Print-on-demand books – what’s the hold-up?

A man demonstrates the printing of a book from an Espresso Book Machine at Google headquarters in California Photo: AP & Telegraph

When I first heard about print-on-demand books I thought they seems an obvious answer to problems in the book marker – at least from this consumer’s perspective. They seemed to give the ability of obtaining almost any book by getting your bookshop to download the file and print off a good quality copy on-site. And relatively cheaply.

This should have helped support a market for pBooks despite the attractiveness of eBooks to a section of the market. And it would overcome the necessity for bookshops to carry huge ranges of books that might never be sold. And getting rid of the inevitable surplus stock.

It seemed to me an ideal complement to eBooks, one that I found attractive and was looking forward to.

But it didn’t happen! And I couldn’t work out why.

Well, Alan Beatts, proprietor of the Borderlands bookstore in San Francisco seems to have explained why. He initially looked into the economics of running the Espresso, print-on-demand book machine in his shop and had concluded it could take over 11 years for profits to recover the cost of an Espresso.

Now he has recalculated, taking into account the market for self-publishing by patroons of the bookshop. This seems a key factor and can bring the recovery time down to less than 5 years (see Print On Demand Might Come to a Store Near You ). That’s printing one book per hour. If the shop can print 3 books per hour, the machine pays off in a year and a half.

That looks much better. But in practice this self-publishing market becomes very important and tends to be what these machines are mostly used for. Alan Beatts says:

“The bad news is that 90% of the income from one of these machines comes from a process that is closer to running a copy-shop or a service bureau, not a bookstore.  It’s not a process that most of the booksellers I know are well suited to — moderately technical and involving potentially challenging customer service that is totally unlike bookselling (there’s a world of difference between helping someone find the right book and getting someone’s baby . . . I mean, their novel . . . to look right). “

Still, there must be businesses or institutions in New Zealand who already do this sort of thing and should be ideal for retailing print-on-demand books. Or maybe there is scope for cooperation of printing/publishing businesses with book retail businesses. Maybe even cooperation with academic institutes as such a facility would be ideal for conference organisers, or for departments wanting a limited run of special books for students or researchers.

Whatever, I would certainly love to see it. Potentially it could make available in both eBook and pBook format any book that exists as a digital file throughout the world.

And just think, those of you regularly attending conferences may actually get reasonable copies of the proceedings.

See also: Borderlands bookstore owner recalculates; Espresso not so expensive after all.

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26 responses to “Print-on-demand books – what’s the hold-up?

  1. I counted several sentences in this post that begin with “And”
    This is grammatically incorrect.

    I hope you can fix this.



  2. Thanks for this. I would not have thought that the specifics of set-ups/formats would be done at the bookstore. I would have thought they’d be done by the publisher or author unless the bookstore wanted to include that service as well and maybe be a combo copying center and bookstore. (That might greatly help their profit margin though they might want to be in a separate room for quiet.) I live in the States and the university copying center nearest us currently offers the ability to put a manuscript into a book (though not with this machine) so adding this machine would be something they could add too. Bookstores could then buy from the author or publisher as the case might be? I’ve been observing someone who has been published both ways. A bookstore might want to expand what they sell and being a printshop and bookstore might help many of them. This was thought-provoking.

    I didn’t think Michel’s comment was necessary but you are kind, Ken, to allow all comments.


  3. I didn’t men any offense. I was just trying to point out the grammatical errors in the post.

    I am always grateful for opportunities to practice my English. When I see an obvious error I like to take the time to correct it and I hope that people will do the same for me.

    This is why I get annoyed when people write things like “thanks for supporting a tool” and can’t explain to me what they mean.

    What are we without language?

    By the way, that guy in the photo looks like my brother.


  4. “I didn’t men any offense”

    I didn’t mean any offense

    How come no one here corrected me?
    Why do I have to correct my own typos (shorthand for typographical errors)



  5. Michel, reading back over my post. Found a few mistakes – but starting sentences with “and” weren’t amongst them. I often do that for effect and couldn’t give a stuff about the school grammar rules. Communication is much more creative that that.

