Read Between the Lines

IPads and Kindles and Nooks…oh my! This spring’s biggest news splash wasn’t the health care bill or even the end of the horrific winter weather. Everything else that happened appeared to be left in the dust when Apple finally released the iPad. The device made the cover of Newsweek and Amazon fought back by purchasing an ad for its Kindle on the back cover. At about the same time, Amazon acquired a technology called Toucho that promises to help Kindle’s electronic ink compete with LCD screen models. And let us not forget Barnes & Noblel’s Nook device. The e-reader wars are raging.

As you might well imagine, the emergence of these electronic devices is causing quite an uproar in the traditional book publishing industry. Its future is being decided now. As columnist Andrew Brenneman observed in a recent issue of Book Business, “If publishers don’t reinvent publishing, somebody else will.”

If established book publishers are that concerned about the fate of printed media, how does that affect commercial printers who include book production as a part of their product offering? In light of the hype and growing popularity of e-readers and the electronic media that they deliver, is there still a viable market for short-run, on demand book production? If so, is it still possible for it to be a profitable niche for small commercial printers? The answers to the last two questions are “yes” and “yes.”

Before you cede the battle, remember that most of the books that find their way into the small commercial printer’s workflow are not being picked up for publication by Random House or the Oxford Press. They are typically authored by individuals who wish to self-publish, and are usually intended for a very specific audience.

The woes that beset the major publishers aren’t much of an impediment to our market segment. In fact, digital production and increasingly sophisticated prepress and finishing capabilities have allowed small commercial printers to take a bite out of the business that traditionally belonged to the so called vanity presses.

There are still plenty of opportunities for on demand book production to be a great differentiator for the printers who are positioned to take on this niche market. Before jumping into the fray, however, there are three areas to consider: product, market, and equipment.


The first question to evaluate is what type of books you want to print. The answer will be determined, at least in part, by your market. That will, in turn, define the investment you will need to make. Nonetheless, let’s first examine the potential that is open to you.

Almost any printer with standard output capacity and bindery equipment can produce some kind of book. Finishing capabilities, as much as anything, determine how far you can go in the world of short-run book production. Methods as simple as coil binding, saddle stitching, or tape binding are often sufficient for producing books in categories such as:

• Manuals

• Cookbooks

• Directories

• Catalogs

• Course material

• Employee handbooks

• Personal histories

• Poetry books

• Short story collections

• Children’s books

Once you advance to perfect binding, the possibilities are virtually unlimited. This is a must if you wish to make short-run books a significant part of your business plan. In order to form a strong working relationship with an independent publisher—which is probably the best way to ensure a steady flow of book work—you must be able to deliver professional looking perfect bound books.

Another product that has received a lot of attention in recent years is the photo book. Most small commercial printers have difficulty balancing the time that goes into creating a photo book against the return. Still, there are some who have found this niche, which is typically an extremely short-run job, to be a way to differentiate their companies from the competition.


Virtually any size market can provide your company with some type of book work. Even in the smallest market, if you establish your company as the go to expert for book production, it can help to keep the equipment humming. The caveat is that building that trade is easier said than done.

The first step, of course, is to identify what print industry sales consultant Dave Fellman refers to as “suspects”—people who might have the need to print short-run books. Organizations such as churches, schools, associations, and clubs generally print directories. These types of organizations also frequently publish cookbooks or local histories as fund raisers. A college campus is rich hunting ground if you’re interested in producing course material. Talk to real estate agents or brokers about printing a catalog of just their property listings, separate from the larger catalogs that include many agents or brokers.

Promote your book printing capabilities to the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, and other business groups. Many people have begun writing “business expert” books as a way to promote their companies or to advertise their own expertise in a certain field. Make sure they can find you.

If you are interested in printing self-published “vanity” type work—fiction, poetry, children’s books, personal histories, etc.—visit the library and independent book stores to learn how to contact writing clubs in your area. Be aware, however, that these customers may be the most difficult of all. Not only are they exceptionally protective of their work, they also generally tend to be price shoppers.

If you are lucky enough to be located in a market that is home to one or more independent publishing houses, make the most of it. A good relationship with an established publisher can provide the volume of business that would justify the investment needed to turn short-run book production in to a major profit center.


Speaking of investment, it’s time to talk about equipment. If you choose to make book production a primary component of your business, the investment will be considerable. Beginning with prepress, your software and backup systems will have to be kept up to date. Your prepress employees must be attentive to detail, and you will probably want to offer complete design services.

Since short-run is the name of the game, output is typically best suited for digital devices. High-volume monochrome printers are available from all the major vendors of toner-based equipment. However, if you are considering working with books that require four-color work in the contents, don’t overlook the possibility of inkjet devices. You will also require a color output device and probably a UV coater for producing covers.

The bindery is where the real investment comes in. If you are planning to expand beyond the bare basics, a perfect binder is a must. Working with larger publishers can also push you into the need for sewing and casing equipment. Rick Lindemann, vice president of Total Printing Systems in Newton, IL, points out that larger publishers generally require a printer to have a certain level of redundancy in their equipment list. That ensures the timely completion of the work even if a piece of equipment should fail during production.

However, for printing companies that hope to get into basic short-run book work, Lindemann also offers another choice bit of advice. With so many companies going out of business in recent months, there is a lot of used equipment on the market. Printers can make some very good deals right now, which might even put equipment within their reach that they may not have been able to afford if they had to buy it new.

Making Choices

Short-run book printing is within the grasp of almost every printing company. The real question is whether it is suited to your firm’s corporate culture. You will have to devote a good deal of time to nurturing this market. The clients frequently require hand-holding and they can be price shoppers. But once you’ve got a few happy campers, they are more inclined than most printing customers to become evangelists for your company.

Plus, self-publishing authors are less likely to be lured away by flashy technology. Seeing their words on an e-reader screen will never equal the satisfaction of holding a beautifully printed book in their hands and seeing their names on the cover.