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The Sustainability and Sanity of Print-on-Demand
Coming to appreciate the virtue of producing only the copies that are purchased.
At first it was a source of shame that my memoir landed with a tiny publisher that produced books via print-on-demand. Why couldn’t I attract a house that would have taken greater risks on my work?
Then it was a bit of a pain in the ass for book events, especially ones I created in places far away from home, specifically California—the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Bookstores can’t get print-on-demand copies quickly—it can take up to two weeks—and they can’t return units that didn’t sell at your reading/signing.
Given that, it’s understandable that bookshops—small indie ones in particular—are less likely to stock up, even if you plan your launch with them and invite everyone you know. Instead, they’ll ask you to bring as many of your own copies as you can, and sell them for you on consignment.
For my West Coast events, that meant mailing books to family there two weeks before I even got on a plane. Fortunately I sold out at my three events there, and didn’t incur the added humiliation of having to mail some of the copies back home.
Somewhere along the way, though, I came to feel differently about print-on-demand, especially after friends had the plans for their paperback editions scrapped because not enough of their hardcovers sold; and I saw some colleagues’ much buzzed-about books remaindered; and I read, again and again, about layoffs in publishing, and how the whole industry is broken.
I also spent too much money on heavily marketed but ultimately disappointing books published by major houses. In one case, I spent $27 on a much-anticipated hardcover that just fell completely flat for me. Sure, some of the other books I’d purchased were great. But they were very much in the minority. I stopped trusting mainstream publishing’s taste and questioned many of their choices, including how many copies of a given title to print.
In light of all that, how sane it seems to only produce roughly as many copies of a book as are desired by readers! Not only sane, but environmentally sustainable. What a waste to guestimate, then kill a lot of trees and produce a lot of emissions manufacturing too many copies, only to have to remainder and pulp many of them. Not a great carbon footprint, Big Books.
Another advantage to my situation: as long as my publisher remains in business, my book will remain in print, because it’s not taking up valuable real estate in some warehouse, it just has to be printed out as needed.
Last week I had the pleasure and honor of being in conversation with Abigail Thomas about her new book, Still Life at 80: The Next Interesting Thing at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Kingston, NY. Abby is so kind and generous, she insisted we make it a double book event, at which we’d both read, and discuss both titles. (She also made me sing, but that’s another story.)
Rough Draft was down to two copies of my book, so the owners asked me to bring more copies from my stash. I didn’t mind one bit. And I sold most of them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because recently, at Memoir Land’s “The Lit Lab” vertical, I interviewed Alex Alberto (they/them), K.G. Strayer (they/them), and Caroline Shannon (she/her), the co-founders of Quilted Press, a new queer, anti-capitalist publishing collective that’s also producing books via print-on-demand.
They’re innovating in a couple of other ways, too. They’re starting out with the co-founders’ three debut books, publishing them all at the same time, so that they can support one another through the process. And they’re raising money for publication through crowdfunding on Kickstarter.
The books are the primary “rewards” for contributing, which means that crowdfunding translates to taking preorders. This makes so much sense to me. It’s something I’ve heard before, from Dina Falconi, the author of Foraging & Feasting, who in 2013 originally set a Kickstarter goal of like $20K, and wound up bringing in $115K.
At the time, I asked Falconi why she thought it had been so successful, and she said it was simple: the only “reward” people would get, if they contributed a certain amount, was a copy of the book. Then, she produced exactly as many copies as were effectively preordered. Ten years later the book continues to sell, via print-on-demand.
So smart. I’m now totally on board with the print-on-demand approach to publishing, and crowdfunding, too. Speaking of which, I’ve contributed to Quilted Press’s campaign. Perhaps you’d like to, too.