Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

More thoughts about print

This is a part of a series where I review the work I’ve done over the past couple of years.

  1. Two-year review: to plan a strategy you must first have a theory of how the hell things work
  2. Out of the Software Crisis: two year project review
  3. Sunk Cost Fallacy: chasing a half-baked idea for much too long
  4. The Intelligence Illusion: stepping into a pile of ‘AI’
  5. A print project retrospective: the biggest problem with selling print books is the software
  6. Thinking about print (this page)
  7. Disillusioned with Deno
  8. An Uncluttered retrospective: Teachable is a mess and I need to pick a lane

Print has been on my mind, even after I wrote the print project retrospective.

Print-on-Demand (PoD) is one of the perpetually unfulfilled promises of tech. It’s not as good as offset, but it’s not because digital printers aren’t capable of excellent quality, but because of the inconsistency.

You can very much get a PoD book that’s good enough to not draw attention to itself. It’s usually possible, even in those cases, to tell that it’s PoD with a bit of examination, but you probably wouldn’t notice those details unless they’re pointed out to you, and you have an offset-printed book to compare it with.

But that isn’t the core problem with PoD. The core problem all of these services have is variability. Those who have read Out of the Software Crisis probably remember that variability is the enemy of strategy and planning. Quality is less of an issue. If a process is consistent in delivering a low quality good, then what will define it as a good or bad product isn’t the quality itself, but cost.

(The paper The Germ Theory of Management (PDF) is probably the most to-the-point explanation of the curse of variability to business planning and strategy.)

If you have a low but consistent quality that you can deliver at a low cost, then you don’t have a bad product, you have a cheap one. In business terms that can be just as lucrative as higher levels of quality. (See Ikea, which people love to hate but has been a revolution in improving people’s access to useful furniture.)

The problem with PoD is twofold:

  1. It’s not as good as offset printing. It can come close, though.
  2. It has much too much variability. Individual printings can range from unreadable to near-offset in quality.

The first issue is marginal. For most books print quality minutiae are not where their value lies and the marginally lower quality is balanced by the value of improved availability in print of short run titles.

The second issue is what keeps worrying me. I have plenty of ideas for print projects that I think would interest people, but the more interesting the project becomes, the less tolerant it is of variations in quality. The more you position the value of a print project on its aesthetic or design qualities, the more harmful the variations are.

A decent print strategy requires capital. You need to be able to buy a print run in advance.

Crowdfunding helps here but, as I outlined in my earlier post on print, that’s not really available to me here in Iceland. You can get partway there with faux-crowdfunding preorders, though. Even when crowdfunding is available to you, it’s an intensive process. You are effectively trading social capital for hard capital and to do that sustainably you need to be extremely focused on building and maintaining your social capital.

A crowdfunding publisher becomes an all-consuming strategy. It wouldn’t leave much room for other things and, in my case, I think those other things are ultimately more interesting than being in print.

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