PODvantage

Thanks to the Print on demand technology, self-publishing is changing the way books have been published traditionally.

This article was published in the June 2009 issue of the Data quest magazine . A Hindi version of the article can be read at the webzine Samayiki. This was also featured in an Indian Express article Now Small Author’s Story will see the light of the day .

Writers have always wanted their creations to reach a wider audience. The printed word has been a great medium and has inspired authors to publish their creation. From the ancient times of bhoj-patra to the sophisticated offset & laser printers and modern day digital e-books publishing has come a long way.

Traditionally books have been published only through brick & mortar book publishing channels. Modern technology, however, has ushered-in a revolutionary new concept: that of Self publishing. The driving force behind self-publishing is a newer technology known as POD, short for “Print on demand”.

So, what is POD?

The concept of POD itself is not new in the Digital World. Since 2003 a website Cafepress has enabled users to order customized Coffee mugs, Posters, T-shirts and so on. The fun part is: you can even use your designs and there is no minimum or maximum cap for order quantity. You can even order one Coffee Mug or a solitary T-shirt. Since about 3 years a new dimension got added to the POD scene, that of self-publishing, that enabled ordinary writers to publish their work.

During 2006, when the popularity of photo sharing sites like Flickr was at its peak, websites such as Blurb came in with services that could convert your photo stream to a glossy coffee table book. Services like Lulu went a step ahead and started offering self-published books through the on-demand-publishing. And the step paid off. Last year alone, 98 thousand books were published by Lulu suing POD. Recently, the big daddy of online book selling, Amazon.com has also started its own self publishing service through CreateSpace.

Desi companies have not been far behind in the game, but things are only getting warmed up here. As of now, Cinnamon Teal, established in Aug 2007 by Goa based couple Quennie and Leonard Fernandes, and Pothi.com, established in July 2008 by the IITian duo Jaya Jha and Abhaya Agarwal, are leading the pack. There are some players like DepotIndia as well that impose some restrictions on the minimum number of copies that they can be ordered.

Jaya Jha/Abhay Agrawal and Quennie/Leaonard Fernandes

Java Jha told us that the Print on Demand technology is being used extensively for corporate printing (variable data printing, short run brochure printing etc.) and for personal gift kind of segment (poster, mug, t-shirt printing) but in publishing it is still an early experimental phase. “The potential is certainly huge, but the stake-holders in the system have to come together and accept the changes in the workflow it demands, to be able to exploit this technology to the fullest. This includes everyone from the printers, publishers, authors, distributors and retailers.” she said.

Leonard Fernandes is also very optimistic about the future of POD in India, “The market potential is huge when one considers that about 80,000 titles are published in India by mainstream publishers and the industry is growing at a rate of about 10-12%. When one considers the scope of application of POD in regional languages, the potential is enormous.”

Future Ready Publishing

Kindle
With the changing world our reading habits have been changing too. The concept of e-book doesn’t sound alien now and we read more online than we do otherwise. And with that people are now realizing the drawbacks of traditional publishing & marketing as well. 50% of the books in the United Kingdom are never read, figures must be similar for other nations. These unread books are converted back to pulp or dumped since most are not printed on recycled paper. The amount of carbon emissionsin printed these books that are never read is staggering, it’s like putting 1 lac cars on the road. Even if you don’t think of trees the environmental damage is not justified. Can the publishers & marketers be more sensible please and avoid giving those fancy unattainable projected sales figures.It feels good, thus, that e-books are slowly replacing the traditional ones. Digital books are cheaper, save paper and your computer and mobile phones can stores hundreds and thousands of them without occupying your drawing space. Then there are umpteen e-book readers like Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony e-Reader that also allow you to stay connected and read newspapers and blogs as well. For authors, this opens doors for a totally new breed of readers to tap. 

 

In traditional publishing books are printed in an estimated quantity and stored by the publishers, distributors and retailers. In POD, on the contrary, the digital copy of the publication is stored on a computer along with its design, layout and content and it’s printed and dispatched whenever the publication is ordered. Using POD it’s affordable to even print a single copy. The best part is, there are no inventory to manage and no headache of keeping track of unsold copies.

