The most important stage of invention is not the invention itself, but the application—think about how the steam engine would have been remembered without the steam boat or steam locomotive. Print-on-demand—which in practical terms means printing without overhead—is, like the steam engine, an invention in need of its application; its locomotive.
Now, I know that the obvious response is that P.O.D. has its locomotive built in—that the technology can’t be separated from the application, which is printing books. This is literally true, there’s no obvious mystery about what to do with no-overhead-printing… but there are few crucial—what I’ll call “second-level”—applications which haven’t yet and should evolve.
For instance, while this might sound farfetched, schools could upload public domain classics into an online P.O.D. account and print books as needed for students—and at cost—rather than have to pay scholastic publishers big bucks for texts in bulk. This would require some ingenuity on the part of schools and school-districts, but schools would realistically only have to use one or two general book formats and could cut-n-paste the public domain texts into these pre-made editions.
Schools might give their students an ugly copy of Hamlet, but for the price, they could throw in an ugly copy of MacBeth for the price of a traditionally published Hamlet. Scholastic publishers might protest—and they would because profits would be on the line—but in this instance, what matters most is schools affording books, and in certain instances, I’m convinced P.O.D. would make this possible.
Indie authors have already figured out, on an individual basis, that publishing themselves circumvents—again in some circumstances—unnecessary pains (without tangible gains) in the traditional publishing universe, but—and this is an extension of my schools example—literary communities haven’t adapted (or adopted) as quickly as literary individuals.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not one iota less “indie” to form a small publishing imprint with a few like-minded friends than to publish completely alone; it’s not less grassroots for a public-school system to publish its own classics than buy them at a higher cost from a publisher. Again, “P.O.D.” is synonymous with “no-overhead publishing”—and all no-overhead means is less (or in this case almost no) upfront risk.
Anyone from individuals to families to neighborhoods to towns to states or small businesses to corporations realistically stands to gain from cheap, easy book-printing. Obviously, and preferably, a corporation might have less to gain from putting out thrift editions of Shakespeare, but the point remains that for anyone who does stand to gain, it’s time they start.
Indie authors can and do complain about mainstream, commercial publishing, but they would have less to complain about if they began to pool their resources (intellectual and material) into publishing co-operatives. A single author might not be able to get their books major distribution, but a single author supported by ten others might. A single author might not be able to proof her own text, but a single author who is a part of a copy-editing co-operative could.
The first major use of the steam engine was to remove water from mines. It wasn’t until the locomotive that the steam engine changed the world. An explosion of self-publishing is only the first obvious effect P.O.D—the next step is to figure out how to do more than self-publish; we need to figure out how to go places, and how to go there, fast.