Can there really be publishers who are still reluctant to set up their books for print-on-demand manufacture? Mike Shatzkin’s latest post suggests there are. He claims none of the Kobe Bryant books was in stock when that helicopter crashed, and none had been set up for POD. Can there really still be publishers who think it’s better to make no sale at all than to make a sale at a margin slightly lower than what they think their profit margin “ought” to be? When, as a sort of evangelist of POD back in the early nineties, I used to talk to publishers about the new concept of print on demand, the biggest hurdle I had to help them over was “But the unit cost is so high”. I used to go through the argument (which seems so obvious that you’d almost think it’s not worth the breath you have to expend to state it) —

  • If you have a copy in your warehouse, you can fill an order.
  • If you don’t you can’t.
  • If your net margin on that sale is $2, not the $6 it once was, are you really better off not selling the book?
  • In other words is $0 better than $2?
  • Are there any books you’ve decided you can’t afford to reprint (i.e. for which demand is insufficient to support a reprint at an “affordable” quantity)?
  • Answer, always and inevitably, “Yes. Lots.” [That’s what publishers used to call “out of print”.]
  • So if there was a way of filling an order for one of these lost books would it not be a good thing to do, as long as you took in more than you spent filling the order?
  • Well, yes — but that’s not possible.
  • What do you think I’m talking to you about?

Before I retired, now surprisingly long ago, we were already setting up lots of books for POD on the just-in-case basis. If we anticipated erratic demand we’d have the POD version to fall back on if we went out of stock in the warehouse for a few days. Who’d think that the world’s second-oldest university press would be in the forefront of modern business practice? (The world’s oldest was right in there too.) University presses have perhaps been readier to adjust to the one-off model because they are used to higher unit costs anyway. They never got to print hundreds of thousands of copies of a book, and so would never get used to tiny unit costs. If you’re used to $4, $7 is not too much of an imaginative leap. But if you live below $2 you may worry that $7 is so wild as to be suicidal. But this means that that $15 book just never gets sold. And of course a publisher always has the opportunity to raise the retail price to meet increased costs — actually it’s more of an obligation than an opportunity.

There are three other obstacles to setting up your books for POD manufacture. It does cost something to set a book up for print on demand. The other two obstacles are related: publishing people, especially manufacturing people, have polished careers on getting books efficiently printed and delivered on time. Giving up this skill for automated resupply looks a bit like a career threat. Secondly: the POD book looks different. It’s printed digitally, not by offset. But I would argue that customers are not trying to buy those Kobe Bryant books because they want a beautifully printed book. They are buying them because they want read them. Let them do so!

Just about the only people who agonize about the look and physical quality of a book are employed by publishing companies.

See also Print-on-demand and POD quality.