Just a few copies can book a profit

POD: Publishing-on- demand machines make it cost-effective to turn out a limited number of copies of a book at a time.

August 17, 1999|By Trena Johnson | Trena Johnson,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The economics of printing haven't changed much since Gutenberg first printed the best-selling book of all time in 1455. Today, with traditional offset printing, most books are produced in one manufacturing order. That way, set-up costs don't have to be paid again. Electronic typesetting, which has been around for more than 35 years, hasn't changed that.

Recently, however, a system called publishing on demand (POD) has become a complement to traditional printing. Some people even use the process to make just a few books at a time.

With publishing on demand, a small number of books can be created at a time in a cost-effective way. A person does not need to put a large amount of money up front, warehouse stacks of books waiting to be sold or store copies returned from bookstores.

Peter Perine, general manager of the publishing segment for Xerox Corp., which makes publishing-on-demand machines, says it would cost between $400 and $500 to produce just one book in the traditional offset manner, while making one with publishing on demand costs $3 to $8.

Publishing on demand is a method that works particularly well if a writer has been turned down by publishing companies, which, doubting that their initial investment can be recovered through sales, tend to turn down unknown writers.

The process is especially attractive to authors who "self-publish" -- pay for the manufacturing of their books.

W. Paul Coates, owner of Black Classic Press in Pikesville, started thinking about POD in 1989 while working as a librarian at Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. He read an article about McGraw-Hill Cos. working with Eastman Kodak Co. to develop a system to publish one book at a time.

Coates could not understand why anyone would spend huge sums to produce one book at a time. "But in the mid-1990s, it began to make clear and perfect sense to me," he said. "Why am I producing so many books that go out the door only to come back as returns?"

Coates bought his POD machine in 1995 from Xerox, which also provided the additional machinery. A new POD machine today costs $40,000, or $1,000 a month to lease.

Paul Hilts, who has written about POD for Publisher's Weekly, says 20,000 of these types of machines are being used in printing and publishing around the world, 9,000 of which are in regular use rather than as mere alternatives to offset.

Simon & Schuster's Prentice Hall, John Wiley publishers, Carnegie Mellon and National Academy Press use the system.

On the Internet, American Christian Writers, Write Hand Publishing and Matrix Productions offer the self-publishing service.

Coates' publishing-on-demand machine looks like a large copier. It is about 14 feet long, 3 feet high and 2 feet wide, and it makes lots of noise. It can produce a 300-page book in about three minutes. The machine can be set very flexibly for varying page sizes.

The finished book comes out with a cover and is stapled. Coates also has a paper-cutting machine, binding machine, a drill for making holes and a binder -- all of which help yield professional products.

Self-publishers come to Black Classic Press from across the country, hearing about the company either from word of mouth, the Internet or Coates' lectures.

Marvis Aleem Abdul, a chemist from Herndon, Va., decided to self-publish the three books he wrote ("Code of Three," "Challenges to the Technosociety" and "Elements of the Enviroworld"). The printer he subsidized used publishing on demand to produce the books.

"If I needed 10,000 books, I would go to offset printing," Aleem said. "It would be cost-effective to use offset [but] basically it's coming out of my pocketbook."

Aleem has printed on average about 600 copies for each of his books, which deal with education, science and the environment. He expects a profit of $3 to $4 for each copy of his $10 book.

Aleem says no one has been able to tell that his books were not made the traditional way.

About 80 percent of Black Classic Press' publishing for its customers is POD. Coates also describes the quality of POD as indistinguishable from traditional offset. Under magnification, the letters made from POD appear to have irregular edges. But, asks Coates, what reader would magnify the words before reading them?

Said Xerox's Perine: "You can't tell it apart with the naked eye. The quality is more than adequate for the job."

Some of the major bookselling chains also have begun to use publishing on demand.

Borders Group Inc. has taken a 19.9 percent interest in investing in Sprout Inc., an Atlanta start-up company that also does publishing on demand.

"This is a wonderful enhancement to our customer service -- something we've prided ourselves with for a long time," said Ann Binkley, a spokeswoman for Borders.

"If a customer comes in and is looking for a book we don't have, we look at our fulfillment center. Now we can also see if Sprout has it. The customer still gets it in two to five days."

Binkley said the fulfillment center, which is in Tennessee, expects to have POD this year. The company will look at getting the system for the other stores, "once it's operational and we see how it works and what we can accomplish," she said.

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