POD and the pandemic: How are publishers using print on demand now?

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For many publishers around the world, the supply-chain chaos of the pandemic drove a move to print on demand (POD). Books+Publishing asks what role POD plays for publishers and booksellers now.

The coming-of-age of POD has been declared more than once. Improvements in the quality of the finished books have met praise (of the ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter!’ kind), as well as speculation that these advances meant it was finally POD’s moment. Ingram’s 2011 entry into the local market recognised and drove demand. But the pandemic brought POD into focus in a different way.

As the UK retail sector all but shut down, publisher activity in uploading lists for POD grew ‘exponentially’, according to Debbie Lee who was at that time a senior manager at Ingram Lightning Source (LS) and is now an independent publishing consultant. This was both so publishers could take advantage of global retail markets that were still ‘functional’, and so they could make their titles more immediately accessible in other parts of the world—the US and Australia—via POD, rather than shipping stock, when the cost of international freight to and from Australia was so exorbitant it was ‘repelling business’, as Lee then put it.

Locally, Lee described ‘a lot of frenetic activity’ in the early days of 2020. ‘I think publishers are really turning their attention to driving business in the downturn, and setting eyes on POD as the way out of the mess,’ she told Books+Publishing. ‘At the same time, this is laying foundations for a different model and way of doing business in the long term.’

As the dust settles and we enter mid-2024, lead times at local printers might have eased, but war is still affecting shipping in Europe and the Middle East. What role does POD play now?

‘An important part of the mix’
‘I think we should clarify what we mean by “POD”,’ said A&U publisher Elizabeth Weiss when sharing the publisher’s approach. ‘Sometimes it’s used to mean “short-run digital printing” (SRDP), meaning print runs [of approximately] 50 to 600 copies printed digitally, used to keep a book in print when a slowing rate of sales means a regular offset print run can no longer be justified.’ POD is also used to refer to single-copy printing in response to a customer order.

A&U has been using SRDP since the early 2000s, and has had a single-copy POD program since 2009. When the pandemic hit in 2020, A&U continued with both forms of printing. ‘SRDP enabled us to respond flexibly to the volatility in the market over the pandemic period. Now the lockdowns are over, we are continuing to use short-run printing to manage our stock holdings efficiently and respond to the market in a timely way,’ said Weiss, who added that while A&U is doing fewer short-run print jobs than at the height of the pandemic, ‘it remains an important part of the mix, and it will continue to be important’.

As for single-copy POD, Weiss noted that the pandemic prompted little change in A&U’s approach. ‘We only put titles into single-copy POD when we can no longer justify a short digital run, and this hasn’t changed in the years we have had a POD program,’ she said.

‘Over the years, we have found that market demand for POD titles has fallen a little,’ Weiss told Books+Publishing. ‘The long tail hasn’t lived up to the hopes of the early days of the internet: we are all spoiled for choice in books (ebooks, audiobooks), movies, music, media and podcasts, and the number of hours in the day hasn’t increased.’ However, she said, ‘there is certainly still demand for many backlist titles years after they were first published, and we think it’s important to keep them in print as long as we possibly can’.

While Lee said the pandemic meant ‘publishers of all shapes and sizes, locally and globally, were able to turn their attention to [single-order] POD and get their titles, both backlist and new release, into the system without the everyday “distractions” of office life’, at Simon & Schuster (S&S), it was the opposite—at least for a time.

‘POD was in its infancy for S&S, and with Griffin [Press] prior to Covid, but the challenges of the supply chain over the next few years (including Griffin cancelling their POD program) actually paused the process,’ S&S’s head of supply chain Penny Evershed told Books+Publishing.

Evershed went on to explain that S&S reviewed its order-to-order program monthly and that delays in getting order-to-order titles to Australia during Covid caused lost sales and unnecessary stock holding in the warehouse. ‘Once the dust settled, speed to market became a priority, and POD increased the number of titles we could make available,’ Evershed said. So, after Griffin POD closed, S&S transitioned to Ingram, giving it access to the publisher’s US Ingram POD catalogue. In late 2023, S&S had 4000 titles available via its POD program and was in the process of setting up an agreement with S&S UK and Ingram, which would expand this significantly.

Now, ‘we balance our order-to-order program using air, sea and POD where appropriate, but are always tweaking the list and processes to give the broadest availability in the fastest way,’ said Evershed. ‘If demand increases, warranting the need for ongoing stock on hand, then we will update the supply method.’

‘POD, which is a new strategy for S&S, is about refining availability, reintroducing title availability and supplying the customer as quickly as possible.’

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