Economics of Print-on-Demand and E-Publishing

The Economics of Print-on-Demand and E-Publishing

Nov. 16, 2000
Notes By Rachel Markowitz

As you may have noticed, computers and the Internet have vastly transformed the book industry. Thanks to print on demand (POD) technology, today's answer to self-publishing, authors no longer need the backing of trade publishers in order to market, sell, and distribute their books worldwide. And the emergence of e-books allows travelers, for example, to carry whole libraries in their laptops rather than in their carry-ons.

JoAnn Kawell, national contracts adviser on electronic book rights for the National Writers Union, spoke about POD and e-books, explaining how writers and editors can benefit from the new technologies.

POD technology bypasses the massive print runs and warehousing and distribution costs of traditional publishing by storing text digitally and printing single copies as needed. Through POD publishers such as and, books can be downloaded to home computers at low cost and are also available in bound versions.

Good writers who are fed up with contract disputes and lackluster editing and marketing services at trade houses are turning to e-publishing, Kawell says. POD not only offers first-time and midlist authors the opportunity to have their books published and made accessible to a worldwide audience, but also grants them greater control over content and promotion.

Through POD, writers have to pay for editing and marketing costs, but instead of getting only 15% of sales, they get around 50%. POD is also more economical than traditional self-publishing. Because of its greatly reduced time to market, POD works well for books containing time-sensitive material. It's also a good route for books on obscure subjects.

Now let's switch gears a little. An e-book, like a POD book, is a digital book you download over the Internet. However, an e-book requires a "reader" - either a software program or dedicated hardware - to enable you to read it.

E-books can be read on PCs and laptops or electronic devices such as Rocketbooks and the RCA REB 1100. Some can also be read on Macs. In order to read from your computer, you need to first download software such as Microsoft Reader or Glassbook Reader, both available for free from the makers or online booksellers like The Rocketbook and RCA devices both come with their own software. After you have either downloaded the software or acquired the device, you can download the book, a process that takes less than two minutes.

The advantages of e-books are many. The most obvious: They keep trees in parks and forests rather than the recycle bin. (Due to copyright restrictions, e-books cannot be printed out.) They're instantly accessible, portable, and searchable. And they're cheaper than paper books.

E-books could also prove to be a gold mine for copyeditors and proofreaders, Kawell says. Converting a paper book to an e-book requires files to be converted from one type to another. Trade publishers entering the e-book market will need editors to help in the conversion process to make sure mistakes don't creep in. And as audio and video become incorporated into e-books, editors will have an opportunity to edit audio and video text, Kawell says.

Thanks to advances in on-screen reading technology, both the Glassbook and Microsoft Readers offer eye-friendly perusal. Users can also adjust the font, turn pages, search the text, and make annotations. Because the Glassbook and Microsoft products most closely duplicate the traditional book-reading experience and are being backed by computer industry giants, they are likely to become the dominant e-book formats, Kawell says.

While paper books are in no danger of disappearing, Kawell says, major trade publishers will increasingly be offering books in electronic formats. According to, Simon & Schuster announced in September 2000 that it would be releasing its fall-season books in Microsoft Reader, Glassbook, and Rocketbook platforms.

The best way to learn more about e-books is by reading them, says Kawell. In addition to offering free software, reader makers and online booksellers also offer free e-books. Many public libraries are now lending both reading devices and e-books to their patrons. You might find you hate e-books, just as you expected, Kawell says, but at least you'll know what all the fuss is about.

You can obtain copies of Kawell's informative handouts on e-publishing by e-mailing her at



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