A major reason behind the growing popularity of POD is the growing awareness on the environment problems associated with the ruthless printing and the trend of traditional publications loosing ground against e-publications  (See box: Future ready publishing)

Authors can now be publishers too

If you are an author and wish to get published you will have to search a publisher first who would like to publish your work and if you are too lucky pay you a royalty as well. Not surprising that a lot of authors fund the publishers to publish their work. You obviously would find it hard to market such books, the best you could do is distribute the copies to your friends and reviewers. Self-publishing makes this task painless and you can achieve the similar results without spending a fortune.

If you know how to use computers then you can even spend on the cost of typing & composing. Your work can be ordered anyone with an internet connection. Websites like Pothi.com help you track the sales and the royalty you earn. There are also discounts on bulk and self purchase.

But doesn’t that make self-publishing Vanity publishing? Fernandes differs, “We have never asked authors to print 500 books and go market it themselves. We ask authors to print just 5 books (maybe even lesser) for private circulation or to have the books reviewed and then let the market determine the demand. We are still in talks with three distributors for sales in physical bookstores but presently we do list the books online on our bookstore and on Indiaplaza“. Jaya clarifies that POD is not for mass markets, “POD is meant for niche publications and that’s where it works the best. And, as is the case with any product, those who are able to market are able to sell. Passive authors are not able to sell.” she informs.

And one could find proofs of POD slowly moving from the Vanity publication to the mainstream publication as well. Cambridge university press sold 10,000 titles recently using Lightening Source. Even big publishers now a days consider POD for printing old, out-of-print books. The newer publishers on the other hand prefer POD technology to evade the high costs associated with traditional printing, warehousing and unsold books.

Who should go for self-publishing?

If self-publishing is vanity publishing no more then what kind of authors go for it? “A lot of people coming to our websites have absolutely no idea about how to go about publishing their books. They recognize the value add POD (and our whole platform) brings to self. This leads to lower upfront investment, no headaches of inventory management, shipping, collecting payments etc. POD is also suitable for people looking for publishing books as memorabilia. Personalized books form very attractive and value for money gifts. Books of collections of writings are also popular.” Jaya said.

POD Innovations

Kindle
Publicdomainreprints helps you publish old and out-of-print books. The non-profit website lets you search over 20 lac freely available titles from archive.org and Google book that you order using Print on demand facility.

FaberFinds also lets you order classic titles.

Bookmobile service is a van equipped with a satellite connection, laptop, laser printed and a book binding machine that keeps doing rounds in the schools in USA and makes available free titles from archive.org for as little as $1. The project was also brought in to India in 2003 and CDAC and Government of India had ambitious plans to increase the number of Bookmobiles to 50. However, there seems to be no buzz about the initiative now. The project website is also not operational anymore.

Obviously, there are many other innovative uses of POD as well (See Box: POD Innovations). Fernandes narrated the case of a college in Pune that had a class size of 4 and an ever-changing syllabus. “So they chose POD for their textbooks so that they could print only 4 copies and change it the next year if need be.” he says, “then, there was one gentleman from Bangalore who published his grandfather’s poems for circulation within the family.” Both Jaya & Leonard mentioned that POD can be used to test the market and get feedback before hitting the market with bulk production.

So the lesson: go for POD if the audience for the book is small or if you wish to test the waters before taking a plunge.

Marketing a self-published book

When you are the publisher of your book the onus of marketing the work lies on your head too. Leonard suggests, “There is no point marketing a book in places where it’s not related to. For example, a souvenir for an alumni meet cannot possibly be sold outside the alumni circle. POD publishers should create awareness about the concept of POD and be imaginative about where this concept can be applied.” Jaya believes that the best place to market POD books is online. “The book should be an extension of author’s online presence through blogs, social networks and other social media outlets. He has to pique their curiosity so that they buy the book. It is important to communicate clearly as to what this new book will give them which they did not have earlier.” she said.

