Coming soon: The One-hour bookstore?

Over the last twenty years I’ve designed many books on Systemic Thinking and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. It has been my most consistent graphic design job over the years. I was around when desktop computers took over from traditional typesetting. It looks like the next book I design will be my first in a new generation of books: produced to be downloaded and printed on demand.

Recently my father pointed me in the direction of an article on a company called Blurb. Blurb offer anyone the chance to have the books they create available to the public using a print on demand model. This model is a very good idea if you want your publishing to be at all profitable.

Even with the help of Mac-based pay layout software and very fast digital printers, it still takes at least 6 months for traditional publishers to turn an author’s finished manuscript into a printed book. If a talented individual writes and designs their own book, it still takes weeks for traditional printers to produce a small number of copies and they charge a great deal for short runs. That means you need to sell more than half of a print run of a hundred books before you go into profit.

Once you submit your artwork, it takes two weeks for Blurb to produce copies. They are much more flexible when it comes to print runs. If you wanted to print 100 copies of your 400 page hardback novel with a four-colour dust jacket, Blurb would charge you £14.36 per copy. If you wanted just 5 copies, the price goes up to £15.95.

Of course it is tempting to order 200 copies so that the price goes down to £13.56 per copy. If you were selling it for £18.95 that would mean a larger profit. However the whole point of print on demand is that you don’t need to keep stock. You don’t need to worry about getting the money together to pay for the initial order. You take no risk by making the book available online. You take the order, Blurb fulfill the printing, and you are immediately in profit.

This is just one part of how print on demand will change the publishing industry. Eventually it might save the high-street bookshop. Currently these shops are being squeezed by online alternatives. Why go to your neighbourhood bookshop when they probably won’t have the book you want. If they do it’ll cost more that it is on Amazon. If they don’t have it in stock you’ll have to wait a week or more to get it if they order it.

Contrast this with the problems that local photo developing shops have. Their specialised services are now available to anyone with a photo print at home. Who shoots pictures onto 35mm negatives any more?

If you combine these two models, you get the One-hour bookstore. Imagine a device the same size as an old-style photo developing machine that can print, cut and bind a book within an hour. It won’t be very long until such a device is available. When it is, readers will have the option of getting the book they want within hours instead of waiting for Amazon to deliver within days.

One day the public will see books in the same way as they understand pictures and music: as abstract ideas. There is no such thing as a music recording or a photograph any more. Pictures and music are stored and transferred as files that can be printed onto photo paper or transferred to a portable player.

When books are seen the same way copyright-holders may have the opportunity to get paid for their work without having to risk so much money in holding stock and distributing content to places near the buying public. That will lower the entry costs of publishing for everyone.

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