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

by | Mar 5, 2013 | 2 comments

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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