Ready to Print
Amazon bolstered its print-on-demand (POD) book division and consequently put the rest of the industry on notice that retail distribution is continuing to change, after it made a significant push to add new digital color presses to its operations.
The leading online retailer would not publicly disclose the number of Hewlett-Packard (HP) presses that it purchased or the price paid, but said several HP Indigo presses and production manager controllers were installed and put into operation in a number of the company’s fulfillment centers, when the announcement was officially made in December 2006.
Never Out of Stock
The move is an effort to fulfill customers’ orders more efficiently, says Aaron Martin, Amazon’s director of Print and Disc on Demand Services. He says the chance of having a book be out of stock is much less likely with the improvement upon the company’s previous POD setup. The Indigo-model presses Amazon purchased can produce full-color books, as well as color covers for black-and-white titles.
“Say a title becomes very popular—this very niche title—and something happens in the news, let’s say,” Martin says. “Occasionally, what will happen is, because there’s a run on that title, it will stock out for the entire supply chain. And they’ll have to go into reprint mode. A benefit of this technology is to make sure you’re never out of stock. On Amazon.com, a customer can always buy that title.”
Martin says the company’s major book publishers have responded well to Amazon’s POD strategy.
“Our publishing partners have been very enthusiastic about this, even before this announcement,” he says. “This has definitely helped in building their enthusiasm. For their entire catalog—they will never stock out. They don’t have to deal with the inbound logistics costs of pushing lower-velocity units to us. They’re basically made in the fulfillment center. It’s all outbound.”
According to Kim Willis, HP’s segment manager for books and publishing, digital technology has improved significantly, to the point that the quality of the finished book is on par with those printed traditionally with offset presses. The Indigo presses offer near-offset quality, she says. HP’s Indigo line of presses uses liquid ink, as opposed to dry toner, which translates into better print quality thanks to higher resolution and color fidelity.
Willis says other factors beyond print quality have led to the book industry fully accepting the product printed off the digital press.
“I think it’s economics; certainly the opportunity exists that they [Amazon] can print the number they need without going into the inventory,” Willis says. “Consequently, publishers, as well as printers, are working together to understand the economics. I think it’s back to this whole concept of changing the model of publishing.”
According to Willis, the partnership between Amazon and HP is currently “ongoing,” but no specifics have been determined as to what the scale of that business relationship would be in the future.
Eugene G. Schwartz, Book Business columnist and editor-at-large of ForeWord Magazine, says the trend is an inevitable outcome of the close logistical connection between printing and shipping the book, and the push to reduce inventory burdens.
According to market research that HP issued, the books-on-demand market is expected to grow from last year’s page count, approximately 20 billion book pages, to approximately 38 billion book pages by 2009.
“Amazon’s installation of on-site demand printing is part of a trend that has been underway for several years,” says Schwartz. “Several major publishers are known to have plans underway to install POD digital presses in their warehouses. Edward Brothers has had several satellite installations operating [at publisher sites] for several years. At the same time, independent printers are, in the main, either installing digital demand presses or partnering with digital print providers.”
The biggest limitation for Amazon’s POD effort currently is for best sellers that still need to be produced in larger print runs than what the HP presses can currently handle. Such larger quantities, however, may be one of the next hurdles to be overcome.
“Essentially … as that technology improves, publishers will continue to use print-on-demand technology further and further up the tail of selection,” Martin says. “There’s probably a point at which, down the road, even the best sellers will be printed POD. Nobody knows when that will occur, but definitely as the technology improves, I can see that happening down the road.”