Blue-footed Booby 1
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POD — print on demand — has broadened the reach of publishers, putting specialized titles into the hands of readers who may not have been able to get them before. Because of POD, books may never go out of print, as the simple act of storing a digital file makes it possible to keep books “in print” forever. POD has improved profits for publishers, increased access for readers, and given authors a window opening onto a larger and enduring audience; and all this while reducing costs and eliminating the complicated logistics of inventory management.

What’s not to like?

Alas, when we fall in love with a new technology, we do so head first, with both feet, head over heels, or with any other gymnastic metaphor you care to provide. POD solves some important problems, but it does not solve all problems. Nor is it necessarily or inevitably the only solution to some problems. For example, there is no good thing to say about POD that cannot be said as well about e-books except that everyone knows how to read a printed book, whether POD or printed by traditional means, but e-books are still the domain of a relatively small number of people.  Wider acceptance of e-books, however, which seems like the safest bet around, will make even that single advantage of POD disappear.  POD is thus a great but limited technological solution whose days are numbered by the digital advances of Amazon, Apple, Google, and myriad others.

Today, we come to praise POD. Tomorrow, we come to bury it.

One problem that POD does not solve is how to finance open access publication of a work.  Some people disagree with this, believing that there is a real opportunity in making books available online for free and then selling POD versions of the same book.  This is a very seductive idea, provided that your sense of the horizon is but 6″ from the end of your nose.  But it seems to work, so the seduction is understandable.

Try it.

Put the full text of a work online.  Allow search engines to index it.  Have readers come to the site and read some part of the text (all of it is available).  Then watch as a certain number of browsers and readers decide to purchase the POD edition.

They do this for a variety of reasons — charitable support of the publisher, a preference for reading a printed book, the ease of annotating a print copy, and the “furniture effect” (it will look great on the bookshelf).

Open access in this example seems to work, as it serves to promote the sale of hardcopy books. Plus, there is the added cultural benefit of access in and of itself, as it makes the digital text of a work available even to the most impecunious student at no charge.

This in turn raises the question of why we want books to be open access in the first place.  Is the goal broader dissemination? Or is the goal to promote the sale of print books?  If the former, then the question is, What happens when e-books become a large chunk of the market?  Will readers still opt for POD when they can read a (free) digital text in a handheld reader of some kind?  If the latter, the question is, Is this the best promotion we could come up with?  How do we compare this promotion (free digital access) with the entire arsenal of marketing techniques available to the contemporary publisher?

This is not an argument against open access of anything.  Open access is fine; like everything else, it requires a business model.  One way to finance open access of digital books is to have authors or their institutions underwite the cost of publication.  Assuming that underwriting is forthcoming, once again the rhetorical question is, What’s not to like?

On the other hand, in the absence of that underwriting, the financial support for open access books becomes tougher. Sell advertising next to the book’s text?  This has been tried by many (including Google), but no one should be surprised that the revenue from such ventures is tiny.

This is why the POD booby trap has been set — to capture those who believe that POD will help to finance open access.

A booby trap is meaningless unless there are boobies.

As a promotional tool, open access is effective in the short term.  I am not aware of any book publisher whose print sales have not increased when the full digital text of a work was exposed on the Internet.  But must it be the full text?

Suppose we have a book of 320 pages.  How many print copies will we sell if we expose all 320 pages on the Internet?  How many will we sell if we expose 319?  We can keep ratcheting the number down or changing the configuration (expose only the table of contents plus the first chapter; expose the first paragraph of each chapter; expose, as Google does, the passages where search terms appear; etc.) until we find the optimal amount of sampling to drive print sales.  It would be very surprising if after testing this for some time we were to find that only by exposing the entire text will we get a sharp uptick in sales.  Full open access, in other words, is not an exceptionally interesting means to sell books.  Marketers have to be more clever than that.

