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Print on demand (POD) is a printing technology and business process in which new copies of a book (or other document) are not printed until an order has been received, which means books can be printed one at a time. While build to order has been an established business model in many other industries, "print on demand" developed only after digital printing began, because it was not economical to print single copies using traditional printing technology such as letterpress and offset printing.
Many traditional small presses have replaced their traditional printing equipment with POD equipment or contract their printing out to POD service providers. Many academic publishers, including university presses, use POD services to maintain a large backlist; some even use POD for all of their publications. Larger publishers may use POD in special circumstances, such as reprinting older titles that are out of print or for performing test marketing.
Print on demand with digital technology is used as a way of printing items for a fixed cost per copy, regardless of the size of the order. While the unit price of each physical copy printed is higher than with offset printing, the average cost is lower for very small print runs, because setup costs are much higher for offset printing.
POD has other business benefits besides lower costs (for small runs):
These advantages reduce the risks associated with publishing books and prints and can lead to increased choice for consumers. However, the reduced risks for the publisher can also mean that quality control is less rigorous than usual.
Digital technology is ideally suited to publish small print runs of posters (often as a single copy) when they are needed. The introduction of UV-curable inks and media for large format inkjet printers has allowed artists, photographers and owners of image collections to take advantage of print on demand. For example, the National Gallery, London installed a print on demand system in July 2003. The system increased the number of images available as prints from 60 to 2,500.
Some companies specialize in POD booklets, catalogs, or magazines. It is not yet commercially viable for single copies on newsprint or newspapers.
The introduction of POD technologies and business-models has fueled a range of new book-creation and publishing opportunities. The innovation in this space is currently clustered around three categories of offerings
POD fuels a new category of publishing (or printing) company that offers services directly to authors who wish to self-publish, usually for a fee. These services generally include printing and shipping a book each time one is ordered, handling royalties and getting listings in online bookstores. The initial investment for POD services is usually less expensive for small quantities of books when compared with self-publishing that uses print runs. Often other services are offered as well: formatting, proof reading and editing, and so on. Such companies typically do not spend their own money on marketing, unlike traditional publishers. Some POD Players are focused on serving this author segment. Their offerings are tailored to disintermediate classic publishers (such as Penguin, McGraw Hill). For authors who wish to design and promote their work themselves, POD companies focus on the low-service, low-cost end of the market.
For authors, the potential benefits of POD publishing are several. They include editorial independence, speed to market, ability to revise content, and greater share of royalties kept compared with traditional publishing.
While amateur/professional writers are targeted as early adopters by players like Infinity Publishing and Trafford Publishing, there is an effort now to make POD more mass-market. A class of horizontal technology platforms like Lulu, Blurb, Peecho and QooP have chosen to be "author agnostic" and drive POD technology across the chasm, extending from its early adopter writers, to a broad mass-market of ordinary citizens who may want to express, record and print keepsake copies of memories and personal writing (diaries, travelogues, wedding journals, baby books, family reunion reports etc.). Instead of tailoring themselves to the classic book format (100+ pages, mostly text, complex rules around copyrights and royalties), these new platforms strive to make POD more mass-market by creating tools/APIs within which a range of different text and picture entry systems can be transferred into a POD paradigm, and delivered back to the consumer as finished books. The management of copyrights and royalties is often less important in this market, as the books themselves have a narrow audience (close family and friends, for instance), and the real value proposition is around the ability to get a physical copy of a digital journal, blog, or picture-collection.
The major photo storage services (e.g. Kodak's Ofoto and Shutterfly and HP's Snapfish) have included the ability to produce picture books and calendars. However, they focus on monetizing digital photography. Blurb and Lulu bring this paradigm to a larger volume of creative work (primarily text, as written in personal blogs), and include the capability to embed photographs, and other media. QooP and Peecho take on the role of an infrastructure service provider, allowing any partner website to leverage its pre-designed payment and printing functions. Next to an API, Peecho provides an embeddable print button, very similar to a "Facebook Like".
As of 2006, print on demand book publishing is growing in popularity. In the consumer market, this growth is especially strong among first-time authors as an affordable and easy way to get a book into print.
Among traditional publishers, POD services can be used to make sure that books remain available when one print run has sold out, but another has not yet become available. This maintains the availability of older titles whose future sales may not be great enough to justify a further conventional print run. This can be useful for publishers with large backlists, where sales for individual titles may be low, but where cumulative sales may be significant.
Print on demand can be used to reduce risk when dealing with "surge" titles that are expected to have large sales but a short sales life (such as celebrity biographies or event tie-ins): these titles represent high profitability but also high risk owing to the danger of inadvertently printing many more copies than are necessary, and the associated costs of maintaining excess inventory or pulping. POD allows a publisher to exploit a short "sales window" with minimized risk exposure by "guessing low" - using cheaper conventional printing to produce enough copies to satisfy a more pessimistic forecast of the title's sales, and then relying on POD to make up the difference.
Print on demand is also used to print and reprint "niche" books that may have a high retail price but limited sales opportunities, such as specialist academic works. An academic publisher may be expected to keep these specialist titles in print even though the target market is almost saturated, making further conventional print runs uneconomic.
Many of the smallest small presses, often called micro-presses because they have inconsequential profits, have become heavily reliant on POD technology and ebooks. This is either because they serve such a small market that print runs would be unprofitable or because they are too small to absorb much financial risk.
Print on demand also allows for books to be printed in a variety of formats. This process, known as accessible publishing, allows books to be printed in a variety of larger fonts, special formats for those with vision impairment or reading disabilities, as well as personalised fonts and formats that suit the individuals needs. This has been championed by a variety of new companies.
Profits from print on demand publishing are on a per-sale basis, and royalties vary depending on the route by which the item is sold. Highest profits are usually generated from sales direct from the print-on-demand service's website or by the author buying copies from the service at a discount, as the publisher, and then selling them personally. Lower royalties come from traditional "bricks and mortar" bookshops and online retailers both of which buy at high discount, although some POD companies allow the publisher or author to set their own discount level. Unless the publisher or author has fixed their discount rate, the higher the volume sold the lower the royalty becomes, as the retailer is able to buy at greater discount.
Because the per-unit cost is typically greater with POD than with a print run of thousands of copies, it is common for POD books to be more expensive than similar books that come from conventional print runs, especially if that book is produced exclusively with POD instead of using POD as a supplemental technology between print runs.
Book stores order books through a wholesaler or distributor, usually at high discount of anything up to 70 percent. Wholesalers obtain their books in two ways; either as a special order where the book is ordered direct from the publisher when a book store requests a copy, or as a stocked title which they keep in their own warehouse as part of their inventory. Stocked titles are usually also available via sale or return, meaning that the book store can return unsold stock for full credit at anything up to one year after the initial sale.
POD books are rarely if ever available on such terms because for the publishing provider it is considered too much of a risk. However, wholesalers keep a careful eye on what titles they are selling, and if authors work hard to promote their work and achieve a reasonable number of orders from book stores or online retailers (who use the same wholesalers as the bricks and mortar stores), then there is a reasonable chance of their work becoming available on such terms.
Although returnability lessens the risk for book stores and helps POD authors get through the door, such authors should also realize that there is only a certain proportion of stock that can be returned.
This difficulty with lack of returns can make bookstores less enthusiastic about POD books. This though is set to change in the future, as the industry is currently debating a move away from sale or return altogether, which will do much to even things out.
Another issue with print-on-demand titles is the fact that they are often debut works. Many book stores are reluctant to take a risk on an author's first, untested work without the endorsement of a commercial publisher.
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