Mid-List Miracle

For years, flat sales, skyrocketing celebrity advances, and the growth of discount chains have squeezed the book industry’s 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 that’s 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 Barth’s 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 don’t sell in the millions. “It is a revolution in the industry,” says Xerox’s Ashley Shemain. “You don’t 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 don’t 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 business’s 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 don’t think it will have an impact on the sales of books in the general market,” says Jack Romanos, the company’s president, “but it’s 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, Ingram’s vice-president, has been reluctant to trumpet the development before it’s 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? Barth’s Floating Opera could be the next Giles Goat-Boy, and everyone would want one.

Mid-List Miracle