Can Independent Book Dealers Benefit From 'Print on Demand'?

A trio of happy booksellers—Gayle Shanks from Changing Hands in Tempe, Arizona, Elisabeth Grant-Gibson from Windows a bookshop in Monroe, Louisiana, and Betsy Burton from The King’s English in Salt Lake City, Utah


Elisabeth Grant-Gibson and Betty Jo Harris of Windows a bookshop in Monroe, Louisiana with Augusten Burroughs


Authors Andre Dubus III and Mary Roach sign galleys of their upcoming books

Back at the end of January, I attended Winter Institute 3, hosted by the American Booksellers Association. This event has become one of the premiere bookseller education and networking opportunities of the year.

This year we were in Louisville, Kentucky, home of Churchill Downs, which seemed like a perfectly appropriate place for 500 booksellers to gather. After all, no one knows risk, chance, and the dream of a big pay-off like an independent bookseller.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was the one on Print on Demand. I have to admit that I chose that session with great reluctance and a foreboding sense that whether I had any interest in the topic or not, this was something I needed to know more about. In fact, I learned a great deal and it was among the most valuable panels I heard.

Let me pass along a few statistics that I found—well, stunning, to be honest. In December 2007, Ingram’s Lightning Source printed 1.2 million units. Yes, that’s million. The average print run was 1.8 copies. The average turnaround time was 12 hours. Now, I know that lots of us have gripes about Ingram, particularly when an order doesn’t happen quite the way we think it should. But come on. They printed 1.2 million books with an average turnaround of 12 hours. That’s. . .impossible. But they did it.

So what does POD have to do with you, as an independent bookseller? Other than getting cranked over the fact that such books are hard to order, cost too much, and often have a short discount, what meaning is there for you in this whole area of publishing? That was my question. That’s why I went to the session.

The applicability to those of us who are booksellers was twofold. Partly, there were suggestions for bookstores becoming the route for those local people who have a book they want to publish. In addition, there were possibilities for bookstores to publish or republish books of local interest. We all know of those books that we could sell over and over again if we could just get them or if somebody would just reprint them. Well, for those books which are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s an opportunity knocking on our bookshop doors.

The presentation included a case study featuring Kelly Estep, manager of the Bardstown Road branch of Carmichael’s Bookstore right there in Louisville. The example she discussed was a reprint that her store undertook of a book on the architecture of Louisville, published in the early 20th century. The project began with one battered copy of the book, which Ingram scanned in, set up, and reproduced. The photograph reproductions were decent, and a long unavailable treasure is now available again. Kelly Estep also mentioned that there was an upcoming architecture organization meeting in Louisville this year, and that it would be easy to create a custom cover for a minimal additional fee (about $50 if my notes are right) that would be specific to that conference, in the event she could broker a deal for the organization to purchase copies for all attendees.

The costs for such projects vary depending on whether the “publisher” can provide the book on disc or whether scanning is necessary. But for a few hundred dollars, bookstores can become publishers and greatly increase their markup on certain books that can be local bestsellers. Ingram also offers a distribution agreement, which then makes it possible for that local book to be available through Ingram’s entire distribution system, and in these days of the world at your fingertips, that can help sell books as well. And I kind of like the idea of Ingram having to write a check to us for once.

Print on Demand won’t be for everyone, and there are certainly other sources to go to for this service. But the argument made at this session was compelling, and I would recommend that anyone this strikes a chord with visit Lightning Source to learn more.

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson

1 thought on “Can Independent Book Dealers Benefit From 'Print on Demand'?”

  1. Not all POD books are “hard to order, cost too much, and. . .have a short discount.” What no one who respects the environmental aspect of POD will agree to, however, is returns; and therein lies the most important reason why independent booksellers shun digitally printed books.

    Our discount policy is 50% for prepaid nonreturnable orders, which are drop-shipped directly from LSI. Our quality is every bit as good as anything obtainable from the mainstream–as remarked by ForeWord and the Midwest Book Review, among others. I have always believed that an association between publishers like Zumaya and independent booksellers could be the route to success for all concerned.

    Small shops forced to compete with Wal-Mart survive by offering customers products they can’t find in the mega-store. Is there any reason not to consider small bookstores could survive the same way–by offering books that will never be found there?

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