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Print-on-Demand

Module by: Hilary Ballon, Mariet Westermann. E-mail the authors

The editorial community harbors considerable disagreement over the mitigating effects of digital technology on the costs of illustration programs and inventory. Quite apart from transitional anxieties about the loss of the book as artifact and the inability of the screen image to match the simulative power of the color print reproduction, editors point out that the costs of illustration programs depend in good part on the human labor costs of design, layout, permissions enforcement, and image checks and calibrations, and that electronic cost-savings in those domains have already been maximized over the past two decades. And yet, most editors agree that it is intuitively obvious that without the expenses of offset printing, paper stock, binding, inventory maintenance, and shipping, digital publication would almost certainly be more cost-effective than print publication.

It appears that the cost savings of fully digital publication in art history have not been studied comprehensively by the publishing industry, in part because of considerable skepticism over the acceptability to authors, readers, and credentialing committees of purely digital delivery. When asked whether print-on-demand technology might offer a more acceptable spin-off product that would allow publishers to reduce print runs radically, control inventory costs, and maintain books in print indefinitely, most editors initially reacted with skepticism because the loss of image quality was felt to be too compromising and unlikely to be improved within the next few years.

This tepid response was surprising as print-on-demand products involving images are developing rapidly in the popular and trade domain. Such applications include newspaper kiosks in airports, where readers may print out tabloid editions of major international broadsheets, and albums of digital images ordered through the internet from a central printer. Companies such as Apple provide the album templates, the consumer composes the album—effectively acting as self-publisher—and orders it according to a menu of printing and binding specifications. The provider prints and ships the bound album to the consumer, often within two business days. Over the past decade, print-on-demand companies such as Lightning Resource have developed flexible and efficient reader fulfillment services for trade book publishers as well.1

Scholarly publishers, with their small print runs and inventory headaches, stand to benefit even more from such outsourcing. As niche products, scholarly monographs on highly specialized topics are likely to recover their production costs more predictably if consistently available over many years, rather than relying on illusory blockbuster sales in the first year or two of publication. Print-on-demand technology may soon make this business model feasible for art history publication.2 In a 2003 ACLS paper, Lynne Withey, Director of the University of California Press, already noted print-on-demand's advantages for scholars who hesitate to pursue digital publication because it lacks the high-quality print product expected by promotion and tenure committees.3 In 2006, PublicAffairs, an imprint founded and edited by Peter Osnos, announced the Caravan Project, under which six non-profit publishers (three are university presses) will simultaneously publish non-fiction titles in multiple formats: hardcopy, paperback, print-on-demand, digital download, per-chapter download, and audio.4 The 24 pilot books are due to be released early in 2007. The goal is to increase the commercial viability and lifetime of niche titles by removing obstacles to sales caused by limited print runs and poor inventory control. The project does not include illustrated titles, however.

More recently, art history editors have begun to discuss the positive impact of print-on-demand on inventory costs. They have also registered improvements in the technology to such an extent that a copy of an illustrated book printed on demand may soon be sufficiently close in quality to one printed in an editorially supervised print run. In 2006, the University of Chicago Press published John Hyman's The Objective Eye: Color, Form, and Reality in the Theory of Art (a smallish, handsome book with black and white figures as well as color plates) in a hardback run of 200 for libraries and a slightly larger paperback run, while simultaneously commissioning a trial print-on-demand version that may be released when the initial print runs are sold. While the print-on-demand paper is of a rougher texture and black and white illustrations look more obviously pixelated than their counterparts in the book produced by a traditional printer, the illustrations are clearly legible and make their points quite well. The press considers the proof product an impressive augury of improvements soon to come.5

Footnotes

  1. https://www.lightningsource.com/index.htm. The books thus far appear to have few or no illustrations.
  2. For the statistical principle and its applications in the electronic age, see Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling More (New York: Hyperion, 2006).
  3. Lynne Withey, "Crises and Opportunities: The Futures of Scholarly Publishing" (2003), ACLS Occasional Paper No. 57, www.acls.org/op57.pdf. The University of California Press has implemented this publication model in several series of born-digital monographs with print copies available through print-on-demand technology. The press has not yet extended its dual electronic/print-on-demand model to art history, a field where it has historically had a strong commitment.
  4. The program has been funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. For the MacArthur Foundation's announcement, http://www.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7BB0386CE3-8B29-4162-8098-E466FB856794%7D/Caravan.pdf; for the founder's vision, Peter Osnos, "Good Books: When, Where, and How You Want Them" (5 April 2006), http://www.tcf.org/list.asp?type=NC&pubid=1259.
  5. We thank Susan M. Bielstein and Sylvia Hecimovich, Editor and Production Director at the University of Chicago Press, respectively, for sending us the two books for comparison and for sharing their impressions of them. The POD pages were printed by Integrated Book Technology (IBT).

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Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

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Definition of a lens

Lenses

A lens is a custom view of the content in the repository. You can think of it as a fancy kind of list that will let you see content through the eyes of organizations and people you trust.

What is in a lens?

Lens makers point to materials (modules and collections), creating a guide that includes their own comments and descriptive tags about the content.

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