An Absolute Success
Around 1984, 25 years ago now, digital printing was just coming into the general market and when I looked at a digital printer I had an intriguing idea: ¿Could that technology be used to print books?
The answer seems obvious now, but back then, as I started to investigate the issue, there were an enormous number of problems to solve. First there was the technology itself. All of the existing technology at the time was directed to mass produce books. And replacing an offset printer with a digital printer seemed to me it would be just a matter of time.
But my research (and direct knowledge, as an author myself) on the book business indicated that the book production required a different approach. Books seldom sell in large quantities. Except for the bestsellers, which are a market anomaly, -out of the hundreds of thousands of titles published every year only a few become bestsellers- books sell a copy here and a copy there for a long period of time.
Publishers know this phenomena well, and many of them even make their business plans around it: they calculate that the bestsellers will carry the rest of their titles.
This didn't make economic sense to me and still doesn't. It is the equivalent of producing millions of cars in thousands of models to find one that will sell well, and then piggy back the costs of all onto that one. The waste of this excess is just plain brutal. In book markets (like the US) where the books that do not sell well are sent back to the publishers, the bleeding is even worst. Some titles have a return rate of 90%!
At the same time, a bookstore -no matter how large- can stock only a small fraction of the millions of titles available. Due to the nature of their business, bookstores stock mainly the newer and the fastest moving titles. A book that sits in the shelf -no matter how good it may be- is costing money and producing dust every day because the physical space they occupy is very expensive. But that means that the readers had to do an enormous amount of hunting to find a book they wanted to read. (Remember, there was no Amazon back then).
And finally, from my perspective as a writer, the conditions of the market as indicated by the publishers and the bookstores, meant that publishers concentrate more and more on titles that their educated guesses leads them to believe will sell a lot, and less and less on the pure quality of the writing itself. Back then, 95% of the manuscripts sent to the publishers were rejected immediately.
That is why at the turn of the 20th century the popular writers had names like Hemingway, Faulkner, Scott Fitzgerald, and at the turn of the 21st century they have names such as Clancy, Brown and Patterson. We have gone from writing geared to search our souls, to entertainment writing geared to search our pockets.
So I thought that the book business, and the readers, and the writers themselves, would be well served if we could have a machine to produce single units of books on command.
To undertand the challenge I faced we have to take a look at the way books are produced using the traditional mass production technology: in general terms, a master is created for each page of a book. If a book has a thousand pages, a thousand masters are required. A master is created from a camera-ready original. To reduce costs, and speed up process, those masters are combined into a very large plate, which is then strapped on a large press the size of a bus. From there the operators print a number of copies, which are then collated, cut, folded, matched, bound, refined, etc. Just to turn on those machines is very expensive, so its not economically feasible to use them to print only a few copies at the time.
So making a single copy of a book using that process was just not possible.
The solution required the ability to print all of the pages of a book in a consecutive manner, print them onto both sides of a sheet of paper, collate the sheets into their proper order, cut them, and bind them with a cover. All of it in a single step.
In the process of solving these problems, I also thought that an extra part of the problem was the distribution of books themselves: once is printed, the book has to reach the reader. That meant shipping, with the added cost and waste this implied.
So I thought that it would be great to have the ability to send the electronic files over a network, download them, print and bind the books on site. To give you a perspective on what this implied, at the time I had this idea the speed of the modems was 300 bauds.
Finally, after 10 years of work, I applied for my first patent in 1995, and the InstaBook Maker, the Electronic Bookstore, was born.
Today, an author can get published in the moment he is ready, as fast as he wants. He doesn't need to depend on anybody to get his point across. Today, any publishing company can choose to concentrate on publishing quality, knowing that the investment required has been lowered considerably.
Today, according to an article published in Publishers Weekly, more titles are produced using POD, than offset. The extraordinary success of this technology makes me feel very proud of having been part of an idea that has transformed the world.
You can read the Publishers Weekly article here: