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Kill POD

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I’m looking for an army of conspiratorial publishers to kill the term POD, aka Print On Demand–an army of elite troops who are not afraid of attacking popular terms that have been mangled and stretched to the point of no meaning. If my troops don’t show up, I’ll go it alone. Something’s got to be done.

A good frontal assault is all it will take. After all, the term POD is almost dead anyway. Who actually expects books instantaneously? Most publishers order books with the expectation that they will arrive within three to four weeks. But even if the books arrive sooner, two to three weeks will still have elapsed by the time they get to the customer. Is this PrintOn Demand?

Maybe Lightning Source does it faster. They do a lot of “one-off” books with quick turnaround that many consider true Print On Demand books. But others would argue that, although the technology to print books “on demand” is certainly available, production delays often result in Print On Demand–sometimes.

In the day-to-day world of publishing, the one-off book is especially important for filling back orders, but it doesn’t define the world as a Print On Demand world. Printers use the same digital printing equipment that produces one-off (POD) books to deliver short-run books. In fact, while digital printing equipment is essential for printing one-off books, the technology is advancing to the point where it is used far more widely to produce books in short runs of 100 to 1,000. And even as you read this article, technological advances that increase speed and quality while lowering costs are pushing run lengths of these digital print engines higher. We can soon expect them to compete with more traditional offset presses, delivering runs of 2,000 and 3,000.

The world is changing rapidly, and POD is as good as dead.

How POD Hurt

Here is another point to consider. All publishers using digital printing to produce their books get hurt when their books are classified as POD. Most of us want our books reviewed, right? Please find me one reviewer who willingly anticipates reviewing a POD book. POD bears a stigma.

And reviewers aren’t alone; most buyers for bookstores avoid POD books, and this is especially true for the chains. Wholesalers and distributors don’t want to see them. How can they fill large orders if books are being printed one at a time? Even Lightning Source’s parent company, Ingram, has problems with POD books, and it recently instituted restrictions against them. Even authors, who often benefit by self-publishing their books, have grown skeptical of POD.

Probably the most significant skeptics are printers. Have you noticed? You seldom hear them talking about POD anymore. It was the buzzword a few years ago. If you ask them today they’ll say, Sure, we can print on-demand. But do they really? More and more printers are dropping POD as one of their highlighted services.

This shift was obvious at the most recent PMA University. I talked with print vendors about POD, the marketplace in general, and what they saw as growth areas for their business. Each vendor saw strong opportunities with digital and offset short-run printing. In their experience, this is what most publishers want. Not even one of the vendors planned to devote time to one-off books. A few felt they would continue to do micro-runs of 25 to 100 books.

More important, only one of the vendors advertised POD as a service. This is also what printers are communicating in their direct mail pieces. I have two recent examples from digital book printers, including one from Lightning Source. I scanned each card closely to see if it offered Print On Demand and found that POD is notably absent. Both printers are wise enough to sell their services as time savers and money savers. Like many others in the industry, more and more printers feel they can’t overcome the POD stigma.

The Dot-coms That Do a Disservice

In some ways it’s kind of sad to talk about killing POD. After all, it’s not that old. In fact, for novice publishers it’s actually a new term. Although the technology for printing books and documents on demand has been available since the mid-1980s, most didn’t understand the economics of printing just a few a books. No, we were stuck–and many of us are still stuck–on printing thousands of books to get the lowest unit cost. Massive returns during the mid-’90s began to change that thinking and printing books on demand became attractive. We really paid attention when Lightning Print (later to become Lightning Source) was launched. The promise of storing inventory as electronic files, printing books as needed, and distributing them to customers–all at a reasonable cost–got the attention of most publishers.

It also got the attention of entrepreneurs outside of publishing who saw the opportunity to launch virtual publishing service companies. These dot-com publishing services, many with cyberspace names like XLibris and iUniverse, brokered the printing services of companies like Lightning Source, while providing some editorial and marketing services to aspiring authors and publishers. Competition among these new dot-coms grew and remains intense.

Driven by dollars, many of these services do their customers and the industry a disservice by printing poorly edited and produced books. Because so many of them rely on companies like Lightning Source to print one-off books for their clients, the books become known as POD books. These dot-com publishing services in turn become known as POD publishers. When reviewers and buyers run away from POD books, it’s these dot-com books they’re running from. Stretch it, splice it, slice it, or dice it, the term POD has to go.

The Meanings That Matter

OK, so all this talk about killing POD may be a bit extreme. But many people, including me, seriously believe the time has come to leave the term POD behind.

I want to be especially clear. I am not talking about POD the technology, which is largely based on digital printing. I am talking about POD as a term relating to printing books other than one-off production.

The technology that made it possible to print books on demand is stronger than ever, and, from all indications, it has not even reached its growth midpoint. But using the term as we currently do hurts all book publishers.

Let the XLibris and the iUniverse publishers have the term. When we identify with it, we immediately encounter unnecessary resistance and confusion. What’s the difference between your POD book and the one Joe Somebody published through the dot-coms? If POD is a term that chases reviewers, distributors, and book buyers away, let’s drop it.

So what are the marching orders for our rebellious new army? We won’t need bullets; this is going to be bloodless. To get rid of the term POD, we just need to recognize what is in our interest as publishers and what is not.

Terms that describe or define the books we publish are critically important. Using terms wisely can create value in the work we produce. At the same time, as in any other profession, using terms carelessly risks ruin. We need to be careful when using sharp-sounding terms like POD that are encumbered with negative baggage. We can’t contribute one ripple to muddy the water.

If we order books to fill anticipated orders, we are clearly not printing on demand. Let’s call it what it is, just-in-time printing, digital short-run printing, or just plain old-fashioned short-run printing. The term short-run has been around for a long time; although the quantities that define short-run have gotten smaller, the phrase is faithful and true.

There is at least one more reason to join the rebellion. I saved it for last. You might have read a few months ago about Lightning Source losing a patent fight over the ownership of POD as a process. It turns out that POD is a patented process and the owners of the patent successfully sued, establishing their ownership. Lightning Source, Amazon, and a host of others affected by this are gearing up for the patent fight of the century. What’s important for independent publishers is that we not get caught in the middle of this fight, using a term that has little value for us. Few can predict the outcome or the implications for anyone using the term POD.

So what do you say, publishers? POD, RIP.

W. Paul Coates, a PMA board member, is founder and director of Black Classic Press and BCP Digital Printing. In 1995, he recalls, BCP jumped on the Print On Demand bandwagon, “becoming one of the first independent publishers to acquire state-of-the-art (as in Docutech–the expensive kind) digital printing equipment.” Then, too, he reports, he thought he was leading a rebellion. Despite “tremendous success” printing books in short runs, he has become “fanatically obsessed with killing the term POD” for all the reasons he explains in this article. You can reach him at bcpdigital@yahoo.com.

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