For years, flat sales, skyrocketing celebrity advances, and the growth of discount chains have squeezed the book industrys profit margin to the point where many editors are reluctant to publish anything short of a megaseller. So while Stephen King does just fine, authors with less mass-market appeal have a hard time seeing print.
But writers and readers are about to receive a rare bit of good news. The Xerox Corporation has developed a new technology thats making it possible -- and profitable -- to print single copies of paperback books in a matter of minutes. One day soon, you may walk into a bookstore, ask for a copy of John Barths long-forgotten first novel (the one about suicide on a riverboat), and wait while a gothic-looking clerk prints you one behind the counter.
Though the project is in its infancy, its implications could be far-reaching: If it takes off, books need no longer be consigned to the out-of-print graveyard just because they dont sell in the millions. It is a revolution in the industry, says Xeroxs Ashley Shemain. You dont have to overprint . . . and you cut out warehousing and distribution costs. And if you take mid-list books, where you can sell 5,000 books in two years but dont want to store them over that time, you have a big opportunity to do print on demand.
The new system will never diminish the appeal of a nice juicy celebrity memoir, but by lowering production costs and eliminating storage costs, it could even out the businesss currently lopsided economics. Several publishers are already trying to make the most of the opportunity. Simon & Schuster, one of the few major publishers that still print their own books, has purchased six of the machines and is experimenting with them. I dont think it will have an impact on the sales of books in the general market, says Jack Romanos, the companys president, but its pretty exciting that it does give us the ability to keep more books in print. And two large distributors -- Ingram Book Company in La Vergne, Tennessee, and Baker & Taylor in North Carolina -- have established new printing services to provide out-of-print books on demand.
Ingram, which is currently negotiating printing rights with about 25 New York publishers, including McGraw-Hill, Random House, and Perseus Books, has already begun filling orders from Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. But Larry Brewster, Ingrams vice-president, has been reluctant to trumpet the development before its fully under way. We want to make sure we can execute in high volume before we take this on the market in full force, he says. Because who knows? Barths Floating Opera could be the next Giles Goat-Boy, and everyone would want one.