    Just as long as I don’t use that ploy too often – and I don’t think I have here.


  6. I am sorry Ken, your last use sentence wasn’t actually a sentence at all.

    Just as long as I don’t use that ploy too often – and I don’t think I have here.

    This makes no sense to me.I am not a native English speaker but how can I take anyone seriously who cannot even write in their own language?

    Why do you not “give a stuff” about grammar?

    Do you “give a stuff” about any educational values?

    I am very disappointed in the quality here.


  7. Michel, perhaps because you are not a native English speaker you actually have a naive understanding of the English language. I suggest you spend some time reading good writers and attempt to understand their techniques. These often involve breaking those old school grammar rules.

    Being prepared to break old dogmatic rules is not the same as not giving a stuff about grammar in general – your interpretation is your problem not mine. And might I suggest your “disappointment” is perhaps due to your inexperience with the language, not mine.

    (Notice how I started my sentence with “and.” Did it get your attention?)


  8. I think rather than investing so much money on an Espresso book machine, writers and bookstores should work with companies like peecho (, its much more cost-effective. Writers or publishers install peecho’s cloud print button for free on their website. Then they set their own profit margin on top of peecho’s wholesale price and readers can order printed copies on demand. It’s awesome, people get the print delivered to their homes.


  9. Richard Christie

    I’ve bought a couple of hard-back texts, printed on demand from
    I was really impressed by the quality of binding.
    A little more mainsteam than the expresso machine but their business model is a great idea for writers on obscure topics of low demand.


  10. If there is to be a future for print media, then this could be the answer.
    Imagine the espresso machine in a specialized form for newspapers.
    An automated news stand.
    Choose the newspaper from anywhere in the world.
    Choose the options you want and avoid the sections you never read.
    Create your own franken-newspaper from different newspapers that have a co-op agreement.

    Subway commuters would love it.


  11. I am shocked by the racist comments of Ken and his poor grammar.


  12. Michel, if you really are unable to cope with the grammar, punctuation or choice of terminology in this blog then perhaps, rather than attempting to force the author to comply with your perception of how it should be written by trying to embarrass him in public, you could simply exercise your right to choose: Follow a different blog – one that suits your idea of how blogs should be written in English. I am a non native speaker myself and have no issue with the grammatical aspects of this blog.


  13. SAB – congratulations on your grammatically correct comment!

    I am not forcing anyone to use correct grammar. If they, as supposedly educated people, cannot be bothered with basic English and think it is somehow clever to abuse the language, then what faith should I put in any of their other intellectual processes?

    However, your suggestion to read other blogs is a good one. I became a little concerned over the ad hoc use of the term “Thanks for supporting a tool” recently,

    This is still causing me anguish and sleeplessness.


  14. Might I suggest, Michel, that if a comment that you were “supporting a tool” causes you to lose sleep and suffer anxiety attacks then you really should keep away from internet discussions. These sort of comments really are to be expected – and far worse.

    I regularly get called far worse than that (see my previous post for the abuse I got for standing up for Galileo). But you know what? When someone calls me a moron or senile, etc., I usually take it as a compliment – because they have found my arguments unbeatable by simple reason they must resort to abuse. As I said, water off a duck’s back. There are far more important things to lose sleep over.

    Perhaps I see your little attempts to discredit me (“cannot be bothered with basic English,” “abuse the language,” and my questionable “intellectual processes”) in the same light. They certainly don’t concern me. I will sleep OK tonight.


  15. I am not trying to discredit you.
    Thanks for supporting a tool.

    I hope you sleep well.


