Monday, May 16, 2011

On demand Publishing (guest post)

Cambridge Press (and others) offers PRINT-ON-DEMAND for some books. This is a guest post by Lauren Cowles from Cambridge Books about this, and then my comments on her comments, and then her comments on my comments. We stop there or else this could go on forever (OR we could make each block half the size of the prior block...)


Print on demand is expanding rapidly all over the publishing industry. It's a way to keep books available if not forever at least much longer than they otherwise would be. This benefits people who want the books and the publishers who want to sell them.

The main factors are: Printing technology is now generally computer-driven, like everything else. There is no longer any need to set up film (or plates) to print from; many printing presses work from something that's essentially a fast and very high resolution laser printer. Therefore there is less economy of scale because there is much less in the way of set-up cost.

It is still cheaper to print several hundred books than to print them one at a time, but not nearly as much cheaper as you might think. So for many books there is now a tradeoff between the cost of the warehouse space and the unit cost. Also, of course, publishers are not spending money on books they might not sell. When sales drop below the point at which this tradeoff favors a conventional printing, we can often switch a book to being printed on demand simply by emailing the printer -- most of the printers we use now do both "conventional" printing and print on demand.

To get a print on demand book, all a customer has to do is order it in the normal way. The process is also so fast now that the customer normally has to wait only a few days more than if the book were in stock on the shelves.

  1. Will there be a time when there is NO cost diff between ordering one book and ordering in bulk? Will book companies only print on-demand?
  2. Will Kindle and similar devices make print-on-demand a short-lived technology?
  3. What does print-on-demand and kindle mean for the future of book publishers?
  4. If these are cheap enough will they undercut the used-book market? If Kindle is the future will there no longer be such a think as a used book? (Molly Fortnow's daughter will ask Whats a used book mommy?.)
  5. For academic books I am very happy that they will live on forever via either on-demand or kindle. Sometimes out-of-print math books are either impossible to find or are too expensive.
  6. Will the notion of a rare book be obsolete?

  1. I doubt that the unit costs for print-on-demand will ever be cheaper than the unit costs for 500+ copies. But the PoD cost is low enough now that companies can make the choice for every book, and change that choice later in the book's lifetime. There already exist companies that only do print on demand (Lulu, for example).
  2. Again, I doubt it.
  3. Print on demand means we can keep things in print longer. What Kindle means is anybody's guess. Here in the publishing industry we are living in interesting times.
  4. If fewer new books get printed, there may be a vogue for the old printed object... The used textbook market may be affected. I think the big textbook publishers have been trying for ages to find an electronic textbook model that will catch on, so that they can sell the electronic thing over and over at some similar-to-used-book price rather than sell the big expensive textbook once (effectively, directly into the used book market). I like to think people are keeping their Cambridge books so the used book question doesn't arise. (NOTE FROM BILL: I tell my students that they can buy ANY edition of the book for the course, they do not need to get the latest one. NOTE FROM BILL: Cambridge Press mostly does high level monographs which people are less likely to sell used.)
  5. Cambridge Press has brought hundreds of books back into print now that we can afford to reprint them (eg Beck and Chen, Irregularities of Distribution).
  6. In the sense of hard-to-find, yes. Google books has been scanning a lot of out-of-copyright books and making them available electronically. Cambridge U Press is doing something similar: we have been scanning classic books in the University Library and offering them as print-on-demand (eg Gibbs, Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics). The original of this from 1902 is still rare.


  1. I keep wondering. What is the advantage of publishing monographs this way?

    From what I understand, authors do not make a significant amount of money with a monograph, neither do the publishers. And yet, the work itself becomes (often ridiculously) expensive.

    Why not publish such a document freely on the arXiv or your personal homepage? Why not follow the Terry-Tao-approach (so to speak)? The "peer-review" is surprisingly strong with a functioning community.

    The only advantage left seems to be reputation. Why not help the research community to "go online" and thus make it more reputable to publish "here".

  2. In AI, we have print on demand monographs, peer reviewed and free online


    toby walsh

  3. The POD books I've purchased have been of awful physical quality (readability of text, ease of use and durability of binding, etc.). I haven't found anyone predicting that POD quality will match that of traditional book printing any time soon. Personally, I refuse to buy POD books any more if I have any alternative. I know some people seem to not notice the quality, just as some people really can't taste the difference between Coke and diet Coke.