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What if we’re missing the real revolution of Print on Demand?

Think about it. With POD we could:

  • Make almost real-time edits and updates to a book
  • Feed content from a blog or website straight into a book
  • Create a system for marginalia printed in a book
  • Change content based on critique
  • Change a cover to suit audience taste more easily
  • Personalize every copy of a book

Why would we want to use print books in this way? Isn’t it better to simply allow digital platforms to handle this kind of change? On some level, absolutely. Print books can’t do what digital ones do; they can’t be changed or edited in real time. But what if we tried to mimic the digital experience as closely as we can in print books? How would that affect how we perceive the printed book? In other words, it’s time to flip the print-to-digital paradigm on its head and see if we can apply some digital-like assets to a printed product.

POD allows us to update a book in as close to real time as is possible within the parameters of print manufacturing of books. Our workflows in the book world allow for changes/edits/updates to be relatively seamlessly made to a manuscript and for that manuscript to uploaded to a POD system as many times as we wish. Each new version supersedes the previous one, so in effect every time a book is printed it comes off the line as the most up-to-date version possible.

I propose that an opportunity exists by which we might treat the print book as a more reflowable set of content than we have up until now.

Of course, this is simplification of the utmost degree. Someone, somewhere within the Press must make the changes to the manuscript and then someone must upload the new version. Other considerations must occur, too. What manuscripts would meet the criteria for such updates? How would those updates retain the house style? How would authors be kept in the loop? Who would proofread? And so on. (Side note, but to take this thinking to its logical conclusion, the manuscript itself would be edited and updated by readers and peers with curation happening through an almost Wikipedia-style forum. I just heard EDP people collapsing all over the country. Sorry.)

With all the provisos of workflow and workload and curation in mind, I propose that an opportunity exists by which we might treat the print book as a more reflowable set of content than we have up until now. In fact, university presses might actually be best positioned to take advantage of such a use of POD. University presses are not printing for quantity any more (or they shouldn’t be), which means they don’t have inventory laying around on dusty shelves to worry about if a slightly revised version pops up. They are also well placed to impart a new peer-review system on such books. If edits and updates are proposed and incorporated, the review is, essentially, happening in real time. Minimally edited—or even unedited—manuscripts could be put into production much more quickly, which means turnaround time from “final” manuscript to printed copy would be reduced significantly. Where the content was time sensitive in any sense, the reduction in to-print time would be significant. Once the “book” was available it could be read, critiqued, and edited as suggestions came in.

Maybe the book would never have a final version. Think what that could do to the used book market.

Maybe an artificial end date would have to be imposed for such reviews so that a final book was indeed created. Or maybe the book would never have a final version. (Think, by the way, what that could do to the used book market. If every day a new version of a book came out, the older books would immediately be out of date and obsolete.) There are other logistical things to think of: How is an ISBN assigned? What standards would be required for the changes that are made—if any? Do all books fit this model? Does a Press hire a person to handle such books from a production and copy editing standpoint? How do you market an ever-changing book? (A follow-up blog to come on that, I think.)

There are, of course, issues and concerns that I haven’t even thought of, let alone written about here. I’m brainstorming on the fly. I want, in fact, to be critiqued in real time, to see if there is even the beginning of an idea that might actually have potential.

The technology of POD is ever changing, so what isn’t possible today may well be possible soon. If the idea here has legs, we’re going to need some beta projects, some authors willing to take a chance. We’re also going to need a Press or two willing to see what might happen if we tried it. Some of us have already adopted and embraced a rolling transmittal system, POD books, and marketing that is focused less on advertising and more on overtly sales-attributable efforts. Marketing teams that are focused on marketing in real time rather than along a six-to-twelve-month editorial calendar are likely to be more flexible to any new marketing techniques required or developed. And a rolling transmittal system means the production and editing teams are well set up to incorporate a rolling editing system. Such presses would be the obvious candidates to experiment in this field.

I challenge you all to critique, edit, and manipulate what I have here so that we might try something new.

I think there is latent potential in the POD system. I think there are opportunities for university presses to find new sales channels and, indeed, new content from an evolution of the standard print model. I think there are ways to engage the wider community—scholarly and not—in the continual development of a book. I don’t pretend here to have the answers to many of my own questions, nor the ways in which to fully implement these ideas. So, I challenge you all to critique, edit, and manipulate what I have here so that we might try something new. If it fails, I bet we’ll all have learned something important that we can use in other ways.

We’re going to need to change a lot of perceptions about what is meant by a print book.


Martyn Beeny is the Marketing Director at Cornell University Press. He’s never owned a pair of Dr. Martens in his life. Follow him on Twitter @MartynBeeny.