The “Director’s Desk” column article, “The Book Community Brainstorms,” in the September 1999
issue was intriguing. In particular, the section titled “Bookstores in 2003” presented an interesting
prognosis for the future of the book industry. The projection was made that print-on-demand (POD) was
going to be the “largest influence on book publishing and bookselling among all of the technologies
currently available.” If this projection turns out to be accurate, the impact on various areas of the
book industry will be far-reaching.
When bookstores begin doing their own printing of books, printing firms may become concerned about
the effect on their business. However I did not note any members of the printing community listed as
being present at the ABA board meeting and brainstorming session. Publishers deal with printers and
lithographers, and one would expect them to be aware of the various contemporary technical printing
issues that would allow POD to become practical. However it is not expected that the logistics of POD
be fully defined in a brainstorming session. An examination of the various tradeoffs may indicate the
advantages and disadvantages of adopting this approach.
The advantages of bookstore POD, as defined by the PMA article, are rather obvious. If the
printing and selling operation can be combined, then the potential for reducing marketing costs by
eliminating or minimizing the middleman (the printer and possibly the distributor) exists, and
turnaround time can be shortened. The technology is at hand for accomplishing the task, depending upon
the task definition, and performance is improving at a remarkable rate. The customer ends up with hard
copy, and the deal can be made in a very short period of time. The independent bookstore could
increase its market share with a system of this type, while the printing industry would presumably end
up losing sales.
Now let’s observe the difficulties with this method. Almost every home computer can print on
demand, and browsing books and purchasing a CD can be accomplished on the Internet. Except for the
cover and binding, books can be printed on a home computer today. Thus one of the objectives of going
to the POD bookstore will be to have a book printed with cover and binding. Will the bookstore also be
able to print a high quality cover, which at present is a substantial amount of the printing cost of a
book? It will be quite a task for a POD bookstore to fabricate a hard bound cover in five minutes.
Therefore perfect-bound soft cover books will be the first order of business.
Copy centers offer something similar to print-on-demand. Bring in a floppy or CD, and hard copy
prints can be made in a reasonable amount of time. The galleys for my second book, The Electric Atom,
were printed at Kinko’s. The cost was about $10 per copy, the paper covers had poor color quality and
poor resolution, and the binding was far from the best. Due to the fact that the job was placed in a
queue, the turnaround time was about an hour. Although Kinko’s is not geared up for POD of books, at
least in the frame of thought for a future POD bookstore, this example indicates just how much
improvement in the method will be required for POD to become practical, at least for a major
print-on-demand printing firm.
Let’s look into the future and consider a selected example of a hypothetical POD bookstore. A
customer goes into the store and picks out a book that he wants printed. It has 200 pages and is 6″ by
9″. He grabs a slip that lists the book and takes it to the counter to place an order. The counter
clerk enters the information into the computer, and the graphics are downloaded from disk to the
printer (which must somehow accommodate the 6×9 page size). In the PMA article, the complete operation
was specified to be completed in five minutes or less. This is not much time, so the job would
probably be separated into three or four areas.
The text could be printed while the covers are being made. The graphics file would first have to
be downloaded and adjusted for print color accuracy (printers and computer terminals, even of the same
type, have to be adjusted for color accuracy). A measuring instrument would be in order for making the
proper adjustments. Presumably a graphics station operator would perform this manipulation and then
download the file to a color printer for printing the cover.
The cover and text would then be printed (in the proper page size), after which the folding and
binding procedure would take place. Could a single operator take care of all of these operations in a
five minute period? The folding and binding operations must necessarily be sequential, so if we allow
only one minute for this procedure, this leaves four minutes for printing the text. This means that
the printer must print at a rate of at least 50 ppm, which is a very fast rate. Each page must print
within a 1.2 second period, and preferably less, allowing for overhead.
These problems are all solvable, but this then brings up the subject of the development timeline.
Are machines of this particular type currently available? In order for the 2003 milestone date to be
met, the printing system design would be expected to be complete within the next year. This allows
only one year for system testing and a year of beta tests. Note that all of the elements of the system
would have to be available for testing by no later than mid 2002 in order to meet this schedule.
Now let’s look at the costs for the bookstore. Let us say that the book sells for $15 and that the
bookstore makes a gross profit of $5.00 per book. At a rate of 12 books/hour, this equates to $60 per
hour gross income for the store. If he uses a single operator for the entire operation, it could
reduce this income by some $20 per hour. Allowing for overhead, his net income would be on the order
of $25 per hour. If his total cost of machinery (not included in the above overhead costs) is $100,000
and he finances the purchase, he will have to meet payments of at least $1,250 per month in order to
have a chance of paying off the loan. For a six-day week and working eight hours per day, his net
income is $1,200 per month, which is less than break-even. A larger bookstore with more machines could
be more profitable, since the use of personnel would be more efficient.
