Friday, January 2, 2009

Print On Demand: It's Here! It's Now!

Wow! Where has the year gone? It's already January 3 and I meant to add this post bright and early on January 1. I had this thought of getting something meaningful said on the first day of the new year. I mean, the first day only happens once a year. So, it's not something you can replay. Could this be a harbinger of other assaults on my writing focus? Let's not go there just yet.

What was it I felt so compelled to say on the first day of the year anyway? It all started with our trip to Borders Books on the last day of 2008. It was kind of a lazy day in anticipation of a quiet evening at home with Dick Clark and a visit to a bookstore seemed like the right thing to do. Many others seemed to have the same idea as the store we visited was busy with browsers. And the checkout line was sufficiently long for the waiting time to be noticeable--both of which are good signs for those of us in the book writing biz, right?

As it turned out that day, the flurry of activity in the aisles and around the cash registers was at least partly related to the New Years Eve sale. The discounts were deep, even on the newer stocks in the store, and the sale table bordered on a "give-away". There were beautiful photographic books on Italy and on the architectural wonders of the world that originally would have sold for $75 - $100 or more. That day they were stacked and stickered at $15. And a $25 book published in 2006 about Michael Phelps' pre-Olympics days was marked down to $3.

There was also the headline in the days before Christmas that one of our area's Borders Books stores was closing its doors in January. I suppose at a certain point, the cost of the brick and mortar is too much for the books to bear. Which brings me to what got me to thinking.

While we were in the store, I drifted past the stacks and rows of books on virtually every topic imaginable. There, next to one of the support pillars was a small, flat-screen monitor with a mouse and keyboard. On the screen was an invitation to "Just Click The Mouse To Get Started".

A search window with fields for title, author or publisher came up. Choosing "publisher", in seconds every book in the Borders Books inventory was displayed in publication order by year, also sortable by author. Each book had a brief synopsis with the target age and price. Although leaving the store with the book in hand was not an option, the screen announced the book would arrive within two weeks.

That got me to wondering, where are all these books coming from? Were they in a large, dusty warehouse someplace in Kansas City, in boxes or shrink-wrapped and waiting to be shipped? Well there is a bit of that still going on. But as it turns out, more and more publishers are catching on to the fact that keeping inventory is expensive, from the printing cost to the storage costs to the recycling cost for books not sold. What to do? What to do?

What if the books weren't printed ahead of time--at least not in large numbers requiring storage? What if printers could turn a publisher's order around in days, including the binding and shipping? What if the book sellers were connected directly to the printers? And what if the printers could respond to buyer demand as if the books had already been printed, inventoried and warehoused? Print On Demand (POD) by any other name would smell as sweet.

Well, printing technology has advanced to the point that a book can be printed and leave the printer bound for the buyer as fast as or even faster than a book can be retrieved from a warehouse, processed for shipping and sent to the customer (either a bookstore or the buying public). The downside is that brick and mortar bookstores will find it more and more difficult to stay profitable as they shift from being a desirable customer destination shopping point to simply being a middle man adding unnecessary time to service delivery.

In point of fact, bookstores have evolved to quasi-libraries, although a bit glitzier with coffee shops and music. Lots of people go to bookstores these days to just hang out and browse. And bookstores have taken note of this shift, creating comfort zones for shoppers to get out of the cold or heat or rain, take their time checking out the merchandise, have a cup of gourmet joe and a designer muffin. It's a great way to spend a couple hours.

Maybe the next evolution will be that bookstores will only keep enough books in stock to meet "hit and run" demand, while expanding the network with printers who can print on demand. Then, again, maybe we're already there. But why has it taken so long? Could this be the equivalent of the automakers' shift to green? It should have, could have, occurred long ago but it appears vested interests got in the way.

Stay tuned. Just as public libraries have installed banks of computers to replace their card catalogs, you may soon see more computer terminals appearing in your local bookstores to give customers instant access to book lists and ordering. It's all quite amazing actually.

Repeat after me: Print On Demand. Print On Demand. Next up? E-Books....

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