Self publishing through Print on demand technology is an attractive option gaining ground amongst authors, not only in English but in Hindi and regional languages as well. It opens new doors for budding authors who are unable to find ready publishers as well for writers who only want to reach a close circle of readers. The advantages it offers over traditional publication are immense.

An interview with Dr Sugata Mitra

Dr Sugata MitraI had interviewed Dr Sugata Mitra for Hindi blogzine Nirantar about an year ago. While going through old emails I came across the original English interview and thought that I should post it online.

Dr Mitra, as you might be aware, is an award winning scientist. He has been known for the Hole in the wall (HIW) project where he proved that kids could learn computers without formal training and teachers. He started the HIW experiment at the slums at Kalkaji, Delhi in 1999. More kiosks were later setup at Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh and Madantusi, Uttar Pradesh. Sugata calls this “Minimum Evasive Education“, referring to the environment where kids learn using their natural curiosity without the intervention of teachers. The experiment, scaled up to more than 23 kiosks in rural Indian was also repeated in Combodia in 2004.

I am not aware of the real implications of this experiment and whether it went past the academic interests and echoed in the corridors of the government, but the experiment surely suggested a way towards providing low-cost IT education in India.

In the Hole-In-The-Wall (HIW) experiment what is the hardware configuration of the PCs? How do these cope up with the dust/heat of open environment? And in rural areas how did you tackle the issue of dismal power supply? Did you use any customized software?

HIW KioskDr Mitra: Personal computers, such as those used in homes and offices all over the world, are designed to work indoors, usually in a carefully conditioned and controlled environment. Such computers can not be placed in outdoor environments, without air-conditioning and with poor power conditions, such as those prevalent in rural India and Cambodia.

Over the period of the experiment, we evolved a design for an enclosure that would enable the usual personal computer to function in an outdoor environment. The enclosure consists of a brick structure resembling a narrow hut with the computer screens visible on the outside of the hut through glass panes fixed to rectangular “holes in the wall” on one side of the hut.

The conventional mouse used with home or office PCs does not function effectively for more than a few days when exposed to outdoors weather. We devised a new solid-state mouse (called ToBu) without any moving parts. The mouse consists of six small metal circles embedded on a plastic plate. These are called touch buttons and need only to be touched with a finger to activate their functions. Four to move the cursor in the left-right and up-down directions, and two for left and right “clicks”. The cursor can also be moved diagonally using a combination of the four touch buttons that control movement.

The keyboard and the ToBu mouse project out from below the monitor through the same rectangular opening in the wall. They are covered by a Perspex cowl that protects from dust. The user inserts his or her hand from under the cowl. The opening below the cowl is wide enough only for small hands to enter. A metal lid covers each monitor and keyboard combination (called the “faceplate”). This is opened during operational hours and forms a sun-shade over the computer. The height of the faceplate and lid are such that adults would need to stoop down at an awkward angle to see the screen. There is a seating rod in front of each computer, placed at a distance from the wall such that it is uncomfortable for tall people.

These design elements are necessary to ensure that only children (usually 13 years and less) access these computers. In rural settings in India, where many adults would not have seen a computer, there is a great deal of curiosity about the device and this can, sometimes, lead to situations where children are not given a chance to operate the computers. Each playground computer is equipped with a web camera and a microphone.

All electrical power is conditioned at the input to correct for voltage spikes, over and under voltage and frequency fluctuations. Four hours of battery back-up is provided for each installation. Sensors inside the enclosure and related software enable us to remotely monitor the following:

  1. The temperature, humidity and illumination levels inside the enclosure.
  2. Electrical conditions
  3. Mouse movement history (when the mouse was moved last).
  4. History of applications run on each computer
  5. Screen images on each computer
  6. Images of children using the computer
  7. Voice recordings of children speaking
  8. History of sites visited on the Internet

In addition, software controls ensure that:

  1. No essential software of data is deleted or renamed.
  2. The desktop icons are not removed
  3. The system closes unused programs
  4. The system restarts when and if a computer hangs.

