Print on Demand Doesn’t Imply Forever

Last Friday, as promised (sometimes as a secondary topic) in posts on March 28, 2011, March 25, 2011, March 15, 2011, February 14, 2011, January 22, 2011, January 4, 2011, January 2, 2011, December 28, 2010, December 6, 2010, November 4, 2010, and the original announcement on November 1, 2010 [omitting a number of other mentions of the limited-edition book], and on the front page of Cites & Insights December 2010, I removed disContent: The Complete Collection from sale.

This apparently took Jason Griffey by surprise, since–after never commenting on any of the dozen previous notes–he posted this comment on the April 1 post’s FriendFeed subject-line repost:

Question: why retire a print on demand title? I’m curious…even if it didn’t sell as you’d hoped, why not allow it to stay as a choice?

I snapped just a little when I read that, since I had the impression that I’d given at least one or two previous notices that the book would disappear and why that was so. I felt that Griffey was being deliberately provocative. My response was a trifle hostile; you can read it and the rest of the interchange, if you wish, here.

This post really isn’t about that discussion. There’s no reason Griffey or anybody else should pay attention to any of these posts; that’s entirely their choice. Paying such remarkably selective attention…well, maybe I’m guilty of uncharitable reaction, but I’m not offering an apology.

What I am offering is some other reasons that print on demand titles can and will be retired. These may be of interest, particularly to those who assume that they can move to just-in-time collections because, you know, if anybody ever really wants something, they can just order up a copy, particularly whenif PoD systems are spread through every village and town.

This is certainly an incomplete list; it’s really a top-of-my-head post.

Reasons Self-Publishers Might Retire PoD Titles

  • Ongoing costs associated with the titles. Right now, Lulu doesn’t charge for maintaining PoD offerings indefinitely, an admirable policy that might continue or might not. CreateSpace does have an annual fee for all but the most basic level of availability; when that annual fee exceeds the annual revenue from a title, sane authors might very well retire those titles. I haven’t researched other PoD resources, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see annual carrying fees.
  • Obsolescence. I would be inclined to retire titles that I felt were outdated enough to be curiosities as currently-for-sale books (as opposed to library holdings or used copies). So, I suspect, would others–which might or might not mean that new editions would appear.
  • Frustration/Irritation. I’ve retired some Lulu books because I found the lack of response irritating and frustrating, and lack the marketing knowhow to do much about it. I’d bet that some other self-publishing authors feel the same way.
  • Explicitly limited editions. One of the (IMHO) absurd premises in Andersonomics or Freeconomics is that, for more than a tiny handful of well-known authors and maybe a larger group of musical groups, your devoted fans will pay for special limited editions, enough to make up for your other work being free. Limited editions have no additional value if they’re not limited. In this particular case, the book was a really neat item but also a test case. Breaking my promise to retire it on April 1, 2011 (originally March 1, 2011) would have been, well, breaking my promise.
  • Death or retirement. I don’t know whether Lulu has some cleanup process when authors’ PayPal connections or email addresses cease to function, either because authors have died or have given up on online or Lulu without bothering to do cleanup work. If they don’t, they should.
  • Disappearing services. This is a biggie, as it could result in the retirement of hundreds of thousands or even millions of titles at once. I’m certain there are already PoD operations that have gone out of business. I doubt that either CreateSpace or Lulu is enormously profitable. I’m guessing that very few authors host their own PoD systems (including all the fulfillment issues); to do so is to become a small publisher, with significant capital outlay. When the service disappears, all titles on that service are immediate retired until/unless the author finds another PoD service. Which authors probably won’t bother to do for titles that aren’t yielding significant sales.
  • Whim. When a book is made available as a PoD book, there is no explicit or implicit promise to libraries or anyone else that it will always be available. An author may properly choose to retire a book for any reason whatsoever or for no reason whatsoever.

Ah, but PoD isn’t just about self-publishers.

Reasons Publishers Might Retire PoD Titles

Pay particular attention to the final bullet here…

  • Ongoing maintenance costs. Yes, the cost of server space is trivial, too small to even measure for most PoD items (since a book-length PDF is unlikely to be more than 2-3 megabytes for a text book)–but there are other costs, including those of maintaining accounting for the book and some level of availability information. Once PoD sales fall below a certain level, publishers might well choose to retire the items.
  • Some of the same reasons as self-publishers. Specifically obsolescence and disappearing services–and, to be sure, disappearing publishers.
  • New reversion clauses. Sooner or later–and I’m guessing smart authors are looking into it now–authors will come up with new reversion clauses for books that remain “in print” through PoD but are neither being promoted nor have significant sales. Many book contracts have reversion clauses so that, once a book is out of print, the author regains full rights in the book and can take it to another publisher or self-publish it. This is particularly crucial when publishers let authors down, by failing to promote or adequately support titles. With PoD, it’s possible for a book to be “in print” permanently even though the publisher really isn’t supporting it…and authors need new reversion clauses. (I haven’t attempted to do this in contracts yet, but might. One possible form: When physical inventory is less than X copies and fewer than X copies per six-month accounting period have been sold on PoD, reversion takes effect…) Reversion requires that the publisher’s PoD version be retired.

I’ve probably missed a bunch of others. The key here is that PoD is no guarantee that a book will be available forever; it’s just a print fulfillment methodology.

2 Responses to “Print on Demand Doesn’t Imply Forever”

  1. Angel says:

    This definitely made for interesting reading. I think it should be shared more among the people who think that on-time collections and POD are the panacea.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

    P.S. Happy 6th anniversary. May you keep on blogging for a long time.

  2. walt says:

    I hope it will reach a few of those, but have no way of assuring that. I might include a similar (but more polished) treatment in a future C&I–but not the next one (where I’m already trying to edit an absurdly oversize issue down somewhat).

    My guess is that most of those who are in love with the just-in-time, throw out the print collection, hot new academic library scenarios either don’t read my stuff or regard me as a useless dinosaur. Or, perhaps, both.