Chance of eternal life for chosen few folios

February 1, 2002

Print on demand is set to revolutionise the way scholarly books are produced. Mandy Garner finds out how the OUP is preparing for the future

Niko Pfund speaks with the zeal of a convert. "Print on demand is a paradigm shift, which in some ways is akin to the paperback revolution," says the head of Oxford University Press's academic publishing in the United States. "Ten years from now in our arena of serious non-fiction publishing, people will be amazed how we got by before on guesswork, on the 'lick a finger and stick it in the air' school of calculating future sales."

As he describes a future in which treasured tomes on "trigonometric delights", a title from Princeton University Press, are offered the chance of eternal life, a mutually rewarding Dorian Gray-type pact for writer and publisher, it is hard not to look for a downside.

For publishers, the upside is obvious: greater efficiency - more profits or at least less loss. Pfund estimates that half of what the OUP sends out in traditional form is not sold. Print on demand will be of particular benefit to teachers who decide they want to put a book on a reading list, only to find it is out of print. Before, they would have had to choose another book, or, if there was sufficient demand - more than 600 hardback books on order - wait months for delivery.

With print on demand (Pod), books are stored electronically and can be brought back to life within days. Because Pod means that publishers can print precisely the number of books wanted, they can cater for small orders, knowing that they will sell everything they print. Storing the books electronically makes for easy transmission across the globe and saves on warehouse costs. Pod titles currently cost more than traditional print books, but this is likely to change. The quality of electronically printed books will also improve, although Pod may never be suitable for some publications - such as art books - that rely on finely detailed illustrations.

For writers, the benefits include the possibility that a book with low demand can still be available in print long after its first publication. There have been concerns about marketing and being tied to a publisher for life - Mark Le Fanu of the Society of Authors says this is still up for negotiation on individual contracts - but Pfund is upbeat. "It is a win-win situation," he says, adding that the slow turnaround in reviewing academic books - it can take two years from publication for a review to appear - often means that a book is going out of print just as it might finally be getting publicity.

Pod has been in existence for about two years, but it is set to go big time in the coming months. The OUP alone plans to have 2,500 Pod titles available by the end of this year. To this end, a mammoth treasure hunt is under way. Pfund has visited the North Carolina vault where a copy of every book published by the OUP is kept; colleagues are scouring internet sites for forgotten "gems"; authors have been contacted for their suggestions of books that could be rescued from oblivion; and secondhand bookshops are being trawled.

The OUP's customer services people are filling in tipsheets when customers ring about books that have gone out of print so that the firm can start chasing them. It cannot use the copies it has in the North Carolina vault to create Pod copies since the digitisation process destroys them, so it has to find alternative copies. "We ask writers to sacrifice a copy of their book on the altar of eternal life," Pfund says. He adds that the response has been "entirely favourable", even from those with whom the OUP parted "on less than favourable terms" because they could not keep their book in stock due to lack of demand. "The number of people who have said no is in single digits."

In Pfund's view, Pod is perfect for the big academic publishers. The main cost is in the digitisation process, which means it does not make economic sense for high-demand books or for small academic presses. The big publishers, however, can produce enough Pod books to make the digitisation costs worth their while. Some books that have been brought back to life have sold up to 600 copies in nine months. The OUP predicts it will sell more than 50,000 Pod books this year, with US sales up to 500 per cent higher than last year.

In marketing terms, adding 2,500 Pod books to your regular catalogue sounds like a nightmare. So instead, the OUP does regular data dumps to internet providers such as Amazon, letting them know that some books are available again through Pod, and it is putting the list on its own Pod website. The Author's Guild in the US also has a website for members (printondemand.com), which features the whole range of academic titles.

But could Pod mean that academic publishers put any efficiency savings into publishing more books, thereby lowering their quality threshold? Could that transform the nature of what it means to be published?

The OUP is adamant that there will be no effect on quality and that Pod will not mean it will publish more books. Pfund believes it should become the last part of the "natural" publishing cycle, with books being subjected to the same rigorous review process so that the OUP's "brand" is not diminished. He compares it with the internet phenomenon, which brought information overload and a need for someone to separate the wheat from the chaff. "We will not drop our quality threshold," Pfund says, "but it is difficult to know what the future holds."

Others agree with this diagnosis. Le Fanu believes that the big academic presses will still act as "a quality-control mechanism" and that they are unlikely to produce a sub-class of Pod-only books or to publish more books, at least in the near future. But he cautions writers to keep their eyes open to all eventualities in the new digital world, especially since, because agents do not tend to deal with them and pile on the pressure, "academic publishers tend to get away with more than commercial ones".

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