The entire arrangement is usually placed such that the screens face the north-east. This is to avoid glare from sunlight on the screens. Such playground computers are placed in safe, public locations where their screens are clearly visible to passing adults. This ensures that there are few or no attempts at vandalism, theft or the usage of the computers for accessing pornography or other undesirable material

Amongst the 100 computers placed in the above manner throughout rural India and Cambodia, 4 have been damaged due to vandalism and the access to pornographic material has been estimated at 0.3% of available time, during the four years of the experiment.

With HIW concept we are talking about unmonitored teaching, san the teacher. Do you advocate applying the concept to pre-primary & primary education or would it yield results in higher education as well?

HIW KioskDr Mitra: The hole in the wall arrangement is suitable for primary and pre-primary only. But the concept of collaborative, self-regulated instruction can be applied to all age groups.

One of the ironies of our present education system has been that it fails to prepare students for the real-world and get a job. Will such education translate to jobs?

Dr Mitra: Computer skills are essential for any job.

The project has received grants from World Bank and GOI. But how do you foresee the implementation of the idea? What kind of budgets will the government need? Do you think Governments would shelve money for such schemes if they were to continue spending on the conventional education route as well?

Dr Mitra: Not really. I think both methods will need to coexist. The Sarva Shiksha Avijan has funds for innovations and they are using this to put hole in the wall computers in remote areas of India.

Innovative projects like HIW comes, especially in a country like ours, from the stables of Private sector. Why do you think the sarkari think-tanks, who are fed on tax-payers money to germinate such ideas, are unable to device any?

Dr Mitra: I don’t think that is strictly true. There are many important ideas that have been developed by the Government. The Space program for example. However, speed and the ability to take new ideas to the market are lacking in the Government.

Can the Internet replace teachers? How do think we could counter the perils of pornography and the known risks of net-life to which kids are most vulnerable?

Dr Mitra: Most of these risks are non-existent in public hole in the wall computers. Visibility of the screen to passing adults and the fact that all usage is in groups ensure social control that prevents both misuse and vandalism.

One of the observations of the HIW that we read was that the children use metaphor for components. NIIT has been synonymous with computer education where you charge people to teach terminologies. Isn’t learning terminologies an important part of education?

Dr Mitra: Could be. Here, they are learning to use a computer. The learning is purely functional. Its like learning to drive a car – it doesn’t really matter whether you know what a carburetor is or how gears work.

Will NIIT consider adapting its course material based on the findings of HIW?

Dr Mitra: Yes.

In a way, we feel, the HIW experiment has shown that an informal, unconventional education system that teaches through games and provides interactive learning works better. Why do you think only computers can achieve that goal? Is it akin to simply aiming to creating computer-literate citizens suitable only for white-collared jobs?

Dr Mitra: Maybe there are other ways also. I am only trying to show that learning to use a computer can be self instructional for all children. I think every citizen will need to be computer literate, whatever work they do. Just like everyone needs to know arithmetic, not just white collar workers.

Edutainment probably forms the basis of HIW and Kids TV programs call themselves that. How do you rate the present TV programming for kids, especially in the cable TV era? Where do you think they have failed or need to improve on?

Dr Mitra: There are good and bad TV programs. The more the edutainment the better they are. For example, Natgeo, Discovery, etc. are very good.

There is a fact that many would find intriguing. We are nation where rural sector still doesn’t have basic infrastructure, there is wide-spread lack of basic health-care and education. And here we are talking about bridging the digital divide first. Isn’t this an urban dream really? Does it really matter for the real India?

Dr Mitra: Ask the village people. I think our urban idea about villages should and should not have is where we go wrong. They want cable TV, the Internet and Revlon, for example. But we in the cities think only we should have those things and not them.

Has HIW been implemented in other countries as well? How has been the response?

Dr Mitra: Yes, in Cambodia and South Africa. Results are identical to India.

What is usually the minimum age -group/education of the target group in any HIW experiment?

Dr Mitra: Age group: 6 or less to 15 or so. Education level – not important or required, even illiterates can learn to use the computer.

There is a lot of Indian language content now a day on the net. How do you see the trend? What has been the catalyst of this growth according to you? How do you foresee the future?

