The POD opportunity has come and gone
By Frank Romano Friday, 15 April 2011
Book publishers rose to market demand by inventing the paperback but missed the boat this time round
Publishers provided free paperbacks to Allied troops during WWII. Crowded onto ships, thousands of men passed long hours of boredom by reading. I believe this instilled in them a love of reading and led to one of the most literate societies in history. The Baby Boomers continued reading (but there are doubts about Gen X and Gen Y).
Lane’s other invention was the ‘Penguincubator’, first installed outside Henderson’s in London. It demonstrated his intention to take the book beyond the library and the bookstore and into railway stations, chain stores and even to the streets. The Penguincubator was the first vending machine for books. For a few pence you could have reading matter immediately: on-demand books before on-demand printing.
A mass-market paperback is small and inexpensive. It is released after the hardback edition and sold in non-traditional locations such as airports and supermarkets, as well as bookstores. Mass-market paperbacks are distinguished from hardcovers by different business practices publishers and booksellers apply. A trade paperback is a standard-sized or large-sized paperback book. If it is a soft cover edition of a previous hardcover edition, the only difference is the soft binding. This is the most common version for on-demand printing. Trade paperbacks are typically priced lower than hardcovers and higher than mass-market paperbacks.
Flash-forward to today. The Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts has an Espresso Book Machine that prints on demand. The catalogue totals 3.6 million titles, mostly from Google digital files and public databases, along with previously inaccessible works. There are few contemporary books on the list. The system creates a library-quality, perfect bound, acid-free 300pp paperback book in about four minutes.
I visited Blackwell’s bookstore on Charing Cross Road, which has an on-demand printing system. Samples of the books printed are displayed. I was there an hour and did not see a book printed.
Times and technology change. I was sitting in the 2,000-volume library of the Queen Mary 2 in the middle of the North Atlantic with an Amazon Kindle. I clicked to connect to their website wirelessly and then downloaded a book in electronic form. Almost any book. Instantly. In the middle of an ocean. Get the picture?
Barnes & Nobles’ Nook website, Amazon’s Kindle store, Apple’s iBooks platform and Google Books are the Penguincubators of today and tomorrow. These user-friendly content delivery systems, extended to the book industry, could have been developed by the publishers who make the books. But they diddled while tomes were spurned.
We do not buy books by publisher; we buy by title or genre. It is too late for publishers to set up their own stores and force us to have accounts with all of them. Publishers are full of indecision - text-only e-books versus enhanced applications, weird release schedules to protect the paper book, digital rights management, and infighting over pricing models, discounts, and distribution policies. They cling to traditional business models in an age of change.
The on-demand concept can mean anything from a book in a library, to a book on a sales rack, to a book in a vending machine, to a book mailed to me, to a book printed for me, to a book downloaded to me.
Frank Romano is professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology
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