Wow, big topic title.
I’ve been moved to think about this because of the development of a new machine that takes Print on Demand to just about its limit. It’s called the Espresso, and it can print and bind a single copy of a book in 8 minutes. And it can hold 2.5 million books in its memory.
For an article and a video demonstrating the monster, go to this link. Once the video has started, fast forward about 25 minutes to see the thing working:
I understand the machine is being set up in libraries in the US so that people can, presumably, buy books there as well as borrow them.
I don’t know how I feel about this. I think publishing is a noble and ancient profession, which incorporates a lot of checks and balances so that, generally speaking, bad writing is filtered out. If it becomes possible to take your pdf file down to the library and cheaply print out 50 copies of your masterpiece and sell them from a back of a truck, is that necessarily a good thing? Your unedited, ungrammatical, unstructured scribblings? Before we know it, the world could be flooded with so much writing no one would ever read again. Rather like TV today – there’s so much around, it’s hard to find the good stuff. 57 channels and nothing on, as the Boss said.
On the other hand, I completely understand this is an elitist and probably undemocratic stance to take. Why shouldn’t anyone be able to publish their writing? If Jo Schmo wants to see his cherished detective novel between covers, why shouldn’t he able to do it at little or no cost? (That, by the way, describes me and my effort on Lulu.com.) Of course, it has been possible to vanity publish for a long time – but at a greater cost, and only by printing in numbers that make it viable for the printers.
I guess I’m uneasy because I’ve seen a lot of writing on a lot of sites that is just plain bad and not likely to earn an audience. If you’ve persuaded a publisher to publish your work, you’ve done something that has gone through a quality control process of some kind, and your readers are guaranteed some level of literacy, design … hell, professionalism. Lots of self-publishers think these things are just obstacles put in the way of writers to prevent them expressing their God-given talent. They’re not. They’re what a paying customer has a right to expect in exchange for their hard-earned currency.
Print on Demand is a fantastic tool to help writers get involved in the publishing process. For me, it should complement, not replace, the traditional, commercial route to print. However, I fear that the future of publishing might be a clever machine that sits under your desk and prints out perfectly bound copies that have been seen by no other human eyes than your own. And even as a self-publishing author, that worries me.