Monday, January 26, 2009


A fearless prediction by Earl Staggs

When I visualize the brick and mortar bookstores of the future, I see something entirely different from what they are now. First, I see stores about one quarter of their current size. Inside, I see only one copy of each book, and it’s only for browsing purposes. When a browser decides to buy the book, she steps over to the counter and places her order. Once that’s done, she returns to browsing or slips into the coffee shop for twenty minutes.

While she’s gone, the store clerk punches some numbers into a computer. On the other end, the publisher's computer downloads a digital manuscript to the store’s print on demand equipment, and the book is printed and bound. In a short while, the customer returns to the counter, collects her book, and goes on her merry way.

Compare that to what’s involved in getting that book into a customer’s hands today. To begin with, the publisher has to produce a large print run of the book. Those books must then be shipped direct to bookstores or to distributing warehouses first, then transported again to stores. Once in the stores, they must be inventoried and shelved. Printing, stocking, shipping and shelving costs money, all of which goes into the cost of the book. Later on, those books not sold will be returned to the publisher for credit, adding even more to the book’s cost.

The difference between bookstores of today and bookstores of tomorrow, as I see it, is the installation of print on demand technology in the store. There will be no more large print runs since each book is printed only after it’s been purchased by a customer. There are no transportation costs and no stocking or shelving costs to speak of. There will also be no returns, a major problem being wrestled with in the publishing business today. Middlemen such as distributors and warehouse facilities will become extinct.

Initially, the books will be soft cover, but somewhere down the line, someone will come up with a way to produce hard covers in the store to satisfy that demand.

I see this change as inevitable and pure common sense. Placing print on demand equipment in bookstores will be the salvation of the convoluted, cumbersome and cost-heavy publishing and bookselling industry we have today. Since print on demand (or “POD”) has become almost a derogatory term, I call it In Store Digital Printing.

Once the revolution happens and In Store Digital Printing becomes a common reality, the cost of a book will be cut in half. This will certainly stimulate the purchasing of books. Publishers will be able to buy and publish more books from promising writers and have money left over for promotion and advertising. To “publish” a book will only mean converting it to a digital file and having it ready when an order comes in from a bookstore. For writers, this will mean more opportunities to become published.

Everyone wins.

I first predicted this change about five years ago. As with any major advance in technology or radical change in the way things are done, my opinion was met with resistance. There are always naysayers.

Take for example, the guy who said, "Television? Who'd want to sit at home and watch a tiny little screen when they can watch a huge screen at a real theater."

Or the one who cried, “Home Computer? Why? I already have an adding machine and a typewriter."

Then there was the one who said, “Cell Phone? What idiot would carry a telephone around in his pocket when there's a pay phone on every corner?"

While I’m still holding to my prediction of In Store Digital Printing, you don’t necessarily have to agree with me. After all, I’m the guy who said, "Pizza? A round, flat crust with tomato soup on it? It’ll never catch on."


F. M. Meredith, author said...

How true, how true. The biggest problem with POD is that so many people still fail to realize it's just a printing process.

So many equate the words to self-publishing. Drives me crazy.

I'd never say my book was POD but rather it's a trade paperback, no one needs to know the process that was used to print it.


Heath said...

I suspect you're absolutely right about the future of publishing, and I guess it's a good thing. My only fear is that real quality writing may get lost or devalued in a world where anyone can publish at will. Perhaps that's not exactly the scenario you're describing, but it's usually my first concern when I think of it. If (or when) the days of POD come to the mainstream, I just hope someone comes up with a way to weed out the dreck and spotlight new and worthy talent.

Jean Henry Mead said...

LOL, Earl. The technology is already here. It just needs to be implemented. Just think of all the people who will be put out of work in the process. But it is progress and it will, as you said, cut the cost of books at least in half. As writers, that's a big plus!

Suko said...

I don't know, perhaps I'm "old school" but I like stacks of books everywhere, books already arranged on shelves in bookstores. It's bad enough we have to print out so much ourselves on our own computers after getting email documents. Please, let's not print out books (of inferior quality, most likely) in stores. Chances are, it would take forever due to "paper jams". Let professional printers do their job.

Mark Troy said...

Good luck getting POD out of the vernacular. My publisher tried to get the books referred to as Trade Paperback in Short Run (TPISR) which immediately became T-pisser and died ignominiously. In Store Digital Printing? ISDP or "Is dip". POD is firmly entrenched, although it has some alien connotations.

Morgan Mandel said...

The problem I see with printing out the books in the stores is that many people are in a hurry. They won't want to wait for a book to be printed if they can pick one up instantly instead.
Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

You're singing my song, Earl.(-: I've been on the POD bandwagon for several years. It's the most cost-efficient way to print and sell books.

And the machines are swift -- you can print a book in about 3 minutes.

I stopped arguing with others about it, though. It's like arguing religion or politics -- nobody's mind is changed.

The CEO of Barnes & Noble predicted at least 10 years ago that B&N stores would have POD machines in-store within a year. Hasn't happened yet, but I'm sure it will. Change comes slowly.

Enjoyed your post. Didn't mean to get on a soap box. (-:
Pat Browning

Earl Staggs said...

I'd be happy if bookstores could stay the way we've always known them, but I don't see how that's possible. A drastic change is necessary to save the publishing and bookselling industries from disappearing, and In Store Digital Printing is the only logical solution I know of. Once it happens and people get used to it, maybe the negative connotation attached to "POD" will fade away. I hope so.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Earl. Publishers will then be able to focus on the real value added work: editing, presentation, culling the 'lesser' quality and promoting the 'higher' quality, rights management, author cultivation, and saving entire forests in the process.

We had a thread of this topic on one of my writing groups and the responses were across the board by the writers. Anything new comes with fear of the unknown or 'not experienced yet'. The public HATED the mere idea of computers and ATMs and what they were going to do to the world, remember?

Music is already going this way with the iPod. Books won't be far behind and not necessarily ebooks, but this distributed printing concept. Folks won't be up for printing in their homes -- far too expensive and low end quality, but professional POD is a different animal altogether.

Keep predicting. I think you've got the right idea.

It's happening in Australia already in our major book chain:

From that article in September last year:
The first book printed in the Melbourne store was A Horse Of Air by Dal Stevens, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 1970, but has been out of print for almost 20 years.

Jan near Melbourne Australia