Books don’t exist until you buy them

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Living in the Future | 0 comments

Before the nitpickers arrive, some books still sit on shelves in dusty, musty, boxy warehouses waiting for shipment to a bookstore or your house. However, more and more commonly these days, at the moment you buy a paperback book, it does not physically exist.

This is called print on demand.

Print on demand is the literary equivalent of 3D printing. The files exist, very similar to the ones you’d read on an ebook, except that it has more stringent formatting (you can’t adjust the font of a book as you read it, and page numbers are page numbers when there are actual pages to turn).

There are a couple different places doing print on demand books. Without getting into details, quality can vary. Sometimes you can clearly see evidence that a book was produced in haste; most of the time, however, they’re perfectly fine.

But just consider that you can buy random, even obscure, books from anywhere in the world, without worrying that someone had to take the time and effort to print and stock one on the off chance you wanted to buy them.

At one time, a paperback would have an initial print run, and it would only go back to print if that first run was deemed a commercial success. Any book falling below that threshold became a rare commodity. Presumably, it also became an unwanted one, but that wasn’t always the case. Poorly marketed books, late bloomers, and books whose topic became relevant in a different era might leave readers struggling to find physical copies.

In the future, “rare books” will be limited to collectibles (with artificial scarcity) and very old works.

And that future is now.

But wait! There’s more!

Books were just the tip of the iceberg, the test balloon, as it were. The concept worked well for books because printing is easier than, for example, constructing a bicycle. Or blending coffee. But it was the printing part of the book that was the key idea to expand upon. You can print t-shirts, stickers, customized mugs. Specialized equipment can rapidly transfer a simple graphical image into a real world product in short order.

My own Black Ocean merchandise leans heavily on this concept. I don’t have a textile factory or a ceramics lab. I don’t have contracts with a sticker foundry or a mousepad orchard (OK, I don’t know how most of these products would actually get made normally…). What I have is a print-on-demand service that works in multiple mediums. There aren’t boutiques out there filled with Black Ocean sweatshirts or Convocation mugs. Amazon doesn’t have a crate of them waiting for someone to order one.

You order something.

They make it.

It shows up *mumble*mumble* days later at your door.

THIS is the real future, a land of reduced waste, where products aren’t made on speculation but rather fabricated upon purchase. As the list of objects capable of being produced along this model grows, the more common this type of arrangement will become.

Print-on-demand.

Weave-on-demand.

Grow-on-demand.

Construct-on-demand.

These are the technologies of the future, and we have one of them right.

Try it. Buy a paperback book. Any book (OK, preferably one of mine; or a sweatshirt or mug)

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