Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

POD: How print may endure in a digital book world


An article about print-on-demand in Wired magazine piqued my interest recently. In the article, columnist Clive Thompson writes about what he thinks will be the future of the printed book, based on a comparison of burgeoning print-on-demand technology to the introduction of the “paperless office” that, back in the 80s, was poised to revolutionize the workplace.


As we all know, that didn’t quite happen. Thompson points out that the dependence on computers and word processing for everyday business operations didn’t eliminate the need for paper entirely. Any office cubicle-dweller can describe the certain joy he felt when holding a hot-off-the-laserjet copy of a spreadsheet that took six hours to perfect. Thompson deftly observes, “now that every office worker has access to a computer and a printer, every office worker can design and distribute elaborate multicolor birthday flyers and spiral-bound presentations.” Certain tasks also can’t be as effectively accomplished on-screen as they can by putting pen to paper: the short, personal note tacked to a co-worker’s bulletin board; the poster board-size sheet and magic marker you use to brainstorm ideas with a large group of people; and, perhaps most importantly, Post-its.

Thompson’s argument is an intriguing one, especially in a marketplace increasingly concerned with the fate of the printed book in the wake of the digital overhaul. He sees a parallel between books and the so-called paperless office. Print-on-demand will “keep [printed books] alive—by allowing them to be much weirder,” Thompson says. With the ability to print and bind practically any digital file, the possibilities for how that book will look are endless. Print-on-demand also alleviates the pressure of costs that incur during a standard book print run (since, essentially, there are none), making it accessible to the general consumer. Away with material markups, warehousing, distribution, and return costs!

Thompson predicts that “mass publishers doing ‘big’ books will continue to shift to the Kindle and its peers, while smaller outlets will use print-on-demand for formats that privilege physicality, like mementos, visually lush books, and custom-designed, limited-edition copies of novels.” Could this be the re-emergence of the personalized book? When I say re-emergence, I refer to pre-printing press days when books were personally commissioned by the rich to be printed—by hand. This practice goes back even further than the Middle Ages; the ancient Egyptian elite would very often commission a copy of the Book of the Dead, the Egyptian book of spells, which would be personalized according to the desires of the commissioner and entombed with him as a roadmap for the afterlife.

Okay, maybe print-on-demand won’t bring about a craze for personalized funereal copies of the Twilight saga. But how cool would it be to order a custom-designed copy of your best friend’s favorite book, a unique edition that no one else will ever have but her?


This entry was posted on December 19, 2011 by in Culture, Technology and tagged .

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