Print on Demand Books — Some Thoughts

Greg Stanton's picture


blank's picture

The last time I really looked into the business side of print on the demand the people behind it were planning to put the machines into stores and allow users to print off esoterica that the stores do not have room to stock. Hopefully the eventual infiltration of print on demand machines into chain bookstores will help remedy the problem. B&N already rejects covers its buyers feel aren’t up to snuff, so I imagine that if print on demand machines continue to churn out the sort of crap you got, they’ll never be more than an internet curiosity.

Greg Stanton's picture

The cover was actually not bad. It was the guts that were revolting.

Ricardo Cordoba's picture

Hi, I don't have time to post much right now, but a few months ago (August 2007) a new company, On Demand Books, set up one of their "espresso book machines" at the New York Public Library. They had a list of available books and would print one free for anybody who asked during the few weeks that they were at the library...

I was curious, and asked for a copy of Flatland. It was a perfect-bound book, but basically they downloaded a PDF from an online book-scanning project, and both the interior pages and the covers were printed on laser printers. As an added bonus, my book had been scanned with funds from Microsoft, so at the foot of each page there was a sentence to that effect. And since online book-scanning projects have to stick to public-domain material, my edition of Flatland was from the late 1800s... The author was still pseudonymous back then!

Your experience sounds especially bad; I can't complain too much about mine... But the caveats are: you are dependent on how the book was scanned, and if the edition that was scanned is from the 1800s, well, that is what you will get. Not always a good thing.

One more thing about the demo at the NYPL... The author of The Long Tail supports the On Demand Books project, and made his book available during the NYPL demo... I didn't get a chance to go back, but I would have liked to see how that book, a contemporary edition, would have been printed using their technology...

Thomas Phinney's picture

I don't think your expectations were at all out of line. When the book's copyright has lapsed due to age, and the material is in the public domain, the only thing a publisher has to offer buyers is good production quality. If they do a poor job of that, they are offering no added value to speak of, and should be penalized appropriately.



Don McCahill's picture

> A few chapter headings were at the bottom of the page preceding the actual chapter. Quotes were inch marks. Em dashes and double em dashes (this is Victorian lit — no swearing) were indicated by two hyphens in a row.

Sounds remarkably like a Project Gutenburg project book. Two bad you didn't still have it, or you could check for typing errors to confirm that (Gutenburg books are scanned or typed, and errors will occur. Finding them will determine if the file was taken from Gutenburg). If it was, then you could contact those people (you might want to anyway, in case they want to check into it). Gutenburg does carry a copyright, and if it and all the legal wrangles (about 12 pages of them) that they list are deleted, then an infringement has occurred.

Greg Stanton's picture

That is good advice re Project Gutenburg. I downloaded a copy and checked it out.

Even Project Gutenburg uses real em dashes! But they do use tick marks instead of quotes.

Greg Stanton's picture

Oh, I take it back. The plain text version of the book of PG has double hyphens. I alerted PG of a possible copyright violation, but since I have not examined the text beyond noticing these qualities, I can't really tell if a violation has occurred. Maybe they will conduct an investigation themselves.

metalfoot's picture

The PG license states, if I remember correctly, that if you delete *all* references to PG, they could care less what you do with the file. It's all-or-nothing.

valancourt's picture

I hope you'll forgive what might end up being a long post...

I operate Valancourt Books, essentially a one-person operation, which utilizes print-on-demand technology. Like Zittaw, Valancourt publishes old Gothic novels, although we also publish other genres as well.

Many of your complains are fully justified (not a typographical pun). I have not seen this particular Zittaw publication, but I have seen others, and, yes, they are in Times New Roman, obviously published from Microsoft Word, with ALL CAPS instead of small caps, half-inch indents, and other really ghastly things.

Franz of Zittaw Press and I use the same printer (Lightning Source), as do many other presses, some of them respectable (e.g., Cambridge University Press, Johns Hopkins University Press and many others, who keep their old books in print using print-on-demand) and some of them not. Although most of the print-on-demand crap on Amazon (e.g., Kessinger,, etc.) is either stuff that was cut and pasted from Project Gutenberg with no formatting or proofreading, or else facsimile reprints stolen from Google Books (often with missing pages), there is nothing inherent in print-on-demand that means print-on-demand books must necessarily be crap.

My press's books, while perhaps not quite to the level of, say, Penguin's, at least evince a general knowledge of typographical principles. They are designed on Adobe InDesign, in a legible font (usually Dante MT; sometimes Adobe Caslon Pro), with generous margins and leading, and of course proper usage of such niceties as ligatures and small caps (interestingly, many major presses now seem to have difficulty with fi and fl ligatures). Additionally, unlike many major publishers (Barnes and Noble, for example), our books are carefully proofread by a native speaker of English with two graduate degrees (me), rather than somebody in India or the Philippines.

