16 Tips for Digital-Printing Success
“There’s nothing like a hot book to make things happen,” observes Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of New York-based publisher PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
When Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” got consumers fired up last spring, Osnos responded by utilizing digital print-on-demand (POD) technology.
“With McClellan, we had 60,000 copies in print, which went to an order for 180,000 in 72 hours,” he recalls.
Working with John Ingram, chairman of the Ingram Content Companies, which includes digital-print services provider Lightning Source, Osnos arranged a solution that allowed PublicAffairs to meet demand for the title.
Here, Osnos provides eight tips for digital-printing success by recounting PublicAffairs’ experience with this overnight best-seller:
1. Use digital to fill the offset gap.
POD is ideal for meeting short-term demand for books that take off suddenly. We understood that, if we waited to fill all of those orders for “What Happened” with offset, we would miss sales. … So we reached an agreement [with Ingram] quickly to produce and distribute 7,500 copies of the book in hardcover. Books went from Lightning Source/Ingram to customers in 48 hours. We were able to meet the orders of smaller, independent booksellers, which typically would have had to wait. POD filled the gap while we also moved as fast as we could through traditional printing channels.
We went through the process again [in October] when George Soros’ book, “The New Paradigm for Financial Markets,” started to sell at significantly increased velocity. Lightning Source produced a hardcover version of the book, which allowed us to sell 2,000 copies in 48 hours.
2. Know when to pay the premium.
With a hot book, publishers should be willing to pay a premium. You are better off with a slightly lower margin than you are missing a sale and having no margin. Plus, filling gaps tends to promote sales momentum. I believe that “What Happened” would not have been No. 1 on The New York Times Best-Seller List without POD.
3. The customer is always right.
It’s crazy to say to consumers, “You can’t have it until we’re ready to give it to you.” Publishers must fill consumer demand, and we have the technology available to allow us to do that … .
4. Bring the front list to the forefront.
Everyone knows that POD is good for backlist applications. … I believe that every publisher should [also] take advantage of POD to supplement for front-list books.
5. Forget quality qualms.
Quality in hardcover is no longer an issue for us. The change [in printing method] doesn’t need to be visible to consumers. The only difference between POD and regular offset is that POD doesn’t do a matte-finish cover, which is a subtle difference that no consumer would notice. We certainly didn’t get any complaints.
6. Mold your mindset for POD.
Traditionally, if you have a problem, you get people together and work to solve it. But, to be successful with POD, you must cut through the bureaucracy. You can’t be tied up by procedure. We did have POD experience, so it was easier for us to break through right away.
7. Help is out there to make educated business and vendor decisions.
I founded the Caravan Project (CaravanBooks.org) … to develop strategies for multiplatform publishing. We brought together … publishers and distributors with the goal of [learning] how to publish, distribute and sell books in all the ways that technology now permits. … Parallel to that, Perseus has created Constellation, a commercial application of Caravan’s nonprofit process that negotiates digital services for Perseus Book Group publishers and distributors. Other good resources for POD information include the ABA, BookSurge and Edwards Brothers.
8. We have much to gain, little to lose.
…The more ways that we deliver—offset and digitally printed books, downloadable audio, e-books—the less likely we are to be buried in returns. If you print 10 books to sell six, you carry a huge burden. If you print 10 to sell eight, you’ve transformed your business. In short, there is no technical or business reason why a publisher cannot take on POD digital printing.
Insights From the In-house Insider
In 2006, women’s fiction and series-romance publisher Harlequin Enterprises said “I do” to digital printing when it installed a complete book production system in its distribution center in Depew, N.Y.
According to Vice President of Operations Jim Robinson, the in-house system comprises two Océ VarioStream printers configured in tandem to print double-sided, a continuous-feed KTI dual-roll unwinder, folding equipment, a binder and a trimmer all on one line. “Paper feeds in on one end and books come out the other, all inline,” he says. Covers are printed offline on Océ CPS900s, sent through the coating line, and then are fed into the binder.
Here, Robinson offers eight tips for digital-printing success:
9. Use digital printing to improve inventory management and sell short.
Like many publishers, we were over-ordering on offset print runs to ensure that we didn’t short any customers, but as a consequence, we were seeing too much product that came into inventory and never left the warehouse. Of course, that was expensive, so we looked for a new solution for inventory management. That solution is the short-run digital-printing environment. Now, as we are getting demand, Jason [Warner, central inventory manager,] looks at the historical pattern and pulls back at the offset printer. In his perfect world, we would always come up just short because our digital line can respond very quickly to make up the shortfall.
10. For customization, consider in-house implementation.
…We wanted to be in an environment that would never short our front-list customer. … If we get an Internet order in the morning, we want to be ready to ship product that afternoon. I don’t know that you’d get that level of service from a third party. Also, the quotations that digital-service vendors provided to us for printing books digitally would have made it uneconomical. In fairness to those service providers, their equipment is just not designed for our market. We had to build an environment specifically to do mass-market paperbacks. Plus, a lot of digital vendors say that you can’t use the equipment with bulky book newsprint, but we overcame that obstacle through our design. Now, we believe that we’re printing digitally in-house at about a third of the price compared to using a [POD] vendor.
11. Find the proper balance between digital and offset.
Our goal is to cut out 5 million offset books and replace them—that is, fill the offset shortfall—with up to 1.5 million via digital. We also produce another half-a-million books representing titles that never go to offset. [These titles] that have a loyal, but small, customer base and require a print run below 3,000, which is about our break-even point, are printed 100-percent digitally. Our average digital print run is 1,000; we have had production as low as 50, but we [never] do one or two books at a time.
12. Create synergy between the workflow and printing processes.
We wanted our digitally produced books to mimic the product that came off offset, and we wanted customers to be unaware whether a product had been produced offset or digitally. Our short-run system uses exactly the same cover and text paper used in the offset workflow. Also, we changed our prepress slightly so that our files are identical for both environments.
13. Use your internal talent and external partnerships.
My background was in printing, so I was able to help make this a viable process for us. And, although we had little printing experience otherwise in our distribution center, we were able to staff 100 percent from within. We identified operators who were interested in change and who had reasonable skills on machining and technology. We also identified a supervisor who had a do-not-quit, show-no-mercy attitude. On the mechanical side, we did send out for some training, particularly for binding and cutting. We have had great relationships with our equipment vendors, such as Océ, Lasermax, MBO and Muller Martini.
14. Expect a long learning curve for short-run success.
From a technical standpoint, we don’t want to say that [in-house digital printing] is a minefield, but it is full of potential pitfalls. You must spend a lot of time thinking through the process and how you’re going to use the books you produce. We researched the technology for about a year and a half before we made our purchasing decisions. And our learning curve was not short: It was six to eight months before we had a sense that short-run would be available on a daily basis. But once we got past that point, the system has functioned extremely well.
15. Think outside the book.
Our marketing groups have thought of plenty of ways to use [the digital system] … for book signings, galleys and to fill other PR gaps.
16. Consider more than cost per unit.
Obviously, the cost per unit of printing digitally is still more expensive compared to using offset for runs beyond that 3,000 mark, but we weigh that against what we don’t produce on offset. We are definitely seeing a decline in the product that we write down at the end of the year. And, from an overall cost standpoint, we have seen benefits. … On the retail side, we haven’t shorted a front-list title for about a year and a half.
Dawn Greenlaw-Scully is a freelance writer and former editor of Publishing Executive.