Print-on-Demand and the Future of Publishing

Two weeks ago, two of our dear friends celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary. Their daughter asked me to photograph the event, knowing that I am an amateur photographer. I happily agreed.

iPhoto books as they look when they are printed

I took about 250 photos altogether, using the quantity-over-quality method of photography. (I assume that if I shoot enough pictures, I’m bound to get something I can use.)Last weekend, I sorted through these photos in iPhoto, assigning ratings and then editing the best ones. Next, I assembled the photos into an iPhoto book. The whole process took about four hours from start to finish. I then uploaded the files to Apple early Monday morning with two-clicks.

On Friday—a mere four days later—Apple delivered to me an elegant hardcover book, with a full-color dust jacket. It contained almost 100 color photos on 40 pages. It cost $49.79 plus tax and express postage for a total of $70.76.

That’s not cheap if you compare it to a typical, mass-produced hardcover book. But for a one-of-a-kind custom, coffee-table quality book, I think it’s a bargain. And my friends loved it.

This is the third book I have created like this. I am always amazed by the process. But it also makes me wonder, What will this mean for traditional publishers?

Question: What do you think this process will mean for traditional publishing and bookselling.
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  • Thom

    I think that traditional publishing can use print-on-demand as a feature to generate additional business for groups that need customized books for small groups or book clubs. As an example, if a small group was discussing spiritual theology a book could be made that included essays or chapters from various authors the publisher has rights to, and then combine them into one book along with relevant passages from the Bible. A publisher like Thomas Nelson could start publishing “2.0” by sorting only relevant chapters and information to a custom book for a premium fee.

  • Rhonda Clark

    I believe there will be room for both. Traditional publishers will need to continue to turn out a quality product at an affordable price. Just because anyone can publish a book doesn’t mean just anyone will buy it.

  • Michael Spence

    Publishing: There will always be a place for expert editing, and thus a commitment between authors and publishers. (You know the old–now–joke: The great thing about desktop publishing is that anyone can write a book. That’s also the terrible thing about desktop publishing.) Authors who know their strengths and weaknesses will continue to welcome their complements.

    Production: It’s another new technology. We adjust. Again. Nothing revolutionarily new on this score.

    Bookselling: Perhaps the return of the bookstall (hooray!). Much less need for inventory; the display copy/copies will get a considerable workout and perhaps need to be replaced now and again. On the other hand, the need for inventory won’t vanish! We’ll always have moments when the flight is leaving shortly and we want to grab something to take along, or when we’re impulse-prone–still!–and that title, or that trade pb compared to the mass-market pb, just looks too good to pass up (time, tide, and _Twilight_ wait for no man). Or it’s something for which we’ve been searching for years (e.g. Dhorme’s commentary on Job, which I understand Nelson still owns, hint hint).

  • Brent Beckley


    Is custom publishing really a threat to traditional publishers? You used a newer technology to create a one-off, which is fantastic, but I don’t see how it would be competitive (perhaps I am missing something). Traditional publishers need to use new tech whenever they can, but many are just so unwilliing to step into new things (personal experience) that set them apart from everyone else. I think the loss of entrepreneurial drive is a killer, which normally happens once the money changers take over ;-). For instance, what about publishing devotionals on digital picture frames instead of in print? They could be customized by the consumer; updated every year (cheap download). But since they aren’t the “printed word” are they being overlooked?

    My former employer (an STM house) is faltering mightily by not being able to look at new tech and see that being an expert “content provider” is more important than being a “traditional publisher.”

    Oops…I’m ranting. Perhaps what you have shown is that amateur photographers have an excellent opportunity to provide a new service?

  • Brian Jones

    I think it means that traditional publishers have got to get very clear on what their business is. Otherwise as the tools production get easier to use, the role of the traditional publisher will vanish. What can a publisher do that an author can’t do for himself? Or, what might a publisher be able to do better than a self-publishing author? I have two ideas:

    (1) Publishers can promote and market books. Publishers have access to MSM sources that most individual authors do not have. Find your best authors, the ones that deserve the attention, and get them in front of as many microphones and cameras as possible. If you can find employees who are conversant with New Media, that can help, too. But authors like Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss are way ahead of you on New Media and they are showing would-be authors/self-publishers how to use New Media to promote themselves.

