Rescued From Oblivion


It made headlines recently when David Vise bought boxloads of his own book on the Soviet spy Robert Hanssen, helping (it was charged) to vault "The Bureau and the Mole" higher up the bestseller list. But reaching bestsellerdom isn't even a remote possibility for most authors. They worry about just staying in print.

Take "The Lysenko Affair." Despite a title evocative of Tom Clancy, it has not exactly been a bestseller for the University of Chicago Press. David Joravsky's nonfiction account of the 30-year reign of a fanatical Soviet agronomist has sold about 2,500 copies since it was first published in paperback in 1986. And while the interest of Soviet specialists and sociologists of science has helped to keep the book on Chicago's backlist, even their support has been dwindling of late.

But "The Lysenko Affair" isn't done yet. In fact, it might never go out of print, thanks to a new technology -- the short-run digital printing machine. Luckily for Mr. Joravsky, the University of Chicago Press has one.

The press's new production facility -- known as Chicago Digital Distribution Center -- will make it cost-effective to print books in batches as small as 25. In the past, publishers required a press run of about 1,200 copies to keep such books in print, which often meant that unsold copies would pile up in warehouses, adding to inventory costs. But digital printing changes all that.

Vast and Deep

The University of Chicago Press has one home on the school's Hyde Park campus and another in an industrial section of the Pullman neighborhood, on the city's southern edge. For an author, the Pullman warehouse must be as depressing as it is vast. There are about 19,000 titles here -- 10 million books in all, with names ranging from the mundane ("Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About") to the obscure ("Foundations of Tropical Forest Biology"). The sight of so much print is enough to make a writer contemplate tossing out his notes and selling his laptop.

The new digital press is located far in the back of the warehouse in a room no bigger than a suburban kitchen, as if to remind the forklift operators and sorters that the future of publishing will likely be a smaller operation than the present one.

Only two workers are required to create a small batch of books. The cover and pages of the old edition are scanned into a computer and saved to a disk. They are then printed on high-quality paper, the covers are laminated and the books are run through a binder. The job can usually be done in about three hours.

And what is the result? Surprisingly good. The books are all paperback, and they look and feel almost identical to the originals. Even Paula Barker Duffy, the director of the University of Chicago Press, finds it hard to spot the digital version. When she was examining new and old copies of a just salvaged book -- "American Philanthropy" by Robert H. Bremner -- she had to ask which was which.

Some digital books will cost more, because per-unit costs are higher when numbers are small. After selling only 2,627 copies, for example, "The Art of Criticism" by Henry James fell out of print in 1995. Now it's back, but at $40 -- not its old $18.95.

Still, it is there to be bought and read, which it wouldn't have been otherwise. This rescued-from-oblivion aspect of digital printing will bring cheer to countless authors of little-known works and their dozens of fans. But in a larger sense it may also help the field of scholarly publishing, which accounts for about 10% of the titles published each year in the U.S.

The nation's scholarly presses have not fared well in recent years. Universities are cutting back their support. Independent booksellers have all but vanished from the retail landscape. Wholesalers and retailers demand deep discounts and the right to return unsold books. College students, bred on the Internet, are less inclined to purchase books for class, especially if a professor can be persuaded to make a packet of illegally copied reading material available at the library.

Given these conditions, the key to financial stability for a scholarly press is its backlist -- old books that are still in print. The authors have already been paid and the books edited and designed. That means profit margins are high on the few titles that are truly in steady demand -- usually accounting for about two-thirds of all revenues for a university press. But those revenues are falling. And if they continue to fall, Ms. Duffy estimates, 80% of the scholarly backlist could go out of print, including many worthy titles with minuscule readerships.

Mass-market publishers, of course, need not worry about such equations. In most cases, it's more cost-effective for them to print big orders and destroy whatever doesn't sell. But smaller houses can't afford all that storage and pulping.

Ms. Duffy is counting on the digital printing operation -- founded in October last year with a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation -- to help Chicago's fortunes. Not only will it keep marginal books alive, it should help the publisher respond quickly to events. "A Journey Through Afghanistan" by David Chaffetz was scanned through the computer almost as soon as the press became operational last fall.

The Mellon grant will pay for 2,500 new and 2,500 backlist books to be stored on computer disk, creating what the university refers to as its BiblioVault. The books being assembled belong not only to the University of Chicago Press but also to some of the 20 other university presses that contract with Chicago to handle their storage and distribution. The size of the operation and the variety of books will likely give the press more muscle to negotiate with bookstores.

The Inevitable Question

Whatever its immediate benefits, all this digitizing inevitably raises the question of whether the ultimate logic of print-on-demand technology is . . . not to print at all. After all, the books are on a disk: Why not sell the file and let each individual computer, or e-book, do the rest? The savings would be tremendous. And, let's face it, most fans of "The Physics of Extragalactic Radio Sources" are not planning to read it on the beach.

But university officials insist that scholars still want books -- not computer files -- and will continue to want them for at least another generation. Such a conclusion might have something to do with that warehouse filled with 10 million books waiting to be sold. Even so, there is reason for hope: In the first two months since it was saved on a disk and reprinted, "The Lysenko Affair" has sold 30 more copies.

Mr. Eig is a Journal reporter based in Chicago.

Copyright information: © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the author.