Print Up a Book, While You Wait

by James Norman

The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, Australia, April 2, 2002

World Press Review, June 2002


What will the bookstore of the future look like? It may well do away with rows upon rows of shelved titles and look more like an Internet cafe with digital printing and binding facilities out the back. It may allow customers to select virtually any title in the history of publishing from massive databases, and automatically print and bind that book in the time it takes them to drink a cafe latte. Print on demand (POD)) is rapidly changing the way books are printed, published, and consumed worldwide.

The first POD facilities are already up and running in Australia, both at point-of-sale and publisher level. The easiest way to understand how POD works is to recognize that books have been digital for as long as there has been word processing and desktop publishing. Once a book is laid out and stored digitally, it can be distributed worldwide online within seconds, with little additional expense. New data storage tools, combined with digital library and advanced print-and-bind technologies, make it possible to quickly manufacture a book which looks like a traditional hardback or paperback.

Some international newspapers utilized early print-on-demand technologies at airport and hotel kiosks, which allowed people to choose their favorite newspapers and have special versions printed on the spot-cutting worldwide distribution costs dramatically and beating time zones.

POD eliminates the need for large-scale initial print runs of high-risk titles, such as first novels or pop culture tie-ins: the type of titles which often end up rotting in the back rooms of second-hand bookshops. From the customer's perspective, print-on-demand opens up the possibility for personalized publishing, particularly useful for students, where only specific chapters of a range of titles might be compiled into the one book.

The University of Queensland (UQ) Bookstore last month rolled out a print-on-demand facility in one of its campus bookstores, and Penguin Books Australia is only weeks away from unveiling a list of previously unavailable Penguin titles which will be available exclusively on a print-on-demand basis. The UQ POD Center, a collaborative project between University of Queensland Press, UQ Bookshop, and UQ printery, is now functioning in-store, producing direct orders mainly for educational titles that were previously unavailable.

The in-store equipment from Fuji Xerox uses high-speed, high-resolution scanners to store content digitally for ongoing use-once a book is stored, it is always available to other customers. The hardware dismantles the book, feeds it through the scanner, and then re-binds the book into a version that is generally stronger than the original. Once the book is stored digitally, copies can be produced in 10 to 20 minutes-color or black and white-all bound and ready for the customer.

According to Greg Bain, UQ Press deputy general manager, POD has been very well received since being installed in February. "Due to the multipurpose use of our infrastructure, high quality of production, turnaround time exceeding expectations, and systems working smoothly, we've had a very positive response to POI) to date," he says. Bain says that the cost for customers buying POD titles ends up being substantially less than expected." As an example, we just printed a limited run of a U.S. hardback (out-of-print) book for UQ students, which we printed in paperback and delivered to the market at less than half the original book price- this included copyright clearance costs and royalties to the author."

Bain also noted that with course materials increasingly moving online, expensive imported textbooks would become an endangered species. "lncreasingly, content owners will work closely with facilities like our POD Center to deliver books directly to customers-in a variety of formats, at significantly lower costs, with far less financial risk, and no wastage," says Bain.

Robert Sessions, publisher of Penguin Books Australia, said his organization was vitally interested in and engaging with print on demand. "Penguin is known for its strong and enduring backlist, and it has been frustrating not being able to supply people with the backlist books they want because sales do not justify an economic print run," he says. "We have been looking for the right facility for some time.

"We have solved the technical problems, and we will have a fully functioning facility up and running within weeks. We have a list of about 100 out-of-print Penguin titles we aim to make available first up," he says.

Penguin has tested and costed the production of titles through its sister company, Pearson Education Australia, with what Sessions describes as encouraging results. "The books look almost the same as any books, except the paper is a little different," he says.

The books will be clearly labeled as "POD editions," he says, but will give Penguin the opportunity to produce reprints for certain slow-but-steady sales titles. POD would also enable Penguin to offer a catalog of out-of-print titles which the company will bring back into print in single or minimum numbers of copies. "lt will have the effect, potentially, of keeping books in print indefinitely. That would be good for authors, good for readers, good for publishers and booksellers," says Sessions.

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