    (2) Publishers might be able to serve as a filter. As a heavy consumer of books, I have serious doubts about whether or not traditional publishers can do this. Most of the books published and made available for sale today are, quite frankly, terrible. They contain weak/bad theology and most of them are not very interesting. Or they start out interesting and lose energy after 2 or 3 chapters. It seems like publishers will publish anything that is relatively coherent, especially if the author has a big church or TV ministry. But what about truth and what about art? Publishers care nothing about these things, it seems to me. But they should. I’m always looking for filters; people who share my theology and my taste. But it is hard to find people who have the same theology AND the same curiosity as I do. For instance, I enjoy Donald Miller’s writing style, but his grasp of Christianity is weak. Conversely, I have the same basic theology as John MacArthur, but I think his writing is dry, simplistic, and poorly researched.

    My guess is that there are people out there who will buy whatever Justin Taylor or Tim Challies or Phil Johnson recommend. They don’t have the same taste as I do, but their taste resonates with a lot of people. They are mavens (to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell). Find readers who know a good book when they read one. Hire them and turn them into filters. Let them decide who gets published and how they get marketed. Publish fewer books but better ones, ones that get all of your marketing muscle once they hit the market. Develop your own Tribe and give them more and more of what they want.

  • E Brown

    The relationship will be symbiotic. I liken it to what has/is happening in the music industry. The concept of an “album” is not going away. Artists still create songs to go together and build upon one another. There are still musical and lyrical themes that artists want to explorer and group together. I do not know of many musical groups that compose a song, go to the studio to record and mix, and then put out on iTunes, only to turn around and do it again. Yet, who knows that day may be coming. And, as for myself, I do not typically buy an entire album of music. I like 3-5 songs on most albums and purchase only those. Now, take this same mentality into publishing. As more and more books are digitized how will they be sold? As a complete volume? Options for an entire book or chapter-by-chapter purchase? Depending on the genre, some books I read have a few significant parts that I will refer back to. Do I need the entire book? No. Why has the Amazon Used Book section become so popular? People consume what they need/want and then get rid of the excess. I hope publishers do not go the same route the music moguls have gone. It’s been a rocky road for sure. The publisher that “gets it” and leverages new media will be the leader!

  • Doug Smith

    I’m impressed, Mr. Hyatt. It looks like you do still have the “chops”.

  • Rachel Anne Ridge

    From the perspective of a blogger/future author, I am completely interested in the self-publishing industry. I’ve looked into companies like Book Surge and feel like that might be a viable option, since getting picked up by a major publishing house seems like an intimidating and difficult process. Perhaps that is good news for a company like yours: if a title does well as a self-published product, your risk is reduced if you decide to pick it up later. Or you might risk someone else getting it before you do. I do not envy your position.

    Self publishing make a lot of sense to me in a day of internet marketing. I’m not sure my book, “The Smart Ass: Life Lessons from a Stray Donkey Named Flash” would ever find it’s way into the Christian market, but it will be an adventure to try. :)


  • Moe

    iPhoto? Try it with Aperture. More control over editing and better layout of photo books.

  • Emily

    I would pick up Rachel’s book no matter who is publishing it… because I look for authenticity and writing chops before looking at who published it. : )

    Seems that publishers will probably feel the heat to make sure they are consistently cranking out the very best books.

  • Venkatesh K

    The so-called traditional publishing processes are undergoing massive changes in the way technology is applied. Technology means speed, accuracy, and flexibility. POD is an evolution of the production process to save, optimize, and control costs. The POD process enables speedier production using enabling technologies. It has not come to replace the traditional processes.

