2008 was the year when the publishing procedure known as print-on-demand began to impinge more directly than ever before on public awareness. But what are the implications for children’s books of this new technology? Brian Alderson explores.
Print-on-demand has been around for at least twenty years (unless you include the commissioning of bespoke non-printed Books of Hours and suchlike in medieval times). Indeed, I have in front of me a couple of learned papers that I acquired in 1992 through HOBODS, an academic venture: the History of the Book On-Demand Series.
Schemes such as that came about through a simple harnessing of a photocopy machine and a spine-gripper and could be entirely satisfactory for their utilitarian purposes. Now though such primitive procedures have been overtaken by the more sophisticated technologies of digitization and speed-printing. ‘More sophisticated’ perhaps but not – so far as production is concerned – beyond the limited comprehension of ungeeks such as myself.
What happens is as follows: a text is digitized, either from a previously-printed source (using software capable of ‘character recognition’) or from an original, never-before-published document. This digitized text can then be printed at great speed on both sides of a roll of paper such that a conventional book-block is put together and then ‘perfect bound’ with a separately designed paper cover.
A print-run of a single copy
The speed and apparent cheapness with which such a book can be made and the complete acceptability of its appearance and readability carries with it the further advantages that it can be produced in a print-run of a single copy. Conventional trade practice in past times involved much speculation over costs. The origination costs of producing a single copy – author’s advance (if any), design, text-setting – still exist. However, the profitability of each title, and by extension the viability of the publisher, depended on the editor’s crucial decision on how many copies to print, for although the unit cost of the first copy would be gigantic, the unit cost of one out of, say, 20,000 would not, provided that the print-run sold out as quickly as possible.
For the printer, paper (for however many copies it was decided to print), machining, binding (with some sheets perhaps left unbound until a hoped-for success was achieved), all amounted to a large financial outlay for which the publisher had to pay. Traditionally this bill would account for some 40% of the net receipts to the publisher – providing the book sold out! How those old speculators would have welcomed a world where their judgment might be less critical. ‘OK, Mr Bell, we shall be happy to represent your tale of Wuthering Heights, and should anyone wish to have a copy we can print it off for them at a price equivalent to what they may expect to pay for an edition-printed copy.’
For there lies the attraction of print-on-demand. The origination costs remain the same. The difference is that the printer isn’t paid more than a fee to hold the title, and thereafter on a ‘just-in-time’ basis. Obviously if you, the publisher, know that several million people are needing to read The Tales of Beedle the Bard*, then it may be more profitable (and less tiresome) to run them all off instanter from your web-fed rotary press. However, if you are confronted by a known text, long out of print, the economic risks to you in printing it to order are limited – no material waste, no warehousing charges, and (we hope) a no-less contented reader.
With a new text of uncertain future, the origination costs, marketing and other overheads still exist, but a slightly less risk-averse attitude can prevail.
A transitional phase in publishing history
So far everything may seem clear, plain and hunky dory. But for the author (assuming their work is still in copyright) and for the reader life is altogether more complicated. The author – being flesh and bone – however aetherial she may seem – would probably prefer for the rotary presses to be turning out her golden words en masse than for a lot of electronic pulses to be buried away waiting for someone to activate them. Her confidence in the publisher, if she has one, can hardly be relied on to encourage customers to buy her book, in preference to others. However, if she undertakes the sales herself, under her own imprint and ISBN – becoming a de facto publisher – she may collect a little more money but she will be involved in all the necessary chores of advertising, servicing orders (if any) and keeping records for which aetherial authors are hardly qualified – running a business.
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the possibility and the, so far moderate, impact of electronic publishing has brought us all to a transitional phase in publishing history. Trial methods for pursuing print-on-demand are still being attempted and it would be foolish, if not dangerous, to speculate on any future beyond what next Tuesday has to offer. Thus, Messrs Faber, last year, established their ‘Faber Finds’ series which offered print-on-demand copies of a wide range of authors named in their ‘Finds’ catalogue; and this January we see what looks to be a similar service from Random House who plan to list some 750 titles capable of being produced to the order of booksellers or individual customers in single copies. This is the high-profile version of what is already in place for thousands of titles, already on the shelves of an unknowing public.
Alternatively, writers of some distinction who are spurned by commerce (like Peter Dickinson whose work I dilated upon in BfK 172), or whose qualities are deemed by publishers to be too refined for today’s mass market, may be encouraged to attempt less conventional modes of publication. This may well involve the author working with a designer and a specialist p.o.d. printer from whom a bound text may be obtained in most respects equivalent to a conventional published book. Indeed, the author may become more closely involved in the whole process since he may become his own copy-editor and proof-reader (double-edged swords) but he will also bear the burden of managing his own publicity and distribution. Thus, in this edition of BfK, we are pleased to review James Watson’s Fair Game which has been ‘self-published’ under the imprint and with the ISBN of Spire Publishing as a print-on-demand product. In a note sent with the book, Watson confesses to a disillusion, understandable in serious writers like himself, over a publishing world ‘increasingly characterised by the pursuit of celebrity, instant gratification, [and] the definition of fiction as fantasy’ and he has welcomed his self-given freedom to make ‘a few decisions about content and presentation traditionally an editorial preserve’. Here one has to balance one’s self-confidence against the benefits of peer-group review by publishers’ editors who see hundreds, maybe thousands, of manuscripts each year, manuscripts of very variable quality.
The implications for children’s book publishing?
What the wider implications are within the field of children’s book publishing it is difficult to say. As I understand it, there is so far limited opportunity to play about with format and, while the introduction of monochrome illustration presents no problems, colour is said to be impossibly expensive. No doubt next year the technology will have changed. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see much advance in the printing of picture books on demand.
Furthermore, digitization in other forms is giving rise to much concern over royalty payments**, which of course may be complicated in the case of books with an illustrator separate from the author. But for the reproduction of out-of-copyright volumes there is the dawn of hitherto unheard-of potential. (In my own case, for instance, I can reprint copies of my edited editions of The Water-Babies and Moonfleet, new editions of which my publisher spurned, while, as a helper over the publishing programme of the Children’s Books History Society I am garnering quotes for what looks to be a financially feasible issue of some long-lost secondary sources.)
‘Transition’ is, however a significant word and I have little doubt that in a year – or even a month – or two improvements of many kinds will materialize. The already incipient (and frightening) likelihood that everyone will be able to publish his or her own books – that everyone will write and no one will read – may indeed come to pass. But for the moment, our interests may be best served by helping to record and publicize whatever seems most worthy of the new and on-demand reprints that are being made available. Could not BfK itself open up on its website a space for the Editor to set out the information and, where appropriate, make recommendations?
*The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J K Rowling is published by Bloomsbury.
**It should be noted that the use of print-on-demand as a production tool by publishers, as discussed here, is only one of several new incursions by digitization into the field of publishing (eg. e-books and the establishing of ‘espresso’ book machines), all of which raise complex issues over the rewards of authorship. Arguments are beginning to abound in the Society of Authors and in the trade press in Britain and the USA.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Book Editor for The Times.