Gene Therapy: Effective Digital Print Strategies
Ten years ago, digital, ondemand book printing officially burst upon the scene at Book-Expo America. With IBM’s roll-fed and Xerox’s sheet-fed equipment producing books on the show fl oor in Chicago, Ingram (then Lightning Print) and Bertelsmann (through OPM) invited the industry to get on board while the train was at the station.
Since then, Lighting Print has transformed into Lightning Source, a subsidiary of Ingram Industries and the nation’s largest 24/7 book-at-a-time printer. Book and journal manufacturer Edwards Brothers, which had also been operating a one-off DocuTech service for some years before 1998, has expanded its reach and now has seven satellite digital book centers, including one in the United Kingdom.
Other manufacturers, from RR Donnelley to Malloy and BookMasters, have incorporated digital print into their life-of-the-title offerings, although many book manufacturers continue to leave the field to digital book printers such as Lightning Source, IBT Global (the oldest in the business), DeHart’s, Fidlar Doubleday, BookSurge (now owned by Amazon.com Inc.) and ColorCentric.
An entire author-services publishing industry sector has emerged built on digital demand printing, including publishers such as Lulu.com, AuthorHouse, iUniverse (owned by AuthorHouse), BookSurge, Xlibris (owned by Random House) and Infinity Publishing. And, incidentally, because preparation of an electronic native file converted to PDF drives most printing lines, print-on-demand (POD) has, until recently, been primarily responsible for enabling more titles to become available for ebook distribution.
Overcoming Structural Barriers
There are a number of life-cycle benefits of digital print. They include prepublication distribution for sampling and reviews; sell-first, print-later demand publishing for titles selling in small quantities; filling orders for titles that are essentially “out of print” or for which reprints are delayed; and long-tail application—keeping titles in print indefinitely when sales fall below a certain level.
While many mid-range and smaller enterprise publishers have yet to fully execute the vision, virtually everyone has accepted digital as part of the available toolkit for print. The challenge is how to fully integrate the technology into the life cycle of title management.
One of the chief barriers to going full-steam ahead is that the manufacturing industry hasn’t systemically fully integrated digital with traditional offset. As a consequence, most publishers who have embraced digital strategies are building relationships with different digital printers alongside their conventional offset printers.
While buyers have always spread their business among several printers in order to assure sources of supply during peaks and valleys, and also to take advantage of different printing or finishing capabilities, the big difference in this instance is that the same title now gets placed with different vendors—not only for printtoinventory and print-to-order, but also for electronic editions. This imposes a riskier quality-control requirement on the publisher in regard to consistency in the outcome for content, format, press work and image reproduction.
At the Digital Book Printing Forum held at the 2008 Publishing Business Conference & Expo last month in New York City, Tom Willshire, vice president of sales and marketing, Continuum International Publishing Group, addressed how digital print fits into a comprehensive content management strategy. Continuum’s multichannel, multiformat program provides a good case study on the value of virtual warehousing print-to-order in multiple locations as a way to limit returns, handling and lost orders.
Print Quality Issues Largely Resolved
A major concern among professional production managers and print buyers has been print quality—lay of the pigment on the paper surface, sharpness of typographic reproduction and halftone quality. It is generally conceded that digital print provides black-and-white reproduction indistinguishable from offset to the reader’s eye. Color is not far behind and, in many cases, superior.
The primary constraint lies in the limitations on grades of paper that equipment manufacturers will certify as acceptable under their maintenance contracts. This, it is reported, has also limited the adoption pace in the digital print market of recycled papers.
Regarding comparative ink-jet versus toner reproduction quality, I checked with a few digital print buyers on whether they felt there was a material difference that would affect readability or the user experience in choosing between ink-jet or laser (toner-based) systems. The consensus seems to be that there isn’t, although there are material differences in operating costs and quality-control issues from the printer’s standpoint.
Neil Litt, director of editorial, design and production at Princeton University Press, observes that “the difference in quality is more determined by the skill of the operator than the nature of the equipment.”
Another publisher shared some off-the-record thoughts that an additional consideration is whether the digital print will last as long as the expected life of the paper: “One of our first concerns when we moved to a digital print strategy was whether or not the toner would fade over time. We had the digital printers provide us with independent test results that ultimately reassured us that our fears were not justified,” the publisher says.
