Why Print On Demand Is The Hybrid Technology Of Publishing

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Why Print On Demand Is The Hybrid Technology Of Publishing by Tim Sanders

December 14, 2012

In 2000, the Toyota Prius came to the United States, and was embraced by eco-enthusiasts like Ed Begley Jr. and Al Gore.  Its hybrid technology (part electric, part gas) solved the decades old problem in the industry of battery life and the scarcity of recharging stations.  Twelve years later, every major automotive brand offers hybrid cars, and millions of people around the world are driving them.  It's reducing the carbon footprint of automobiles as well as our dependence on oil, which is finite in supply. 

In publishing, we have a similar ecological solution: Print On Demand (POD).  I fell in love with the concept after touring Lightning Source's facilities earlier this year.  The book is printed when it's been ordered, boxed up on site and sent directly to the consumer or the retailer.  There's no waste, no extra steps (like offset printing via China) and satisfies readers that insist on paper product.  Since then, I've done quite a bit of research to quantify exactly what POD can do to revolutionalize the dirty industry of physical publishing.

Dirty?  Yes, the physical publishing industry takes a toll on the environment at every step: Cut down trees, ship them to create pulp in polluting paper mills, ship this very heavy end product to warehouses, then printers.  Print books with ink (it's own poison), ship them to a warehouse, then off to a retailer, then back again if it doesn't sell.  Burn the unused copies or reycle them (actually paper downcycles, not recycles) and find a place to put the refuse - like a landfill...where it takes thousands of years to break down, and when it does, it has significant emissions of methane.  I could go on, but you get the drift. 

According to research done by Hewlett Packard (see below for more), approximately 30% of all printed books end up being returned to publishers by retailers and detroyed without ever being read!  When you compound that travesty with the fact many of them are printed offshore (to save money per unit), then the eco-crime is of epic proportions.  By the way, the publishing industry agreed a long time ago to accept returns from retailers at any time, facilitating this problem.  When you think of books like Jonah Leher's Imagine, which was taken off the shelf due to a literary scandal, the eco impact was as bad for us as the economic loss was for him. 

Furthermore, POD can avoid all the extra steps in the publishing process, reducing footprint and the potential for damage to books via human handling and shipping.  Hopefully, as brick and mortar book buying shrinks as it has for music and movies, we'll see less need to accommodate old-school publishing methods like offset printing.

What's the total impact to the environment if publishers made the leap of make-em-by-the-ton-in-China to Print Only When They Are Bought?  According to HP's research, if the book, magazine and newspaper industry converted to this technology, the carbon emissions reductions would be "on the order of 114 to 251 MM tonnes CO2e (this estimation includes a rough estimate of the embedded carbon and energy use of the printers as well as the paper production) – at the low end similar to the Smart 2020 report's estimate for global implementation of automated lighting systems, and at the high end almost as great as the same report's estimate for a large scale shift to telecommuting." WOW. 

Here's another way to think about it, according to this research: For every $1 spent by publishers on traditional printing, there's $5-8 that society absorbs in environmental impact.

There are, of course, a few challenges left for the POD industry to bloom like hybrid cars.  The first is the issue of price.  POD is about 1.5 to 2 times more expensive per unit than offshore offset.  This means that a paperback book which could retail at $14.99 needs to retail about $18.99 or so to yield the same net to the publisher or author.  But the costs are coming down as the scale of POD facilities go up.  So expect that ratio to improve over time.  The biggest issue currently has to do with POD design and quality.  While the books look remarkably better than POD jobs from 5 years ago, there's still a disconnect between them and their eBook cousins. 

As Rick Joyce from Perseus Publishing says, "Like eBooks, POD is a digital product, just with a physical output." So why shouldn't they come from the same work flow? Currently trim sizes for POD require different print ratios than eBooks (which, except for Kindle Fire, are 1:1:33).  This means that book designers still need to do an EXTRA design execution for POD once they've finished the eBook OR vice versa.  That's waste, not in terms of energy but human effort.  Hopefully, we'll see the leaders in POD syncronizing these efforts so that a single design execution produces the book both in electronic and physical format.  That will scale!

For more, read: The HP Report, "Reducing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Commercial Print With Digital Technologies"

Tim Sanders

About Tim Sanders

Tim is a bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive with a mission to disrupt the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries and share knowledge with authors looking to publish and market high-quality books.

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