The Unknown: The Blue Line.
  ightning Print is the cool new Ingram/IBM machine that makes books on demand and sticks them right into the biggest national book distribution system. It could have made The Unknown possible, if it weren’t for the fact that they ultimately decided to discourage small publishers and self-publishers like us from using it. Here’s a little article Scott wrote about it for his Authors site at the Mining Company, back when he thought it smelled progressive:

Dateline: June 6, 1998

Technology is at its best when it is used creatively and progressively to rectify real-world problems. IBM and Ingram were putting a system on display at BookExpo America that could revolutionize the way that books are published, and the range of books that are available to the reading public.

The Lightning Print pilot program is a unified approach to two significant problems that have plagued the publishing industry for years: remainders and out-of-print backlists. Due to the high costs of offset printing and warehousing, the major presses typically have not kept their backlists in print. If a book has not “done well” with the market, it typically has a life cycle of about two years from printing to remainder (or pulp). This is very bad for writers, and for readers. To understand the problem: take the example of a writer like Donald Barthelme. His short novel The Dead Father, published in 1976, is widely considered to be one of the benchmark works of postmodern American fiction. It’s a wild and funny romp through the western myths of father-son relationships. Its length and its accessible style make it one of the best books to teach to familiarize undergraduates with the ideas of postmodern fiction. If I wanted to teach the Dead Father, I couldn’t. It’s out of print.

Lightning Print could solve that problem overnight. The IBM Infoprint system is an all-in-one printing and binding system which, unlike conventional offset printing, can print and bind books one at a time, on demand. The books the machine produces are not the same as offset books, but they are essentially as good as standard trade paperback editions. They are basically laser-printed books. The covers are high quality glossy stock, and the text is printed on acid-free, creme-colored, recycled paper. For a low fee, publishers can have their books digitized and kept available to the printer. Ingram has hooked up the system to its national distribution database, so that any book in the database can be ordered, printed, bound and shipped directly by the buyer.

Phillip Pfeffer, President/C.O.O. of Random House praises the system as a solution to backlist cost problems: “Lightning Print brings a new dimension to our reprint-decision-making at Random House. We also plan to print thousands of galleys and reader editions each year using Lightning Print’s service. The quality is excellent, the cost is competitive, and the turnaround time is impressive.”

The major presses will likely all be listing a substantial part of their backlist with Lightning Print. This will be a real boon, in particular, to universities and libraries, which have an interest in keeping out-of-print books in circulation. Small presses and university presses will also likely benefit from the technology. Since the Infoprint system enables publishers to print low-cost short runs of books, the overhead necessary to add new titles to their catalogs can go down. Academic books, for instance, which right now have a small audience, could be printed as they are ordered, enabling presses to print more titles per season. Susan Conn of New York University Press says that “It means a lot to academic authors. We often don’t have the volume of back orders that make it economically feasible to do a new print press run. It’s not cost-effective to do that. Lightning Print makes it cost-effective.”

I’ll wager that many universities will be purchasing these systems in short order, as it will be able to fill a variety of institutional publishing needs. The journal that I’ve worked with for the past two years, American Drama, for instance, has a small circulation, about 400, mainly libraries and academic professionals. Yet with our current offset printer, we need to print in minimum runs of 1,000. As far as I can tell, with the Lightning Print system, we could print only the 500 copies of the journal that we needed, with a higher quality cover, at about half the cost. In addition, all of the titles are then listed in the Ingram database, where we could reach more booksellers and libraries without doing any additional marketing work on our own. We’re definitely going to look into the option.

Presses that have begun to list titles on the Lightning Print system run the gamut, from big presses like W.W. Norton/Random House/Warner to university presses like University of Nebraska and Vanderbilt press and small independents like avant-garde house FC2. Lightning Print won’t and shouldn’t replace offset printing altogther. These books aren’t the same quality as cloth bound editions. But it should mean that a lot of important books that are now out of print will be back in print this year. It will mean that a professor who wants to teach The Dead Father will probably be able to get on the internet, fill out a form, and have twenty copies of it bound and sent to classroom. That means a lot. Right now, the book has become a perishable commodity. Really great books, like The Dead Father or hundreds and hundreds of others, now meet their ends in remainder stacks at warehouse wholesalers, or even worse, in the claws of a shredder. This system will mean that many important books won’t go to pulp and evaporate into nothing. It’s got a lot of ramifications, not all of which I think we can see now. It will be interesting to watch the effects it has on the industry, and to see how far the new availability of once-unavailable books will extend.

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