 12:06:15


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“It’s a platform to engage with people,” Ellen Lupton says. “It was never meant to be a bestseller.”

The MICA professor/graphic designer/DIY publishing guru is talking about Sexy Librarian, the debut novel by Julia Weist released on Lupton’s Slush Editions imprint and a test case in self-publishing that took advantage of print-on-demand, or POD, technologies. For Lupton and other POD enthusiasts, this new way of publishing allows artists and writers more creative control and empowers small presses. Or, if you prefer your future more ominous, POD may create a nation of navel-gazing vanity publishers and destroy the floundering publishing industry in the process.

The burgeoning POD revolution was made possible thanks to a confluence of several different kinds of technologies. Design software is now familiar and accessible to people outside of graphic design firms; printing technologies have become cheaper and swifter; and the internet allows geographically dispersed communities to connect with—and sell books to—each other. So while the “big six” of the publishing world engage in the increasingly frantic search for the next blockbuster franchise, thousands of independent presses or intrepid individuals are self-publishing for a niche audience, and many of them are using POD to do it.

One huge advantage of POD is that it eliminates much of the waste inherent in traditional publishing by simplifying things down to supply and demand—in effect, a book isn’t printed until after it’s ordered. While this system doesn’t make sense for big publishers printing big books, it’s been a boon for small presses, academic publishers, and maybe even your neighbor’s unappreciated Viking epic.

The Johns Hopkins University Press, one of the country’s largest academic presses, uses POD technology for roughly 5-10 percent of its titles, estimates Fulfillment Operations Manager Davida Breier, who hopes to see this number increase.

POD makes sense for publishers such as JHU Press, where the bottom line isn’t the only concern. These days, a book that sells a few hundred copies a year is hardly worth keeping in print—except for the fact that, as Breier points out, JHU favors “dissemination of knowledge over profit.” With POD, it might not have to choose between publishing unprofitable but intellectually valuable books and letting them disappear. Theoretically, POD technology could eliminate the need for books to ever go out of print, since copies are only printed upon request, and every copy nets a small profit for the publisher—a workable model, even if overall sales of a title amount to only 15 copies a year. This is, of course, also a big advantage to any publisher tackling books with niche appeal—the kinds of titles that, as Breier puts it, “POD is really perfect” for.

Small presses are also using POD as a kind of trial run, enabling publishers to take risks that might not otherwise be possible. “You can print 50 copies, then see if you want to print a full run or make changes,” Breier says. “You can’t really do that when you have 1,500 copies sitting in your garage.”

Or you can eliminate the middleman completely and publish your book yourself. As more people choose to do so—self-publishing portal adds around 20,000 new titles a month—POD is beginning to erode the stigma of the so-called vanity presses. Artists with a need for creative control, writers who can’t stand pesky copy editors, or, well, your Viking-loving neighbor can go to sites such as Lulu or CreateSpace (an Amazon offshoot), upload text, and pick preferred page sizes, binding styles, and cover templates. Soon enough, they’ll have a book available for purchase.

Baltimore-based Elena Johnston used Lulu to publish her 2006 La La Land, which featured work by Baltimore artists, as well as to reprint another book (Paper Kingdom) after it sold out of its first two print runs. With a subject too narrow to attract a traditional publisher and without a huge start-up fund, Johnston found POD almost perfectly suited to her needs. “If someone wants to buy Paper Kingdom now from Lulu, the cover is glossy and the interior color is a bit less in quality than the original pressings” printed through Maryland-based Indigo Ink, Johnston writes by e-mail. “It’s awesome, though, because at any time someone can go and order it.”

The downside, of course, is that Johnston had to not only format her own layout, but also promote and sell the book herself. If traditional publishing employs a phalanx of copy editors, graphic designers, and PR flacks to create a final product, POD self-publishers have to take on all those roles themselves. In her Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book, Lupton offers a test case of POD publishing via Lulu. The advice on formatting and design is specific and helpful, but the underlying message is also clear: This kind of publishing takes hard work and, more often than not, community support. “When you do it yourself, you have to find your network,” Lupton says during a recent phone interview.

But there’s no question that some self-published POD books are, frankly, disasters. This is partly because now that anyone can publish a book, it’s starting to appear like everyone is. While back in the day “to publish a book used to be a pinnacle of something,” as Breier puts it, POD’s enabling of the self-published is eroding the cultural cache of the published book—not necessarily a good thing. There are economic concerns as well. In a May 26 New York Times op-ed, Garrison Keillor predicted that the future of publishing was “18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”

Even Lupton, an enthusiastic champion of DIY publishing, admits that it’s usually not enough just to be a writer. “If you just do POD on Amazon, no one’s going to know about your book, because there are millions of books,” she says. She suggests pairing a book with an exhibition or a lecture series in order to reach an audience. To her, it all comes back to community—it’s important to “design things that have an audience you can reach,” she says, even if “it might not be a huge community.”

But POD’s effect on the industry—whether liberating, dire, or both—mostly remains to be seen. Ultimately, though, Lupton is optimistic. “The tools don’t make the need for skills disappear,” she says. “Anyone can push a button and print a book, but that doesn’t make it a good book. But 20 years ago there wasn’t a button to push.” These days, thanks to that button, “if you’ve got the will and the ability to work really hard, you can come up with something quite beautiful.”

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