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When Print-on-Demand Fails

Print on demand (POD) may be the greatest publishing invention since movable type, but it’s not an innovation without its downsides.

POD technology allows sellers to print books—as few as one at a time—only as they are ordered by a bookstore or consumer. I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon with those who think POD brought a flood of bad writing and poorly edited books to the market. Perhaps it does make it harder for readers to ferret out good, publisher-be-knighted works when there are so many more books available on Amazon and other POD seller sites. But I refrain because I have a dog in that fight: nine of my 11 novels are available only because of POD.

For a long time, the only books available as PODs were paperbacks. Recently, however, Ingram Spark and KDP, the two big POD publishers, have started allowing their platform users to create hardbacks for printing on demand. This got the enthusiastic support of a big-shot publishing guru who wrote a column waxing orgasmic about how the advent of hardcover PODs was a great boon for publishers and booksellers alike. His column appeared on nearly all of the publishing blogs and websites I follow.

His argument: No longer would publishers have to pay for a large print-run in anticipation of never-guaranteed sales. No longer would booksellers have to carry large inventories of books that could end up in recycling bins or sent back to the publishers. Nothing but goodness!

But what has transpired along with that wonderful advance? This:

This is my copy of Site Fidelity by Claire Boyles, a wonderful collection of short stories set in the American West, unlike any other Western stories I’ve ever read. I just bought it two days ago. It was published by Norton, a major independent publisher, not a shabby outfit. By the time I got halfway through the book, though, it looked like that. What publisher would allow this mess?

POD hardcovers are an abomination, not a godsend, in my opinion. In the past, hardcover books were printed in folios that were then glued (and sometimes stitched) together before they were inserted into covers and spines. Most of my recently purchased books, like those pictured at the top of this blog post, were created that way. And they've all held together well. POD hardcovers, however, are printed as single sheets and then hot-glued right onto the spine—a method oddly called “perfect binding.” Of course, they break apart. Hardcover spines don’t hold glue well, and the pages come loose. Soon you have a stack of paper instead of a book.

Paperback spines, however, are more flexible. They can bend in a way that doesn’t deconstruct the “perfect” binding.

This is not the first time I’ve spent good money on a new hardcover book, one that I was anxious to read before it was released (usually much later) in paperback. I bought two books from Bloomsbury, again a major publisher, that broke the same way. If, before I bought a book, I knew that it would be manufactured in this unsatisfactory way, I’d wait for the paperback or just buy the e-book.

I’m guessing that the publishing guru who thinks POD is such a gift to the industry is far more interested in the bottom line of publishers and booksellers and their inventory costs than in the satisfaction of the consumer. Granted, that column did appear in the depths of the pandemic, when the entire industry faced paper shortages and labor constraints, and POD looked like an answer.

But publishers should quit it now. Please, publish books that last at least through one reading!

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