An incredible 764,448 books were produced in the USA by self-published authors and “micro-niche” publishers in 2009. That’s according to statistics recently by Bowker, the world’s leading provider of bibliographic information.
That’s almost 3 times the number of books that were produced by traditional publishers last year. They published 288,355 titles.
Here’s what is really interesting. Based on preliminary figures from US publishers, Bowker has concluded that the output of new titles and editions from traditional publishers dropped from 289,729 in 2008 to 288,355 in 2009 – a decrease of under 1%.
In contrast, the output of “non-traditional” and self published titles for 2009 grew by a whopping 181% over 2008. For the first time, the annual book production in the US totaled over 1 million units.
The stark contrast between the combined output of indie authors and niche publishers and that of traditional publishing houses says a lot about the state of publishing in the digital era of the 21st century – at least in the US.
Books in the nontraditional category which Bowker calls “unclassified titles,” fall outside its traditional publishing and classification definitions. They are marketed predominantly on the Internet and consist largely of print-on-demand titles published by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to ”micro-niche” publications and self publishers.
The Bowker data is perhaps the clearest indicator to date that the volume of books produced by print-on-demand are increasing exponentially. VP of publishing services at RR Bowker, Kelly Gallagher conceded as much. “Looking at the overall picture, we’re seeing that the face of publishing itself is changing. Non-traditional publishing, especially related to print-on-demand (POD), continues to offer new avenues and opportunities to grow the publishing industry. Given the exponential growth over the past three years, it’s showing no signs of abating,” said Gallagher.
According to Bowker, the print-on-demand market is dominated by a handful of publishers. The top 10 publishers overall accounted for 74% of total titles produced in 2009.
“Today, these companies are opening up new publishing venues by producing titles for very niche markets and also bringing public domain titles back to life. The net effect creates a long-tail that has no end,” said Gallagher.
Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram Book Company, the world’s largest wholesale book distributor, is the world’s biggest on-demand printer with an output of 20 million books in 2009. Their customers include many leading university presses, among them Cambridge University Press, one of the largest and most prestigious academic publishers in the world. According to the Economist, “about 10% of Cambridge University Press’s sales of academic and professional titles are generated by books printed on demand—compared with 3% five years ago.”
The best known technology for POD book production is the Espresso Book Machine (EBM). It can print, bind, and trim a paperback complete with a full-color cover in about 5 minutes. It produces paperbacks in variable combinations of trim sizes between 4.5″ x 5.0″ and 8.25″ x 10.5,” reportedly for a production cost of less than one cent per page. It is placed primarily in bookstores and libraries. (See video demonstration of the Espresso Book Machine).
The Espresso Book Machine is patented and owned by On Demand Books (ODB). ODB was founded in 2003 by publishing legend, Jason Epstein who is the chairman, and Dane Neller, CEO, and is based in New York City. Over the years ODB has formed strategic partnerships with several high-profile publishers, indie presses and book distribution companies. In December 2009 it entered into an agreement with Author Solutions Inc that allows ASIs 85,000 self-published authors worldwide to publish, distribute, print and market their books in brick-and-mortar retail locations via the Espresso Book Machine. Like many in the publishing industry, ASI president and CEO, Kevin Weiss is upbeat about the prospects for writers in the future.
“Publishing is going through an exciting transformation that ultimately will provide more opportunities and choice for authors, readers, and publishers,” said Weiss.
In April 2009 On demand Books and Lightening Source launched an Espresso Book Machine title pilot which enabled a group of publishers who work with Lightening Source – namely John Wiley & Sons, Hachette Book Group, McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, Clements Publishing, Cosimo, E-Reads, Bibliolife, Information Age Publishing, Macmillan, University of California Press and W.W. Norton – to provide consumers with easier access to their books at point-of-sale EBM locations. Approximately 85,000 books from these publishers were subsequently made available for purchase at EBM locations in the USA.
In January this year, On Demand Books teamed up with Xerox Corporation in a deal that they say will “bring speed and exceptional image quality to books produced on demand by the patented Espresso Book Machine” using Xerox digital technology. It will reportedly enable the Espresso Book Machine to produce a 300-page book in less than four minutes, thus giving it the capacity to print more than 40,000 paperback books per year.
