A quick look at Print On Demand

Why hasn’t paper-based print been replaced with electronic files? Books, magazines, posters, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, and other printed material are technologies that work – they are portable, recyclable, do not need a power supply to operate, and are not prone to software failures. Print can be read anywhere, and the reader can easily go back to check anything not clearly understood.

Advertisers like the printed page, because it cannot be switched off in the way television, a computer, or a smart phone can – or blocked, as is the case with popup advertisements on Web sites. Beyond all these reasons, of course, the Internet has also made it easy for many of us to buy more books, posters, and magazines from all parts of the globe. Sometimes the very forces that are supposed to be killing print actually nourish it.

The ease at which files can be transferred around the globe also opens up new possibilities when it comes to print. Digital printing is a widely available and cost effective solution for short run and personalised (variable data) printing. Print on Demand (POD) has enabled publishers to economically print as few as a single copy rather than having to print hundreds and store them in a warehouse. The term POD is mainly used in relation to book publishing and printing. Traditional book publishing suffers from the problem that it is uneconomical to print short runs. This is because the preparatory costs (prepress, platemaking and make-ready on the printing press) are spread across the quantity printed, meaning that runs of a few hundred result in high production cost and therefore a prohibitive retail price. This was usually more of a problem on reprints rather than new titles. The issue has largely been solved by the development of digital printing and specialist offset litho equipment designed for short runs, backed up by suitable finishing and binding equipment.

True print on demand is where the publisher holds no stock at all and the book is printed in response to a customer order, even if only one copy is required. To achieve this, the publisher supplies the printer with digital files (usually PDFs) of the cover or dust jacket and text and these are held on the printer’s database to be retrieved immediately when required. Orders are placed electronically, so that a request from a consumer, bookseller or wholesaler can trigger the printing automatically and produce invoices minimising administration costs. Most specialist short-run printers offer fulfilment services, meaning once the publisher has put the book on the printer’s database, orders can go direct to the printer and the publisher simply receives a statement each month from the printer detailing the receipts and production costs, along with any necessary payments.

This model doesn’t work for every type of publication – a mass-market paperback book would have too low a retail price to justify printing on short-run equipment. However, for academic, legal, technical and reference book, the concept has revolutionised the economics of the business and bought back into print hundreds of thousands of titles, which would have been previously unavailable. Printing on demand has also enabled much more accessible ‘self-publishing’. Before short runs were economical, someone who wanted to publish a book that wouldn’t be accepted by a conventional publisher had to go to a ‘vanity publisher’ who would print several hundred copies in order to reduce the per unit costs, even though these might not all sell, and charge a fee for the editorial and design work – all of which made self-publishing an expensive exercise. A telling statistic is that 50% of all published books with an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) sell fewer than 250 copies, so the potential market for short-run printing is vast.