Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

Not long ago, conventional wisdom held that we would all be reading our books electronically by now—either on a computer screen or on a handheld electronic book, with the promise of digital paper still well in the future. And indeed, quite a few books (including some of my own) are available in one electronic form or another. But paper shows no sign of slowing down. Most of us would rather curl up with the processed corpse of a tree than with a digital display, and bookstores continue to do booming business.

The traditional model of publishing has a lot going for it besides inertia. Major publishers have brand recognition, extensive distribution arrangements, talented writers and editorial staff, and a product that’s in great demand. For best-selling authors and their publishers, this arrangement is near-perfect, and will continue to be so for a long time.

Vanity, Vanity, All Is Vanity

However, not all authors can sell books by the truckload, and not all books are well-suited to a publishing model that depends on economies of scale. On the one hand, you have authors who lack the connections to attract the attention of a publisher, but nevertheless want to see their work in print. On the other hand, you have books intended for a relatively small or very specific audience. Publishers often shy away from such titles, however good the quality may be, because they go against the distribution model the publishers depend on, making it difficult for them to turn a profit. For these and other reasons, so-called “vanity presses” sprang up.

The term vanity press (along with its euphemistic counterpart, “self-publishing”) suggests that such publishers cater to people with more money than talent—and without a doubt, sometimes that is true. But a vanity press is basically no different from any other publisher except that in exchange for guaranteed publication, the author is expected to front the cost of the book’s production. If the book is successful, the author’s investment is repaid; in any case, the author gets to have a book in print without jumping through all the hoops of a conventional publisher. Vanity presses typically lack access to elaborate distribution channels, but they do solve one or two problems for certain types of books. Nevertheless, the cost is still prohibitive for many authors, and anecdotal evidence suggests that few self-published authors recoup their expenses.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the vanity presses and their authors who have to worry about turning a profit. Even conventional publishers risk many thousands of dollars every time they put a book into print, because the non-recoverable costs of an initial print run—not to mention distribution—are quite high.

Increasing Demand

On-demand publishing is a relatively new way of looking at the process of putting books together. It has the potential to solve many of the problems that make conventional book publishing so expensive and time-consuming. Gone are the obligatory large print runs and lengthy production cycles; remainders and out-of-print titles are things of the past; and both publishers and authors stand to make more money in royalties. Say hello to on-demand publishing, a way of publishing in which books are printed only as needed—in quantities as small as one.

The main difference between on-demand publishing and conventional publishing is in the technology used to put the marks onto the paper. Making plates from film negatives and then printing with ink on a huge printing press is cost-effective only if thousands of copies are produced. By contrast, on-demand publishing prints copies one at a time using equipment that evolved from the office laser printer. Instead of film or plates, there are electronic files, and the marks on the paper are typically made from solid toner rather than liquid ink. But for most people, the quality of printing is indistinguishable—and it’s not only much faster, it’s much cheaper. The same can be said of the binding process. Machines designed for binding small runs of books can produce hardcover or perfect-bound (paperback) books that are indistinguishable from what you would find in a bookstore, without requiring an expensive print run. Because on-demand publishing doesn’t require large stacks of books to be kept in stock, printing plates to be stored, or minimum orders to be placed by retailers, on-demand titles need never go out of print. An author can also update a book almost instantly, and because there is less overhead, prices can be lower (or profits greater, or both).

Getting Published, Digitally

There are several different types of on-demand publishing; they share most of their technology in common, but differ in some important details. First is the digital vanity press, of which prominent examples are Xlibris, iUniverse, and Universal Publishers. Like other vanity presses, these companies require the author to pay the initial set-up costs for a book’s production, but this amount is an order of magnitude less than that of conventional printing. Authors provide word-processor files (or in some cases, PDFs), which the publisher’s staff then fit into a standard template, along with cover art. The publisher also registers a copyright, assigns an ISBN, and advertises the book on their Web site. In addition, some of these new companies have ties to both online and conventional bookstores, increasing distribution options.

Another category of on-demand publishing is technical books created by hardware and software manufacturers. Let’s say you’re Apple or IBM, for example, and you want to be able to offer user guides and developer references for those who need them, but without investing in the infrastructure required for conventional publishing. Vervanté Professional Books offers just such a service for large corporate clients. Unlike vanity presses, they don’t publish books by independent authors, and the setup fees are nontrivial—though still much less expensive than large-scale printing.

Then there’s my favorite twist on on-demand publishing: CafePress. This innovative company prints shirts, hats, mugs, clocks, and dozens of other articles—even underwear. Anyone can set up a store to sell any of these products with their own artwork or logo. CafePress handles the printing (using a durable, high-quality color process—no cheap laser-printed iron-ons here), as well as payment processing and order fulfillment..

The Blessing and the Curse

For all the benefits of on-demand publishing, there’s still one significant issue: editorial quality control. By its very nature, on-demand publishing puts the editorial content in the hands of the author (or whoever supplies the electronic files). Although some companies offer editorial services as part of their publishing package, readers have no guarantee that books created in this way have ever been seen by an editor. The kind of filtering and input that conventional publishers provide tends to result in more uniform quality of content. However, traditional publishers are increasingly adding on-demand printing to their own services, so that authors and readers can have the best of both worlds. Until electronic books feel and smell like real ones, on-demand publishing is the next best thing. —Joe Kissell

More Information

This article was featured in the About Freelance Writing Blog Carnival—June 19, 2006.

A number of companies offer on-demand, electronic self-publishing. The oldest and best-known is Xlibris, which in addition to standard books now publishes full-color, glossy picture books. Similar services are available from (a.k.a. Universal Publishers), iUniverse, and Trafford Publishers. If you live in Europe, consider the German company Books on Demand.

For technical reference books—user guides, developer documentation, and so on, see Vervanté Professional Books. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention BookFactory, a company run by my former boss, Bill Murray (no, not that Bill Murray). BookFactory uses on-demand printing to create hardbound laboratory notebooks, record books, and account books.

Publishers wishing to supplement (or replace) conventional printing and distribution processes with on-demand printing can use the services of Lightning Source.

Interested in selling T-shirts, mugs, and other goodies with your very own CafePress on-demand store? Sign up using this link and Interesting Thing of the Day will get a small referral fee.

An extensive list of reprint and on-demand publishers is located at ACQWeb.

cover art

In the irony department, there’s a reference book on on-demand printing called, appropriately enough, On-Demand Printing, by Howard M. Fenton and Frank J. Romano. The book itself, however, was printed conventionally by Prentice-Hall.