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Books Are Dead. Long Live Books!

Alyce Lomax
March 9, 2010

Despite all the talk that most Americans read fewer books these days, e-books have become one of the retail world's hottest topics. The publishing industry now trembles on the brink of the same massive digital disruption that's still rocking the music business. Yet e-books aren't the only force changing the book world. Print-on-demand could have an equally earth-shaking effect on how books are published and purchased.

Paper tiger?
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard of's (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) Kindle e-book reader, or Barnes & Noble's (NYSE: BKS  ) rival device, the Nook. Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) made its own big push to digitize books, occasionally getting into legal battles with publishers in the process. And Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPad launch, with its built in e-reader and online bookstore, represents yet another attack on Amazon's dominance in the digital book sphere.

However, in a tribute to the staying power of the old-fashioned physical book, print-on-demand services are quietly thriving. This growing innovation might help increase the efficiency of the publishing industry, according to a recent article in The Economist.

Instead of trying to guess about print runs, major publishers can simply print books on demand, freeing themselves from the hazards of their traditional guessing game regarding demand for books. Apparently, 30% of American books end up shipped back to the publisher and destroyed -- an outrageous statistic in our eco-friendly times. Print-on-demand will also help publishers big and small ensure that no title ever goes out of print.

Beyond the big publishing houses, print-on-demand also opens up a huge market in self-publishing from companies such as Lulu, Xlibris, and iUniverse.

Struggling bookstores might also benefit from print-on-demand. The Economist mentioned a bookstore in London that has a print-on-demand machine called Espresso onsite, creating "retail theater" as books are printed and assembled before customers' eyes. That process certainly sounds more romantic and interesting than waiting for a digital download, or simply snagging yet another paperback copy off a shelf.

The biggest player in the print-on-demand arena is Lightn