Publishers Weekly reminds us it’s twenty years since Lightning Source Inc., a division of book wholesaler Ingram, started printing books on a Xerox DocuTech in La Vergne, Tennessee. I remember visiting in those early days when the machine was sitting in a disused loading bay. Visit now, and banks of machines covering a hangar-like workspace confront you, in multiple locations around the world.

Photo: Nashville Public Radio.

Print-on-demand was a tough sell in the early 90s when I was laboring in this particular vineyard. You didn’t so much have to demonstrate that you could do the job and do it well, you had to get down to basics and persuade management that this ludicrously expensive unit cost would actually end up saving them money in the long run. Printing books which we would never sell was what publishers were used to doing — though of course we never put it just like that. We were all vastly experienced at walking this tight-rope between understock and overstock, and were proud of this special skill. “What are you talking about? We know how to run our businesses, and doubling the unit cost is just silly.” Now I would be amazed to find any book publisher of any kind who didn’t think print-on-demand was a “good thing” — OK, I have to make an exception for high-quality specialist bibliophile publishers.

Now here’s Mike Shatzkin scolding us that publishers are not using LSI as much or as well as they should. He suggests that if every book were made print-ready at LSI nary a sale would ever be lost. He reassures us that although “It is rationally counterintuitive for publishers to spend time, let alone money, to set up with Lightning to print books on which they intend to maintain inventory in their warehouse” this is exactly what we should be doing. Many publishers are indeed doing just that. We quite often used to set up a defensive POD version of books we thought might “suffer” from rapid initial demand, though most of the books I myself set up for print-on-demand right at publication were not intended ever to be printed by offset and stored in the warehouse: we had 11,000 or so titles set up here and there for POD. (And this all refers back five years.) I wouldn’t be surprised if this early defensive POD set-up is already happening more and more frequently, in more and more publishing houses, and quite probably we’ll soon get to the sort of routine defensive POD set-up that Mr Shatzkin envisages. It all just takes time and money.

Optimistically he opines that set-up charges could be minimized by integrating LSI set-up into your workflow. He says “Although it would seem the cost would be near zero if the Lightning set-up were done as a part of delivering any book to publication.” Not quite sure what he means here. The cost of setting up a book at any digital printer does involve creating a file, and almost all publishers now do this routinely as part of their production process. But LSI, or any digital printer, has to do some work to massage the file into their system: they are unlikely to give this service away free, as why should they? A cautious publisher will want to see a sample, a proof copy, and this also represents a cost. But this spending is all all right because their charges aren’t immense, and can be regarded almost as an insurance policy.

As I’ve said before, I think any non-trade publisher setting up today, specially one doing academic books, would be crazy to invest in a warehouse. There are quite a few warehouse-less traditional publishers around — the smaller and more academic they are the more likely that state will become. LSI and their competitors in the POD business have enabled this.

Perhaps in noting LSI’s twentieth anniversary, one should note too that the POD book business was really pioneered by IBT (recently shut down) in conjunction with Bridgeport National Bindery.