The unfortunate, unstated premise of those who fall into the POD booby trap is that they really don’t and can’t believe in the emerging primacy of digital text.  The trap is set for anyone who thinks that print is superior for enough readers to make print a long-term viable option.  This is highly doubtful.  E-books have already reached the tipping point.  In just a couple months, Apple has sold millions of e-books from its online bookstore, millions that come on top of the tens of millions sold by Amazon for its Kindle and Stanza brands.  And Google Editions haven’t even launched yet.

No more make-believe.  If we want the cultural advantages of broad dissemination of scholarly texts through open access, then let’s step up and pay for it.  Authors, department heads, university provosts, granting agencies — all of these have a stake, or claim to, in the distribution of academic material.  Let the stakeholders fund the stake.

On the other hand, readers have a stake, too.  Perhaps an innovative entrepreneur will find a way for readers to pay for their own stake.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


5 Thoughts on "The POD Booby Trap and the Lure of Open Access Books"

I agree that “Alas, when we fall in love with a new technology, we do so head first, with both feet, head over heels, or with any other gymnastic metaphor you care to provide.”

Alas, your claim that e-books have reached a game changing “tipping point” for scholarly works shows just such a love. It is mere speculation at this point, a form of love induced “make believe.” If, and as, e-books become important, the scholarly market will change accordingly. If scholarly e-books ever become important we will probably stop giving away complete digital versions. That much is easy.

Ironically, however, the massive changes you call for are so deep and complex that they themselves ensure that any transition to them will be slow. They may well be sufficient to keep it from happening.

In any case, that the future will be different from today does not make what we do now a trap. Change will come when it comes, not before, so trying to jump into the future is not a sound business strategy. Each step has to be taken as it comes and e-books are still a small market.

Thanks for this interesting take. I appreciate the idea that POD is seductive in the short term but perhaps not a long term viable solution. So much depends on if/when digital books really take off. For many genres it may be some time until digital really takes off. In the meantime, OA digital and POD may make great sense.

I think one of the most important points you made was: “This in turn raises the question of why we want books to be open access in the first place. Is the goal broader dissemination? Or is the goal to promote the sale of print books? If the former, then the question is, What happens when e-books become a large chunk of the market? Will readers still opt for POD when they can read a (free) digital text in a handheld reader of some kind?”

An important part of the answer to that question may be (especially for academic works) “Yes the goal of OA is to promote dissemination, and if the day comes when everyone is reading the digital (for free) and not buying POD, that’s okay, because our overarching goal was to increase access to the work.” Of course I understand that even in that scenario, the writing still needs to be sustainable.

This post is in a similar vein to my recently completed dissertation on the influence on sales of giving away free e-copies of religious books. Available at:

Although there may be some advocates for/adherents to the model you suggest above (OA financed by POD sales), most of the people who are thinking seriously about financing open access to scholarly books see POD sales as one revenue stream to support this effort (as might be the sales of reader specific formats or advertisements, if they work, or sponsorships or author provided subsidies). POD sales will have their day and then will probably fade away or become less important. Scholarly publishers who are both committed to OA and to, first and foremost, getting scholarly work out into the world, will need to be fleet of foot and thought in devising funding models to support their work and take advantage of current reader appetites and the possibilities presented by current technologies. Which is of course what makes the work interesting. If POD can buy some time and help some good books out into the world while we explore the next iteration of the funding model for OA books, hooray for POD.

I’m with Maria on this: POD can be a temporary expedient to help us get through a transitional phase. I don’t think any of us expect it to last forever, and it may not cover all the costs of publishing OA monographs even now, as Penn State’s experience so far seems to suggest. But partially covering the costs is better than not covering them at all; we lost money on most of the monographs in our Romance studies series when it was available only in print, though losses were mostly offset by grants from the Spanish Ministry of Culture. The holy grail of OA fully subsidized by universities may never actually be attained. In the interim, most presses seem to be banking on the development of more licensed aggregations of e-monographs, as Cambridge, Oxford, and Duke have been experimenting with and as several new initiatives involving multiple presses are in the process of developing. If the holy grail never arrives, then we can hope that the licensed aggregations will succeed in earning enough money to make continuation of scholarly book publishing sustainable into the future.—Sandy Thatcher

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