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A Future for Print in the Digital Age?


By Gloria Quintanilla

2012 felt like a decisive year for print. E-Book sales surpassed print book sales on Amazon [2] for the first time, and widely-read publications like Newsweek [3] decided to give up on print media altogether, and instead to transition fully into digital publishing. All the while, pundits are still debating [4] if there is a future for print in a world dominated by digital formats. Similar discussions are going on between book lovers and authors, who are worried about the publishing industry being ill equipped to respond to their demands.

So here’s the question: Is it possible to have the best of both worlds? Can publishers, in other words, continue to make a full move towards digital publishing while also catering to print readers?

In this article, I argue that print on demand (POD) can help publishers fulfill these multiple consumer touch points, as well as lead to a host of new business opportunities in the industry.

Preserving the Value of Atom-Based Media

Print is still relevant for a number of reasons. For instance, people often prefer printed books because they can share them with others and give them away as presents, like they would with any other physical object. Similarly, many readers still value the level of engagement and the tactile experience provided by a print product. To put it simply, print goods carry a sense of aesthetic satisfaction that is still culturally relevant today.

Yet, it’s impossible to deny that the role of print in our societies is changing. It’s no longer the main purveyor of information, nor is it the most efficient means to communicate everyday news and events. Print is becoming a luxury good, and it makes sense to stop producing it in mass. As time marches on, print runs will almost certainly become smaller and smaller, making print on demand the production method of choice to satisfy consumer demand for print products—and to preserve the cultural significance of physical stuff. Let’s explore the advantages of print on demand further …

The Economics and Environmental Benefits of POD


The Espresso Book Machine 2.0 at McNally Jackson Books, located in NYC’s Nolita neighborhood

Publishers’ traditional business models were built around offset printing, where printed goods would be manufactured in large quantities and distributed to physical bookstores and other retailers. One especially big problem with this model is that it’s taxing on the environment. In fact, up to 36 percent [6] of print books end up being returned to distributors and publishers by retailers, and those books are often destroyed—or “pulped [7],” to use the industry parlance—without ever having reached their target audience. Looking beyond the waste, the environmental consequences of offset printing are even larger when you consider the use of fossil fuels for transportation and production.

By contrast, as recent research by Hewlett-Packard suggests, print on demand can minimize overproduction by up to 30 percent for books and 50 percent for magazines [8], leading to a significant reduction in waste and fossil fuels used. POD services can also be coupled with local production through a distributed network of production facilities [9], thereby reducing carbon emissions from transportation.

Now, despite its obvious environmental benefits, POD is still about two times more expensive per unit than offset printing. However, as more publishers and printers see its unique advantages and opportunities, the costs will certainly improve. Outsourcing print jobs to a service provider would also significantly reduce overhead and transportation costs for publishers, resulting in better returns. Moreover, several POD companies aggregate print orders, meaning that publishers with bigger volumes can get better deals.

Opening Doors for New Revenue Models

If your main business model is digital publishing—and that’s likely to be the case for most publishers today—then it makes sense to add print on demand as an additional service. POD enables publishers to add an extra revenue model to their digital publishing efforts without large initial investments, and without storage or disposal costs or regrettable environmental consequences. It also allows them to experiment with innovative and highly personalized print products for niche markets. Just imagine a world where consumers can print their favorite e-books or assemble digital recipes, images, articles or blog posts in a physical keepsake that is delivered right to their door. Customized products such as these will be greatly valued in a reality dominated by real-time media and fleeting, intangible information.

Do you think print on demand can help print media survive in the digital age? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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[10]About the Author

Gloria Quintanilla is online marketer at Peecho [11], a free online service that allows anyone to sell professionally printed products from their application or website, and make a profit with every sale. Customers simply sign up, get the print button code and embed it in their website. Visitors can then buy digital documents or images as photo books, reports, magazines, canvas prints, and more. An API is also available.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "A Future for Print in the Digital Age?"

#1 Comment By Michael W. Perry On January 11, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

That’s a great article with some excellent ideas. I particularly like the comment about printed books being better as gifts. Even a Amazon or iTunes gift card comes up lacking there.

I’ll add another suggestion. With CS6, InDesign has become a marvelous tool for publishing books in all formats, print and digital. For my latest, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments, the very same ID document created:

1. A PDF print version for Ingram’s Lightning Source and Amazon’s CreateSpace.

2. An ePub 3.0 version for Apple’s iBookstore (just turn off font embedding)

3. A MOBI version of Kindles using Amazon’s ID plug-in. It finally does what I need done.

The only hitch was that in December I had to move the text into Word and format it to create a .doc file for Smashwords to reach the other ebook retailers (B&N, Kobo, Sony, Diesel etc). With Smashwords now accepting ePub 2.0 files, which ID can also export, that same ID document can now drive Smashword publication.

The result is that I now have a marvelous, two-step workflow for everything–something I’ve wanted for years. Scrivener for the outlining, drafting and editing, and InDesign for the publication. And once in ID, any final editing and proofing I do immediately appears in all the versions. No pesky editing here and remembering to also edit there.

The major hitch with ID is its hefty first-time price, a mind-shattering $700. But check around on eBay and the like. You can sometimes pick up an older but upgradeable version for much less. Just make sure you get a licensable, upgradable copy.

The only remaining author-as-publisher woe, which the author’s Peecho website apparently partially addresses, is the web side of marketing and selling. I never seem to get around to updating my website. It’d be great if someone offered a service that’d give me what looks like my own website with complete freedom to describe my books as I want and to direct them to all the possible sources customers can use, Amazon, B&N etc

Just like I love ID CS6 for freeing me from ePub and MOBI coding, authors need a site that frees them for fussing with HTML.

#2 Comment By Gary Frost On January 11, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

PediaPress is a good example of the return bridge from screen books to paper: [12] The current photobook self publishing model is also instructive of the deeper complementary relation of print and screen book transmission.

Its always important to note that publisher investment in screen distribution is based on print revenue. Another factor is the increasing economy of electrostatic book printing, both industrially and at the desktop or retail end.

#3 Comment By Ben On January 13, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

I work in prepress and I see a major flaw with this article on POD advantages over offset… higher cost aside, the print quality is also worst. Have you ever compare an offset book vs a POD? For text only books, POD can look identical but when you compare any 2-4C books side-by-side, then you’ll noticed the difference, you get what you pay for.

A good color offset book is far better than any good POD book. Assuming you care about paying for quality, which I do. Print is dying because consumer reading habits are shifting quicker than anyone can anticipate with ereaders and tablets. Think how iPod changes the music industry? It’s similar here with books except there is no Steve Jobs to save the book industry from itself.