Are Print-On-Demand Books an E-book Alternative?

Books printed as they are ordered save paper resources, but they still lack the quality of traditional volumes

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Not long ago, print-on-demand -- dry-copy reproduction and binding of entire books -- was deemed the rescuer of the beleaguered publishing industry by gurus such as Jason Epstein, still a firm believer.

On-demand status should be a badge of honor if prophets like Mr. Epstein are to be believed, promoting to book buyers wishing to be in the technological vanguard -- or what it used to be before e-books. And if buyers like the results of what he calls the espresso machine, good for him, and them. Yet when I wrote about the 50th anniversary of the Xerox 914 last year, it took much detective work to determine that the classic book on the technology was available only in an on-demand version. I never saw it, so I can't judge the results. But it seemed odd that at least one chain bookstore employee, whom I asked about a special order (the book was listed on their database as new)  told me she could be fired if she revealed whether or not the title was on-demand. That's pride?

The Publishers Weekly blogger Michael Coffey describes his own experience ordering a 10-year-old Oxford University Press biography of the jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown:

I ordered the book on Monday, Sept. 19. I got an email two days later that it had shipped. On Saturday morning, Sept. 24, there it was in the distinctive Amazon box. I immediately set to reading. The book was smaller than I had expected, for a biography. The cover was a muted, two-color black-and-blue on white--cheap but perhaps tasteful for a book about a trailblazing musician who died tragically at age 25. The paper was a very bright white. And then I got to the photo section -- a horror show: terribly greyed out, low-quality, perhaps galley quality (at best). They were like photocopies of photocopies of very old photographs. I thought -- this must be a terrible production mistake. As I looked around in the book, I found 12 completely blank pages at the end, but for a bar code on the last page and the words "Made in the U.S.A. Lexington, KY, September 21, 2011." That is, my book had been printed three days earlier.
In defense of Amazon, its return and refund policies were impeccable. But if this buyer's experience is typical, the technology's quality appears to have a long way to go. There are also questions about how green print-on-demand really is, especially if it uses the energy-intensive laser process. As Mr. Coffee notes, a good-quality used copy may be a more physically attractive as well as a less expensive alternative. I'd add more carbon-neutral, too.

Of course other kinds of on-demand printers are used for expensive fine-art reproduction, so there's nothing inherently wrong with the concept. But whatever you think of on-demand reprinting, it should cease to be the graphic process that dare not speak its name.

Thanks to Allyson Rudolph for the link.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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