For the above scenario, POD is certainly within the realm of possibility, but the risk factor in
predicting success by the year 2003 is high and the chances of other competitive methods becoming
available increase. If the proper machines and computer software become available at lower cost than
for the example, then POD appears more promising. Costs decrease with volume, and the sales volume
increases gradually with development. If two operators are required to manage the system, then the
projection for success is less optimistic.
A major question is whether or not POD can result in book quality that can approach that of the
professional printer, at least within the next several years. The customer may reject paying
equivalent cost for a lower quality book, especially one with a cheap looking cover. The greatest
problem is not with printing text. Excellent print quality can be obtained with inexpensive printers
currently available (several printers may be required to achieve the print speed). The quality of
color graphics, covers, and binding have caused me the greatest problems in the past, and I have not
noted much recent improvement in resolving these difficulties. Nor is tuning up a digital network an
insignificant task. POD will have to be a smoothly operating digital enterprise, or there can be
operational troubles, resulting in higher costs.
Internet shopping should not be overlooked either. If Amazon.com (or any other online bookstore)
were to lower its discount structure, then the extra cost for overnight shipment would be competitive
with the potential cost reductions of POD. The customer doesn’t even have to go to the bookstore, at
the expense of waiting a little longer to receive his book.
It has been my experience that the main stumbling block in transferring digital data between the
publisher and the printer is the incompatibility of graphics formats, and the difficulties in the
difference in appearance of colors between graphics programs, computer video terminals color
adjustments, and lithographers color processing limitations. Magenta may turn out to be purplish or
pink, and the contrast can also vary significantly. Vector graphics may end up being bitmaps.
Transparency fills may cause banding when transferred between machines. Various fonts may not be
supported between computers, in which case data transfer grinds to a halt, and the computer may lock
up. The pdf graphics format is a step in the right direction, but it only solves some of these
problems. New graphics formats, such as SGML, that will help solve some of these problems, are just
now becoming available, but not all graphics and word processing programs yet support them.
Compatibility between digital platforms or equivalent computer/program configurations is a
particularly ticklish issue that plagues the industry. Transferring the computer graphics data file
for a book to a POD bookstore and getting satisfactory print quality may be a more thorny issue than
one might think.
The above factors would lead one to believe that POD is further into the future than the year
2003. However this conclusion is highly dependent upon the type of machines that are available for
printing high quality covers and the binding operation. An Internet search of available printers
reveals that a new technology is indeed available to provide the necessary performance to print
quality covers with fast turnaround times. The current selling cost of one particular printer for
printing covers is surprisingly low, but it will require some modification to fit this application.
This result brings the binding machine to the forefront of the core issue. If an inexpensive binding
machine becomes available in the near future, the ABA planning meeting projection date for POD by
bookstores may turn out to be accurate. The design of such a machine appears to be feasible and within
the cost goal. New automatic color-adjusting software is also becoming available. Therefore the prime
movers for these process machine development efforts will be the machine design companies, especially
in the case of the binding machine. The software compatibility issues that were discussed for Scenario
#1 also apply to this scenario.
There are several other new developments beginning to surface in the digital world that will
affect all sectors of the publishing industry. It has been reported that even youngsters are
bootlegging prime movies using the new MPEG digital format for CDs and selling them at a very low cost
on the Internet. New security methods for CDs are predicted to be surmounted almost as soon as they
are adopted. The same security problem applies to the bootlegging of CD books, which tends to make the
bookstore POD a preferable option. Bill Gates wants to make all books available on the Internet and is
working with libraries by having Microsoft provide the necessary software to them to implement it.
These potential violations of copyright laws are alarming prospects for the future. Even the POD
method that we have been discussing is not immune to problems of this type. If the hardware costs for
POD reach sufficiently low levels, book printing may eventually be feasible for the home computer!
Bootleggers could copy a book using OCR or scanning and transmit it in digital format over the
Internet, or sell several books on a CD from which the books could be printed on a home computer
So will the bookstore POD succeed, or is it just another wild idea? The two different scenarios
described above indicate that it is highly dependent upon future technical developments. It will be
fascinating to watch the evolution of book marketing as digital science progresses. You have observed
an engineering approach to the problem using a tradeoff analysis. It would be interesting to hear the
views of different segments of the publishing industry on this subject.
Weldon Vlasak can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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