For decades, large and small publishers alike have wrestled with one simple but crucial question about their books, on which success and failure often hang in the balance: How many copies should we print? On the one hand, publishers need enough stock to meet public demand 24/7, or risk losing sales. In addition, large offset press runs can achieve better economies of scale and lower per-unit costs. On the other hand, creating excess inventory exposes the publisher to much bigger problems: warehousing costs, inventory tax, and every publisher's worst nightmare—books that never sell at all.

As a result, cost-conscious publishers have increasingly embraced new printing technologies to meet public demand with less and less excess inventory. "The bottom line is inventory control," says Rudy Shur, founder of Square One Publishers in the New York City area. "Now we can have what we want when we need it."

The concept of demand-driven inventory isn't new in industries outside publishing. Retailers of household goods have relied on just-in-time (JIT) delivery for decades. For example, a key factor in the success of retail giant Wal-Mart was the linking of its in-store cash registers to a centralized inventory control system, allowing each store to replenish inventory in direct proportion to sales. However, JIT systems depend on having readily available inventory in a central warehouse. Print-on-demand (POD) and digital inkjet printing take the concept to the next level: the product is manufactured and shipped on demand, practically eliminating the need for inventory.

For simple text-based paperbacks, the cost of POD printing is increasingly competitive. POD giant CreateSpace charges $0.012 per black-and-white page plus $0.85 per full-color cover for a 6" x 9" (152 mm x 229 mm) trade paperback. Thus a 200-page paperback costs $3.25 to print. Orders of one to 100 units usually ship within 72 hours, sometimes faster.

However, POD is rarely ideal for books with color interiors, hard bindings, low page counts, or those that require top-quality halftone reproduction. In these cases, a publisher can opt to use a digital printer. According to Robin Surface, president of Fideli Publishing, based in Martinsville, Ind., "We publish a lot of hardbacks and books with interior color. We use [POD giant] Lightning Source to supply trade channels but digital printing from Book Partners (N. Manchester, Ind.) for everything else." Lightning Source is an Ingram Content company.

Whether using POD or a digital inkjet press for short runs, publishers today are increasingly meeting market demand at competitive rates without overprinting. "We have used digital printing since 2004, producing nearly 70,000 copies of 56 paperback titles that would otherwise be out-of-print, all in quantities of 40 to 1,000 at a time," says Alex Novak of Eagle Publishing, parent company of Regnery Publishing.

The Freight Factor

In the U.S., the vast majority of POD books are printed in New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, or Tennessee. For faraway destinations, using a digital inkjet printer closer to the delivery address could prove more cost effective in some cases. Using the example above, a POD run of 100 paperbacks printed in South Carolina would cost $325 to print, but if the shipment is bound for the West Coast, the delivered cost would run about $400. A digital printer in California might offer a lower delivered cost, even if the per unit printing cost is higher.

Digital printing is now available in nearly every major U.S. city, compared to only a handful of giant POD printing plants. In many cases, the same PDF files used for POD perform well on a digital inkjet press, with little or no modification. This opens the door for publishers to produce short runs of one to 100 books closer to the buyer, saving time and money compared to shipping heavy cartons of books across long distances.

Today's book world is growing leaner and greener by the day. According to a spokesperson at Patria Press in Indianapolis, which uses Lightning Source, "The disadvantages, both economic and ecological, of overprinting, warehousing, trucking, and unsold books are fading." More and more savvy publishers now use POD and digital inkjet printing to produce exactly the "right" number of books: one for every buyer, and few more. At the same time, in many cases books can now be manufactured closer to the end consumer than ever before, further fostering efficiency and economy in an industry where every penny counts.