    Such technological innovation to go mass scale requires two critical factors: (1) availability of cost-effective POD technology (which enables a publisher to massively save costs of production) and (2) consumer knowledge (you walk into a book store and pick up a book now. Imagine if you have only the covers of books or a computer that shows the books available [sort of a virtual library or collection] available. All you have to do is, if you choose a book to buy, you tell someone at the counter. In 30 minutes, the book is delivered to you or the sales person takes orders and says the book will be delivered in two days’ time at your home. The consumer now needs maturity to understand the whole process.)

    Finally, for something to succeed, the outcome or result should be overwhelmingly loaded in favor of customer satisfaction, cost savings and ease of application and less investment in POD machinery. If all these combine to give the publisher an edge and if they can be deployed effectively in real time, the technology of POD will succeed. Or it will remain elitist with high cost used by a few who marvel at such options and have the money to spend.

    Many predicted when Web became an option and all-pervasive, brick and motor companies will vanish. But the bubble burst when it reached saturation and now Web has a place in business and it has not replaced a brick and motor company. The same way POD’s success with depend upon its leverage value and such value benefiting all stakeholders.

  • John Gallagher

    This is awesome! What a fabulous gift idea and the price is phenomenal.

    As far as traditional publisher’s concerns, I would say that they should embrace this technology. Not only the custom publishing, but audiobooks, the Amazon Kindle… all kinds of threats to the traditional publisher.

  • Michael S. Hyatt

    @Moe: Yes, Aperture is better if you want more control and more text elements. I have done one book on this platform. However, I still prefer iPhoto for speed and ease-of-use. Bottom line: pick the right tool for the job.

  • Dr. David Frisbie

    We did this for our daughters’ weddings and really got hooked. Now we’re making books after summer vacations and major trips. Apple makes it simple.

    POD has the potential to transform both traditional and also subsidy publishing.

  • Anne Lang Bundy

    This dialogue comes on the heels of last night’s church service, which addressed the computer age and believers. The bottom line was use all means possible for the Kingdom, and beware their evils.

    I don’t have the savvy to answer the question at hand, since I’m still struggling to gain a strong foothold in an era which advances so quickly that nothing is new for longer than the blink of an eye. Born at the tail end of the boomers, I feel forever in the middle of two generations. I utilize and appreciate the incredible opportunity new media presents for ministry. I also see the poor and oppressed of 21st century America are less the poverty stricken than those disenfranchised by the henious sin of being out of the technology loop.

    I intend if possible to keep a foot in both worlds—whether as a bridge, or (as Paul), all things to all people. I pray that those in power will remember the technology poor as they consider stewardship of the resources entrusted to them.

  • Kerri Willoughby

    Someone should tell Creative Memories…. :)

  • Derek

    The really big developments in the book industry — the cloth hardcover, the mass-market paperback sold through magazine distributors, the trade paperback — have all made popular reading matter more affordable to more people.

    POD will never have the same impact because it works in a different direction. It makes specialized material available to micro-markets.

  • Tiffany Colter

    E Brown,

    I read your comment with interest. Do you see a time where people will be able to download [for purchase] sections of books via POD format? I know universities already do this with some science textbooks. They publish only the chapters that the prof will cover.

    I wonder if there will come a time where POD publishers will combine titles in to a single volume to customize “textbooks” using books, cliff notes, etc.

    I wonder how authors might capitalize on this in their own marketing efforts. Using the music analogy creates an interesting premise.

    I would be most interested in how individual authors [like me] could take advantage of POD to help with marketing their own work. Don’t know if there is a way or not.

  • M.L. Eqatin

    Interesting, Mike. I’ve been wondering the same thing.
    Perhaps this is a little verbose, but the following was an explanation on the subject (slightly modified) I wrote in answer to a debate on the future of publishing elsewhere. I’m sure you are more informed than I am, but this is what I see after cruching the bits I know:
    Traditional publishers are in deep trouble because they are stuck with a business model that was adapted to a technology and a market now twenty to thirty years out of date. I am talking about RETURNS. Somewhere in the distant past, a publisher promised bookstore clients that any book that didn’t sell could be returned to the publisher for a full refund. That made sense when books were expensive and shipping was comparatively cheap, stores expected to keep books on their shelves for a year before they sold, and there were only a few hundred titles produced a year.

