Digital Paper Pitfalls
The paper selection process for books printed digitally differs radically from that of books destined for offset. What designers and production managers should know.
Choosing the right paper for a book printed digitally can make or break such on-demand publishing projects.
Digital paper has unique reflective, color, sensory, and operational characteristics compared to paper destined for, offset or other printing technologies.
For example, digital paper has increased moisture, is smoother, and more dimensionally stable. The more precisely the edges are cut, the more efficiently the paper moves through the press.
Digital papers are smoother than offset papers for good toner adhesion. And the increased moisture in digital papers allows the sheets to pass unscathed through the high-temperature processes.
The best digital papers for heat fused, dry toner presses—such as the Xerox DocuTech, Oce Demand Stream, Heidelberg Digimaster, IBM Infoprint—are those that remain stable under extreme temperatures.
Conversely, papers designed for offset printing are optimized for commercial offset presses. That means they're engineered to work with ink and water, without the strict limitations in toner transfer, with a wider range of surfaces and textures than allowed in digital printing.
If heat tolerances are wider, other tolerances are tighter. "Tolerances are much narrower for digital paper," says Laura Shore, VP of marketing communications at Mohawk Paper Mill, in Cohoes, N.Y. "If it's off by 30 seconds of an inch, it could cause a jam—and jams are a nightmare for book printers because of the downtime they cause."
Mohawk markets its digital paper product, Mohawk Superfine, to books-on-demand (BOD) publishers, but Mohawk officials say they haven't had a big run on it; at least, not yet.
That's not surprising. Despite the recession, the young BOD market is growing. Publishers increasingly understand the economic advantages of BOD for short runs, vanity titles, corporate publishing, backlists, and other applications.
Those leveraging BOD technology on short runs today are building experience with, and best practices around, the unique workflows that drive BOD projects.
But the typical BOD publisher is also smaller, and is producing smaller runs, according to the paper vendors interviewed by Booktech. BOD publishers are looking for the most economical papers—and that means they're buying from brokers.
As with offset papers, digital papers are offered in a variety of weights. This allows publishers to control cost by matching opacity, sensory properties, and durability to the project at hand.
For an on-demand book with an expected short shelf life, many publishers reap substantial savings by using digital paper that is low-grade bond paper in the 20-lb. weight range.
For high-end books or marketing communications titles (such as annual reports), cheap paper won't do, and publishers are going with 60-lb. text paper or higher weights.
Traditional book printers, 'speedy' printers, and commercial printers are getting in on the BOD action, offering BOD-related services as a way to grow revenues in an otherwise flat market.
As digital presses, binders, and other machinery used in BOD projects improve in areas such as speed, capacity, color range and accuracy, image quality, materials options, and reliability, larger and larger print runs will inevitably be printed on demand.
When that happens, forward-thinking mills such as Mohawk will be ready. Until then, BOD is still, essentially, a new approach to book manufacturing.
One arena where BOD is catching on is custom publishing. The high price of college textbooks coupled with the ease and low cost of producing books-on-demand is turning educators into publishers.
They're building custom textbooks by reusing, repackaging, and reorganizing existing content; or even writing their own new titles from scratch.
But perhaps the leading books-on-demand application is the keep-in-print product, where printers are digitally producing short runs for publishers who need to keep a slow-selling title in print.
These titles might be selling no more than 100 to 500 books a year. They went out of print in the pre-BOD era, because publishers had to sell at least 2,000 offset-produced copies of a title annually to make money on it.
AIMING HIGH FOR LOWER COST
Today publishers can justify runs as small as 100 units. Indeed, officials at printer Ames On-Demand, with its BookBuild keep-in-print product, say their publisher clients can squeeze the same margins out of short runs as they do from titles printed en masse.
Ames officials also say publishers are increasingly using on-demand book printing for short-run first printings. This is for publishers who are unsure where and how much demand a new book will trigger.
BOD lets them debut or test-market a title, or even customize it for different markets, without incurring undue production costs or financial risk.
Small publishers can produce 2,000 or 5,000 books for short run first editions, competing effectively with larger publishers who typically get in the game with at least 10,000, and usually more copies.
With cost the driving factor for on-demand applications, Ames officials say most of their publishers opt for "very economical" 20-lb. bond paper.
"People seem to be more cost-conscious these days, and less concerned about the type of paper in general," says Tom Delano, business development manager at Ames, in Somerville, Mass., a division of Ames Safety Envelope Company. "For most [BOD] applications, there is less concern about the quality of paper than price. [Publishers] know when they hit a manufacturing price point where they have to make some compromises on the paper."
While a title's finished quality is determined, in part, by the type of paper used, the on-demand printer can also bring further efficiencies to the table, reducing cost without affecting quality in the least.
Ames uses four Xerox DocuTech 6180 digital presses to print books two-up on 11" x 17" paper. The pages are then trimmed to 8.5" x 11" size, and plastic coiled or perfect bound.
The paper is bought on long rolls, which may be 19" wide. As many pages as possible are printed along the roll, to minimize waste. Then the pages are trimmed.
But after receiving a job request to include perforations on textbook pages, Delano discovered Ames couldn't buy 11" x 17" sheets with twin perforations. They'd have to pay for more costly perforated 8.5" x 11" paper.
