In 2007, we launched CinnamonTeal Publishing, to provide self-publishing services based on print-on-demand. In August 2007, we were the first in India to introduce these twin concepts as a business-to-consumer service. This article seeks to, in some way, chart the trajectory that both print-on-demand and self-publishing have taken over the years, independently and together.

But first allow me to explain the two concepts, given that they are sometimes misunderstood. Print-on-demand, when applied to books, refers to technology that allows publishers and authors to print books in small quantities, even one copy, depending on the demand for that book. It means that books can be put up for sale, for instance, on an electronic portal, without there being any physical copies already printed for sale, with the guarantee that the technology to print and send as many copies of the book as ordered is available. This is akin to the principle of a negative inventory, popularized by Dell Inc., which involves the production of a good AFTER it is purchased.

Print-on-demand thus obviates the need for a stock of books to be kept in order to meet demand. (Of course, one must bear in mind that a print-on-demand approach increases the cost of a single copy of the book, but let’s keep that aside for a while.) Print-on-demand, therefore, should not be confused with short-run printing, an approach taken to print a small number of copies and keep them in stock in anticipation of demand for the book. Though the technologies employed for both, print-on-demand and short-run printing, are the same, the concepts in each case are different.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, is a set of services offered to authors who wish to publish their books. These services include, but are not limited to, editing, design, printing, marketing, and distribution. Because self-publishing is an option exercised mostly by first-time authors, print-on-demand is incorporated within their publishing strategy so as to avoid large investments in printed copies.

It is important to make this distinction because print-on-demand and self-publishing are often used interchangeably. Publishing isn’t just printing (or printing on demand.) It is, or needs to be, a more elaborate process, one that draws upon years of wisdom developed within the publishing domain, to produce a book that is well-edited, carefully designed, has an elegant cover tailored for it, and one that is adequately marketed and distributed. While printing does give a book its physical form, the constant focus on the processes that follow printing, with little or no value attached to the processes that precede it, is a disturbing trend prevalent in today’s market, especially among self-publishing service providers. In the scheme of things, print-on-demand is therefore one of the many things to consider, albeit an important one, since it impacts the amount invested in the book.

In India, print-on-demand (or, almost synonymously, low-run printing) has evolved in many ways. Here are a few of them:

a. The quality of books produced using print-on-demand has improved drastically. When we started in August 2007, our main concern was to find a printer who would print us a few copies (usually less than 5) without asking for an arm and a leg. We finally found one but when the copies came, we found that each copy looked different from the other. These were certainly not books that we could sell with a straight face. We got luckier with the second printer we worked with. But in 2017, there is marked change in the quality of books turned out by the digital printer. It is only to the extremely trained eye that the difference between a book printed using the offset method and a book printed using a digital press is perceptible.

b. The costs have fallen too: Print-on-demand is not as costly as it used to be. It is a more-than-manageable cost now, and this has, in fact, prompted many more publishers to print on demand, or print extremely low quantities. In Indian language markets, however, the cost of printing associated with this approach remains an issue, given that many of these publishers price their books extremely low in order to retain their readership.

c. Publishers have woken up to the benefits of POD. As a result of the costs associated with POD reducing, and the quality improving, many more publishers have explored ways in which POD can be used within the publishing/sales processes. This might mean using POD to develop dummy copies for book launches and book fairs, or print advance review copies (ARCs), or use the technology to print extremely small quantities at the location of sale. In some cases, given that large print runs have to be scheduled, sometimes months in advance, the POD technology helps publishers get faster to market.

d. Print-on-demand has allowed publishers to access new markets at almost no cost, by associating themselves with service providers who can print at the customer’s location. This enables a publisher in India to allow customers in Russia, for example, order its books. The books are printed locally and shipped to the customer, thus providing both savings on shipping costs.

Having said that, there are still some areas in which the POD technology lags behind the more prevalent offset technology, a vastly different process that proves cost-efficient when a larger number of copies have to be printed. For one, coloured books, especially illustrated books where the colours need to be accurately reproduced, are best printed using the offset technology. This is also the case because the costs of printing in colour using the POD technology is very high.

Secondly, although this particular issue is now being addressed, POD printing (or low-run printing) offers lesser flexibility in terms of paper that can be used, or the dimensions of the book that can be printed. Many printers, offering POD as a service, cannot, for example, print large books in the landscape format. But, like I mentioned, there is an investment in R&D in this direction.

In India, the adoption of POD as a concept has had to do more with the low investments involved in POD, or even in low-run printing, and little to do with the fast turnaround that POD offers. It allows publishers to keep their back and middle lists available to the reader for purchase, without the need to invest in their printing and storage. One can only speculate that more publishers will buy into the idea of POD, as the benefits it offers becomes clear to them. As readers get used to paying more for well-produced books in Indian languages, this technology might find wider acceptance even within that community, of Indian langauge publishers. This can only be good, because it will allow publishers to experiment with a wide variety of topics, topics that appealed to only a small community of readers.

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