Q: I’m particularly interested in how the digital revolution and easily available print-on-demand services are affecting the book world.—Megan, Las Vegas
A: That’s a big subject, Megan! The digital age has certainly impacted the book industry, by enabling short runs of bound books. The downside is that unit costs of digitally printed books in small quantities are typically too high to allow for wholesale distribution and market competitiveness. If you want 25 copies of your book to share with family, or to print 100 at a time for sell at your speaking gigs, this isn’t a problem.
Most traditional publishers (including Stephens Press) use POD (print-on-demand) to print ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) which are printed in small quantities and sent to book reviewers ahead of publication of the printed book. This helps us acquire those “blurbs” (testimonials) on the back of the book jacket before going to press. In some instances, we may use POD in place of offset printing to test the interest in a book before committing to a larger quantity, or to keep a small number of copies in inventory in place of declaring a title out of print.
The high unit cost, coupled with the typical low quality of books published by POD service providers, has led bookstore chains to routinely decline to shelve these books in their stores. Their issues:
Low Quality — Digital printing (which is akin to photocopying) isn’t the quality of ink-on-paper printing (especially for photos), POD books are known for poor editing and design as well. Self-publishers must arrange for their own editing and book design. Too often they either don’t recognize the need or get less than stellar help.
Non-returnability — Throughout the book retail environment, bookstores purchase at wholesale on essentially a consignment basis and the inventory is completely returnable for full credit. Throughout the POD publishing services industry, the books they distribute on behalf of their author-clients are not returnable. This impasse means virtually no self-published books are stocked by book retailers (although they can be special ordered).
Unrealistic Pricing — Many POD providers set the retail price on behalf of the authors at prices that make them unsalable in a competitive market. Or if the author can set their own prices, that high unit cost makes it impossible for them to offer the typical 50-65% discount required of distributors and wholesalers and cover their expenses, much less make a profit.
Digital manufacturing has changed book publishing — and like most technological advancements — both for better and worse. I can’t say it has leveled the playing field, but it has made the prospect of becoming published more accessible for all writers.
I’ll cover other digital advances such as audio and e-books in future posts. Want to know more about book publishing? Email your questions to email@example.com or leave a comment below.