The O’Reilly TOC conference is the first show I’ve gone to in a long time that’s completely explicitly about the work I do every day. I’d planned to float among sessions yesterday afternoon, but instead I found myself glued to my seat at the Print On Demand session.
Why? I think the basic reason is simple - I’m one of those terrible people who’s always looking for books you can’t find easily in stores. They’re out-of-print, available only from the publisher, or otherwise obscure. Ingram was my friend when I ordered through stores, and then Amazon made a lot of things easier. At O’Reilly, I want POD for all kinds of reasons, from keeping old books in print to providing a way to test out new ideas without having to print 5000 books.
I’ve been expecting POD to happen for years. I spent too much time working at Kinko’s, I guess - I’d seen books getting made, if not the fine offset books typically sold in bookstores.
So here, now, it looks like it’s finally here. Lightning Source and other printers are offering print from PDF at rates that aren’t too insanely horrible relative to offset plus the cost of warehousing.
There’s still definitely a place for offset printing - offset has great economies of scale, and if books move out quickly, then the warehousing and other distribution costs don’t matter much. Offset will probably always make sense for initial print runs of books that will sell thousands of copies in a year - but that’s actually a relatively tiny share of the total number of books out there.
Cambridge and Oxford University Presses reported on how they’ve been able to change their businesses because of POD - though they have a huge advantage in an enormous backlist. Putting books back in print actually generated new demand, creating sales that could never have existed before. The availability of POD ended the scary conversations around print runs, and let them focus on the content and marketing.
W. W. Norton was able to reduce their “full-to-the-rafters” inventory, and get quick turnaround on reprints, avoiding the “available in X weeks” listing that seems to keep buyers from purchasing. One fun story revolved around a great review that was supposed to come for a book - but didn’t. Because they were going to print the additional copies by POD, they were spared a large reprint run that wouldn’t have worked out.
Applewood Books had a slightly different experience, having survived various disasters around inventory that wouldn’t move, and good times that led to slower times where the investment in their unsold inventory was keeping them from investing in the next big project. “We had a very strong backlist - when we could print them. We had too little of things we could sell, and too much of things we couldn’t sell.” Even loyal customers wouldn’t buy out of stock items, and sales suffered in the long term even from brief stock outages, as reorders would stop.
Ingram wound up the session, the company that manages so much of the U.S. book inventory as well as running Lightning Source. One strange new idea they presented was a ‘living book’ - 7, covering the upcoming Harry Potter book, with new news added as it becomes available. The book changes continuously, and will for a while. Every copy purchased is the latest version.
Political books - with regular updates - are another category of short life things that can sell well. There are also some big opportunities around simply avoiding “out of stock” delays - 49% of Ingram customers block backorder only - lost orders from out of stock are real. Ingram also emphasized that returnability of books still matters - a 3-5% increase in sales, but a less than 5% return rate. That last one surprised me - returnability has long been the nightmare of the publishing industry.
There was one big piece missing, though the first and last talks touched on it: publishing direct to POD. Most of these stories were about backlist. Bringing old books back to life makes me very happy, but at the same time, the part that’s most exciting to me is bringing new books to life.