Publishing Word of the Day: Print on Demand (POD)

10 Dec

Print on Demand (POD)

A digital printing process by which books can be produced, as needed, one copy at a time; this is in contrast to the traditional offset press model that requires print runs of 500 (or more) copies at one time to be economically viable.

(From the forthcoming TSTC Publishing Glossary.)

. . . . . . . . . .

Or, as the subtitle for this post could read: How a Publisher Using POD Isn’t a POD Publisher. That is, I would like to further elaborate on what TSTC Publishing does (and doesn’t do) in relationship to POD publishing.

First, however, some background information about printing. Up until about ten (or so) years ago the vast majority of printing was done via offset press: giant printing presses producing hundreds or, more likely, thousands of copies of a printed product (book, newspaper, business card, and/or anything else printed) at one time. The advantages to this process, as Gutenberg discovered when printing his Bible in the Middle Ages, are that you can produce many identical copies of a work very cheaply. On the other hand, to do this cheaply, you need to print many copies. The amount of initial setup work and overall cost to get a book sent to print via the offset press route is relatively high. So, if you wanted just one copy of a book (or ten copies or even a hundred copies) you’re looking at a big investment without much hope of any return/profit on the few copies you are going to have to sell because of the necessarily high per copy retail price. In addition, another disadvantage is that because the offset press model produces identical copies, if you catch a mistake, small (a typo) or large (factual error), you have to move/sell all the copies you’ve already printed before being able to justify/afford a new print run with those corrections made.

Then, about ten years ago, digital printing comes into the mix. (I say ten years ago in terms of production quality and price making this a viable option to the general masses.) Digital printing is, in essence, producing high-quality copier machine copies of a work, both for the interior pages and the cover. That means you can produce a book one copy at a time for a relatively reasonable per copy price. “Reasonable” means that it is more expensive than if you had done a big print run via offset press but less expensive than setting up a small print via offset press. And, as digital printing technology improves and becomes more ubiquitous, the price of POD continues to drop whereas offset press printing has remained, relatively speaking, the same.

So, what are some of the ramifications of this shift in printing technology? As of yet, it hasn’t had that big of an impact on bigger trade publishers. After all, they’re going to be doing those big print runs via offset press because, given their overhead, they need to sell thousands of copies of any book to make it financially viable. The market segment that it has impacted the most is for smaller publishers and/or individuals who have materials they want to publish and sell but don’t have the resources (money or distribution channels) to make offset press print runs feasible. So, if you have a book that you’d like one copy (or ten copies of) you would likely find go the POD route to do this. In particular, the reason this is called “print on demand” is because you can wait until you have/receive an order for a book to print it, reducing immediate printing costs and, as well, long-term storage costs. Plus, you can update your book as you see fit in-between print runs.

There are many POD services out there. For individuals wanting to publish a few copies of a book is a typical kind of place to go. For smaller publishers, many of them use Lightning Source. (I must add, I am not endorsing either Lulu or Lighnting Source as I have not used either of them . . . I just mention them as examples of a couple of bigger POD publishers I happen to know about. If you do a Google search there are plenty of quality POD providers available.)

So, what is the relationship of all this to TSTC Publishing? Well, as the in-house publishing division of Texas State Technical College we are much like any other college/university press. But, for two key reasons, we use POD–through our school’s printing production department–to publish our books:

    1. our print runs, especially on high-end technical textbooks, relatively small (10-50 copies total per semester); and

2. our textbook materials needed to be updated relatively requently, many times from semester to semester.

But, there is a fundamental difference between us as a publisher and the Lulus/Lightning Sources of the world. Those companies will publish essentially any materials anyone is willing to pay to have printed, regardless of the inherent quality, veracity, or marketability of those materials. That is, they make their money by printing the books, not selling them because the selling part is left up to the person who paid to have the book published. (Making money off of printing alone is neither our business model nor would our business model support it.)We work with faculty (or staff) and/or contract with outside writers to publish the books for which there is a well-defined need/audience. Then, we work with and for our authors to publish their books and help those books to reach as wide an audience as possible.

So, to make a long post endless, that’s how you can be a POD college book publisher without being a POD publisher along the lines of the companies mentioned above.

Finally, I’d like to add that the reason we started this blog is to discuss the kinds of issues outlined above. As educational publishers (and as an old English teacher myself) we want to actively participate in the onging conversation–in person or via the Web–about publishing in general and our publishing operation/issues in particular.


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