On Demand, In Vain?

By Katherine Schouten Rick Archbold recently published a piece in the Literary Review of Canada exploring the impact of self-publishing on the future of literature. The swift rise of print-on-demand technology (POD), which enables users to produce small print runs of titles through cost efficient means, has inaugurated a rush of unfettered works. Visual and textual, personal and professional, fictional and factual, literary and mundane, POD capabilities have empowered all those who possess the inclination to publish self-created goods.

As Archbold acknowledges, such access brings with it thorny issues, of which much conversation has been, and is being, had. (A thoughtful example from Christina Patterson can be found in The Independent.)  But his argument brings the quandary around to the other side: what work that ought to be considered “literature” is being passed over precisely because it’s not from mainstream publishers? What might otherwise be considered “legitimate,” if not for the stamp of “vanity publishing” currently affixed by the industry to volumes precisely because they are printed by the very authors who wrote them? More urgently to Archbold, what works of literary art may society lose because self-publication is deemed vain?

Underscoring these conversations is the dualistic role the medium of a book, physical or electronic, plays, both as a vehicle for art (i.e., literature) and as a dynamic tool of communication. It remains one of our most fundamental technologies; how we access it, and whom we allow or enable to produce it, is rapidly changing. But could it be that with this technological evolution we might reinvigorate the book’s latter role, as a tool? If so, arts organizations—indeed, nonprofits of all varieties—stand to benefit. Books self-published using POD carry the potential to serve as an effective means of promotion and commemoration, a revenue stream in the form of merchandise, a powerful platform to aid applications for grant and foundation funding, and an enticing incentive for tiered giving. Most providers (Blurb, Lulu, etc.)  are now compatible with Adobe InDesign, further aiding the integration process by enabling graphic designers to work in a preferred medium (rather than being limited to proprietary templates). They also now have ebook options, to deliver self-published goods to potential readers in their preferred format.

The conversations and concerns surrounding the implications of POD and self-publishing on the broader industry will no doubt continue. But the possibilities they hold for the nonprofit sector are palpable,  vanity or not.

For a primer on self-publishing, see Alan Finder’s recent article in the New York Times, “The Joys and Hazards of Self-Publishing on the Web.”