Rather than drive up his client's cost, Delano decided to invest in a DocuSheeter DT roll feed system from Roll Systems, in Burlington, Mass. The DocuSheeter perforates the paper before it's sheeted and fed into the printer.
Ames continues to purchase the less-costly unperforated 11" x 17" sheets, and perforates using the DocuSheeter.
IRONING OUT MAKE-READY COSTS
Paper vendors are keenly aware switching papers for different jobs can be a time-consuming process, driving up costs for the printer and, by extension, publishers.
One paper vendor, Glatfelter, has attacked that problem in an innovative way. The company took its most popular trade book grade, Writers, and adapted it for digital applications.
Dubbed DigiBook, the paper can be used for both offset and digital printing. This can eliminate the need to swap paper grades when jobs changeover, a huge boon for busy printers offering both offset and digital—an increasingly common scenario.
"Just a few years ago, printers were searching for an effective business model that could take advantage of this new emerging market," says Mark Pitts, director of printing and converting papers for Glatfelter, in York, Pa. "In 2003, it appeared that printers were beginning to reap the benefits of their hard work."
Cascades Fine Paper Group, a division of Cascades Inc., is taking a similar approach. The company decided 18 months ago to engineer its digital paper product, Rolland Hi-Tech, to be appropriate for both offset and digital markets.
Indeed, to some extent, Cascades doesn't differentiate between offset and digital with Rolland Hi-Tech, preferring instead to offer its versatile paper for any job where the content is going direct to press, with no plates involved.
Perhaps this is partly why Cascades saw sales of its digital papers jump 10% in 2003. "As we progress on [Rolland Hi-Tech], we will move away from other products not as profitable, and not driven by new [digital printing] trends,' says Robert Boivin, marketing director at Cascades, in Kingsey Falls, Quebec.
Kirby Best, president and CEO of Lightning Source Inc., in LaVergne, Tenn., one of the first and largest on-demand book publishers, agrees with Glatfelter's Pitts and Cascades' Boivin: switching paper costs money, standardizing saves money.
So Lightning Source attacked the high cost of switching paper by standardizing; in their case, on a high quality 60-lb. grade.
"We don't like switching paper back and forth, so we made a conscious decision to go with the best paper possible," says Best.
A well-known IBM shop, Lightning Source sells the fact that it uses 'the best digital paper' for BOD projects. Executives there waste little time pointing out that some of their books end up in the U.S. Library of Congress.
"We lose the odd job [due to cost], but people get acid free paper, good paper, with good recyclable content," Best says. "They usually come back to us."
'They' includes such prestigious imprints as Random House, now doing BOD via Lightning Source's IBM Infoprint 4100 web-fed monochrome digital presses.
The bulk of Lightning Source's work includes university press, religious books, and big trade books; however, Best expects his shop to be printing Tom Clancy and many other best-selling bylines—that is, once they're 10 years old, part of a backlist printed on demand.
HOT PROBLEM, COOL SOLUTION
One problem that's challenged digital press makers and printers is heat: the faster a digital press is operating, the hotter its internal temperatures.
This can, at a minimum, degrade the quality of the finished product or, at worst, cause paper jams and downtime, according to printers with BOD experience.
After experiencing problems with paper overheating, engineers at Lightning Source created their own method for reducing paper heat.
The company recently patented a moisture-stabilization technology, and is now using the as-yet unnamed technology internally.
It works like this: paper that's passed through the heated printers emerges hot and dry. It's rolled through sponges, which rehydrates the paper, yet without smearing the ink.
By containing the adverse effects of heat, Lightning Source can push its IBM Infoprint presses to the limit, boosting production capacity.
Keeping costs down and quality up is also the goal at on-demand book printer Berryville Graphics Inc., Berryville, Va. Officials there say 50% of their work is a 'one print run'—that's one book at a time.
They also print many two to five unit orders on demand. The pioneering shop (they've been printing books-on-demand for three years) has found a nice market printing self-published titles.
For these low-budget jobs, book publishers can have any paper they like—as long as it's 50-lb. cream-colored offset paper, purchased from a paper broker.
"In an ultra-low run, or quantity one, you have to have standardized material," says John McClurken, print-on-demand manager for Berryville Graphics.
Berryville keeps its two Xerox DocuTech 6180 digital presses running three shifts a day, printing and binding 1,200 to 1,500 books daily.
"If you have to keep changing the material, you can't make enough books to make enough money," McClurken says.
For publishers who need a better grade of paper, a minimum order of 200 units or so will do it. Stick with the standard paper, and publishers can produce one book at a time.
Vendors of digital presses aren't sitting still. Like PCs, telephones, and other digital techs, each new digital press is faster, cheaper, and better than the previous generation.
The next round of digital presses will let publishers do more with two-up and four-up printing, according to officials at Canon Inc., in Lake Success, N.Y. Xerox officials are promising "significant product expansion" in the company's coated paper used in specialty media for color printing.
And IBM executives say they anticipate more use of color among their customers, as well as press technology upgrades to "improve efficiency and drive down the cost of book production."
Industry analysts say it will soon become commonplace for binding machines to be integrated with digital presses, providing an all-in-one solution for the entire book production process. But at the center of it all will remain the paper.
- Charlotte Dunlap