a frequent blog about bookselling, publishing, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and more.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Print on Demand explained
This post arose out of a Q&A on an email list for booksellers and collectors and was originally fired off quickly in response to some questions - thus, I hope I may be excused for any errors and continuity problems that may exist herein.
The bulk of what used/antiquarian booksellers get in a tizzy over are the marginally respectable POD printers such as Kessinger Publishing (one of the oldest and largest of this type of printer). Kessinger purchases original copies of out-of-copyright material, scans the books and loads the result to Ingram with plain yellow covers and simple lettering. They use a boilerplate description of the title which briefly and not too clearly explains that this is a reprint/facsimile copy and therefore identical to the original including errors, stains, library markings, etc. They offer the titles in both trade paperback and hardcover at a price based on the page count. After distributor costs and retailer markup, Kessinger is making about $10 profit per copy sold - and charging roughly twice what they ought to be for the titles. Other smaller companies have taken advantage of this by undercutting Kessinger on the pricing. The setup cost per title runs about $100 though Kessinger gets a volume discount. I am fairly certain that Kessinger has Ingram handle the scanning as well - Ingram offers the service and the cost thereof is marginal compared to purchasing your own equipment to do it.
Google uses their own scanners but I think uses Ingram for the printed copies now though their primary grab at the market was for ebook reprints of the library archives of the world.
Dover purchases original copies of the books and re-typesets them. They use traditional offset printing for most of their books and have the equipment in-house. Technically, Dover is not publishing POD - though they are beginning to use the technology for backlist titles I believe.
Applewood Books is another reprint house, specializing in out-of-copyright Americana and early children's series (Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, etc.) They fully re-typeset the book and re-image the original dust jackets, etc.. manufacturing a reprint copy that truly is brand-new and at the same time is a replica of the original save for their markings/pricing. They produce a very nice facsimile edition of these works at very fair pricing (I think the Tom Swift reprints in hardcover are $14.95 or so). Again, like Dover, most of their product is traditionally offset print rather than POD but they are likely starting to change that for some titles.
The other type of company that gets people upset lately is Books LLC - a POD house that is dumping Wikipedia articles into book form at insane prices. They simply have some extraction software that grabs the data from Wikipedia on any subject imaginable and dumps it into book form, loads the result to Ingram. MANY customers, authors, and others are screaming about this company as their descriptions & titles are blatantly misleading, the prices are outrageous and the ownership of content is dubious at best.
Next up - major houses such as Del Rey, UMich Press, Random House, S&S, Baen books, and many others. Quite a few of the major houses have partnered with Ingram to keep their backlist titles in print using POD technology. In this model, publishers with trade or mass-market titles that are still under contract and "in print" but are not selling strongly enough to generate another full offset print-run are being converted into POD format. The end-result is a slightly higher price to the customer (usually about $16 for a trade paperback) and a slightly lower margin to the bookseller (35% instead of the usual 40%+). The book in the hands of the customer at the end of the transaction is virtually indistinguishable from the trade paperback that was originally offset print. Almost all of the Univ presses and major houses have partnered with Lightning Print (Ingram) for this service - allowing them to retain the books "in-print" without the major expense of printing and warehousing an entire new print run for a marginally-selling midlist title.
And thus, we segue into the least recognized but most widely used segment of POD - small presses - In the last 7 years there has been a proliferation of small press publisher using POD technology as an alternative to the massive overhead involved in an offset print run and distribution. Companies like Permuted Press, Prime Books, Scrybe Press (my own company), Wildside Press, many erotica imprints, several romance publisher, and now Avon, Harlequin, and Amazon.com (under the AmazonEncore label) have all started producing high-quality original titles published exclusively using Ingram's Print-On-Demand technology. Again, the end result in almost identical. The trade-off comes in cost-per-unit. Where a large-volume offset print run can get paperback prices well under $1 in print cost, the minimum charge for a POD copy to the publisher is about $2.50. Add in royalties, set-up/design/editor costs, and so on and the end result would be close to $20.00 if you maintained traditional pricing structure. Since the typical customer will likely balk at that price point, most of these companies are shaving the dollar at both ends - releasing the title at $10.00-$15.00 by either reducing author royalty percentage and their own percentage somewhat, shorting the retailer discount or, in the case of Permuted Press recently, eliminating the retailer discount and relying on Amazon to sell the product.
Also in this category are self-publishers - authors or very small/vanity presses that are utilizing an intermediary company such as Lulu or Createspace to supply an ISBN, formatting, and sometimes design services (at additional fees) to produce the book on behalf of the author/content owner. Typically the set-up/up front costs to the content owner will run between $100 and $500 depending on the level of "service" purchased. I'll also lump the extremely controversial PublishAmerica into this category - they also use Ingram's POD service and they pretend not to be vanity/self publishing by supposedly exercising editorial control and "buying" the rights (they pay $1 plus very small royalty percentage" - editing costs, etc are extra)
Finally, the last segment of Print on Demand - the in-store or in-house (for a few Universities) Espresso Book Machine - a wonder of modern technology, these fairly compact units (about the size of a traditional counter) can print a nice-looking paperback of any available book in about 2 minutes. They use a slightly sub-standard method (compared to Ingram's product) but the trade-off comes in affordability levels. Where Ingram's digital print-presses run about $800,000 each, an Espresso Book Machine is around $50,000. Inside its case you'd find a pair of high quality laser printers, a ream cutter/trimmer, some robotics, and a perfect-bind glue system. The attached computer can be tied into Ingram's entire POD catalog as well as Google ebooks or the store/presses own catalog - allowing a customer to select, print, and pay for a copy of Jane Eyre in about 5 minutes start to finish.
There is a small segment of these Espresso Book Machine locations capitalizing on the capability of these machines to offer self-publishing/one-off print services with extremely varying prices. Since the "set-up" consists essentially of loading a customer's PDF file into the machine, the debate over pricing can vary as much as the price for this kind of service.. I've seen everything from $10 setup fees up to $500.00 for the same service.
OK, I think I covered the bulk of the uses and types of POD currently being employed. Don't hesitate to ask any questions you may have - either in comments, by email, or on the various email lists I subscribe to.