In perhaps the most controversial book-related post over Christmas, Susan Hill opined that there are too many bookshops. She’d cut their number in half. Why? Because so few books are read, and because of "returns", which she sees as a great evil.
Well, there may indeed be "too many" bookshops in the UK. The stock in bookshops has a low price per unit and is hence expensive to keep if it doesn’t sell. However, the "answer", as I boringly keep saying, is print on demand. Here is a post by Martyn Daniels (on 2 Jan) at the Booksellers Association blog about PLOD –print locally on demand. The Espresso print machine, says Mr Daniels, can print, cut and bind up to 20 books in an hour. At New York City library, it will provide copies of out-of-copyright books at $3 each. (See my Petrona post of 21 Dec on this technology.)
Knowledgeable authors of various websites and blogs have predicted that 2007 will be the year in which POD takes off as a "mainstream proposition". We already have POD providers such as Lulu. Authors are producing their own books by POD and selling them online on Amazon and other sites. The quality is good and the price reasonable, in the examples I’ve tried. In my 21 Dec Petrona post, I drew attention to Random House, which is publishing a relatively small range of POD books and promoting them on its website.
I can’t see the sense in book publishers continuing to pay huge advances, only to consign most of the expensively produced results to "returns", when POD is good quality, affordable, and the Internet is there to allow promotion and scaling up. (Think of the various online bookselling sites such as localbookshop.com in the UK, as well as Amazon and its rapidly evolving competitors.) In this way, more authors can be published and readers can have more choice. Nobody loses, as publishers can still produce "conventional" books (big advance and a print run) when they feel they have a winner on their hands.