A ‘Thoughts To Boogie To’ Editorial
I am currently in the process of writing a thesis on the future of books, reading and publishing. As someone who is compelled (academically speaking, but I guess I’m personally interested too) to read copious amounts of information on the subject, I can safely say that sometimes the debate about the future of books can feel a little like much ado about nothing.
Take, for example, Print on Demand (PoD). As the name suggests, print on demand (sometimes referred to as “publish on demand”) is a production model in which new copies of a book are only printed once an order for a specific title has been placed. Pod is the new-fangled model for production. It is lauded for many a reason. Among these reasons is the fact that PoD will spare publishers the tiresome pain and effort of having to approve “the usual large run” of 1,000 copies of books – although this sum actually represents the minimum requirement for many publishing houses. Apart from the obvious paradox here, it seems like size is just one of those things that will remain a perpetual source of confusion for some people.
Let’s move it along. Publishers say that PoD will prevent excess copies of books from being pointlessly stored in warehouses gathering dust – and, depending on the climate, maybe some moss too. This can only mean one thing, so listen up people: There is going to be a huge combustive overflowing of converted warehouses on the real estate market. All those who have been ruthlessly shafted in the “trendy penthouse” stakes should see PoD as your opportunity to go while the going is good. Remember, location, location, location!
The demise of warehouses aside, PoD will operate by a different method than traditional publishing. It will pass the mantle of production from publisher to retailer. Accordingly, publishers will grant retailers the right to print copies of books in accordance with consumer requests. Since the books that are generated through this method are the result of orders made by consumers, publishers will be assured of sales and the financial uncertainty created by the traditional minimum requirement run (of 1,000 books) will be alleviated. J. Kirby Best, the chief executive officer of Lightning Source, a PoD printer and distributor, has reportedly suggested that the PoD production model will take approximately three to five years to be functionally established. I have a printer now. Granted it needs a new cartridge, but it is working, so its almost ready to go…
The PoD model clearly has many advantages. It offers assurance of sale to publishers, removes the superfluous requirement of storing books in warehouses and also offers a welcome convenience to consumers. Reading over just these three factors, who would complain about such a system?
Well, let me play devil’s advocate (just a little game of argumentation we like to play over here in Oz). Yes, it is true that PoD offers publishers, retailers and consumers alike the kind of assurance that any viable market would relish, but what about the lingering and resonating power that books can have for the booklover who stumbles upon a hidden gem and unexpectedly goes home with not just a new favourite book, but a new favourite author. That booklover could end up being quite an avid fan of this author and contribute to future sales. There is something to be said for seeing books on shelves. It can represent burgeoning popularity, spark curiosity or just serve as real-life advertising. Sometimes the real-life tangibility of the product will circumvent all the marketing ploys of a sales department and simply speak for itself. Someone will simply pick up a book right off the shelf, just because they want to. No marketing pyrotechnics and no glitz or glamour, just a consumer making a decision to choose a particular product. In this scenario, the story, the writing, the quality are speaking for themselves. In this way, having books on shelves is not unlike the catchcry heard in theatres and concert halls where the primary concern of producers and marketers is to ensure “bums on seats”. Actually having the “seats” readily available is crucial to this goal.
Having said all of that, PoD would not obliterate these traditional and familiar aspects of publishing. As I said, I am just playing devil’s advocate and am being deliberately dystopic, but it does call to mind some very interesting scenarios and permutations for the future. PoD could put a very sizeable dent in the marketing prowess or “word of mouth” influence that the alluring presence of books on stands can generate. It could also inadvertently take marketing and publicity powers away from publishers and shift it overwhelmingly to retailers or electronic channels such as Google, itunes and Amazon. It could create very centralised perceptions about which books are popular, “best sellers”, or worthy of reader attention. On the other hand, it gives consumers the opportunity to get exactly what they want. PoD would certainly not devastate the autonomy of publishers as it would be a supplementary mode of production, operating in conjunction with the production of traditional paperbacks, e-books and audio-books. For some it also means no more taking 180mg anti-allergy pills in order to trawl through stacks of dusty books. However, it does make one wonder: What about that “gem” you unexpectedly find hidden at the back of the shelf. If it weren’t for the traditional publisher’s “large run”, you wouldn’t be able to buy a book on a whim, discover a new favourite author or explore a new world in a book simply because it was there to be bought. A notion which should, after all, remain a primary objective of publishers.
Thoughts to boogie to.
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