HP lets you print old books or Wikia pages as your own custom publications

magcloudThe democratization of book and magazine publishing is well underway. Every person can pretty much operate their own virtual press, thanks to innovations in web-based self-publishing.

Hewlett-Packard and Wikia are delving further into this with Mag Cloud, a service that goes live today. With the service, users can take the free web pages of Wikia — which has more than 3 million pages of user-generated articles online — and print them out as a magazine. Gil Penchina, chief executive of Wikia, said he tried out the service by printing a 75-page magazine based on Wikia articles about Star Wars film character Luke Skywalker. The cost to print your own magazine is just 20 cents a page.

HP is also formally launching BookPrep, a service that lets you print a book for which the copyright has already expired. Google and the University of Michigan have an agreement that lets Google put 500,000 books owned by the university up for sale in virtual form on the web. HP goes one step further, allowing anyone to print on demand any one of those books for a fairly low price: a 250-page book might cost around $15.

Both services take advantage of HP’s prowess in digital printing, where in the case of books it can take poorly scanned book images and clean them up so they can be viewed easily. With the magazines, HP finds printers around the globe that are nearest to the user ordering a magazine. It then prints the magazine locally so that it can minimize shipping costs, said Andrew Bolwell, director of new business initiatives at HP.

The business also fits with HP’s belief that everything will become a service, thanks to web-based cloud computing technologies. In this case, the data to be printed can be stored in the cloud and users can access it and print it out as they desire.

Bolwell said HP has been toying with these ideas for a decade. HP Labs came up with the BookPrep idea and showed it off on a research day in March, 2008. Many of the books that it can print are taken from books that are more than 80 years old.

You would think that nobody would want those books. But in a deal with Applewood books, HP has been testing BookPrep, and it’s found that there is demand for just about any kind of book, from Civil War histories to recipes from the 1800s. There are, for instance, something like 1,500 books available about railroads that are available for printing on demand through the service.

The Wikia idea stemmed from a talk that Wikipedia and Wikia founder Jimmy Wales gave at HP. Penchina said the talk led to discussions that led to the collaboration. Penchina said he is very interested in the types of magazines that could be printed. He notes, for instance, that Wikia has about 75,000 user-contributed pages on World of Warcraft. There are also about 40,000 pages of recipes. With HP Mag Cloud, anyone could self-publish the Wikia content in a magazine, up to 100 pages.

On a higher scale, magazine publishers could also use the HP magazine print-on-demand technology. Time’s Life magazine division used the HP technology to print custom copies of its 40th anniversary issue of Woodstock, which had a bunch of classic photos from the 1960s rock event. Atlantic Monthly also assembled a new magazine based on articles about “brave thinkers” that it had profiled over the years. By using print-on-demand, the magazine publishers don’t have to worry about the risk of printing a lot of magazines that might not be popular.

Wikia, founded in 2004, became profitable earlier this year, thanks to the user-generated content that draws 25 million unique visitors a month.

HP predicts there is an explosion of content that will become available for print-on-demand services. Amazon has more than a million books for sale. But Prakash Reddy, system architect of BookPrep, told me in 2008 that there are 6.5 million books out of copyright, about 32 million more in a kind of legal limbo, and a total of 90 million that are completely out of print.