Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Can Print and eBooks Co-Exist?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not changing my opinion that we’ll all be reading electronically by 2020 in the developed world, possibly sooner. And I haven’t changed my mind about huge amount of waste generated by the mainstream print book industry. I’m not going to go into the carbon economics of printing versus eBooks in detail today – that can wait for another blog down the line when I’ve got a bit more real data behind me – but suffice to say you can argue for and against print books any day you like as long as you choose your parameters carefully, and I’m almost certainly as guilty as the print support brigade are with my off-the-cuff evaluations.

But no matter how you measure it, Print On Demand (POD) would appear to have the capability of modifying the demise of printed books. The fact that Amazon, through its Createspace subsidiary, has developed the technology to produce literally individual copies of paperback books to order at a price that matches the large print run prices, makes you wonder why the mainstream aren’t doing this as well?

Amazon may be able to do a deal on paper and ink that perhaps other manufacturers may struggle to match; they do have an awfully efficient distribution network they can tap into; and of course they don’t spend a penny on editing, artwork, promotion, massaging author’s egos and of course, don’t even think about an advance! And critically there are no middlemen to feed unless the author chooses to feed them him/herself.

And the system is incredibly easy to use and quick in practice.  I mentioned the other day that I'd decided to give the medium a go and had uploaded the Digital Life Form file and had wrestled with Createspace's insistance that I don't use all capitals in the title, which was a minor problem given my personal title for the book was DLF.  Anyway, I got over that and accepted that I couldn't use the cover designed for me by Adam Griffiths so I played around with their tools.  A day or so later I logged back on, uploaded my credit card details and looked at the pricing. 

Again the opaque nature of the Createspace process kicked in - I realised that being based in the UK the shipping charges would be steeper than if I resided in the US where the printing facility exists, but if the information is on the site, it isn't smacking me in the face.  Anyhow, after a doing a few dummy runs I discovered a couple of things that would help would-be users of the service.  The first is that you are limited to ordering a maximum of five proof copies of your book - probably to stop over enthusiastic authors going mad and ordering a hundred or so copies of a document that they'd spelt their own name incorrectly in; and second, the shipping charges reduce with every additional book ordered.  I don't know if the shipping rates are standard for books or whether the weight of the book influences the price, but essentially for just one book, the book and shipping price works out at over $9 a book but it reduces to just over $6 (about £4.20) a book by the time you get to five copies.  Critically the price per book is static while the shipping charge pretty much halves by the time you get to five books.

Which is why I ordered five proof copies - if there's a howler of an error in the formatting I can pass the books over to friends and family with an explanation, otherwise I can choose to do the same or even try and sell a few at £5 a copy.  It isn't clear, but I assume that once I approve the proof, when the book goes live on Amazon US, then I can order any quantity of the book at a time.  Anyway, I learned within seven hours of ordering the book that all five copies were printed and had been shipped!

So while I don’t realistically expect to sell many of my books using Createspace and in fact will be more than pleased if and when I cover my costs for each proof copy I end up buying, I can’t help wondering if this is how the main print industry will go when it reaches the next stage? I know we’re talking about paperback books here and I’m critically aware that I’m writing this before seeing my proof copies of Digital Life Form (or DLF as I prefer to call it), and perhaps the coffee table type books will never succumb to the process, but maybe the Ian Rankin’s and Stephen King’s of this planet could have their novels as POD so that the WH Smiths, Waterstones and Barnes & Nobles of the industry can literally order exactly the number of copies they expect to sell tomorrow, today, instead of ordering a thousand at a time, warehousing five hundred, shelving the rest in stores and waiting for them to sell, shipping them off to be pulped or sold in The Works at a stupid price after a couple of months. If they get their deals right then they can just order a book that a customer wants and have it ready for pick-up in a couple of days – who knows what the satisfied customer might pick up while in the store waiting for the ordered book to be brought to the counter?

Ultimately, if the price of eBooks start to consistently reflect the true cost of production and authors don’t try to snatch the new difference in price, then the eBook revolution will result in truly affordable literature for all, and no matter how efficient POD gets there will be a wake up moment for everyone – if DLF can be bought for $1.99 as an eBook or $8.00 for a paperback then it doesn’t take an economist to work out which is the better value.  We'll have to agree to disagree about the carbon content, but I have to grudgingly agree that POD does reduce the potential waste in over-production and transporting, so perhaps there's something in it after all. 

I'll report on the quality of the print books once they arrive,


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