Discrimination Against Print-on-Demand Books Is Out of Touch and Bad for the Environment Too

My advice to authors who have POD books these days is simply not to talk about it. If someone asks, I encourage them to say that they got a print run, and leave it at that.
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When I think about the publishing community at large, my mind doesn't immediately gravitate toward images of excess, waste, and environmental unconsciousness. And yet, unfortunately, because of the nature of book manufacturing and the routine destruction of books for tax write-offs, this image is an accurate depiction of some publishing ventures. Most publishers destroy thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of books every year in a process called "pulping" to get rid of excess inventory. It's practically criminal, honestly, when you think about deforestation and other climate concerns. And more so given that print on demand (POD) technology allows publishers and authors to print more conservatively and then to fulfill orders to demand as needed, or to print on demand from the get-go, foregoing offset print runs altogether.

That POD is considered somehow lesser in some circles is an indication that people in the book industry are slow to adapt to change. Last week I came across this announcement from The Commonwealth Club of California for their 84th California Book Awards in which they state:

We do not accept entries that are either self-published or from vanity presses, nor do we accept "print-on demand press" books or e-books.

I take issue with this whole sentence, actually, but for this post I will focus only on the print on demand part. The Commonwealth Club's statement fits the bill for the kind of resistance to change I see a lot in this industry. Awards programs aren't the only ones who discriminate. So do some membership organizations, and many bookstores. The irony of ironies is that many (dare I say all?) big publishers use print-on-demand technology for their backlist titles once those titles hit a certain low-ish threshold, a point at which it doesn't make sense for the publisher to go back to press. People on the publishing side know that you can't tell the difference anymore, but others are slow to come around to this reality.

The Commonwealth Club is a forward-thinking organization, of course. Bookstores are the cultural bastions of our society. I would venture to guess that the people who work for the Commonwealth Club are concerned about the environmental impact of publishing paperback books. So what is going on here that they are barring authors who print on demand from submitting to their contest?

Ten years ago, POD technology wasn't very good. Due to the print quality, POD was
the mark of a self-published book. But a lot has changed, and POD technology has come a long way. Today, POD books are beautiful, rivaling and sometimes surpassing in quality books that are printed on an offset press. Self-publishing, too, is not the bastard child it once was. Countless authors are choosing to self-publish, self-publishing superior quality books, and making more money self-publishing than they could ever hope to make as a signed author on a major house. But I digress... As I said, this post is not about The Commonwealth Club's misguidance on self-published books, but rather about their lack of insight about print on demand. I'm singling out the Commonwealth Club here, but this discriminatory practice is seen across a number of organizations that offer prestigious awards. I have to assume that the people enforcing the rules don't realize how much of a discriminatory policy this is. They're instead operating from an old understanding of how the industry works. Many bookstores have a similar blindness. They say they will not carry print-on-demand books, and yet they do. Because they're carrying backlist books that were once offset but are now POD. And they can't tell the difference.

My advice to authors who have POD books these days is simply not to talk about it. If someone asks, I encourage them to say that they got a print run, and leave it at that. If you get a "run" of ten, twenty, or one hundred books POD, that constitutes a print run, albeit a small one. If no one can tell that a book is POD then it doesn't matter--end of story. (The only caveat I'll make here, because I'm sure it will come up otherwise in the comments, is that POD is not up to snuff on four-color interiors just yet. They're getting there, but most four-color books should be printed on an offset press.)

I believe publishers have a job to do, and that's to educate bookstore owners and organizations like The Commonwealth Club who actually don't understand what they are objecting to. All these communities care about--if they're in integrity about what they care about--is quality books. So a book printed to order at an on-demand facility or in thousand or fifty thousand runs from an offset press should have no bearing on its qualifications to win awards, or to be carried in bookstores, especially when the judges and storeowners cannot tell the difference.

I encourage anyone who holds a judgment against POD to take a tour of Ingram's print-on-demand facility in La Vernge, Tennessee. In this massive warehouse that runs twenty-four hours a day and prints thousands upon thousands of books a day, there's an entire subsection working toward fulfilling library orders. There are hardcover books being printed to order--one at a time. (The quality is gorgeous.) This is a facility dedicated to constantly improving their technology on the one hand, but also making obsolete (eventually) the need to pulp hundreds of thousands of books every year.

When I first heard about pulping years ago, I felt a little sick about the industry I'd chosen. I recently told one of my authors at She Writes Press that in order to get a replacement of a batch of books that had been printed glossy instead of matte she'd have to tear the covers off all the books to show evidence that they'd been destroyed. She couldn't do it. Maybe now those glossy books will become collector's items--who knows. But the point is that I want to work with more people like this author. People who care about their role in contributing to excess, waste, and environmental unconsciousness. Whether you're a reader, an author, a publisher, or someone who's involved in the industry any other way (through advocacy, awards, selling, distribution, shipping, fulfillment, etc.), you have a stake in print on demand.

Postscript: I came across this information about what publishers are doing to be more eco-friendly. It's interesting reading if you care to know more about the book publishing stats and some of the green initiatives that are currently underway. However, I maintain that an industry shift (over time) to printing to order will be more powerful than all of these initiatives combined.

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