Dismal Amazon ratings belie success of print on demand

Libraries cater for small audiences but are giving a valuable service, writes Matthew Reisz

September 3, 2009

It remains to be seen whether Google is able to press ahead with its plans to digitise just about every book ever written.

When the corporation began to scan the texts of millions of out-of-print titles held by major libraries without clearing copyright permissions first, its haste landed it in court.

In the meantime, academic libraries and presses have been making more books from their collections available on a print-on-demand (POD) basis.

The University of Michigan library recently announced that it is issuing 400,000 more titles as part of its Michigan Historical Reprint Series.

"If we have a digital copy of a book that is in the public domain and printable, we would like to make it available via POD," said Maria Bonn, director of the university's scholarly publishing office.

Each title is listed by Amazon, the online bookseller, without further product details.

But if someone knows about a title, or happens to be intrigued by the idea of a book on something as esoteric as 19th-century post-mortem examination, it can be rapidly printed and supplied with a generic, single-tone cover. Ms Bonn said that, because the books available have undergone no selection for quality, "our assumption is that most have a very, very small audience".

"Of the 10,000 books that have been on the market for a few years, most have sold at least once, but only a handful have sold in the tens, and only a dozen or so more than 100 copies," she said.

"Since we primarily provide this as a service as part of our work as a library, we really need only to cover our costs. POD allows us to do that on a per-volume basis."

A similar POD programme, the Cornell University Library Digital Collections, has recently expanded its offering from 6,000 to 80,000 titles.

These are listed on the university's website with dispiriting Amazon sales rankings - even the so-called "bestsellers" tend to have several million other titles ahead of them.

However, in Britain, Cambridge University Press (CUP) is drawing on its links with the university library to launch a more focused programme offering 475 titles.

The scheme, which comes 475 years after Henry VIII granted CUP permission to print "all manner of books", will include books previously available only in a few old libraries. "We take scholarly advice on everything we publish from experts in the field," said Faye Pendall, head of marketing for academic and professional books.

"It's a parallel process to the peer review that Cambridge new books have to undergo."

The CUP website includes a suggestions box that can be used to request further titles.

Most of those to win approval so far are heavyweight tomes in fields such as music and mathematics, life sciences and literary studies. However, amid the learned volumes, Ms Pendall points to a few titles that might provide more general entertainment.

CUP has just reissued, for example, Travels in Spain and the East 1808-1810, by Charles Darwin's uncle, Francis Sacheverell, highlights of which include "a mountain climb with a bottle of laudanum as the only provision, a daring escape over the rooftops of a Greek village from a group of enraged natives, and dinner with Lord Byron".


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