Carrier pigeon from the trenches: revolution is messy

Susan Ramsey of the Athena Book Shop in Kalamazoo says that the problem with print-on-demand is distribution:

Consider this a carrier pigeon from the trenches, which is to say the independent bookstores. Print on demand, in several forms, is for sure burgeoning, but that just moves the problems one step back, to distribution. You can print your book, but even small publishers stumble on the distribution problem.

Our profit margin’s not great, and the biggest distributor gives us free shipping (you’ve moved boxes of books, so you can figure what a savings that is) on over a hundred units, so the bulk of each week’s order goes there. If we have to pay shipping, it either bites into our dainty little profit sandwich (crusts trimmed off, watercress) or we have to add it to the book. Not good.

It will be interesting to see how the distributors deal with print on demand. A few of the pod companies actually do place a few authors at Ingram, and on a returnable basis (we can’t buy on a non-returnable basis — most pods aren’t returnable.) We’ll skip for now the problem of publicity/reviews (I know the LA Times is refusing to read pods on the basis that they’ve gone through no editorial filtering.) And you don’t want to hear our wails about the lines of local authors demanding readings, signings, and Grisham treatment…

Of course most pod is crap — Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is shit”) applies here as elsewhere. But that 10% has had some triumphs already particularly with children’s/young adult books — The Sands of Time and Eragorn come to mind first. The whole movement has a nice democratic, revolutionary feel to it – but revolution is messy and keeping the supply lines open is crucial. Print on demand will solve some problems, but we’re going to need some imaginative solutions to distribution before it has much effect. Meanwhile, at least try to be sure you get generous margins and a decent, non-blinding-white paper. Dead giveaways, every time.


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