[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
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SFWA President's Message

Print on Demand

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in
Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,
Winter 1998


I recently saw a demonstration of print-on-demand technology. I didn't have to go to a printing trade show to see this, or to a large commercial copy shop. The demo I saw was in the basement of a SFWA member's house. He had acquired all the necessary equipment, and is now turning out single copies of perfect-bound books with full-color covers — and doing it at a very competitive price.

Some writers have hailed the advent of print on demand: Never again will a book go out of print! On the face of it, that sounds wonderful: a reader who discovers a writer late in that writer's career will be able to easily order backlist titles.

But will print on demand really be the end of all our troubles? Most publishing contracts have a reprint-or-revert clause. If an author discovers that his or her book is no longer in print, he or she can put the publisher on notice: they must commit to reprint the book within a specified time, or they must revert the rights back to the author, leaving the author free to license publishing rights in that title to another publisher.

These days, publishers rarely go back to press for fewer than 3,000 or so paperbacks. And, if those paperbacks are priced at $6.99, and half of them actually sell (which is the typical ratio), the author will make something like $838 in royalties from the reprint (the most common royalty rate for a paperback is 8%). Or, if the publisher lets the book revert, then another publisher may indeed wish to reissue the novel, paying the author a new advance of at least a couple of thousand dollars, if not more, and pumping perhaps 20,000 new copies into the marketplace (a typical paperback first printing these days). With the same sell-through ratio and royalty rate, the author might earn $5,600 from this reissue.

But what if the original publisher had switched to print on demand? Well, then, the book is always available for bookstores to order, and therefore is never technically out of print. But will an older title sell in quantity without a push from the publisher? Or will orders for it trickle in at, say, a copy a week? At the end of a year, 50 copies might have sold, netting the author just $28 in royalties — and preventing him or her from ever reselling the book to a publisher who might aggressively reintroduce it into the marketplace.

Writers' associations and literary agents will need to craft new contract language — and fight diligently for its adoption — to make sure that the supposed boon provided by this technology doesn't turn out to be a financial disaster for authors. Publishers rarely if ever let a title revert without considerable heel-dragging (regardless of what timeframes are specified in the author's contract). The reason is simple: most backlist is worth little to the publisher, but if an author takes off (as, say, Dean Koontz did, after years as a minor name), suddenly those old titles become extremely valuable. Having to print 3,000 or so books to keep the rights to every potential new Koontz is too much of a financial risk for most publishers; having to print one copy to retain those same rights (or, indeed, having to print none at all unless and until an order comes in) is a sound investment. Will new contracts specify a minimum order threshold for maintaining in-print status? And, if so, what figure would be fair?

Farther down the road, on-demand printing may move out of the publishers' warehouses and directly into bookstores. Wonderful, you might think. Never again will someone go into a store and be unable to get a copy of your book. Perhaps so, but I suspect there will still be a hierarchy. Will your title be deemed of sufficient interest for the bookstore to produce a display copy? Or will yours simply be available for downloading into the printing equipment, meaning no one will find your book while just browsing through the store shelves?

Still, if bookstores can access the text of every book available from every publisher, then the physical neighborhood bookstore may regain its supremacy even as a source of backlist or obscure books; online bookstores, which currently enjoy an apparent advantage in that area (I say "apparent," because in fact almost any bookstore can special order almost any title) may lose that advantage. Sure, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com or Borders.com may be able to ship you volume one of some long-forgotten series in two or three days, but your local print-on-demand bookstore will be able to hand you a copy, with no shipping costs, in a matter of a few minutes.

Now, you may say, no one is going to hang around a bookshop waiting for a novel to be printed and bound. But even though print-on-demand at bookstores is still years away, Barnes and Noble and others have been redefining the retail environment to encourage people to linger in the store: that's what all those Starbucks and other in-store coffee shops are for. Whether this is clever advanced planning, or just preadaptive evolution (like feathers emerging for insulation and only subsequently being co-opted for flight) is hard to say. But even today, bookstores are ready to comfortably accommodate customers during the brief delays required to print books in house.

There are some important advantages to print on demand, besides such obvious ones as letting every title be instantly available in large-print editions, and in the buyer's choice of paperback or hardcover. Print-on-demand technology may finally make the IRS's Thor Power Tool decision irrelevant to publishing (Thor causes publishers to pay tax on books in their warehouses, providing a great disincentive to keeping backlist titles in print).

Print on demand may also eliminate the "returns" problem: the wasteful practice that results in only one out of every two paperback books actually selling, while the other copy is destroyed by the bookseller (saying the book has been "returned" is a euphemism; the cover is ripped off the book, and the actual book is thrown out). That would be great for the environment, no doubt — but who should reap the benefits of these savings? The standard 8% paperback royalty rate is based on the author bearing some of the cost of that waste. If books are printed on demand, with no wasted copies, should the author's share of the sale price remain that measly 8%? Doubtless it will, unless effective writers' advocacy groups, such as SFWA, take a leading role in ensuring that writers benefit at last as much as do booksellers and publishers in the coming era of on-demand printing.

Looking even farther down the road, on-demand printing and binding equipment may become a standard part of most households, with the text of books downloaded into these devices over the Internet. Or, of course, hand-held electronic book readers may take off at some point. When either of those things happen — when authors can themselves become effective publishers, and consumers can print or access books directly — then the traditional publishers and bookstores may disappear.

What role will there be then for organizations such as SFWA? Well, today, we like to think that the notation "Active Member, SFWA" on a manuscript gets an author's work preferential consideration at a publishing house. In the post-publisher economy, that same designation on a web site may become a valuable endorsement for the consumer, signify that the author is an experienced professional writer. That could help book buyers separate wheat from the endless chaff such a system would inevitably put before the public.


Robert J. Sawyer is President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he also founded SFWA's Canadian Region. His latest novel is Factoring Humanity from Tor.


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