There seems to be cause for substantial confidence that ink and toner technologies will keep pace with demands for longevity. Graphic arts technology expert Dr. Frank Romano—Rochester Institute of Technology professor emeritus, editor of the “Pocket Pal” and author of more than 44 books dealing with the graphic arts industry—projects that digital print will overtake offset, with at least 55 percent of the market, by the year 2050. As a practical matter, most titles today that benefit from the life-extension and economics of digital print are onecolor, black-and-white general trade, for which quality variations can be welltolerated with no degrading of the reading experience or appearance.
Real-Time Delivery On-Demand
The technologies driving digital print today, in black-and-white and color, provide automated prepress sophistication and quality control that were still a gleam in the eye of equipment and systems designers at that famous BookExpo 10 years ago.
John Lacagnina, president and CEO of the ColorCentric Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., started his company in 2002 with the encouragement of industry people who saw a “perfect storm” in the coming together of several factors: the perfection of digital color printing, the Internet, digital photography and, as he puts it, “the promise of a zero-inventory, real-time, one-off production model.”
His plant now offers 300 different black-and-white and color products in any size book, printing thousands of different products a day, with real-time tracking of every job in process, a standard 48-hour turnaround and an optional 24-hour, same-day guarantee. A 250-page, black-and-white book with a four-color cover is printed, bound and trimmed in 30 seconds.
How Digital Print Impacts the Business Model
In my recent two-part series on workfl ow management (Book Business, February and March 2008), I described how various publishers large and small now design their workfl ow in order to accommodate diverse formats and sources of supply by strategies such as in-house printing, placing titles with printers offering offset and digital, and maintaining inventories with outsource POD printers.
Not included in the foregoing, but not to be overlooked, is a steady movement toward bringing back, in a realistic way, the “before its time” bookstore-, airport- and library-sited POD kiosk first introduced during the dotcom bubble. The leading contender in efforts to develop this market is the Espresso Book Machine.
The ultimate business benefit of incorporating digital print into a comprehensive manufacturing and distribution strategy is its impact on the bottom line. Factors that any publisher, large or small, can lay out in a comparison chart concern where, in the life of the book, the demand is such that it is more profitable to maintain inventory; or, when demand is diminished or geographically diffused, that it is more profitable to pay more per unit and print after the sale.
The cost factors to be weighed are:
1. unit cost for print to inventory versus POD;
2. shipping and handling costs in and out of the warehouse;
3. shipping and handling costs for automatic POD fulfillment;
4. impact of time and distance factors on unrealized sales;
5. cost of money tied up in inventory; and
6. balance sheet and profit-and-loss impacts of expensing the sale.
The Best Is Yet to Come
The book industry, in general, has just scratched the surface with digital print. Whether you have a completely integrated system in place, such as Continuum, or have yet to engage, it would be useful to launch an informal set of brainstorming and diagnostic sessions among people in your acquisitions, production, finance, marketing and distribution departments.
Do the gap analysis relative to attainment of your publishing potential in the channels and content areas of your expertise. Where are we now? Where would we like to be? How can digital help us get there, and what do we need to do to make it happen?
For late adopters, it means redesigning your workfl ow system so that print is just one of the media outcomes of your content management system. For publishers with depth of field in front and backlist subject areas, a good content management system will make possible customizing and personalizing your books in digital print for single individuals, communities of interest, institutions and businesses.
These opportunities do not apply only to publishers of cookbooks or travel books, which lend themselves to mix-and-match content. They apply also to literary fiction, biography, history, poetry—any genre that readers may wish to get content of on their ereaders, and then put together anthologies of selected chapters or passages for their bookshelves.
And, for every publisher, the just-in-time, target-marketed outcome is the nirvana of a no-returns, nophysical-inventory global publishing enterprise.
Eugene G. Schwartz is a regular contributor to Book Business. He is a publishing industry analyst, writer and editor-at-large for Foreword Magazine. A former PMA board member, he is president of Consortium House, a management and business consultancy to publishers.
- BookMasters Inc.
- Canon U.S.A. Inc.
- ColorCentric Corp.
- Continuum International Publishing Group
- Edwards Brothers
- Fidlar Doubleday Inc.
- Hewlett-Packard Co.
- IBM Corporation
- IBT Global
- Infoprint Solutions Co.
- Kodak Graphic Communications Group
- Lightning Source Inc.
- Malloy Inc.
- Nipson America
- Princeton University Press
- Ricoh Americas Corp.
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- RR Donnelley
- Xerox Corp.