    The new reality is that shelf space is so expensive that books are given 8 weeks to sell, and then they are out. The shipping is often more expensive than the production, so many ‘returns’ are simply pulped and a bill sent to the publishing house. The stores may order more stock than they need, because there is no risk to them; some books are shipped out and paid for by the publisher that never see the light of day. In one month, book sales were so far depressed that the ‘return’ bill sent to a major publisher by its many clients was greater than their whole year’s profit.

    Now up against that inefficient model, three factors are coming at the traditional publishers like a train wreck.

    The first is print-on-demand technology, which is used for a huge percentage of what is sold online. The book is produced from a digital file the day it is ordered, mailed directly to the customer, and the money shuffled electronically into all the right places. No returns, no pulping, no overhead from a brick and mortar store.

    The second is audiobooks. I didn’t read my favorite writer’s last two books; I listened to them while commuting. I bought them online, downloaded them onto disks, and off you go. My friends listen while excercising, while commuting, while doing housework. This market is growing like mad, now that cell phones can play an MP3 file.

    The third is books in the many electronic formats. Ebook readers are improving, and will continue to improve. Again, no printing overhead, no returns.

    And out there in the near future, for those who prefer going to a real place and buying a real book, is this machine, which I predict will be coming soon to a Starbucks (or some similar shop, probably not a bookstore because they are so slow) near you.

    Meanwhile, the publishers are locked together with their partners the bookstores in their current ‘dance of death’. I recently read the lament of a marketing-department head at one of the major publishers: “Nothing works anymore. Reviews don’t work, back-cover blurbs don’t work, ad campaigns don’t work.”

    The publishers are trying to stay afloat, cutting their losses by taking fewer unknowns, publishing only big names with a proven fan base. It doesn’t matter whether the book is as good as the one that launched a writer’s career; they have a following and it will sell. This is known as ‘marketing platform’ and unless a writer has a large one, they will not get picked up regardless of the quality of their product.

    Most self published books are awful. But I predict that in future, everyone will have to start by self-publishing and prove their book with real readers before the big publishers will dare to take them on.

  • Paul Wallis

    There is no doubt that the way people are buying books is changing. I realised this when a couple of times staff at my large, local, well-stocked, franchised bookstore told me that it would be cheaper and easier for me to obtain the books I wanted through Amazon. And these were not obscure books.

    Wihtout a question buying online is on the rise. (I heard that the last 12 months online turnover was 43% greater than the previous 12 months. If that rate continues, then better not be surprised by it!) This trend is significant because it’s that way of buying that will advantage POD books. The only thing you can’t do with a POD book is impulse-buy it in a bookstore.(OF course you can impulse buy it online). People have to knwo they want the book – ahead of handling it. This makes the marketing process all the more significant. But that’s nothing new.

    Personally I like walking into a bookshop, handling a book for a while and then deciding to buy it. I like the reassurance that a publisher has taken a substantial financial risk in publishing this book. It implies a fundamental level of quality-control, which I find reassuring.

    I suspect that the mainstream bookstore has some future left in it but I do wonder if POD will alter the proportion of their sales generated by having copies of the books physically on their shelves?

  • Linda

    I heard a lot of the same commentary when POD first came out. Mind you, I’m a novel writer, not a non-fiction writer, so I’m coming from a different perspective. Usually when people in the profession or newspaper talk about POD, they refer to non-fiction books and ignore novels.

    Sure, it’s ideal for a book like a family history or small niche non-fiction. But what happened was that a lot of novelists gravitated to it because they could “finally get their chance”–for a book they couldn’t get any agents or publishers to look at.

    I think the worst thing is that, for a novel writer, it made publishing look like it was “easy.” What the writers didn’t learn was what rejection would have taught–how to write a book better.

