SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Print on Demand
SFWA President's Message
Print on Demand
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1998 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in
Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,
I recently saw a demonstration of print-on-demand technology. I
didn't have to go to a printing trade show to see this, or to a
large commercial copy shop. The demo I saw was in the basement
of a SFWA member's house. He had acquired all the necessary
equipment, and is now turning out single copies of perfect-bound
books with full-color covers and doing it at a very
Some writers have hailed the advent of print on demand: Never
again will a book go out of print! On the face of it, that
sounds wonderful: a reader who discovers a writer late in that
writer's career will be able to easily order backlist titles.
But will print on demand really be the end of all our troubles?
Most publishing contracts have a reprint-or-revert clause. If an
author discovers that his or her book is no longer in print, he
or she can put the publisher on notice: they must commit to
reprint the book within a specified time, or they must revert the
rights back to the author, leaving the author free to license
publishing rights in that title to another publisher.
These days, publishers rarely go back to press for fewer than
3,000 or so paperbacks. And, if those paperbacks are priced at
$6.99, and half of them actually sell (which is the typical
ratio), the author will make something like $838 in royalties
from the reprint (the most common royalty rate for a paperback is
8%). Or, if the publisher lets the book revert, then another
publisher may indeed wish to reissue the novel, paying the author
a new advance of at least a couple of thousand dollars, if not
more, and pumping perhaps 20,000 new copies into the marketplace
(a typical paperback first printing these days). With the same
sell-through ratio and royalty rate, the author might earn $5,600
from this reissue.
But what if the original publisher had switched to print on
demand? Well, then, the book is always available for bookstores
to order, and therefore is never technically out of print. But
will an older title sell in quantity without a push from the
publisher? Or will orders for it trickle in at, say, a copy a
week? At the end of a year, 50 copies might have sold, netting
the author just $28 in royalties and preventing him or her
from ever reselling the book to a publisher who might
aggressively reintroduce it into the marketplace.
Writers' associations and literary agents will need to craft new
contract language and fight diligently for its adoption to
make sure that the supposed boon provided by this technology
doesn't turn out to be a financial disaster for authors.
Publishers rarely if ever let a title revert without considerable
heel-dragging (regardless of what timeframes are specified in the
author's contract). The reason is simple: most backlist is
worth little to the publisher, but if an author takes off (as,
say, Dean Koontz did, after years as a minor name), suddenly
those old titles become extremely valuable. Having to print
3,000 or so books to keep the rights to every potential new
Koontz is too much of a financial risk for most publishers;
having to print one copy to retain those same rights (or, indeed,
having to print none at all unless and until an order comes in)
is a sound investment. Will new contracts specify a minimum
order threshold for maintaining in-print status? And, if so,
what figure would be fair?
Farther down the road, on-demand printing may move out of the
publishers' warehouses and directly into bookstores. Wonderful,
you might think. Never again will someone go into a store and be
unable to get a copy of your book. Perhaps so, but I suspect
there will still be a hierarchy. Will your title be deemed of
sufficient interest for the bookstore to produce a display copy?
Or will yours simply be available for downloading into the
printing equipment, meaning no one will find your book while just
browsing through the store shelves?
Still, if bookstores can access the text of every book available
from every publisher, then the physical neighborhood bookstore
may regain its supremacy even as a source of backlist or obscure
books; online bookstores, which currently enjoy an apparent
advantage in that area (I say "apparent," because in fact almost
any bookstore can special order almost any title) may lose that
advantage. Sure, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com or Borders.com
may be able to ship you volume one of some long-forgotten series
in two or three days, but your local print-on-demand bookstore
will be able to hand you a copy, with no shipping costs, in a
matter of a few minutes.
Now, you may say, no one is going to hang around a bookshop
waiting for a novel to be printed and bound. But even though
print-on-demand at bookstores is still years away, Barnes and
Noble and others have been redefining the retail environment to
encourage people to linger in the store: that's what all those
Starbucks and other in-store coffee shops are for. Whether this
is clever advanced planning, or just preadaptive evolution (like
feathers emerging for insulation and only subsequently being
co-opted for flight) is hard to say. But even today, bookstores
are ready to comfortably accommodate customers during the brief
delays required to print books in house.
There are some important advantages to print on demand, besides
such obvious ones as letting every title be instantly available
in large-print editions, and in the buyer's choice of paperback
or hardcover. Print-on-demand technology may finally make the
IRS's Thor Power Tool decision irrelevant to publishing (Thor
causes publishers to pay tax on books in their warehouses,
providing a great disincentive to keeping backlist titles in
Print on demand may also eliminate the "returns" problem: the
wasteful practice that results in only one out of every two
paperback books actually selling, while the other copy is
destroyed by the bookseller (saying the book has been "returned"
is a euphemism; the cover is ripped off the book, and the actual
book is thrown out). That would be great for the environment, no
doubt but who should reap the benefits of these savings? The
standard 8% paperback royalty rate is based on the author bearing
some of the cost of that waste. If books are printed on demand,
with no wasted copies, should the author's share of the sale
price remain that measly 8%? Doubtless it will, unless effective
writers' advocacy groups, such as SFWA, take a leading role in
ensuring that writers benefit at last as much as do booksellers
and publishers in the coming era of on-demand printing.
Looking even farther down the road, on-demand printing and
binding equipment may become a standard part of most households,
with the text of books downloaded into these devices over the
Internet. Or, of course, hand-held electronic book readers may
take off at some point. When either of those things happen
when authors can themselves become effective publishers, and
consumers can print or access books directly then the
traditional publishers and bookstores may disappear.
What role will there be then for organizations such as SFWA?
Well, today, we like to think that the notation "Active Member,
SFWA" on a manuscript gets an author's work preferential
consideration at a publishing house. In the post-publisher
economy, that same designation on a web site may become a
valuable endorsement for the consumer, signify that the author is
an experienced professional writer. That could help book buyers
separate wheat from the endless chaff such a system would
inevitably put before the public.
Robert J. Sawyer is President of the Science Fiction
and Fantasy Writers of America; he also founded SFWA's Canadian Region. His latest novel is
Factoring Humanity from Tor.
More Good Reading
More about SFWA:
HOME • MENU • TOP
Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.