Growing Demand for On-Demand Books

There are few industries that have been through more changes in recent years than the book business. Changing reading habits, the proliferation of e-readers, the demise of the Borders chain of bookstores, and the closing of many Barnes & Noble stores all signal a seachange in traditional book publishing.

Yet, huge demand for books still exists, as evidenced by the success of Amazon‘s book-selling division. Americans are still reading, authors are still looking to publish or self-publish, and book publishers are more interested than ever in embracing book production efficiencies that generate greater profits.

Put it all together and the area of “on-demand” books offer the prospect of growing sales, revenues, and profits for print service providers across America.


Working with Self-Publishers

There are at least two approaches to serving the on-demand books market, say experts. One approach is to seek work from self-publishing book authors to fill existing production capacity, said John Conley, vice president of commercial print and publishing for Xerox Corp. “Most of these [print service providers] already have equipment to produce books,” reported Conley, who was a longtime book printing executive in the education segment with mega printer RR Donnelley before joining Xerox. “I tell [PSPs], if you want to expand your book business become the local service provider for the self-published author. There are hundreds and hundreds of titles every year. Most of these people are not doing [books] for commercial purposes. They’re doing it for family or a school project.”

Opportunity exists in every community across the nation, he added. As the local businessperson handling the printing of self-published books, you are likely to be trusted, because prospects can come speak with you in person. Conley urges PSPs to build reputations by printing soft-cover, adhesive-bound books to high standards, and serving the local authors and school districts in their regions.

Most PSPs who enter this niche have at least a one-color digital press that runs an 11x17 or larger sheet. Most books will run in three trim size families: 5.5x8.5, 6x9, and 8.5x11 inches. “Go into a book store with a ruler, and that is 90 percent of what you’ll measure,” Conley noted. “You start with some kind of entry-level press, and once you start building the volume, and you’re doing 100,000 pages a month or more, you’ll get a heavier production press.”

In addition to the press, also needed at the outset are a four-color digital press to print the covers in the three above trim sizes and an adhesive binder.

Don’t add higher-volume equipment until you have the volume to justify it. When you do, he says, an ideal heavier production press could be a Xerox Nuvera 120 model that handles more than 100 A4 pages a minute.

To ensure that your business doesn’t have to take on projects that reduce margins, establish the standard for the way files come into your shop, Conley urged. You can’t run a business accepting files in formats that haven’t existed in 20 years. “Say someone has composed the book on an Apple IIc in Apple version of WordPerfect. If you try to take care of that, you lose money,” he advised.

“If they aren’t able to provide appropriate files, build up a list of local outsource [partners] who can do that for you, and send them to those sources,” he added. “It’s not an expense you want to take on in house. [By outsourcing] you get a trusted file you know will run in your workflow, and that’s very important.”

Tonya Powers, Graphic Arts Segment marketing manager with Canon Solutions America, agreed that serving self publishers is a viable strategy. “Digital printing has turned the traditional publishing model upside down by providing ‘print-to-order’ capabilities,” she reported. “Many printing companies are using this model to print on demand on behalf of the publisher. The printer essentially prints and distributes titles, filling orders on behalf of the publisher. Printers now have the ability to provide a comprehensive suite of inventory-free, on-demand print and distribution services for books to the publishing industry.”

Gone are the days, she said, of book inventory, storage, and distribution through lengthy supply chains. Most digitally printed books go straight from the printer to the consumer. Not only is this model quicker and more cost-efficient, it’s the only way to thrive in the book printing world, Powers advised.

Stressing his belief that the right equipment is crucial to success is Canon Solutions America customer Jeremy Hess, sales and marketing director for Odenton, MD-based Gasch Printing. However, the equipment required will vary depending on what segment of the industry you pursue, he said.

“Figure out what your customers need, and then find the right equipment partner to fit those needs,” Hess recommended. “There are so many equipment choices out there, [and] finding the right partner is critical to help you grow.”


Working with Publishers

A second strategy in entering the on-demand book field is to offer book publishers an intermediary service. So said Nick Clements, global publishing segment expert with HP Indigo. Say a publisher already has sold 2,000 copies of the first edition, and has a sales forecast for 300 or 400 more copies. But the publisher’s minimum print run is 1,000 copies. The print provider serving the on-demand book market could produce those additional copies.

The publisher’s cost would be higher, but the sale of additional books would mean incremental revenue for the publisher because the PSP is enabling the publisher to sell 300 copies of a book that otherwise would be out of print.

However, serving this market will require a bit more of an upfront outlay.

“You need to recognize there will be a capital investment,” Clements explained. “You need the software for job handling, preflighting, prepress, and imposition. You need the digital press, digital finishing equipment, and all the fulfillment systems, because you need to be able to deliver those books either to the retailer or to the customer. It’s a fairly complex and comprehensive system.”

One way around making a large upfront capital expenditure is to approach the market with baby steps. Find customers who want to produce books in very, very short runs, which will allow you to invest on a limited basis. “Then you can start automating your links to those publishers one by one, with the capital investment funded by revenues coming in on those first orders,” Clements said.

As for necessary equipment, Clements recommended an HP Indigo digital press, along with the finishing equipment needed to cut the sheets and stack the book blocks that are ready for binding. Another investment is in the casing end, where the pages and cover are put together to create a book.

In addition, “you need to invest in the front-end software system that will allow you to automate the job order,” he shared. “You need to automate that whole order and entry process where you take in orders and process those orders in a cost-effective fashion. Each one of these available options is scalable. The HP Indigo press is scalable. Investing in faster, more efficient presses and corresponding finishing equipment are steps to take once the cash flow exists.”

Along the way to that ongoing cash flow, you should pursue every means to cut your operation’s expenses through standardization, added Clements. For instance, it’s recommended that you try standardizing around three or four substrates, or specific formats that fit nicely on the press. “You need to have a conversation with the publisher that goes, ‘You have to help me help you. You need to allow some compromises.’ This is a conversation that leads to some standardization, where everyone gives a little,” he said.


Upselling e-Books?

What about offering e-books, as well as the printed versions? According to Conley, if you offer e-book services, you must have in-house talent to create the e-books, or outsource it. “It’s not a service you will add right away,” he said. “You can find a service provider who will do it for you. And you know what? You can put an upcharge on it. If [customers] want it bad enough, they will pay.”

Summing up, Hess said, “This is a growth area. Publishers want quicker turnaround and less waste and inventory. Print on demand is the solution.”

Conley feels on-demand books offer the promise of sizable growth. “’On-demand’ is not a book, it’s a manufacturing capability,” he explained. “The ultimate goal is that a customer first purchases a book, and then it is printed.”