  16. I am interested in this strange thing that you take being called a moron as a compliment. I haven’t come across this idiom before. I shall use it often

    I would like to call you a moron, an imbecile and senile, SIr, and hope you have a great weekend!
    Thanks for the great language tips


  17. Richard Christie

    Michel, the only moronic imbecile who regularly trolls here (and other blogs, particularly any supporting scientific climate research) is Mr Andy Scrase , Microsoft Certified Software Developer of Christchurch, New Zealand. He usually uses one of his numerous sock puppet identities. He can’t seem to leave Ken’s blog alone.

    For a while I even thought you might be the same, but despite the similarities I’m probably jumping to conclusions.

    “Hank Wangford” , “Galloping Camel” “New to Denial’ etc etc:


  18. Thanks for the information Richard. I shall keep an eye out!


  19. Ah yes, Andy Scrase. Now there’s a sad little man.

    Let’s take a trip down memory lane: 🙂

    Cedric Katesby: Do you really believe that the IPCC is interested in “unsubstantiated propoganda”?
    Is that how the scientific world operates?

    Andy Scrace: Yes, you got it! Hard left marxist driven statist IPCC.


    Cedric Katesby: How did you find out that the IPCC were all “Hard Left Marxists”?
    That’s quite a bit of stunning detective work.
    Amazing really.

    What evidence do you have to support such a jaw-dropping claim?
    How come nobody else (including NASA and the AGU and the USGS and the Royal Society etc) are mentioning this?
    Could it be that they all have been taken over by “Hard Left Marxists” too?
    All of them?
    Do tell.
    Give us all the details.
    It sounds…fascinating.

    Andy Scrace: As for “hard left”, well you only need to look a the EU and see how it is destroying the UK economy through its marxist totalitarian views and its obsession with climate change.
    The lights will go out in about 5 years in theUK.,
    Their energy policy has nowhere to go. All driven by IPCC myopia.

    Yet later…

    I have never suggested that there was a conspiracy theory.

    My dear Andy Scrace, I believe you.

    Of course you’re not suggesting a conspiracy theory.
    Sure. 🙂
    You just think that the IPPC is secretly run by “Hard Left Marxists”.

    Which (of course) you believe because…the whole of the European Union in the 21st century is run by “Hard Left Marxists”.
    Why, absolutely everybody knows and understands this.

    Eminently reasonable.
    No conspiracy or paraniod delusions to see here, folks!

    One of the best threads ever.
    Comedy gold.
    That exchange happened just over two years ago. So the UK only has three years left before the lights go out. Horrors!


  20. By the way, Ken, I thought your post was interesting. Sorry for my obsession with grammar and so on. It is probably something to do with my strict Catholic upbringing where I was regularly beaten by Nuns for incorrect grammar.

    I was really wondering whether all this printing was really necessary with all this great eBook readers we have these days. I realize that some of the readers have their limitations. However, is it not reasonable to assume that readers will get better with time and address some of the issues we have with the current generation?

    The iPad and Kindle are great but imagine what they could be like in a few years.
    Do we really need all these big printing presses everywhere?

    It seems very “last century* as they say.
    What do you think?


  21. Wouldn’t it be funny if Andy decided to create another sock puppet?

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”


  22. Cedric,
    Can you explain what the phrase “thanks for supporting a tool” means?

    Ron used this recently, and I was hoping you could clarify since he himself was unable to offer an explanation.


  23. Can you explain what the phrase “thanks for supporting a tool” means?

    Yes, I can.

    Ron used this recently, and I was hoping…

    That’s nice.


  24. Richard Christie

    Wouldn’t it be funny if Andy decided to create another sock puppet?

    I’m sure Andy would find it hilarious. Giggling away, alone, cocooned in the knowledge he’s pulled the wool over Ken’s eyes yet again, alone at his computer, sharing his daring exploit with, um… himself..


  25. Poor Andy Scrase.
    How does he find time to specialize in Software Development and Training for the Microsoft .NET platform and create sock puppets on the Internet at the same time?


  26. I am looking for an on-demand publishing service to give our customers the option to have their personalized eBooks published as hard cover. Can you recommend such a service, by any chance?


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