UKOLN AHDS Publish On Demand

About Publish On Demand

Publish on demand, also known a print on demand or POD, is an increasingly common and accessible alternative (or supplement) to traditional publishing methods. Publish on demand (note that the term Print On Demand is a trademark of Cygnus Business Media, Inc. [1]) became possible due to the development of equipment capable of economically printing very small print runs of materials in book form. This briefing document discusses technical prerequisites and restrictions and provides an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of the methodology.

How does it work?

POD systems make use of digital technologies to enable an all-digital printing system. This reduces initial setup costs, meaning that small print runs can be published at a reasonable unit cost. The technology becomes less price-effective at large volumes, making POD systems particularly economical for publications with low or limited demand, or where the predictability of market demand is fairly low. The minimal setup costs also imply that publications can be made available on a speculative basis.

A 'Long-Tail' Technology

The advent of POD also coincides with recent discussions characterised by the phrase 'the long tail'. This phrase refers to the large number of moderately popular or less popular publications that are interesting to a moderately large segment of the population, but are not bestsellers or chart hits [2]. Such content is often very difficult to get hold of, since demand is too low for it to be marketable effectively according to traditional economics of large-scale publishing. Small-scale publication - the print-on-demand methodology- reduces this barrier, meaning that content can be digitally stored, browsed and made available for sale on virtual shopfronts, and a physical object such as a book or a CD is printed for the buyer.

Digital browsing and distribution also means that physical limits, such as the size of a shopfront and the amount of space available in the warehouse for storing a large print run of books, becomes a less significant factor in the decision of whether to publish.

Technical Prerequisites

Popular POD services include Xlibris, Lulu [3] and Blurb. Each has its own process; Blurb, for example, specialises in printing from Web applications such as blogs and wikis, whilst Lulu provides a number of modes of use - essentially, most PDF files with embedded fonts can be printed using the Lulu publishing system. Customised covers and so forth can also be created, although simple and effective defaults are also available. Several book formats are available, ranging from bound A4 to British or American paperback novel formats.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There remains a stigma associated to the use of print-on-demand for certain types of content, particularly fiction. It is associated in many peoples' minds with the use of small presses or vanity presses, which to many have the reputation of preying on the unwary novelist, demanding large setup fees for small print runs and providing no help in terms of marketing or distributing the work. ISBNs need to be bought separately, and distribution difficulties exist for works without an ISBN assigned to them. However, there are many valid uses of print-on-demand, ranging from publishing of local-interest or specialist books (particularly valid, therefore, for institutions such as museums) to print publication of conference proceedings.


Affordable small-scale publishing has opened many doors for the smaller organisation or the individual. However, whilst a useful methodology, other publication methodologies should be considered in parallel - in particular, there are many potential difficulties and responsibilities that should be considered in terms of distribution and marketing, which are not handled by POD.


  1. Print on Demand, Wikipedia,
  2. The Long Tail, Chris Anderson,
  3. Lulu basics, Lulu,