Books Printed on Demand

Clive Thompson, author of The Myth of the Paperless Office, wrote an interesting article in Wired this month on the impact of print on demand publishing upon paper book use. He argues that just as the use of paper exploded after the rise of the computer and office printer, so too:

“Print-on-demand” publishing is about to do the same thing to books. It’ll keep them alive—by allowing them to be much weirder… Print-on-demand devices, like the Espresso Book Machine, do just what their name implies: You feed them a digital file and in minutes you have a good-looking paperback with a color cover. -

It’s an interesting argument because Thompson isn’t suggesting that paper books will continue in their current form. He recognizes the dramatic shift towards electronic digital reading as Kindle sales already outpace all paper book sales combined. The mass market paperback book will continue to be released via Kindle or some other e-reader format. But, there are forms of the paper codex book that add a kind of cache to the content. For instance, commemorative photo books you can create on your computer, or obscure out of “print” titles, which can now be printed on demand with relative ease. As he goes on:

Granted, few of those titles have been printed more than a handful of times; print-on-demand is still a small fraction of total book production. But the trend is obvious. Mass publishers doing “big” books will continue to shift to the Kindle and its peers, while smaller outlets will use print-on-demand for formats that privilege physicality, like mementos, visually lush books, and custom-designed, limited-edition copies of novels. This trend will accelerate in 15 or 20 years, when, as some observers predict, your average home printer will be able to spit out paperbacks. -

We’ll have to wait and see how ubiquitous espresso-like book machines can press paper into the hands of contemporary readers, but it could be that the codex leaf book common in years past will emerge as a specialty item used something like scrolls for diplomas at graduation ceremonies, for the odd scholar’s obsurantist title, for the family photo album, and indeed maybe even by Christian churches and mosques who continue the codex’s historic role in their traditions’ rise and development