The place of the print book in an increasingly technological society has been debated again and again, with both sides having a multitude of arguments to put forward. One of the strongest arguments against continuing traditional print books, especially in the volume that we currently do, is due to its environmental impact.
Undeniably, the publishing industry is not one with a major focus on the environment. Publishing takes up A LOT of paper. It’s unavoidable. Not only do books themselves need it, but so does the editing process itself. As Brendan noted in his blog post Give Me Paper or Give Me Death, a few weeks ago, many editors, including us young ones, often prefer to edit on hard copies. Computers may have streamlined the process, and allowed us to create lots of coloured notes all over the manuscript, but there’s really nothing like boldly crossing something out with your plain old red pen (or blue pencil if you’re a traditionalist).
Yet another area of publishing in which our treatment of the environment is less than perfect is in the destruction of books that don’t sell. Arrangements between publishers and bookstores are often such that unsold books can be stripped of their covers and returned to publishers. As they have already demonstrated that they won’t sell, usually these books are discarded and pulped. Although the practice of stripping covers has largely diminished due to the insides being used for bootleg copies, pulping is still practiced, particularly for paperbacks.
The numbers of pulped books can get extremely high, and it’s not something the industry likes to admit. In an effort to combat the problem, smaller print runs are offered to authors who don’t sell well, and sometimes these authors are even dropped altogether.
Particularly in small publishing, businesses can’t afford the losses that come with being forced to destroy so many books. That’s why, in the past, their print runs have been very small.
However, with the advent of digital publishing, comes a development that has changed the industry, in particular for the small presses, taking the focus off print runs. It’s called print-on-demand publishing.
It does exactly what its name suggests it will. Instead of having a set number of copies required to produce the book, you only need to print what you need, when you need it. It was a system I first experienced when I visited the Lightning Source/ Ingram Spark factory (The Cave Where Dreams Are Made). Lightning Source offers such a print-on-demand service, and one that Odyssey, among other small publishing houses, takes advantage of.
The benefits of this are enormous. Smaller publishers, for whom every penny counts, are not burdened with ordering a set number of copies that may never sell. Ordering is simple, when an order for a book is received, it is put through the print-on-demand service, printed, and dispatched to the recipient. This has been enthusiastically taken up by self-publishers as well. For those just getting started in the market, it’s a great way to get your book out on as many websites as possible, without having to worry about being burdened with 500 copies in your garage if your venture never takes off.
For larger publishers, print-on-demand can be a less viable option. When you’re producing print runs of thousands of copies, traditional printing is still more cost effective. But there is scope for them to incorporate it into their production processes. Particularly with books that have been in print for a while, using print on demand allows access to books that may not otherwise get a second or third print run.
The system allows both readers and authors to tailor the publishing production process to more accurately fit their demands. Not only does it provide a future for reducing the environmental impact created by the publishing industry, it makes the book market more accessible. Print-on-demand is just one advent of digital publishing that has allowed the industry to make significant leaps forward.