Print on Demand

Michael Lines and Kathryn Arbuckle have both pointed out the difficulty of collecting print copies of much grey lit, and yet library users are reluctant to pore over screeds on screens. Might it not be sensible to explore print on demand as at least a partial solution. (I’m referring to the abililty of libraries or other information centres to quickly print and bind digital material, not the many “vanity” presses that now offer authors inexpensive print runs of their works — those these, too, may have their place: think about a well-done law school casebook printed off site.)

All the big computer and printer companies offer a range of machines that can do the job, and the cheapest with (relatively) slow duplex printing and glued perfect binding might be just what’s wanted in most cases. In this regard I was intrigued a number of years ago when I read about Brewster Kahle’s internet bookmobile. Here he describes it in conversation with Stu Feldman vice president of Internet technology for IBM:

BK: … Our general philosophy is to use commodity components, so we build a bookmobile that costs a total of $15,000 including the car.

SF: This is a bookmobile without any books?

BK: Without any physical books. It prints them on demand. There is a satellite dish on top, a printer, a binder, and a cutter, and you walk away with a paperback of any of the public-domain books available on the ‘Net.

SF: What’s the incremental cost for a typical book?

BK: A 100-page black-and-white book with current toner and paper costs in the United States is $1, not figuring labor costs, rights costs, or depreciation of capital. That’s an interesting number, because at a buck a book, it turns out that for a library, it could be less expensive to give books away than to loan them. In his book, Practical Digital Libraries, Michael Lesk reported that it cost Harvard incrementally $2 to loan a book out and bring it back and put it on the shelf. This is not figuring in the warehousing costs and all the building costs. This is just the incremental cost of loaning a book out.

Even if you put some fee in for the author, it looks cost effective to print and bind many books locally.

SF: So, running a self-service kiosk would be…

BK: …more cost effective.
ACM Queue: A Conversation with Brewster Kahle

Copyright problems, of course. But perhaps not for much of the legal grey lit. At any rate, it’s something to consider, at least.

And by the way Simon Fraser University is holding its Summer Publishing Workshop on August 10, and the topic is Print On Demand. We might ask Steve Matthews to play hookey and attend or Neil Campbell to row over and take notes.


  1. Very interesting Simon. Patrons could also, presumably, see the full text while at the library website, mark the chapters, pages, or passages to print, and also have the option of taking away the digital version, for later cutting and pasting. With properly convenient citation tools built in, plaigiarism might even be reduced.

  2. It sounds like they account for copyright in terms of paying the author a “royalty” for the right to reprint:

    “Even if you put some fee in for the author, it looks cost effective to print and bind many books locally.”