Frankly Speaking: The Rise of the Full-Color Book
We know that books printed digitally have tended to be, like the old stitch about newspapers, black and white and read all over. For most of digital printing's existence, producing professional four-color books just wasn't possible; you had to use offset. But the times they are a-changing, and technological advances are making the production of full-color books in longer short runs more feasible and economical than ever before. The advent of sheetfed digital printing brought us the ability to print full-color books in very short runs—it was responsible for opening up the high-growth photo book market. Now "4-up" and roll-fed "printer/presses" are further changing the full-color publishing paradigm.
Before we go further, let's define some terms, as printers are, in essence, quite different from presses. Printers regenerate the impression for each copy from a digital file, which allows them to use electronic collation and print the pages of a book block in order. Presses, on the other hand, use a physical image carrier (a plate) to reproduce large printed sheets which are folded into signatures, gathered and bound. But printers become, in essence, presses when either the sheet size or output speed starts to approach the specs of an analog reproduction device (aka a press). A "printer/press" is my term for printers that have many characteristics of a press.
Only a few years ago, new approaches were introduced to the world of digital printing that moved them from the realm of copiers toward the realm of the press. The first was the roll-fed digital printer using dry toner. (So you know: Roll-fed, continuous-feed and webfed all mean the same thing.) Monochrome, or black-and-white, versions of this technology had been available for decades. IBM and Océ dominated the market for these printers, which printed bills, statements and other transactional documents. Lightning Source was among the first to apply the technology to books. Covers were printed in color on a separate color printer, and a barcode system matched the covers and book block at the finishing stage.
The Xeikon roll-fed printer in 1993 was the first of these devices to use full color. The machine was also unique because it printed on both sides of the roll at virtually the same time. I have a copy of the first color book printed on the machine—a volume on European tourism. Xeikon's full-color books helped to establish the market.
Then came Océ, which evolved the broadest range of roll-fed color printers and pioneered the transpromo market, which allowed for enhancing transaction documents with color imagery, turning bills into marketing pieces. Both dry toner and inkjet versions are available. Dainippon Screen's TruePress Jet inkjet system found a partner in Ricoh and they now have the largest population of roll-fed full-color printers. Many are used for book printing. King Printing in Lowell, Mass. was among the first users.
HP changed the paradigm with its Inkjet Web Press in 2008. There are now more than 100 worldwide users and the roll can be 20, 30 or 42 inches wide. It is popular with book printers. Courier Corp. in Chelmsford, Mass. has three of them at present.
Despite this advance, most full-color books continued to be produced on small format (12" x 18" or 14" x 20") duplex printers. Canon, HP Indigo, Kodak NexPress, Konica Minolta, MGI, Ricoh and Xerox helped to create the on-demand printing market because they specialized in smaller-format printers. One-off and very-short-run book printing became a primary market for vanity presses and self-published authors, but not ideal for publishers looking for longer short runs. Toner printers use organic photoconductors which have limits in width which is among the reasons some of these machines could not print a larger sheet.
That brings us to a second approach to digital color printing: the so-called B2 printer, also known as a 4-up printer, because the sheet size is as large as four standard sheets, which greatly increases output. Indigo demonstrated a prototype in 1998 but did not introduce a machine until 2012. They call it the 10000 (yes, machine names are now going to 5 digits). The HP Indigo 10000 is now in beta testing, and early users are singing its praises.
FujiFilm and Dainippon Screen introduced production 4-up machines in 2008, though they did not reach the market until 2012. That same year, the industry learned about Landa Nanographic Printers which use liquid toner delivered by inkjet—the machines came in B2 and roll-fed versions. Their technology allows full-color printing with less ink, as liquid toner use is evolving rapidly. Once the province of Indigo, Xeikon and Océ have also shown new machines using this method.
Combined with new finishing systems, these digital printer/presses allow production of book printing runs from one to hundreds—in full color. Once new technology is in place, innovative companies find new markets. In the old days full-color books required long runs to justify their production. For some full-color books overseas production was an option. Because they could have long lead times they could be sent to India, Singapore or China for cheaper offset printing. I caught up with Joe Pasky in Hong Kong last year. He is a consultant to American publishers who print in China, and he does color checks to assure quality. The majority of the printing that he sees is books.
The new breed of digital printer/presses is bringing some of that work back to the U.S. Thanks to new devices capable of longer short runs, publishers are embracing on-demand concepts. The growth of online book buying and the decline in physical bookstores has changed the way buyers buy real books. More importantly, the color book, whether el-hi, college or some other category, is on an upswing.
HP sent me a full-color travel book printed on coated stock. I would defy the most adamant print proponent (anyone left with a loupe in their pocket) to tell the difference between it and offset. Thus, as color becomes easier and more economical to produce, printers and publishers avail themselves of the new methods. Just as the monochrome digital printer gave us the on-demand book market, new digital color printer/presses are accelerating the production of all manner of books. And more and more color books are now produced than ever before—one at a time. x
Frank Romano is RIT Professor Emeritus with over 50 years in book technology and publishing.