As for your complaints about the size and binding of the book, you're right -- a 900 page, perfect-bound book will fall apart fairly easily. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, print-on-demand currently only offers perfect bound books (or "casebound" for hardcovers). You're probably right that the book should have been issued in two volumes, and, in fact, one questions the need for a new edition of Varney at all -- 1970s copies of the Arno and Dover editions are not that hard to come by, and it is available on Gutenberg and in HTML format on some sites. However, I would contend that print-on-demand, although it lends itself to a lot of incompetent and unscrupulous people, still serves a very important role. My press has published books that survive in only one or two copies worldwide and offers them in paperback for $13-15 or in hardcover for $30-$60 -- less than books by many major presses and certainly less than a flight to Oxford or London to consult the sole surviving copy of the book. The books I publish are books that can only be done on demand. Their copyright lapsed decades ago and no one ever reprinted them. Why? Because publishers knew that they could not sell thousands of copies of them to justify an offset run. Print on demand is their only chance to see the light of day.

As someone passionate about Gothic literature and typography and knowledgeable about print-on-demand publishing, I would welcome any response or correspondence on any of these topics, or other related subjects.

-- Jay

Greg Stanton's picture

Jay, thank you so much for your comments.

I completely agree that POD books can be wonderful things, especially if the publisher knows what he's doing (as you seem to). I especially love that rare stuff, for which there is little market, can be made available for people with specialized interests. After the shock of the new has worn off, I think the good publishers will flourish, and the mediocre ones will vanish (or be marginalized). This happened with "service bureaus" in the '90s, and I suspect something similar will happen with POD.

I'd like to see, in POD:

1) Amazon letting the customer know the book is POD.
2) The books printed on ivory paper instead of white.
3) A choice for the consumer of hardcover or soft.
4) Sample pages displayed online, so the customer knows what he is getting.

Before OpenType existed, I can understand why publishers were reluctant to use ligatures: you would have to change fonts for anything other than fi and fl. Now there's no excuse. I think it's only a matter of time before the big boys start to catch on.

BTW, I will check out your books - thanks for letting us know about your company.

valancourt's picture

As far as your four comments, here goes...

1) Amazon actually did, for about 24 hours one day last year, display "(Print on Demand)" on the product page where it normally says "(Paperback)" or "(Hardcover)". I was furious, as was at least one of my editors, and we sent emails asking Amazon to remove it. Unfortunately "Print on Demand" is still a fairly negative epithet, and it might have destroyed sales of our books, as if Amazon was deliberately signalling that our books were somehow of inferior quality. The fact is, many well-known publishers of this type of book (e.g., Penguin, Oxford, Broadview) use perfect binding for their books, and many very well known publishers who use offset printing (e.g., Palgrave Macmillan, Barnes and Noble, etc.) have very poorly proofread books. One great way that I've found for figuring out if a book is POD or not is to search for it on Most of the time, booksellers on there will note that it is printed on demand.

2) With regard to the paper colour, Lightning Source, the printer many publishers use, offers what it calls "White" and "Creme" paper. For some of our books, I've used white, for some creme. It's a matter of taste. Broadview Press, which is very popular in the same academic market we target for some of our books, uses white paper, and many readers today, accustomed to reading documents printed off on white paper on laser printers, seem to prefer it. Some, like you -- and many others -- prefer a more traditionally coloured paper. Unfortunately, Lightning Source's "creme" paper tends toward a yellowish colour rather than "ivory". And also unfortunately, Lightning Source is the only major POD printer out there. No one else offers their distribution capability (within a week after submitting a new title, books are available for order anywhere worldwide), and so POD publishers are fairly stuck with them, at least for now.

3) As for the hardcover vs. softcover issue, this is up to each publisher. Each binding (hardcover, softcover, audio, digital download, etc.) gets a separate ISBN number, which costs additional money, and each format has its advantages and disadvantages. Lately, I've been issuing books I think are more likely to be adopted for university courses in paperback to keep costs down for students, and issuing rarer works of more interest to specialists and collectors in hardcover.

4) Sample pages displayed online would certainly be nice. Unfortunately, Amazon requires publishers to send them copies of each book for them to scan and post online. We presently have about 50 titles in print, and the average cost of printing a copy of these is about $5-6; thus to send them a copy of all our books to scan would be rather pricey for us. One wishes that Amazon would take the initiative to do it themselves.

As for our books, I don't claim that they're perfect, although they are constantly improving. When I first began doing this, I sort of assumed it was a no-brainer, but have come to learn that one is not born with an innate knowledge of publishing and typography. Our first few books were set fairly amateurishly -- although still very readably!!! -- in an 11pt Sylfaen. However, I think it's fair to say that with the exception of The Snake's Pass, which is set in a really abominable font (Bell MT), all our books are very readable and eye-friendly.

Greg Stanton's picture

Wow. You give awesome feedback. Ever come to L.A.?

Seriously though, I've been doing design since 1990, and I am still learning new things and refining my work. I have to say that InDesign/OpenType sure makes things a lot easier. Setting pages takes about 1/3 of the time it used to. Even though I still have to check my line breaks, Adobe Paragraph Composer makes good decisions more often than not. Also, with OpenType, when the ff, ffi, and ffl ligatures occur at the end of a line and need to break, don't cause any problems because the program sees them as separate letters, not a single character. And not having to switch fonts for oldstyle figures and real small caps is relief.

