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The Challenge of Publishing On Demand

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Last year, Black Classic Press took a giant leap of faith. We acquired an On
Demand Publishing system and began shifting our production methods in order
to take advantage of supposed lower inventory costs, less waste, and more
specialized production of our books.

A little background. Black Classic Press was founded in 1978 with the
mission of bringing to light obscure and significant books by and about
people of African descent. We were well ahead of the recent interest in Black
authors. Consequently, we’ve gained a legion of followers, and over the
years, we’ve published and kept in print about 60 titles.

A few years ago, we began to experience problems. Locked into an expensive
system of distribution, we were selling more and more books and receiving
less and less profit. Then our distributor went belly up. Instead of sinking
us, Inland’s bankruptcy served as a wake-up call. It became very clear that
reaching our readership through middleman distributors was okay, but this
method could and should not be our only means of selling books. Besides many
of the books that we wanted to add to our list were obscure enough that they
would languish on bookstore shelves and in distributors’ warehouses. Taking
these factors into consideration, On Demand Publishing became a viable
option, not at first, but after deep thought and much reflection.

First there was the issue of the cost of obtaining the best On Demand
Publishing system available, the Xerox DocuTech 135. It comes with a price
tag in excess of $250,000. Throw in the cost of binding equipment, and you
are easily looking at a $300,000 investment just to get an On Demand
Publishing operahat’snce reason that so few small publishers have acquired
On Demand Publishing systems.

For Black Classic Press, the option of publishing on demand became more of a
possibility for us when we decided to print materials not only for ourselves
but for other small publishers as well. We decided to take a cooperative
approach and offer our excess capacity to other small publishers. We’ve
printed galleys and other promotional materials for other small publishers.

We started offering print services in April of 1996. So what’s the verdict?
It’s still a little too early to tell, but the jurors were optimistic when
they left to deliberate at the close of 1996. We’ve had some successes, and
we’ve had some difficulties as well. We started out with the idea of printing
our own books without understanding the many variables that would affect our”self production,” such as pricing and paper costs. We overcame these initial
difficulties and were able to move about one-third of our titles into on
demand production. We also added another category of titles to our list that
we produce strictly on demand.

For us, publishing on demand remains a challenge, but one well worth taking.

W. Paul Coates is director for Black Classic Press located in Baltimore, MD.
In addition to BCP’s Publishing On Demand activities, the press recently
published Gone Fishin’ by best-selling author, Walter Mosley. For more
information about having your galleys or other materials printed on demand,
contact Cheryl Waters at 410/358-0980.

Things to Consider Before You Publish On Demand
by W. Paul Coates
Publishing On Demand is not for everyone. There are a number of factors that
you should give careful consideration before setting up shop.

  1. Equipment. Do you have the necessary funds to purchase the technology
    needed to publish on demand? Is your current facility large enough to house
    this equipment? 
  2. Materials. How knowledgeable are you about the different materials used to
    produce books? Are you able to handle the up-front costs involved with
    purchasing these materials? Once you set up an on-demand print shop, you may
    find yourself ordering paper on a daily basis to fulfill your own needs and
    the needs of others in your community whose work you are also printing. 
  3. Plant Costs. Are you going to need a larger facility? Are you prepared for
    increased utility costs? Is your current facility conducive to housing an On
    Demand Publishing system? For example, our facility is not air conditioned.
    This summer we’ll undertake the task of air conditioning our warehouse so
    that our equipment and our operator will have a better environment to work
  4. Personnel. How skilled is your in-house staff? Are you prepared to provide
    training and/or hire additional staff so that your on-demand operations can
    run smoothly? Having the right personnel in place is essential to making this
    kind of venture successful. You need at least one flexible, skilled
    individual who will get your print shop up and running and help you over the
    initial rough spots. 
  5. The Learning Curve. Be prepared to make mistakes. Do you know everything
    about Publishing On Demand? It’s been a year, and every day we’re still
    learning something new.

[This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor February, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.]

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