One of the popular topics at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference was print on demand (POD), which can help make available backlist, out-of-print, and Long Tail content. Publishers maintaining digital files of the books in their catalog can use POD to print copies when individual or small batch orders come in, or when it appears that renewed interest in a title is mounting, without having to inventory expensive physical holdings against the vagaries of uncertain demand. Although publishers of all types, including university and community libraries that are digitizing rare, archival public domain material, are embracing print on demand solutions, inventory coverage is still somewhat uneven.
Currently, mainstream POD services are usually provided through large vendors such as Ingram or Amazon; although alternative POD service providers such as QOOP or LuLu are terrific for small presses, individuals, and new services that enable the custom assembly of chapters and articles, they do not currently meet the needs of point-of-sale or point-of-borrow users who find (or make) a book and want-it-right-now.
One of the more exciting entrants in POD is the Espresso print on demand machine from On Demand Books, founded by Jason Epstein, formerly of The New York Review of Books and Random House, and Dane Neller. The Espresso machine seeks to do for local book printing what the Haloid Corporation did for making office copies. Espresso is network-attached and prints a high quality book quickly and cheaply –paperback books up to 500 pages in length with four-color covers can be printed in minutes. It is fairly large – about eight feet long, five feet deep and high, and it is heavy – about 1600 pounds. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine these machines, particularly as they become perfected, being installed at a wide range of locations, including bookstores and libraries that have digital licensing contracts with publishers, or access to repositories of public domain content with high quality image scans. On Demand has a short video that shows that machine in operation – it’s pretty cool.