Publishing less of More

By | June 8, 2009

In a session at the recent Book Business Conference, attended mostly by book publishers, self publishers were derided as being “those people who try to bypass the people in this room”, i.e., the book publishers. It is more likely that self-publishers are those people who were bypassed by the people in that room. Self-publishing is no longer all fatuous self-aggrandizement, much of it is scholarly, artistic,  technically obscure or just didn’t pass beneath the eyes of the right acquisition editor or agent. (Numerous publishers, after all, turned down Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling.) Companies like Lighting Source allow hundreds of publishers (some with very small numbers of titles) as well as individual authors to access the marketplace of ideas without having to print thousands of books.

Instead of producing their non-bestseller titles in lots of 5,000 to 10,000 publishers might be better served to use digital printing technology to produce 500, 1,000 or 2,000 copies of a given title. Get them into the marketplace and see how they do. If they sell, produce more. Use the computerized inventory systems installed in every retailer to monitor inventory and demand levels and develop models to predict demand. Next, use this newfound knowledge to automate reprint orders based on predetermined stock levels and actual demand. Over time, you’re able to build demand curves for books by title, category, by author, even location, enabling just-in-time production and delivery while maintaining minimal inventory levels in drastically downsized warehouses. Yes, it’s complicated to set up, but it’s hardly rocket science and the knowledge and technology from inventory through production is readily available.

The benefits of such a model will take a few years to see, and will result in a more robust publishing industry that runs leaner yet offers a wider selection of titles, brings forth more new authors —and is much more profitable. This is the way publishing can, should, and will be done. The Kindle and other “e-book” readers notwithstanding, printed books are not going away anytime soon, and there is plenty of money still on the table for publishers who see that digital book production is a way to reinvent a business that is in many ways a cornerstone of civilization.

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5 thoughts on “Publishing less of More

  1. Katheryn

    This is an excellent point that you make, it just makes sense to make use of the knowledge and technology available in the printing industry to streamline the process. It seems only logical to move towards printing according to demand. It’s just unnecessary to do it the “old fashioned way” of printing in very large numbers, with no idea of how many are needed. When you consider companies like Digital Lizard ( for instance, where it is possible for businesses to build an online portal from which they can order prints of their material directly, one has to wonder if there could be any reason to not embrace this new technology.

  2. MichaelJ

    The attendees at the conference may or may not be able to implement the systems that will harness the real power of digital print connected to the web. The point is to find the community of interest that will get some predictability into a business that has no way to know, as opposed to guess, what’s going to sell.

    But like the newspapers, they are starting to realize that they are not the only game in town. Previously it was only the publishers who had the capacity to fill the logistics chain with product and run the book tours.

    With Amazon that started to melt away. Now that virtually any one can enter the game with Amazon or Lulu copy cats and get the marketing visibility on the cable channels and the copycats, that monopoly advantage is also disappearing.

    Like the newspapers, there is lots of blabla about the End of Print. Actually Print continues to do fine. What’s really going on is the end of a business model based on oligopoly controlling the logistics.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if sooner, rather than later, the textbook piece of publishing, both in College and K – 12 will have exactly the same problem. It will no doubt be accompanied with lots of hand wringing about the End of Print and the end of Civilization as we know it.

  3. Noel Ward

    Most publishers could implement the necessary systems if they decide to do so. They don’t even have to buy equipment, given that numerous book manufacturers already have digital printing capabilities. But like printers who continue to think just throwing ink or toner on a page is a permanently viable business model, or automakers who though SUVs were the path to eternal profits, too many conventional book publishers still refuse to admit their old model is irrevocably broken.

    Some publishers are already are taking some tentative steps in the right direction. But sort of like changing the direction of a supertanker, it takes a while for things to change.

    What’s interesting is how this plays out over time. Self-publishing unquestionably puts more titles into the marketplace than the traditional model. Whether or not these titles are read and produced in significant volume depends on the market —and the quality of the title. Some, self-published or otherwise, will always be a waste of ink and paper. But will the mainstream publishing houses and their subsidiary imprints use digital printing to cast a wider net, by publishing a broader range of titles that would otherwise be self-published? There are few real reasons for them not to do so, and along the way keep some of those otherwise unemployable English majors who review manuscripts at the big houses employed.

  4. Michael Jahn

    @ Duncan,

    on the comment;

    “… printed books are not going away anytime soon”

    I guess only time will actually tell if this statement is true. There are many people whom insist that Vinyl LPs are still superior and can be found buying, selling and playing them.

    I see the distribution model as the change event, and with the economy the way it is, many are rethinking and retooling (as they should!) I think that this will happen faster than people are guessing, just as it did with the iTunes / iPod – it was not about MP3 all that much, it was all about the convenience / speed / cost reduction in the way music is now distributed. I have not purchased a Music CD in nearly 5 years.

    One thing to watch is the is the Free Digital Textbook Initiative announcement here in California.

    The state’s current fiscal crisis is an obvious motivating factor, as Schwarzenegger said that the state’s share of textbook spending comes in at $350 million a year.

    Nothing happens overnight, but all the stars are aligning over eBooks from my perspective.

    Having said that, many who work for digital printing companies will find comfort in this blog post related to the Californian Free Digital Textbook Initiative…

    The Free Digital Textbook Initiative is currently focusing only on those free textbooks that can be downloaded, meaning that school districts have the option to print the textbook in book form or place it on some type of e-reader, which would include laptops, mobile devices, or a commercial e-reader such as the Amazon Kindle.

    While printing out a digital text may seem to be taking a step backwards, districts would save money by not having to purchase a book from a commercial vendor. A commercial textbook can cost more than $100, but districts could print an 800 page book for less than $35, which despite the Chronicle’s criticism, is a substantial amount in today’s climate. Every dollar saved as a result of this initiative is a dollar better utilized by our schools.

  5. Duncan Newton

    The California initiative is an interesting one and will take some time to play out. But color me skeptical, especially when it comes to the perception of cost differences. Textbook publishers have a business model based on selling physical books at a (substantial) margin over the cost of production. While texts are printed and bound using relatively costly techniques to ensure durability over a lifespan of about seven years, the cost of production is only a fraction of the retail price paid for the books. So schools are really paying for content, which since these are educational materials, is only appropriate.

    But why do people, including Schwartzenagger, seem to think that textbook publishers are going to dramatically reduce the price of books because they are arriving at the school in the form or pixels instead of bits? The content is the value, not whether the book is bound or appears only on a screen. While the shift to some type of eBook format is probably inevitable, I think some form of text book is likely to be around for some time to come. It seems more likely that some types of content will be delivered on an electronic device and other types will be text on a page. And since publishers aren’t dummies, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that they will create additional “digital” content which could increase the cost to schools for an new and wider mix of educational materials.

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