The Print on Demand Revolution

    by Dan Pacheco
    July 2, 2008

    As I delve more into Printcasting, I’ve been learning about the relatively new and growing POD movement — which stands for Print on Demand. And every new leaf I turn over is another confirmation of what we suspected when we originally entered Printcasting into the Knight News Challenge.

    There’s an all-out technology revolution happening with print which, until now, newspapers have largely missed out on. Here are just a few examples.


    For this first one, I have to thank Medill student and journalistic-programmer Brian Boyer who introduced me to the service. When I met Brian at the MIT Future of Civic Media conference this year, I explained Printcasting to him. He looked at me and declared, “I have to admit — your project is a little kooky.” He didn’t get it.



    OK, fair enough, I said, it’s a new idea. We started talking more about how the newspaper print model is essentially stuck back in the stone ages, with current web press technology requiring everyone to get exactly the same product every day. Meanwhile, there are sites like Cafe Press that can put any image you upload onto a T-shirt and print and mail it to anyone on demand. I said that we wanted newspaper and magazine publishing to be more like Cafe Press t-shirts, but we’d make it even easier by leveraging blog feeds.

    That’s when a light bulb went off above his head. “Oh, you mean like Moo Cards!”

    He pulled out a small white plastic case that looked similar to an iPod Shuffle, opened it and presented an array of custom printed business cards, each one sporting a different photo from his Flickr account. Little London-based Moo has taken the Cafe Press model a step further so that you don’t have to upload something twice. And if you want something else with your photos, like stickers, you can order them in just a few clicks.

    What’s unique about Moo is that if you already share photos on Flickr or Facebook, you simply tell Moo to subscribe to them. It sends you a new set of custom cards with your photos whenever you run out. They’ve reduced the work and increased the customization and fun. Brilliant! (This really is very similar to Printcasting, but instead of business cards it’s creating a magazine, and instead of using Flickr photos it’s using blog feeds).

    Another example is MagCloud, a beta project of HP Labs that provides the printing, distribution and commerce backbone for magazine publishers. The idea of MagCloud is that a publisher uploads a PDF document and sets a price for each copy of the magazine. If you want to read the magazine, you enter your credit card or PayPal account. MagCloud then prints that magazine using HP’s Indigo printing technology and sends it to your home mail box. (I haven’t actually seen the end product, but I did just order one magazine and will report back here when I receive it).

    HP Labs has a lot of other interesting experiments going on, and talking them up is not the purpose of this blog. But one of their more niche experiments worth checking out is called BookPrep. Through a community site called Foodsville, you can both meet other people who like to cook the same types of recipes as you, and then share recipes from cookbooks published by Applewood Books back to 1976.

    HP has digitized many of these books, some of which are out of print, and made them available to reprint on demand. This is a really good idea because it leverages existing community behavior — people sharing recipes from old cook books — and ties it to instant gratification of getting your own copy.

    Let’s be clear. Printcasting shares little in common with business cards or cook books, but the idea of custom printing on demand is the same. Newspaper companies are woefully behind in this area, but hopefully not for long. It’s time for us to become as customized, fun and cool as Moo!

    What other cool Print on Demand sites and services do you know of, and how could they be applied to local news publishing? Let us know by posting a comment.

    Tagged: BookPrep brian boyer cafe press Foodsville hp magcloud moo cards newspapers printcasting
    • Well, you can’t say Print On Demand without mentioning Lulu.com. If you’re a reporter and have a particularly compelling (but long) story, or if you have several series of stories, you can easily publish them into a book. It would be perfect for columnists and bloggers, even photojournalists too, who want to publish books in an easy-to-hold-and-read format. Some go all out and buy UPC codes to sell them on Amazon, some just use the service as an easy-to-use way to print and bind their work.

      Don’t think I’m shilling for them, though. I’ve only seen the quality of the paperback written books, and they’re decent at best. I come from a printing background so I can tell some things most can’t. The cover looks like a color photocopy, and since POD is usually toner-based, it probably is. But for no startup cost, it’s a good way to go.

    • Print On Demand is improving and expanding by leaps and bounds. I’ve been involved with the POD business for a few years and have seen several advancements in that relatively short time.

      Zazzle also has the slim business cards similar to the Moo cards. CafePress just introduced an embroidery technique called InfiniStitch. Companies such as Imagekind and Loxly’s Gallery let you sell your own fine art prints. That’s just a small sampling of what you can do with PODs.

