Pressing the POD Issue: The MIT Classics Series

A variety of serious problems plague university libraries and the MIT Press believes they just solved (at least) one of them. With diminished library budgets, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep out of print books on the shelves for use by students and faculty. Print-on-demand programs have historically been incapable of sufficiently maintaining stock, primarily because it is not economically feasible to print and store books when demand falls below a certain threshold. If books are available, the quality is often poor or the cost of printing individual copies or small batches is prohibitive.

Enter the MIT Press Classics series. The MIT Press has partnered with Edwards Brothers, a short-run printer out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Hewlett-Packard Company, and R.R. Donnelly printers in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Their process is fairly streamlined: The MIT Press provides Edwards Brothers with PDF files of the books, R.R. Donnelly quality-checks the books, merges the metadata, and delivers the final text to the printer. Within 48 hours of receiving an order from the MIT Press, Edwards Brothers prints and ships the finished product without ever involving the warehouse. At present, the books have a simple black cover design, but books published in the future will retain their own designs.

"We have been working on this program for a long time, beginning to digitize our content in the early 90s," according to Ellen W. Faran, director of The MIT Press. "We sought partnerships, technical solutions, and a business model that would enable us to succeed and we waited to launch until all these components were in place."

The MIT Press has also managed to sidestep the error issues that typically accompany the conversion of text to PDFs. It is estimated that the error rate of such processes is three to five percent, including human errors like skipping text and computer errors such as mistakenly identifying a photograph as text. MIT and HP claim that their process has decreased that error rate to as little as .001 percent.

The Classics series collection currently boasts 247 publications in subjects that include architecture, humanities, biology, medicine, and political science. MIT Press expects that the collection will reach 1,750 by the end of 2003. Eventually, the MIT Press hopes to make available any book whose sales have fallen below the point at which it is economically feasible to keep it in print via traditional avenues. "We expect to put more and more [out-of-print] titles into the Classics Series and to keep our in-print titles always available," says Faran. "We are considering the option of digital press printing for a variety of potential manufacturing needs."

The MIT Press Web site allows users to sort the collection by title, author, publication date, or subject. Purchases can be made in the standard "shopping cart" style. Customers in North America will receive their selections within seven days, but those elsewhere in the world may wait up to seven weeks for delivery. The MIT Press is hoping to significantly shorten the wait for overseas consumers in the near future.

It is fitting that the MIT Press chose to embark upon this project. Their focus is primarily on science and technology although, according to their site: "this does not mean that science and engineering are all we publish, but it does mean that we are committed to the edges and frontiers of the world—to exploring new fields and new modes of inquiry." The MIT Press is fairly certain that this exploration will not only be a profitable one, but that it will become an indispensable method of keeping books on the shelves long after their traditional print run has ended.