Dr Mitra: Indian content will come from Indians. The more the access the more the content will become. Eventually, one-sixth of the Internet will be in Indian languages, just as one-sixth of humanity is Indian.

We read about complex systems in an article of yours. Would you like to relate the ‘Social bookmarking sites” and “Blog Unconferences” to this paradigm?

Dr Mitra: Yes, they are all self organizing complex systems. I have two papers on the subject.

What are your views on the GOI rejecting the One Laptop per child grant? Do you agree with their arguments?

Dr Mitra: I don’t know their arguments. I don’t think one should accept or reject anything without first measuring their effectiveness.

What’s currently keeping you occupied?

Dr Mitra: Educational technology, self-organising systems etc.

Your Computer is your TV too

The Indian economy is overheating, the feel-good factor does not merely exist on the story-board of political campaigns, and it has transgressed to Internet as well. Add to this a fizz of Web2.0 frenzy and you have a crazy concoction of Internet euphoria ready for the consumers. Dear readers, after YouTube desi wannabes Tera Video, TumTube and MeraVideo it’s the turn of Aapka Video, a recently launched, free, social video sharing site.

IMHO the problem with Video sharing sites is their likeliness to the email forwards; everyone wants them to be short and funny. In video parlance, this translates to sleaze, a mere glance on the home page of these sites will force to look around you, koi dekh to nahi raha, certainly these sites are not work-safe. But then, it’s a peril associated with most of the user-generated content.

AapkaVideo tagline is “Director ban jao” (become a movie director) which indicates a pious, if not unique, USP. They might have in mind those yuppie and extravagant Cell phones, with ever increasing recording time and video quality, people carry now days even in the toilets. Nokia was quick to realize this and has successfully tried to encourage movie making through these sneaky cameras. So yes, there is a market, but till that reaches a critical mass, you to have to be content watching those tacky snippets from Bollywood movies and Advt from the firang channels. The wait, meanwhile, for upcoming Mani Ratnams and Karan Johars may be prolonged though you could surely find umpteen Jagmohan Mundras.

Aapka VideoI feel good when I see a glimpse of monetization plan in such ventures, apparently AapkaVideo has plans to use the ‘Special” segment where they could have featured videos or videos on a theme, Buzzfeed fans will find an instant liking for this. Combine this with anticipated market for projects such as “movie on demand” and you may have a niche market in your trap.

The site has a professional layout and since it’s still a beta, improvements are imperative, including the fact already discussed in the blogosphere: the videos don’t work on Firefox. The option to enlarge the video seems good, but they actually should provide the facility selectively to videos that will look good at higher screen resolutions. The site supports a vide range of video formats and allows uploads unto a 100 MB. And being a Java guy, it feels good to see the “.jsp” file extensions on browser.

I really envisage the days when such sites will also have a meaningful aspect to them, imagine breaking news videos from a citizen journalist, vlogs, interviews and technology reviews. AapkaVideo seems to have an inkling of this and you could spot categories such as “Techzone” and “News & Blogs”, which may take some time to generate relevant content.

Amidst all these video sites becoming the cynosure of eyes, even a blind can see the emerging trend, namely, the television making a move from the idiotbox to your computer monitor. TV on Internet and IPTV are being discussed since many years, the Golliaths like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and the Telcos are involved in using the net as a medium of distribution of digital content, all this to take advantage of the interactivity with the viewer.

To most of the Indians this doesn’t mean much, atleast at the moment. Bandwidth is still a bottleneck, the availability graph is rising but the costs are still far off the affordability radar.

Another larger question that emerges, is the control over this user-generated content. YouTube has been in the docks for the same, sort of déjà vu of Napster, let’s face it: people are concerned over piracy issues.

The ultimate challenge for these companies is to provide superior video content on the net without ignoring the copyright and security issues (spyware, viruses), but if they are successful it would be win-win situation for both TV and Internet.

So be forewarned, the AapkaVideo jaadoo may actually end up mesmerizing you sooner than you think. Now, off to that video tagged “desi kiss” 😉

[Disclaimer: This is a paid review for Reviewme, but the thoughts are my own.]