Susan Ferber, Executive Editor at Oxford University Press, is quoted by Dr. Syntax: “I think we have taken for granted what an incredible development print on demand has meant for publishers, authors, and readers.  There is no need to declare books out of print anymore; we can literally make work available forever, which is a development on par with the printing press in my mind.  I think the death of the print book has been the most overhyped negative in the publishing world.  This has been augured and feared for so long, and for new generations of readers, it is so heartening to see that they love the print form.  It is enduring and old technology can and does have value.”

As a long-time POD evangelist, I can enthusiastically agree. Susan’s in charge of history, and OUP’s American Office has a rich history in history publishing. One of my regrets about stopping work is that I hadn’t been able to bring all of these old classics back into print. We did manage quite a few though.

The always contrarian French (Le tiers livre ) appear to disagree, reporting via a tweet by Jose Afonso Furtado, that print on demand is dead. But hold on: it’s only dead because it’s become so much a part of the scene that we no longer need a special name for it. Those French: so witty and full of paradox! François Bon tells us that when the annual sale of a book drops to 500, Hachette will switch it over routinely to POD. I don’t know, but I’d bet US trade houses haven’t made such a radical across-the-board decision. University Presses and academic publishers may effectively have done so, but of course for them a sale of 500 a year is nearer the top than the bottom end of the sales range, so the potential switch point will be very different. Mr Bon’s article focuses primarily on the difference POD can make to authors and their relationship to the book emphasizing the POD book as part of a digital continuum. One cannot disagree that the arrival of digital publishing has given authors great freedom in both the ebook and the print book arenas: and good thing too.

Of course the fact that a publisher need never put a book out of print now that it can be printed one-off in response to whatever orders trickle in, does mean that authors’ rights will never revert to them. Thus the freedom authors have gained in being able to print their books on their own (self publish), appears to bring with it a loss of freedom in their relationship with their publisher. While I am sure there are cases where this has resulted in real loss, the problem strikes me as one more of theory than reality. If the author wants their rights back for one of their old books surely just asking for them would result in most cases in success. In the future contracts should (and no doubt in many cases already do) contain a reversion agreement not couched in terms of “out of print” or “unavailable” but in terms of a sales volume or a finite number of years. You don’t chose a publisher in order to have a fight with them: in most cases it’s quite easy not to.