Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Eicher and Eicher POD? I Say Nay

Like everyone else in our little corner of the Civil War blogworld, I'm a regular reader of Dimitri Rotov's Civil War Bookshelf. I enjoy the periodic, genuinely intriguing flashes of insight that come from really smart history junkies. Likewise, I tune in for Dimitri's gratuitously provocative potshots (comments disabled for good reason), and the mesmerizingly inscrutable diatribes that are becoming something of a signature entry at CWB.

I do want to respond to one of Dimitri's January 2nd posts, since it is directed toward something I worked on. First, he outlined what qualities or circumstances make a work ideal for print-on-demand: "Multi-year, complex research projects, rich in data; Total authorial control over production and design; Aimed at a pre-existing audiences."
And to close the snippet, regarding John and David Eicher's magisterial (I've been waiting to use that word) Civil War High Commands. Dimitri wrote, "For this, therefore, to be brought out by a conventional publisher is preposterous." I read that and wondered if "preposterous" was used in the same sense that a crew member of the Starship Enterprise might regard the archaic notion of currency preposterous when no currency was required, and when the sum total of human knowledge could be had for the asking from the ship's computer.

I have opinions on the subject. I worked on that book at Stanford University Press from start to finish, and even selected the printer. And since I had responsibility for reprints, I was also the person at SUP most involved with the then-fledgling print-on-demand programs that all university presses were beginning to embrace in earnest.
At Stanford, we started out with Ingram's POD outfit, Lightning Source, but eventually transferred everything to the efficient and convenient service offered by the University of Chicago Press, who served as distributors for about 20 university presses at the time. Edwards Brothers, one of the first printers to get a true digital program off the ground, set up a print-on-demand service inside Chicago's distribution facility, and before long they had the ability to fulfill even the smallest bookstore orders for backlist titles that would otherwise have gone out of print. An exciting and dramatic shift. The unit costs are high, but it still pays to keep certain steady sellers available.

Print-on-demand technology is ever-changing, but it only makes sense economically within certain parameters, governed mainly by page length and print run, or demand. Aesthetic considerations went out the window once the technology improved enough to approximate the original.
There are thousands of great candidates for print-on-demand, but the Eicher reference work was not one of them. For starters, when Civil War High Commands came out, there was no POD provider capable of producing a book of more than 1,000 pages, and I'm guessing that hasn't changed (the cut-off used to be around 848pp). But here's the kicker, and why it's "preposterous" to think for even one second that a large reference work like the Eicher & Eicher book could be brought out POD in its first printing. Producing a massive reference work is astonishingly expensive. To then release it as print-on-demand volume would mean trying to recoup those costs by exponentially multiplying the unit cost. As opposed to printing 1,000's of copies conventionally for a fraction of the cost. Dimitri spoke of a "pre-existing audience," but if that audience can be expected to be up over 500 and into the thousands, it would be silly to publish the book at the highest unit cost possible.

I think I do know what he's trying to say—that compilations of data like the Eicher and Eicher book are short-shrifted by conventional publishing, that organic databases like that should be allowed to breathe, and grow with the digital flexibility of frequent updates, and corrections (something happening now with online journals). That's all well and good, if people like David Eicher and his dad are willing to simply make their decades of work available on-line in the spirit of advancing knowledge. We're just not there yet.

A book like Civil War High Commands is, by definition, a labor of love. But it's too costly and impractical for print-on-demand.
If not for a conventional publisher, I would argue, this work would not be published at all. In fact, I would make another distinction. If a university press, devoted to scholarship for scholarship's sake, had not taken on this project, it would not exist in book form.

Hmmm. Didn't realize I felt so defensive about this subject. In truth, I am really into print-on-demandan enthusiastic student of that technologybut I just love that Eicher book, in all its conventional, smyth sewn, acid-free glory.

[cover design at top by Janet Wood, who I think was laid off the same day I was. . .]


DW@CWBA said...

what is the technological problem behind the seemingly arbitrary length limitation...848 pages? thanks for the great post.

dw said...

Hi Drew,

I think the minimum and maximum page lengths are dictated by the capacity of the binding component of the (usually Xerox or IBM) machines that digital printers use. They are glorified copy machines (DocuTech) and have certain limitations on the spine bulk or paper size they can handle.


DW@CWBA said...

thanks, Dave. It would be interesting to watch one of those machines do its thing, if it's even visible.