And just last month, On Demand Books entered into a joint agreement with the US-based NACS Media Solutions (NMS), a subsidiary of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) whereby NMS will market the EBM to some 3,100 college stores and retail enterprises that support higher education. This will greatly facilitate the distribution of academic content throughout the worldwide network of EBMs. NMS’ parent entity NACS is the trade association that represents the thousands of college stores and retail enterprises throughout the US that support the academic mission of higher education.
ODB CEO, Dane Neller said,“Our EBM, EspressNet, and SelfEspress technology allows students and professors to produce customized textbooks and anthologies, course packs, dissertations, trade books, rare works, public-domain titles—anything that can be printed and bound with a paperback cover. We are excited to work with NMS to provide a self-publishing and customization solution for the entire university community.”
Chief executive of the UK bookseller Blackwell, Andrew Hutchings whose firm installed an Espresso Book Machine in its store in London in May last year, is convinced that the machine could help conventional bookshops survive the onslaught from online retailers. “It is about revitalising bookshops, making them compelling again,” said Hutchings.
Mind you, the EBMs don’t come cheaply. The cost ranges from $75,000 for the version with a slower printer to $100,000 for a newer version that’s about three times faster. They’re also being rented to some bookstores for about $1,000 a month. Currently, EBMs have been placed at approximately 30 locations worldwide.
The challenge for ODB is to increase market share by expanding access to the EBM and making it more affordable for booksellers and libraries in markets outside of North America and Europe.
Some industry pundits see the EBM as the ideal solution to the perennial problem of book returns which has been a nightmare for authors and publishers alike. Six hundred years after the Gutenberg printing revolution, publishers have not been able to come up with a workable, scientific model for gauging consumer demand and determining the size of their print runs. It’s basically a guessing game in which their decisions about how many copies to print and distribute are based on information gathered from booksellers, and on hunches. The bookstores are allowed to return the books that go unsold after a certain amount of time – anywhere from 2 to 6 months, sometimes longer. The original aim of this practice was to encourage bookshops to take chances on unproven or risky works, including poetry, first novels and books by Black and ethnic minority writers. For a while it worked, and gave numerous writers a break who, otherwise, might have languished in obscurity. Many of them are today’s literary icons.
However, the conglomeration of publishing and bookselling and the imperatives of profit maximization have caused book returns to become a colossal headache for publishers and is playing havoc with their bottom line.
Thirty to 50% of books delivered to bookstores in the US are returned to the publishers. It’s not much different in other markets. The bookstores strip the covers from paperbacks that don’t sell and return them to the publishers as evidence that they were destroyed and not sold. The books are then burned or recycled into paper or cardboard products. For tax purposes, the publishers try to have them pulped before the end of the financial year. A totally wasteful exercise.
In a guest editorial written for Publishers Weekly as far back as 1992, Richard Curtis, a literary agent and former president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (USA), and the founder of E-Reads, now a leading e-book publisher, warned publishers that it was time to find a solution to the returns problem.
“Perhaps this setup worked a decade or two ago when returns were more modest, but with returns of 50 percent or more as the norm today, it is virtually impossible for a publisher to earn profits in trade books, or at least earn them on a sustained basis,” said Curtis.
In contemplating what lies ahead for stakeholders in the global book trade, Mike Shatzkin, the founder & CEO of The Idea Logical Company sees the internet and the advent of print-on-demand, e=books and e-publishing as some of the ways that writers and publishers can dig themselves out of the ‘book returns’ hole. In a blog post on idealog.com he says:
“A non-US publisher will be able to reach half the US market, without needing an operation of any kind in the States … We already know that the greatest part of marketing value beyond the display and positioning in a bookstore is generated online. That means it can be done from anywhere without a local nexus. By the end of 2012, we’re saying half of all the sales potential can also be reached with the product without a local nexus: no requirement of local inventory or any shipping or revenue collection facility beyond your digital distribution and print-on-demand partner.”