Crack Open the On-Demand Book Market

If you’re seeking new revenue opportunities, producing on-demand books may open up a whole new and profitable chapter in your shop‘s history. Authoring a success story in on-demand books requires possessing or acquiring certain equipment, now and a bit down the road. It calls for you to hire or train certain skills. It demands a mindset that embraces, rather than recoils from, challenges. And it requires the willingness to attend to small details.

If you have or can obtain all these attributes, on-demand books can be a lucrative profit center for your company. As one expert notes, books have many pages, and every one of them can do its part to provide you profit.

Here’s a look at some of the reasons to offer on-demand books, and a few of the keys to success once you’ve jumped into the market.

On-demand books represent a growth market, says Richard Lindemann II, vice president of Total Printing Systems, a Newton, IL-based 40-year-old short-run book manufacturer with complete in-house finishing capabilities. One factor in the growth is the cost pressure facing publishers. When producing books on-demand, publishers can create them only as needed, based on orders sold, and ship from multiple locations; reaping considerable savings, he says.

Also viewing on-demand books as a growth area is Chuck Stempler, CEO and president of AlphaGraphics in Seattle, with six locations. “The space is very active for us,” he says. “We do a lot of marketing on the Internet, and about 10 to 15 percent of inquiries we receive via Internet marketing are about books.”

Interest in on-demand books comes from a wide array of quarters. Those who develop coursework for university students often need a service to maintain a backlist and provide fulfillment, Stempler says. Demand for on-demand books also comes from corporate trainers, the conventional publishing world, and the sector of the industry generally referred to as vanity publishing, he says.


Getting Started

When getting started as a provider of on-demand books, it’s essential to understand the minimal equipment set necessary to be viable, Stempler says. “The first thing is output, color and black-and-white,” he advises. “Then there is the finishing component. You have to find a bindery that is cost-effective and capable with orders of maybe one or two hundred books.

“There are some ancillary things about the cover. Many people want either a UV flood coat or a thin lamination to protect the cover, and you have to know where to go for that capability as well, assuming you don’t have it in-house. It’s important to find a competitive source for these. Turnaround time is not super critical, but you do need to understand the cycle.” Print service providers should have at least a 12x18-inch piece of digital equipment for black-and-white printing, with 13x19-inch better, he says. In color, they must have 13x19-inch capability in order to accommodate book spines. Until reaching a volume of, say, 1,500 to 2,000 books a month, he says, they are “probably not looking at acquiring in-house perfect binding or lamination or flood UV coating.”

As for Lindemann, he believes that beginners must ensure they have, he says, “a digital engine of some sort. It doesn’t really matter what the technology is. But it essentially has to have zero makeready. From a bindery standpoint, [the selection] would depend on your customer base. Go with whatever is your most popular bind style, and try to focus on doing that efficiently first, before going out and adding a lot of capabilities new to you.”


Keys to Success

According to Stempler, “You must want to be in this space.” Those who make a success of on-demand books must like challenges and a bit of problem solving. “You are going to have to learn the hard way on a couple of projects,” he says. “But we’re not talking rocket science. It’s a source of steady work, and it can be very lucrative. Books have a lot of pages in them. And if you’ve constructed your estimate properly, you’ve got markup on every sheet of paper and every image on that paper.”

Lindemann feels one of the keys to success is eliminating as many human touches as possible, from the order entry stage to final production. However, he says, “We still like to have human interaction with our customers, and we still like to have a human eye check files as they come in to some degree. You have to be careful about the steps in which you introduce automation.”

He also believes it’s crucial to keep up with technology advancements in printing. If you waited too long to get into digital printing or on-demand work, you may find customers have found homes elsewhere, he says.


Training or Hiring the Proper Skills

In offering on-demand books, hiring the right kinds of people is essential, Lindemann says. “Quality control is the biggest thing,” he notes. “You have to hire employees who care about producing a good product. You can train them on what to look for and what makes a good product, but they have to inherently have the desire to make sure good products are being produced.” Possessing strong IT skills in the shop is also important. When tackling shorter-run, on-demand work, files have to be processed more quickly, and you must target the elimination of as many human touches as possible, Lindemann says.

Stempler feels those just starting with on-demand books need to train or hire people skilled in selling the product, as well as the in-house prepress capability. “But producing on-demand books is really no different than producing marketing collateral, brochures, or anything you would print digitally,” he says.

The Future of On-demand Books

As mentioned earlier, experts like Stempler and Lindemann are convinced the category of on-demand books is truly a growth area. Lindemann believes the greatest growth ahead will be witnessed in two areas.

One is in producing galley proofs or initial test market copies, he reports. Publishers may want to print 200 or 500 copies of a book they plan to sell millions of. That test market run is generated to learn, first, if something is wrong with the book, and second, if there seems to be as large a market as anticipated.

“The other growth area is in backlist titles,” Lindemann says. “These are titles that might have been great sellers in the past, but are now selling maybe 1,000 copies a year. With shorter-run technology, we’re able to produce those 1,000-copy runs at a nominal charge compared to what was paid in the past.”

Stempler says the physical book’s demise may occur someday, but today is not that day. “It’s a significant revenue stream and earnings opportunity,” he says. “And for the foreseeable future, we see growth, not decline.”