      I was very excited to see the introduction of MagCloud. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing my own magazine with them, but am waiting to see a few reviews of the final product before jumping in head first. I’m anxious to see what you have to say when you receive your copy! :)

    • Earlier this year the Printing Industry Center at RIT published a research monograph I wrote on Web-Enabled Print Architectures that examined a handful of Web-enabled Print on-demand service providers. The monograph is available as a PDF http://print.rit.edu/research/?page=item&id=111

      At this year’s drupa which just wrapped up a couple weeks ago inkjet was the hot technology. Many vendors had on display inkjet presses that be engineered to support newspaper-like applications. These systems can print variable information at high speeds. The Digital Nirvana blog recently posted a blog post on “The Future of Newspapers and Digital Printing” (http://thedigitalnirvana.com/2008/06/the-future-of-newspapers-and-digital-printing) that provides a glimpse at how one digital printing system manufacturing is approaching the imaging aspect of personalized and on-demand newspapers.

    • Jay — good point. And yes, you and others have been doing a lot to point the way. I guess my point is: are there any newspapers that are listening?

      Hopefully new Inkjet technologies will make it easier for newspapers to move towards print customization. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that if we just wait long enough for this or that technology to appear that POD will suddenly explode onto the newspaper scene. Lots of technologies and service providers are already available TODAY that newspapers could use to provide personalized editions and more individuated niche products (citizen-published niche products like Printcasting, but also personalized versions of magazines and newspapers.)

      Why has nothing significant happened so far? I chalk it up to economics and a desire to not rock the boat. Until recently, revenues from the current form of daily newspaper have been fine. Today we fret a lot about major reductions in circ and revenue, but maybe the silver lining is that it will force newspaper companies to think more creatively about how to leverage these new technologies, and on a faster timeline.

      The worst thing that could happen to newspapers, in my opinion, is for other companies to compete with them with customized, individuated print products. Newspapers are uniquely positioned to lead in that market. But if they don’t start moving in that direction soon they’re never going to make it before new competition takes the lead.

    • Kaycee and Adam, great stuff. Thanks for the links! That RIT report is rich, too.

    • Paul Lamb

      Dan: You should definetely check out http://www.8020publishing.com/ if you haven’t already. Your printcasting project has some definite parallels with this company/product.



    • Got another kooky idea for ya, Dan:


      Printcast my ride! I want my newspaper with chrome pipe, girly mudflaps and big, knobby tires.

    • Dan, SharedBook is already well entrenched in this space. Full disclosure: I work for SharedBook, but it is nonetheless true we’re a technology company that specializes in integrating and publishing data from various sources into structured book products that can sit as a flipbook on the Internet or be professionally printed. We’re actually already available on almost all of the major newspaper sites in the US through our partner, Legacy.com; readers are using our technology to create Commemorative Guest Books from the obit sections. On a lighter note, we also partner with Allrecipes.com to allow their users to create their own custom cookbook (which has the catchy moniker “Create-A-Cookbook”!) We even have a widget, Blog2Print, that allows blog authors to make books from their posts, photos and all.

      Our technology could allow a custom printed version of any online paper or magazine today. Or tomorrow. In fact, we’re in discussions with some fairly serious folks about that right now, so I hope to post again in the future with very good news. Meanwhile, if you like, check us out at http://www.sharedbook.com.

    • Rick, thanks for the info on SharedBook.

      What I’m finding is that there are a lot of different approaches to using print-on-demand technology. Ultimately the tools and functionality aren’t the most interesting piece. It’s how they’re marketed and promoted to different audiences, and how those audiences chose to use them, that matters most. There is an art to crafting a relevant experience for each intended audience.

      It’s great to see so many different organizations and individuals who are working on projects that make print more participatory and dynamic. Some are commercial, and some are free and open source — including Printcasting, which personally excites me because it means that our technology and best practices will be replicated and used in ways we never imagined.

    • In June 2009, CafePress began competing with the artists for whom it acts as printer and shipper.

      CafePress rents web shops to its artists. The artist creates a website page and manually loads the desired blank products. The artist imports his image onto each product, arranges the products on the page, describes the products, titles the products and tags the images.

      Initially, the artist would set a markup and received the markup for each product sold.

      However, recently CafePress began competing with its artists, using the artists’ own images. CafePress created a marketplace where a customer can search a keyword. That search brings up artist products. When the customer buys from the marketplace CafePress pays the artist 10% of the price CafePress set. Both the customer and the artist lose money. If the artist’s shop sells a t-shirt for $21, the artist makes $3.01. If the marketplace sells the same shirt for $25, the artist gets $2.50. The customer pays $4 more, and the artist gets $0.51 less.

      CafePress tells artists to “promote your own shop,” but CafePress buys Google adwords using the very image tags the artist provided.

      CafePress justifies this bait and switch of service terms by telling artists they can opt out if they don’t like the new terms; however, many have spent as much as 7 or 8 years creating as many as 88000 images.

      In spite of their sweat-equity, many shopkeepers (content providers) are building shops at other print-on-demand companies and then closing their CafePress shops due to the broken faith and trust, the financial hardship CafePress has delivered into so many lives, and the huge amount of time and dedicated effort all lost in the momentum of their own businesses. Would you keep your AMOCO station franchise if AMOCO built a company store across the street from you?

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