ATG Article of the Week: Print-on-Demand and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Print-on-Demand and the Law of Unintended Consequences

In this recent article in Library Journal, Rick Anderson finds a “scary” and  disruptive threat in a place that may surprise some folks.  He worries about the disruptive potential of Print-on-Demand.  Although dependent on the latest in technology, POD might strike some as more a step back into traditional print culture and not particularly disruptive.  However, Rick maintains that “the ability to make a desired book appear, physically, on demand, and essentially out of thin air within minutes of expressing that desire is breathtakingly new and has the potential to be deeply, deeply disruptive to virtually everything about the businesses of bookselling and librarianship.”  He argues that with POD, books need never go out of print and publishers will no longer need print run of a backlist titles.  And on the library side he worries that POD “would cast into serious question the function of most library collections.”

Rick notes that “warehouse-based POD fulfillment” is already happening at publishers like Oxford University Press and as one continues to read the article Rick makes it easy to envision local bookstores (and libraries) with high speed book machines connected to huge collections of ebooks creating print titles as requested.  All that stands in the way is the current high cost of the necessary equipment and the lack of “the metadata required to make the millions of digitized books actually findable is crude to nonexistent.”

At first blush this all may seem alarmist but one has to wonder what will happen when a cheap version of the Expresso Book Machine meets an easily discoverable collection the size of the Hathi Trust.  What function does a local library collection serve in this type “print on demand” environment?  Will the bookstore of the future have a floor plan dominated by computers connected to high speed EBMs?  After reading Rick article you may be asking these as well as few other questions.

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2 thoughts on “ATG Article of the Week: Print-on-Demand and the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. Tom, I’m honored that you chose my piece for this treatment.

    I would offer only one, very minor, clarification: it’s not quite accurate to say that I “worry” about POD casting into serious question the function of most library collections. On the contrary: I see POD as very possibly a much better option than the traditional collection for getting information to people. If POD does obviate the traditional collection to some degree, I would see that as a good thing, not a bad one. I discussed this idea in an AtG column a few years ago, and have been continuing to explore it in talks and publications ever since.

    • gilsont March 8, 2013 at 10:41 am - Author

      Rick, Thanks for the clarification. Your contention that “POD as very possibly a much better option than the traditional collection for getting information to people” may be controversial in some circles. I am interested to hear what others think. Hopefully, we’ll get some additional comments.