Ebooks get a lot of attention, but there is another publishing world that exists in parallel with the commercial publishing world we see and know. It is the shadow world that evolved from the copier and later the digital printer — for the first time, individuals could make their own books.
As the first key operator for the first Xerox 914 in Brooklyn, N.Y., I saw how convenience engenders changes in behavior and creates new market opportunities. Before the copier as we know it, we used something called a Thermofax — which would drive you to drink just to make one copy. The plain paper copier made it easy to be a publisher. Over time, technology continued to make it even easier. The Canon LBP-CX in 1981 became the HP LaserJet and the Apple Laserwriter. The original Kodak Ektaprint could re-circulate original sheets and copy them in order and then bind them in the machine. The University of Vermont was producing customized course materials in the early 1980s using an Ektaprint.
From 1990, the Xerox Docutech scanned all originals into memory and then regurgitated the information to printed and bound publications. In the early 1990s it produced most of the technical manuals and documentation materials in the world. After 1993, digital printing blossomed into color with Indigo and Xeikon. Over time, many digital color printers integrated perfect and other binding. Desktop finishing allowed anyone to bind their own books.
The rise of Adobe Acrobat gave us a standardized format for file submission. Without such standardization, there would be file chaos. Project Gutenberg goes back to the early 1970s when it shared public domain books used by cable-connected minicomputer users. Most users printed those books out even though they were not formatted very well for printout.
After decades, publishers have discovered print on demand (POD). The long run is a thing of the past, except for certain titles. Technical publisher O'Reilly Media abandoned traditional publishing methods and prints copies of its books as needed. The POD service will be handled by Ingram Content Group. Around 200 O'Reilly titles are already in the POD program, and more titles will be added as time goes on. The advent of higher-speed sheet and roll digital printers has given all publishers access to a new business model: Print what you want when you want it.
In the "old" days, vanity publishers would help you produce your own book at high prices. Because traditional book printers applied technology that mandated longer runs, new services were established that harnessed the power of the Internet and POD technology. Now blurb.com, lulu.com, cpibooks.com and xlibris.com are just a few of the more than 40 online POD book production services.
There is also the Xerox Espresso Book Machine that prints and binds books literally while you wait. I was in a bookstore near Harvard University and the machine was running non-stop as people were buying books that were not on the store's shelves. It was also interesting that some brought memory sticks with their own books to print. Could this be the future of the bookstore: some books on shelves and all others printed on order?
As individuals become their own publishers, the range of content has grown:
● Memory books: birthdays, weddings, vacations, graduations, religious events, reunions, parties of all kinds
● Self-published: poetry, novels, cookbooks, manuals, children's drawings, collections of creative writing
● Presentations: sales meetings, conferences, proposals
● Educational: course materials
● Art books: work by artists, photographers, sculptors, and ceramic and glass artists
●Out-of-print: Scanned books, ephemera, periodicals
As a result, the volume of books lost to ebooks has been mostly made up with a "gazillion" one-off "Me books." Tracking this market is still a challenge because there is no standardized reporting and most data is based on estimates.
The POD services offer support for layout and production, and also help with ISBN and sales links for those books that will be sold. But I would say that most Me books are for personal use and shared among a small group of people. Unlike a website, or a Facebook or Instagram post, the book is always there, always accessible, and stands on a shelf broadcasting its existence. That book will also transcend time and technology as it is passed from generation to generation.
A friend of mine collected the letters of her father and produced a book for her nieces and nephews to better know their grandfather. The run was 30 copies but each copy is treasured. The last book I bought from Amazon was a printed version of an 1882 book on engraving. The original of that book was in a library in Scotland. Now I have a copy. It may be that the future of libraries is providing access, to data via computers, but also to print on demand services.
Ebooks get all the attention nowadays, but the Me book market will continue to grow and it will shadow the traditional book market. It is a one-at-a-time market that will add up to big numbers.
Frank Romano is RIT Professor Emeritus with over 50 years in book technology and publishing.