As You Like It
As professors begin creating their course plan for the year, often they’ll select a title that they once used during their days as an undergrad or graduate student, not realizing that the title has been pulled from the backlist of the publisher as ‘out of print.’
The advent of short-run digital technology has allowed publishers to offer books that are no longer in print in quantities anywhere from one to a few thousand. The technology in recent years also has opened up custom publishing divisions at major educational publishers.
Pearson Education is one of several large educational book publishers to offer such a program to its customers. The company’s custom publishing program with Offset Paperback Manufacturers (OPM) allows professors to pull chapters from several titles to create their course material.
“Whether it be Pearson, McGraw-Hill or Thomson, their custom divisions are pretty much all digital print,” says Dale Williams, director of prep, sheetfed and digital printing operations at OPM. “Because the professors that order material from these companies take chapters from different books and combine them into a new book for a different class, it’s obviously going to be shorter run.”
Williams says that the custom book program the Berryville, Va., company fulfills for Pearson takes up to about 85 percent to 90 percent of its digital print capacity. “[Last] year we did about a billion pages [with Pearson], and [this year] it’s supposed to be closer to a billion-five, maybe two billion pages,” Williams says.
Currently OPM is able to produce only black and white customized books for Pearson, but Williams says the company will be able to offer color custom publishing in 2006 at price points the market will be able to bear.
“Right now, if [educational publishers] have a [custom order] that requires a lot of color pages, [they’re] chopping up the books,” he says. “They have a warehouse full of these books and they … take chapters out …. That’s just labor-intensive.”
Commercial Communications Inc. (CCI), in Hartland, Wis., also offers custom book publishing programs for several clients including Houghton Mifflin.
“The main tool that we have is called Publication Zone,” says Chad Hegwood, vice president of technology at CCI. “It is the core piece of everything that we offer, and it keeps track of their customers’ orders. That’s what [our customers] want to know. How much are their customers ordering [and] when are they ordering it? [Publication Zone] is the repository for all that information.”
Hegwood says the original custom-book program it offered its clients was PDF-based, where a publisher’s customer came onto a Web site, and picked several chapters from different books and previewed the content online. For example, a math professor would consider their course plan and choose course material from different texts containing that specific information, Hegwood says. “If it’s history, [a professor may ask], ‘Am I going to cover the history of Russia?’ If not they can leave that out of their book.”
Hegwood says XML applications is where custom publishing is going. “The XML side is very similar to PDFs, but we are using XML data [where] you can be a lot more flexible and build books at a much lower level.” He explains that professors will be able to customize their books with single pages or passages from a book.
“When it comes time to select or view your content, you’re going to be able to [do so] at a much more granular level. [Publishers] won’t only be [able] to build books, but they’ll also produce the instructor solution manuals and student workbooks, and build those in association with the book.”
Not just anyone can access the site to order a book, though, Hegwood says. Professors have to be approved by the publisher to become users and are grouped into user types, based on the number of times they order books and the quantities they request.
The user types help publishers keep tabs on their customers, and factors such as the type of customer they are, and the frequency and size of their orders determine what is accessible to them.
RESTRUCTURING OLDER TITLES
In addition to customizing course material for Pearson, OPM also uses digital technology to bring back out-of-print titles.
“We manage what we call their ARP [automatic replenishment program] program, keeping those titles [in stock] that you only turn 50 or 100 of a year, or every few months,” Williams explains. “That’s a major advantage for using digital print to keep the runs short and their inventory low as well.”
Williams says the automated system OPM uses allows the company to turn titles around in a matter of hours. “We probably have about 20,000 titles in our content management system in the ARP program, and … every morning we’ll receive an order [from Pearson, for example], and they’ll get put through a filter that opens … and checks the files to the specifications to verify that the order is correct. [The filter] will drop the files into [the appropriate] ‘hot directory’ on the digital press, whether it be our [Xerox] iGen or our web presses.”
Williams says the front-end for reprints is completely automated and the success of the program has caused OPM to test using the automated front-end system to produce original titles. “[Everything] that’s done traditionally on the front-end is bypassed, [and] within 15 seconds of receiving the order, it goes right into the hot directories on the press, provided it passes all of our tests. If it doesn’t, the order goes right to our prep department with a note in the system that says it failed because of this, that or the other [thing].”
As with all industries, the goal is to get faster and more efficient each year, and the publishing industry is no different. As digital technologies improve in quality and efficiency, the benefits will continue to be reflected in publishers’ bottom lines