The Real Deal: What does Print-on-Demand mean for academics?

If you’re an educator or researcher and you’ve even toyed with the idea of publishing, you’ve no doubt encountered the term Print-on-Demand (or POD for short).

Even outside of writing, the concept of print-on-demand is pretty common these days. Custom t-shirts, stickers, coffee mugs…basically custom anything can be created through different kinds of on-demand printing. Here’s the thing: for authors (and academics), it’s a little different We’re going to dive into what it really means, how it has evolved, how it relates to the knowledge economy, and why it’s the best way to create your book.

Buckle up.

Print on what?

If we’re going to look at the way print-on-demand has changed publishing, we first need to clearly define this mechanism. Thankfully, the name alone does a pretty good job. POD is quite literally printing done on demand.

Historically, printing of books happened in large print runs—think Guttenberg Press—through a method called offset printing. Offset used presses set to the text of the book and ran off thousands upon thousands of copies in short order.

Offset is efficient in that it controls cost by printing a huge number of books in a single run. This efficiency is also a handicap. Because printing at quantity was the only printing game in town. Academic authors, researchers, and even educators publishing unique curricula had few options.

Often times, the best path was to use a local printer like Kinkos or a similar office supply retailer to print ring bound, loose-leaf pages. Certainly, researchers aim to publish their work with academic publishers for the recognition it brings, but even then only a small portion of submitted papers end up seeing publication.

Technology changes all that.

Rather than printing a multitude of books in a single run, print-on-demand produces books in response to an order. Working with PDF files and printing digitally, POD slashes the upfront cost to print and enables anyone to publish.

Changing Technology, Changing Economy


Let’s take a small step back and review a couple of Internet concepts central to understanding how POD is reshaping publishing.

  • Web 1.0 – When the Internet first began taking over our media, it was through large organizations providing information and data to groups of people. The Internet worked in much the same way as Television. It was a static means for corporations and organizations to disseminate data and sell products and services.
  • Web 2.0 – The next generation of the Internet, Web 2.0, ushered in the modern era of social connectivity. The Internet evolved from static pages to dynamic pages. People began interacting directly, rather than individually connecting with large organized companies. Web 2.0 fostered an online environment of person to person connections.

In the first version (Web 1.0) companies connected directly to people through static web pages. During the second phase, we have companies facilitating connections between people through dynamic web pages. Currently, we’re approaching Web 3.0. This third phase of the Internet is sometimes referred to as the “Semantic Web.” What is changing now is the framework. Individuals are sharing and borrowing design, making much of the web’s content largely interchangeable.

Okay, let’s get away from this super technical stuff before I get in over my head. The point here is that the newest evolution of the web is built on the idea that you can piece together the tools you need online from existing frameworks.

It has never been easier to create online.

With this creator-friendly environment comes a change in how people buy online. Yes, Amazon is still massive and useful for buying tons of things. When you need a lamp or a computer monitor or a bag of dog food, Amazon is there. But what about when you need something unique? Personalized gifts. Indie music. Books.

Print-on-demand is the natural adaptation for book creators. This needn’t be limited to authors—Educators at all levels create workbooks or custom curriculum. Researchers publish their findings. Students publish their thesis. And because these can all be created on-demand at reasonable costs, the opportunity to create and share has never been greater.

Books in the On-Demand knowledge economy

What is a knowledge economy?

It’s a marketplace driven by information more than products. The Internet brought with it unprecedented communication and connectivity. Anyone in the connected world can get any product. But information and knowledge remain limited. And as such becomes a commodity.

Books are uniquely suited to a knowledge economy. POD fosters a more inclusive and open environment for books, one in which anyone with something to share and the willingness to create can do so.

Two crucial elements are coinciding here. The ability to find highly skilled individuals to do specific design tasks (creating the content) and the ability to print and ship affordably.


Creators have always been able to hire contractors to do design work. The web just made it easier to find them and even more importantly, easier to find skilled designers at good rates. Motivated creators have always been able to create independently. Now they can do so more efficiently.

The major change is Print-on-Demand.

Twenty years ago, you could write a book, edit it thoroughly, get it proofread, hire a designer to lay it out, and commission a cover. Once all that was done, you’d still need thousands of dollars to buy a print run. Then you’d be on the hook for that cost (and storage) until you sold all those books.

Likewise, as an educator, you’d be left running off copies on the school Xerox machine. Or paying for low-quality prints from an office supply store. Publish wasn’t even an option for most educators and academics.


Changing the World

Print-on-demand is reshaping how products are created. For academics and educators in particular, this is a boon. Now books, workbooks, curriculum, textbooks; all kinds of printed materials can be created, customized, and redesigned as needed. Educators the world over are no longer beholden to outdated, poorly crafted textbooks. No one needs to wait and hope for the opportunity to publish their research.

Print-on-demand is the answer.

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