Where’s the Money? Books on Demand

Books on demand appear to be the future of book publishing—or at least something pretty close to it. The industry’s evolution toward smaller runs continues even as the number of book titles and readers’ desire for individuality and topicality swells. Remainders are being swept from store shelves more quickly even as demand grows for older titles to be available longer. With book sales steady, however, the demand for individual titles is dipping.

Help for printers is coming in the form of innovative new equipment that can help increase efficiency and bring down production costs.

“Books and manuals continue to represent a growth segment for the printing industry,” declared Bob Schalberg, director of current product marketing for Digimaster. PODi, the association for digital printing service providers and vendors of digital printing hardware and software, estimates that the number of pages for books will grow to 175 billion pages by 2019, and the number of pages for manuals will grow to 78 billion pages during that same period.” Many printers clearly “want a share of this business.”

John Conley, vice president of publishing for Xerox Corp., pointed to a couple of reasons why printers should get into books on demand. “First of all digital books and the business models driving digital books are growing at a much faster rate than any other time of the book printing.”

Last year, Conley pointed out, there were 285,000 self-published titles in North America alone. “That’s the first time that more self publishing titles—this does not include photo books, which is another genre—were produced with Web-based publishing than there were in traditional publishing.”

The force pushing books on demand “has been building for a long time,” said Conley, who has worked in this industry his whole life, and joined Xerox five years ago. “What has enabled it is that you now have platforms of print out there. As you get a widely distributed platform the ability to do this becomes more and more ubiquitous because it’s easier. That’s what is taking place.”

Books by their nature are highly commoditized, Conley pointed out, “so as the cost of producing the book on a digital platform gets less and less you are able to get out more and more of the inefficiency that is inherent in traditional publishing models. If you go to any big publisher’s warehouse you’ll see the waste. It’s sitting there waiting to be sold, and if it doesn’t get sold it’s waiting to be hauled out and thrown away.”

The reason for such rapid growth now, said Conley, is that “you’re getting larger-scale publisher adoption of using a digital platform as part of the management tool they use to reduce waste and improve cash flow. As more people add equipment the platform gets bigger, and it becomes more and more competitive. The publishers like having lots of printers in the game because again, books are a commodity.”

David Taylor, president of Lightning Source, the world’s largest printer of books on demand, and senior vice president of content acquisition for Ingram Content Group Inc., called the segment “a very difficult market to get into at the moment. I think anybody looking to get into that market is going to find some significant barriers to entry.”

Books on demand is “very different from digital short run printing,” Taylor pointed out. “Print on demand means that you have got to be able to print a single copy of a book at a scalable level.” Lightning Source prints over a million books a month on an average print run of only 1.8 copies, “so it’s not a question of just buying a printing machine. You also have to link it into a distribution network of book wholesalers and internet book retailers and distributors. It is very difficult to do.” Lightning Source has been doing it for 11 years, and works with over 9,000 publishers on over one million titles.

Equipment Innovation

Much of the equipment needed for books on demand, Taylor revealed, “is actually your average digital printing equipment. There is nothing that unusual about it.” What is unusual, though, is all of the software required to support it that allows a printer to take “literally tens of thousands of orders from thousands of publishers and print single copies at speed and get them into the market. That’s really what genuine print on demand is about.” There are, he emphasized, “very few companies in the world that do it at that level. We are the only one that can work at that sort of scale in both the United Kingdom and the USA.”

Innovation continues apace:

? In October, Baltimore-based Victor Graphics Inc. installed a new Kodak Digimaster EX300 Digital Book Factory, a high-speed digital book production system, which features a fully integrated in-line perfect binding and trimming capability. The unit allows for up to 300 duplex images per minute. This “burst capacity speed” satisfies the demanding “time to completion” requirements for printers producing books and manuals.

? Muller Martini’s SigmaLine is a total solution for digital book production, making systematic use of the advantages of digital printing. It networks digital printing and finishing in one overall system, enabling fully-automated production in one operation from the roll to the completed book. The integration and linking of all component processes enables short runs to be produced extremely quickly and economically.

? Xerox Corp.’s equipment and software options for books-on-demand printers includes the 1300 Continuous Feed Printing System, FreeFlow Process Manager, iGen3 110 Digital Production Press and Nuvera 120 EA Digital Production System.

? At PRINT 09, HP started selling the HP Indigo W7200 Digital Press, which is used for color print-on-demand books. HP also has the new HP T300 Color Inkjet Web Press, which can be used in book production as well for higher-volume POD work.

The book business is highly specialized because of finishing, Conley noted. “You don’t get a lot of straight commercial printers with 40-inch sheetfed presses as regular book printers.” For book printers, he adds, “their regular business has been under a lot of strain for the last couple of years; it has been a flat business. The digital side is the only part that’s growing.”

There have been, Conley pointed out, a number of companies that have grown “very, very quickly on the digital side, whether it’s the huge mega-printers like Lightning Source, or an extremely successful print on-demand printer like ColorCentric Corp. A company like Mercury Print Productions Inc., which is servicing the education business… has had remarkable growth rates.”

Still Growing

A printer that decides to enter this segment of the industry, according to Taylor, will need to invest in it “significantly. Digital short-run printing is a different game altogether, but it’s very clear that print runs have been shrinking significantly over the years, and the recession has added fuel to that. Of course, you can accuse me of bias, but if I was looking at investing in that market—when you look at the state of it and the players within it—it is very, very difficult to get into.”

That said, printers who want to get involved can be buoyed by the fact that, as Taylor pointed out, books on demand is “clearly the future of book production for the vast majority of books going forward. What it does more than anything else is change the way books are published and distributed. The old way of doing it was to print them first and then try and sell them. This is all about selling them first and then printing them.”

Conley predicted the growth curve is still climbing. “You’ve got a long way to go to get at all of the waste, and you can’t get to all of the waste until you have a fully distributed at retail print solution, which is not going to work for everything.”

Over the past two years, he said, “I have seen more traditional book printers start installing digital platforms than I saw my first three years here. It continues to accelerate across the publishers understand how they can use those and their total inventory management platform, which includes offsets, to sit there and help them meet their goals, which include keeping the books in print, maintaining them in a profitable manner, improving cash flow and reducing waste. That’s the key to making it attractive to the publishers. And I’ll tell you there’s nothing like a really hard recession, when the publishers really had focused down on cash flow, for them to be driven to this.”

Howard Riell is a Las Vegas-based journalist who has covered the printing and graphics communications industry since 1990.