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Will print-on-demand technology save publishing or deliver its final death blow?

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“It’s a platform to engage with people,” Ellen Lupton says. “It was never meant to be a bestseller.” The Maryland Institute College of Art professor/graphic designer/DIY publishing guru is talking about Sexy Librarian, the debut novel by Julia Weist released on Lupton’s Slush Editions imprint and a test case in self-publishing that took advantage of print-on-demand – or POD – technologies. For Lupton and other POD enthusiasts, this new way of publishing allows artists and writers more creative control and empowers small presses. Or, if you prefer your future more ominous, POD may create a nation of navel-gazing vanity publishers and destroy the floundering publishing industry in the process.

The burgeoning POD revolution was made possible thanks to a confluence of several different kinds of technologies. Design software is now familiar and accessible to people outside of graphic design firms; printing technologies have become cheaper and swifter; and the Internet allows geographically dispersed communities to connect with – and sell books to – each other. So while the “big six” of the publishing world engage in the increasingly frantic search for the next blockbuster franchise, thousands of independent presses or intrepid individuals are self-publishing for a niche audience, and many of them are using POD to do it.

One huge advantage of POD is that it eliminates much of the waste inherent in traditional publishing by simplifying things down to supply and demand – in effect, a book isn’t printed until after it’s ordered. While this system doesn’t make sense for big publishers printing big books, it’s been a boon for small presses, academic publishers and maybe even your neighbor’s unappreciated 
Viking epic.

The Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, one of the country’s largest academic presses, uses POD technology for roughly 5 to 10 percent of its titles, estimates fulfillment operations manager Davida Breier, who hopes to see this number increase.

POD makes sense for publishers such as JHU Press, where the bottom line isn’t the only concern. These days, a book that sells a few hundred copies a year is hardly worth keeping in print – except for the fact that, as Breier points out, JHU favors “dissemination of knowledge over profit.” With POD, it might not have to choose between publishing unprofitable but intellectually valuable books and letting them disappear. Theoretically, POD technology could eliminate the need for books to ever go out of print because copies are only printed upon request, and every copy nets a small profit for the publisher – a workable model, even if overall sales of a title amount to only 15 copies a year. This is, of course, also a big advantage to any publisher tackling books with niche appeal – the kinds of titles that, as Breier puts it, “POD is really perfect” for.

Small presses are also using POD as a kind of trial run, enabling publishers to take risks that might not otherwise be possible. “You can print 50 copies, then see if you want to print a full run or make changes,” Breier says. “You can’t really do that when you have 1,500 copies sitting in your garage.”

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