I do think the Espresso book machine, the end of the return system, and embracing e-books and interactive derivatives could solve a lot of the bottom-line issues in publishing. I personally can’t think of a single other industry that knowingly pulps nearly half of their product!
But Moriah Jovan’s post on the perfect bookstore makes it sound as if all of publishing’s problems are instantly solved with print-on-demand. There is a lot to consider though in the adoption of POD technology.
My perfect bookstore would have a couple of Espresso machines and access to a large catalog, too. But having one hardcover copy of a bestseller isn’t very practical, and ordering one copy even every week is going to eat up a ton of bookstore profit in shipping. Publishers also have relationships with book buyers that are based on retailers buying bulk quantities at special discounts. If publishers were suddenly shipping books one at a time, you can bet the discount to retailers would be drastically dropped, which means that the discount passed on to the consumer would be lowered, too. Publishers are also not going to release the rights to print a new book on demand if they’re also trying to sell thirty dollar hardcovers, so only having one hardcover in stock and printing the rest as you go isn’t actually a viable option. (You may say, “well then charge them both $30!” but what consumer is going to pay the same price for a book printed in front of them in paperback as they do for a hardcover with a dust jacket?)
It’s also been my experience that print-on-demand titles are still priced higher than a typical trade paperback through online retailers. How to price a print-on-demand book is still a difficult question, and how does an author really benefit by print-on-demand edition is still in question, too. If the publisher retains print-on-demand rights, how many books does an author have to sell in order to make it worthwhile for the author? Depending on the contract language, authors may find that they can’t terminate their current contract and sell physical rights to another publisher because they are still technically selling one book a year via print-on-demand.
Also, there can be a difference in the quality of a print-on-demand book and a regular trade paperback. Children’s picture books would probably be cost prohibitive to print on an Espresso, since colored toner is more expensive. The quality could also suffer if, for example, the magenta was running low and suddenly everything has sort of a greenish tint to it.
Lastly, an Espresso costs around $80,000. Independent bookstores might not have the money to plunk down on an Espresso machine, and that could mean that the small corner bookshop is going to have to fight that much harder to stay in business when the chain stores are putting Espressos in their stores.
All that said, I’m certainly not anti-POD, and was thrilled to see the machine in action during the 2009 Tools of Change conference. But there’s a lot more to it than a simple click and print.