Funny you should mention Penguins. I always use them as examples of good typesetting. Some of the newer editions use wider word-spacing than I would like, but for the most part this publisher does good work. Knopf and Norton, of course, are two excellent publishers that have the work proofread very carefully — and they make beautiful books.

I'm going to order one of your books — is there one in particular you would suggest? I'm interested in reading one of the Northanger horrids, mostly because I really enjoyed that novel. Or if you think there are better ones, let me know. Thanks.

valancourt's picture

Well, now I am paranoid about someone who knows more about typography than I do looking at the books! Recently I have become more attuned to InDesign's somewhat bizarre hypenation practices and its problems with keep options than I was before, so I can't promise these are perfect, but...

The Necromancer; or, The Tale of the Black Forest, is a relatively inexpensive and eminently readable book. If I could do it over again, I would run the footnotes as endnotes, but all in all, I think it's a good edition. The Midnight Bell is another great Northanger, one of my favourite books ever, and has what I think is a very good introduction.

Another really fantastic read is The Witch of Ravensworth. Unfortunately, this is one of the early ones we did on Microsoft Word before switching over to InDesign, and in the conversion to PDF, the page numbers got screwed up and thus the endnote references are all off by one page each, but if you can look past this defect, it's a terrific read. Everyone I know who's read it has absolutely loved it.

Another really great book, and fairly representative of our current output, is GWM Reynolds's The Necromancer. I'd welcome any feedback on this one's typography or layout. Although, at 592 pages, there is always the danger of it breaking in half if you're not careful while reading it...

And yes, I used to come to LA off and on, as my brother lived there, but he's recently moved to Boston, so not sure when I'll make it back there again, unless and until there's a conference or convention there I can display at....

Greg Stanton's picture

Thanks. I'll get The Necromancer; TTBF and The Midnight Bell. Is the Reynolds Necromancer a different book than the former?

Question: If you found an error in a book that you just couldn't live with, or if you are unhappy with the setting of some of your earlier books, is it possible to submit new files to the POD printer? I would think that it wouldn't be a problem to replace the file for the guts, as long as the number of pages was roughly the same. Just wondering.

valancourt's picture

Yep, the first Necromancer, by the pseudonymous "Peter Teuthold" was published in 1794; the Reynolds book is entirely different -- no similarity at all besides the title -- and appeared in 1851-1852 (serialized).

The great thing about POD, yes, things can be easily changed. Lightning Source charges $40 to change either a cover or an interior. If there's a stray comma or something, it might not be worth paying the $40, but for ghastly errors, it is certainly worth it.

For the oldest books, yes, I'm planning on entirely redoing them and releasing them in hardcover. For example, The Phantom of the Castle (1798) was our third book, published 3 years ago, and while there's nothing per se wrong with it, the interior looks fairly amateurish. And the book sells about 15 copies a year, which I assume will remain about constant if switched over to hardcover.

I know one of Zittaw's earlier publications, "Rimualdo", had a lot of really bizarre errors, for example the half-title and title transposed, the title of the book misspelled on the title page, and typos like "prostate" for "prostrate", and yet I was shocked that they didn't pay the $40 to correct these and reissue it. As someone interested in book history and a collector of antiquarian books, I strongly agree with the admonition in your Amazon review of Zittaw's Varney. Even though I know that almost every book being released today has typos (hey, I found two in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which certainly had the budget for proofreading), I'm still mortified when I spot one in one of my books....

Greg Stanton's picture

$40 to replace a file on their server is a little steep — but it's comforting to know you can fix things. I've trained myself to completely ignore content at press checks, because taking something off press and re-plating runs about $6,000 (hey, as long as someone signed off on it, I shouldn't have to worry; I do anyway).

The only books I've read that didn't have typos are from a set of Dickens published by the Oxford University Press. They've had 100 years to proof them, so I'd be really shocked if I found a mistake. I usually find at least one typo in most books. I just cringe and press forward.

When the books arrive, I'll let you know what I think, if that's what you want. I don't claim to be an authority, but my experience is worth something. Otherwise, I'll just enjoy reading them.


valancourt's picture

Sure, constructive feedback is always welcome. It occurred to me that of the three books you mentioned, Tale of the Black Forest is on the "creme" paper and the other two on white. You can compare the two and see which you prefer.

Eluard's picture

I received a print on demand book from Amazon and it ended mid-chapter mid-sentence. It was the collected papers of William Kingdon Clifford and it was published by a library press. It was really a scan of the pages up to a certain point where it just stopped.

The shoddy rubbish that is being passed off by some print-on-demand people will ruin it for the others. Amazon will just stop taking it. And when that happens it is all over. Perhaps there needs to be a guild or an association which certifies the workmanship as saleable.

Just a suggestion.

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