Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Is Amazon Poised to Steal Print On Demand?

Many saw Print On Demand (POD) as the ultimate ‘just in time’ production solution to book publishing, which would wipe out all the inefficiencies of the ‘just in case’ approach that plagues the book supply chain. So why didn’t it happen, or did it happen for some and not for others? Is there a new dawn, or just a new set of people who have been sold a pup and not looked hard at the facts?

Today we read that Barnes and Noble are installing Espresso Book Machines in three of their store, including their New York flagship in Union Square. Books-a-Million also has installed two in its stores last year and Powells has one in Portland. But are all these genuine investment cases or mere subsidised trails? 
We are all aware of the huge success Ingram have made with Lightning Source both in the US and UK and the substantial side benefit this has given them with Ingram Digital and in acquiring digital content. Some would suggest that other more single focused operations such as Rowe’s in the UK have been less successful and in general, the main production presses have continued to plough their own furrows. Amazon acquired Booksurge which has now morphed into CreateSpace and has been aligned closely with their Kindle KDP and Audible self-publishing offers. In 2012 Kodak entered into the space with a strategic alliance with Espresso to site POD machine in non book outlets to also service their picture kiosk offer and although two machines were installed in Bartell Drug Stores near Seattle, this apparently has failed to impress Kodak.

In the UK Blackwells installed an Espresso POD machine in their Charring Cross store. There were many mistakes made, with the machine not only taking up valuable retail space, but often being unmanned, as staff wanted to sell books and didn’t want that ‘monitor’ position. The customer also had to often wait, either for someone to operate it, or just for a book to be spat out. Best of all, they had so much faith in its ability to drive sales, they tried to hide the machine around a corner. They didn’t know its audience and it was poorly marketed both within the store and to a wider audience.

The challenge is not the technology, it’s with its adaption and adoption, subsequent return on investment for all and perceived added consumer value. It’s also like eInk technology, in that it looks great and is capable of delivering, but if it takes too long, or the wrong strategy is adopted, it can be overtaken and merely becomes transient technology.

Many suggested that POD would solve many environmental issues but we would suggest that they first may wish to also look closer at the technology and paper stock used in the current machines.

The challenge is that POD means many things to many people.

To some it is a substitute for short print runs. One academic publisher very successfully could predict sales of its back list, so it set thresholds at which POD kicked in and replenished inventory according to forecasted demand and in doing so kept high priced books in stock. It even only had one location worldwide to service distributed hubs and they could afford to fly it around the world once sold. POD can work on predicable sale patterns and high ticket books.

Others waited until the backlist book inventory hit the bottom and operated on sell one make one basis, again ensuring the book remained in stock and obviated the ‘reprint under consideration’ lost orders and print gambles.

Some printed more POD stock than was healthy and used POD to simply reduce their print run exposure and inflated the price to pay for this higher ticket item. Interestingly, ask those POD operators if the print singles or bulk orders first? Also like any machine they return the best investment if they operate flat out and not intermittently between the hours of 9 till 5. 

However, the big challenge for many was the basic model. All tended to stick with the print and distribute model and this was personified by Ingram who printed and then distributed, either on a pick, pack and dispatch direct to order, or more frequently indirect to stock. The real opportunity was to flip from ‘print and distribute’ to ‘distribute and print’ and bring the manufacture closer to the consumer. But to do so one now has to ask what is ‘local’ in a world were delivery is shrinking to same day?

So why do we think that the Barnes and Noble ‘test’ is irrelevant? Firstly, unless the service is perceived as universal then it has questionable marketing advantage and real cost and service issues as there will be more ‘only available at limited stores’ and less ‘available here.’ We don’t envisage a return to the 17 and 18th printer within the shop and the machines are not going to shrink to a desktop today. We do however see it working within institutions and public libraries who often have different needs, service offers and return on investment critique.  

So who could be a winner apart from Ingram? Well this is yet another lesson being taught by Amazon, who, by reducing their delivery times to even same day, have potentially removed the ‘local’ issue. If the can buy online and have it turned around in the same timescale as a traditionally printed book, will the customer care if it’s POD or traditional? Amazon has also gone for the classic sell one make one model that aligns to self publishing and positioned it alongside KDP and their Audible self publishing offers. Tomorrow they are in a great position to now offer the same service to publishers and retailers who wish to reduce stock but increase availability. Maybe Booksurge was a very canny buy and under CreateSpace can become another part of an increasingly well thought through and formidable holistic offer.


Fr Matthew Schneider said...

POD also lets people like me publish a book. I wrote a very specialized book that will probably only sell 500 copies and few publishers would take that - CreateSpace is, however, giving me good returns.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where the article's heading, because Amazon already prints books for publishers (my small press uses both Amazon and Lighting Source for high quality trade paperbacks on demand.) Rather than give Amazon even more control over the marketplace, I'd like to see booksellers have a chance to sell my company's titles via a local POD supplier.

Sandy Thatcher said...

One of Amazon's many sins was to threaten university presses like the one I directed to de-list our titles unless we agreed to use BookSurge exclusively as our POD vendor. Such tactics have given Amazon a bad reputation among many publishers.

Anonymous said...

Subsidized trails, or trials?

PLG said...

Very good rundown of the issues.

My pie in the sky vision of the Espresso machine is an indie storefront in a hipster neighborhood with kiosks showing displays of indie published books available on the espresso and not necessarily by one-day turnaround from Amazon drones.

But the store has to market itself and identify books and content, and make the purchasing experience part of the value, like a cafe, videos, author interviews online, puzzles while you wait, etc.

Partnerships between these booksellers and publishers can generate heat.

Kiosk displays can be crafted to focus readers' interest areas and guide them to interesting and relevant purchases.

These bookstores should be designed around the Espresso machine and not just use it as an adjunct to their primary business.

Unfortunately, most indie booksellers I've come across are still way too attached to traditional industry dynamics (and returns privileges) to take the plunge. And the up-front money investment and maintenance of the machines are also obstructions. Plus the machines themselves are quite hideous, looking like Frankenstein robots.

I'm sure the technology and costs are capable of improving, but I'd love to see more of a synergy between the booksellers who use Espresso and the publishers who have books that are ideally suited to them.