Do you remember this conversation from your own school days?
“Ms. Murphy, can I go to the boy’s room?”
“Well, Billy, you certainly can go to the boy’s room. You know where it is, and I saw you running after Sally Ketchum today at recess, so I know your legs are working fine.”
“Oh, great, thanks.”
“One moment, Billy. Although you can go to the boy’s room, you may not go right now. Back to your desk, please!”
Yes, we all had to learn the difference between can and may. But in a larger sense, Ms. Murphy was also teaching about the differences in language, and the importance of paying attention to words that are being used even in the most ordinary circumstances.
The Arrival of Print on Demand
When the idea of Print on Demand broke into publishing consciousness, it was to herald a new era in book production. Or was it to herald a new era in book distribution? And this is where the confusion started.
Before digital printing—the marriage of high-end copiers to bindery equipment—it wasn’t feasible to print one copy of a book whenever a customer wanted one. All printing methods were derivatives of the last industrial revolution and, like all mass means of production, worked on the principle that volume production equals low prices.
Books were printed in an elaborate production process that makes economic sense only if you print at least 2,000 books at a time. It takes weeks and requires skills of many kinds along the production path.
And there are many ways to put ink on paper. Offset printing accounts for most reproduction, but there are plenty of other processes, like silk-screen, letterpress printing, rotogravure, and so on. But digital printing upset all those industrial-era assumptions.
Digital Printing Changes the Assumptions
Because the printing technology, which has substituted toner for ink, is just as capable of producing one book as one hundred books, it made possible a new means of distribution. This new distribution did not involve economies of scale, massive warehouses, the endless shipping of paper in various stages of production from one part of the country to another.
It is a distribution system in which the customer determines how many books are printed, and when and where they are delivered.
When I designed book covers for publishers in the offset days, I would send my file to an output bureau and buy a digital proof that cost about $100. A few days ago I received from Lightning Source a digitally-printed book as a proof for a reprint I’m doing. Instead of a proof that would approximate the look of the finished book, they just ran off a copy and sent me the finished book itself. Cost $30.
Now when you hear people talking about Print on Demand you will be able to decipher the intent of the speaker. Printing technology or distribution method? Or the beginning of a change in publishing that will soon dwarf any confusions over language? Time will tell.
Print on Demand is both the name of a digital printing process, and the name of a distribution model that was made possible by that printing process.