How many years ago is it? Not more than ten perhaps. But about ten years ago there came about a dramatic new innovation in printing technology. The combination of computers and high-quality photocopiers meant that a new way of printing books became available to publishers. It was known as print on demand (POD).
In the past, publishers had been obliged to print a substantial number of books in one go. The main cost element in printing had been the time spent to get the machine ready to print a book. So printers were reluctant to quote for anything less than 1,000 copies; and indeed the fewer you printed the higher the unit cost was, and very small numbers became quite uneconomic. The result was that, in the UK, even quite small university presses would print 1,000 copies of books which they knew were never going to sell that many.
When I was involved in academic publishing, we normally printed 1,000 copies, though the most we ever sold of any print run, at full price, was 800. The other 200, in that case, we sold on to a remainder dealer. (The smallest number we ever sold, by the way, was 60 out of 1,000; but fortunately my predecessor as man in charge had made a deal with a rich enthusiast that any loss on the book would be made good.) I once had a printer's rep tell me that Oxford University Press had ordered a print run of 450, but that made me whistle a bit.
And then, along came POD, and it transformed the economics of small-scale publishing. Of course, this being the book world we're talking about, there were a few snags. Print quality on some early POD editions was reportedly not very good; although I have never had any trouble with any of mine. And there were also some old-time publishers and their employees who were reluctant to adopt new ways of doing things. Printers weren't always keen either. Plenty of printers were very sniffy about the new technology. If it didn't go clank when the wheels turned, and get you thoroughly filthy, then it didn't count as proper printing.
Well, at long last even the dinosaurs in academic publishing have woken up to the benefits of POD. You can read all about it in an article from the US Chronicle of Higher Education (link from Publishers Lunch). And what is true of university presses, of course, is also true of small publishers everywhere.
It's a brave new world -- or something -- with new opportunities for everyone.