    Another minus of POD books:

    Most major newspapers won’t review them. Some will, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a review of a POD, it was non-fiction, not a novel.

    Bookstores also tend not to carry POD books in the store on the shelves. Again, some will, but it’s a lot harder to get it into the store. I’ve heard writers brag about sneaking a book into a bookstore and putting it on the shelf or buying fifty copies from a store, then cancelling the order.

    Finally, the major writing organizations don’t count POD as professionally published. You can’t use it to become a member.

    But I think the worst part of it all is that in order to eek out a few copies, the writer has to do a lot more work than he would normally. Work that should be spent writing. I have a friend of work bragging about going POD for his novel because he keeps all the profits. He has a Web site, and he’s done a lot of promotion everyone, gone to signings, etc. He’s sold maybe a 100 books. Over several years.

  • Daniel

    What will the intstaprint process mean? not-much.

    It lets an amateur have more fun, but i doubt it will replace or hinder professional publishing.

    “Online-instaprint is like a microwavable book. It’s good in a pinch or for your coffee table, but it will never be slow roasted prime rib.”

    Bottom line: Instaprint websites create fancy binding while publishers create lasting works of literature.

  • Rob Sargeant

    I think traditional publishers will be embracing POD as a new delivery method for their older lists. This means that a book really never has to go out of print. And think of the money they will save on warehousing costs. Lightning Source (owned by Igram book group)already does this on a large scale for many small and mid size publishers. Further down the road I can see book machines in Airports or busy public places that will be using POD technology. Just swipe your debit card, select the book, and in a couple of minutes you’ll have your favourite authors newest release, hot off the press.

  • Sue

    I think print on demand gives authors who have platform more choices.

    They can choose between POD, selling books using their platform and keeping most of the profit, or traditional publishing (if they’re picked up by an agent/publisher) where there is the POSSIBILITY that they’ll make more money if their book hits big, but no guarantees. I think it will impact niche publishers negatively.

    For example: I write YA/crossover romantic comedy stuff. I have two popular blogs that jointly get over 100,000 readers per month. I’m also LDS (although my books aren’t specifically LDS at all). The ease of POD knocks the smaller, niche LDS publishers out of the running immediately. A typical print run is 5,000 copies, and with a 10% royalty, they just can’t compete with selling books directly from my blog and keeping the royalties. Immediately out of the running.

    I don’t think it will affect the big houses – who can offer publicity and resources and book sales on a much larger scale – but I think some smaller niche publishers will eventually go down in flames.

  • Mary

    If you saw my photos and read my prose, you would rest much easier!

  • Ted

    Slightly different comment:

    Earlier this year I purchased the Libronix/Logos platform for computer Bible study and really like it. As a result, I’ve sold many of my hard copy books.

    BTW: I’ve noticed that TN has lots of books available this way.

  • Fred

    Have you read Tribes by Seth Godin? He has some advice for those who have relied on providing services that came from factories! The very fact that I’m reading this on my display and you’ll print it for the world to see and no paper will be consumed says something!

    By the way – I have created one of those books for my wife for our 30th Anniversary! Incredible was my reaction.

  • Michael Hyatt

    @Fred, Yes, I read Tribes and really enjoyed it. I have reviewed it here. Thanks.

  • Terri

    E-Book reader devices have come along way. The Sony PRS-700 is awesome. But finding good biblical Christian content is challenging. I have KJV and NIV on my e-reader, but I really want the NKJV. When is Nelson going make their books available as eBooks? If your eBooks are only available for Kindle, then you are missing a large group of readers. I was thrilled to be to purchase books from Zondervan and Symtio. Even though their offerings are slim right now, they are moving in the right direction, and making their books available in several different formats to accomodate the growing variety of eBook devices out there and coming soon!

  • mike miller

    Great question Mike? It could be that the new frontier of publishing will move to direct print on demand model…This does give the customer the chance to design whatever they want in content and is much different than what we produce in our mass production process.

  • Allison Hall

    Competition and more competition. More opportunities for writers too. Embrace it.