This is the second in my series of articles on print-on-demand and the growth of independent publishing in Australia. It explains the value of print-on-demand services for writers who want to self-publish a book.
Writers generally choose to self-publish because it’s difficult to find a commercial publisher in a highly competitive market. Without the backing of a commercial publisher, writers must manage the complicated and time-consuming process of transforming their manuscript into a sellable book independently.
While it’s relatively simple to employ a freelance editor to provide structural editing and proofreading, it’s less simple to negotiate production: the printing and distribution of a book.
In my previous column I described the role of different departments within a publishing house, but brushed over production. The production department works with the editor/publisher and designer to make decisions about format, paper stock, special finishes (such as foil, embossing, spot colours) for a particular book.
Based on those decisions, Production then negotiates with a range of printers to find the best deal to produce the book.
A self-published writer must navigate this process alone – an overwhelming prospect for most people. Moreover, the traditional publishing model poses several additional hurdles:
1. Large print-runs Traditional book printers rarely print fewer than 1,000 books in a print-run. The large quantities are cost driven: setting up printing presses and binding machines takes time (human labour) and resources (electricity, paper, inks, for some presses also water). The cost of those overheads is distributed across the quantity of books printed, so the more books printed, the cheaper the unit-price per book. Yet this reduced unit price only works if all the books sell.
2. Storage and distribution Once printed, the books need to be stored somewhere. Look at your bookshelf and try to imagine where you’d put 1,000 books. Then consider that every time someone wants a copy, you have to deliver it to them. Distribution houses exist to deal with these problems, but incur substantial fees.
Some digital printers offer shorter print-run in the hundreds, or even fewer, which is a more sell-able quantity for self-publishers, but still leaves a storage and distribution problem.
3. Waste What to do with leftover stock? Large publishers periodically send trucks to bookstores to collect unsold stock and ferry it back to warehouses, usually in remote locations: petrol, emissions, labour costs ensue. There, the unsold books are pulped and recycled as cardboard, a process that requires large quantities of chemicals, electricity and water. Waste begets more waste.
Small publishers don’t have these facilities, which means collecting unsold books in person, incurring further time and resource costs and making “bricks-and-mortar” shops less likely to stock self-published books because it requires more administrative work on everyone’s part. And the problem of what to do with excess stock remains.
Here lies the value of print-on-demand. Print-on-demand is a digital printing service that allows anyone with a computer and credit card to publish a book, in quantities as few a single copy. The process is simple: the author uploads digital files of the book pages and cover to an online platform (the print-on-demand supplier such as Blurb and Lulu), then when someone orders a copy of the book, it is printed and posted to them, anywhere in the world.
This means a writer can publish a book without spending any money other than ordering a single proof copy of the book, which can be as low as a few dollars. When someone buys a copy online, the book is printed and delivered to them, and the author does nothing other than receiving royalties.
Print-on-demand is possible due to advancements in digital printing technology. Traditional book printing is done on large off-set machines (see image above) which, once running, are very efficient over large print runs. Newer digital printing and binding machines are capable of printing an individual book quickly and efficiently, consuming less time and resources than traditional printers (see image below).
Print-on-demand provides an incredible opportunity to skip the traditional book production process, saving costs and waste. However, it also skips the invaluable editing and design processes. In the next column I address some of the issues associated with bypassing design in the book production process.