How Is Your Self-Published Book Printed?
In the “old days”- that is about 5 years ago – the world’s major book publishing houses controlled what books people heard about in bookstores and in the media. Fortunately, the self-publishing industry has now matured to the point where it is pretty easy to get your book out into the world. Bookstores are still somewhat hesitant to carry self-published titles because they can’t return any books they buy. And it turns out that the mainstream book business has, for decades, been built on the idea that whatever books a bookstore couldn’t sell could be returned to the distributor for a refund or credit.
Self-published books are usually produced in either electronic form as e-books, Kindle books, or hard copy books. What has made self-publishing so available to us regular folks is that expensive printing runs with large minimum purchases are no longer necessary.
“Print on Demand” (POD) technology has come into its own and now it is possible to order just one copy. Giant machines that look like copiers take a digital file, usually a PDF, and spit out a completed book, hard cover and all! Originally, the quality of these books wasn’t the greatest, but today, POD books are mostly indistinguishable from a traditionally printed book and in some cases, they are better looking. In fact, many mainstream publishers use POD technology to print their lesser-selling books and books on their “backlist,” that is, books that are not currently being marketed but are still being bought.
POD books are not only vital for the self-publishing industry, but they are vital for our environment as well. So many books are printed by traditional publishers to support an outdated industry model that over 40 percent of them wind up being destroyed, or “pulped” as it is called by the industry. That’s right, precious trees are cut down to make books that a publisher knows from the start will result in half of them being destroyed. This over printing is due to the archaic system that creates the cash flow for mainstream publishers.
Book publishers print so many books because they know the book distributor companies will pay up front for them. Bookstores will buy them, knowing that in about 4 months, they will return all of them if they don’t sell. The publisher then owes the bookstore money for the returns that it pays for out of the cash they make overselling the next batch of books! I
don't know what the answer should be to this. We have gotten use to being able to go into a bookstore and browse. However if you have ever browsed online for books, you know that you can access many more titles than any bookstore could ever carry. I have always loved independent bookstores, but I am now wondering if they are sustainable anymore. Maybe bookstore shelves turn into rows of digital displays with millions of books available for browsing digitally. You select your book and push a button to pay. Behind you, a machine starts up that prints your books in seconds!
The Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., has a POD machine they call their book printing robot. The user can select from millions of titles and have a paperback book printed while they wait.
Unfortunately, there is a huge infrastructure in place to support the current system – publishers, printers, warehouses, trucking companies, and the companies that manage the destruction of the excess books. So all you self-publishing authors out there are also book distribution activists! Every time we self-publish, we push ahead the technology and systems that will move us towards a world where everyone gets to express their ideas and trees aren’t destroyed needlessly for a crazy system based on profit-making and greed.
Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.
Ghostwriter Seattle, WA