How Savvy Publishers Benefit from Digital Book Printing
A Book Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
It’s no secret the cost of printing books is driven up by inaccurate forecasting and inefficient manufacturing processes—often leading to stockpiles of books in warehouses and landfills. According to the Book Industry Environmental Council (BIEC), in a 2006 benchmark, nearly 25% of all books were being returned.
With a high volume of waste and other factors pushing up costs, publishers are looking to become more efficient by changing outdated business practices, while simultaneously producing more titles by more authors. To that end, many publishers are incorporating digital book printing into their procurement strategies; others have entirely transitioned to digital.
Todd Tillinghast, founder of Snowfall Press, says, “Digital printing alone will not reduce returns; returns are a byproduct of sales, and you sell the same number of books regardless of how they are printed. A mix of digital and offset ensures you can supplement quantity when you are running short, and you won’t need to risk running long nearly as often.”
Since the advent of digital printing there have been questions about its viability for book publishing, but technological advances, growing consumer desire for on-demand commerce, and cost sensitivity have made digital printing an apt solution in a competitive market. According to research firm Smithers Pira, an authority on the packaging, paper, and print industry supply chains, there is a compound growth rate of 7.4% projected for book publishing—up from $131.5 billion of 2013 to $187.7 billion in 2018. Digital printing trends also dictate its share of the total print market will grow from the 9.8% of 2008 to 20.6% in 2018, with inkjet growing faster than electrophotography (toner), and all offset processes’ value shares falling, particularly web offset.
Evaluating the Lifecycle Cost of a Title
Before digital and print-on-demand, the publishers’ business model was divided between the editorial and supply-chain staff: Editorial focused on P&L including cost of acquisition, and supply-chain focused on the P&L costs of manufacturing. To stay competitive, these conventionally disparate divisions must now collaborate in order to ascertain the total lifecycle unit cost, the most cost-effective production, and the number of units actually needed—especially with so many more titles and the need for smaller quantities.
Miraz Manji, founder of TLAC Toronto Printing in Canada, says, “Digital printing is a completely different model from offset. Traditionally, a publisher had a few authors and allocated a certain amount of space in their warehouse for each SKU. Now a publisher has more SKUs (titles) and fewer copies. Managing this new process can be expensive because each title requires indexing. Multiply that effort by the growing number of titles and the process quickly becomes complex and tedious. Publishers must be extremely efficient—to the level of WalMart efficient—in order to take this on.”
In a presentation he gave during a Book Business webinar series on digital printing, Marco Boer illustrated the lost and locked-up capital represented by the traditional method of printing large quantities. According to Boer, a book publisher offset printing 50 titles per year—assuming 30% return and $3 print cost per book—loses or locks up $225,000 in capital, and a publisher with 1,000 titles per year is losing or locking up $4.5 million in capital. (See Figure 1.)
By turning to digital production, this number can be mitigated when the publisher is able to print only what is needed, when it is needed. However, such an approach does not dictate an all-out adoption. Hybrid digital and offset production models have become a viable option for many publishers. For example:
- large runs printed with offset, filling shortfalls with digital;
- using digital for initial production while waiting for offset lead-time;
- using digital to fill the gap and provide test marketing while gauging demand, which will determine the majority production type;
- and supplying backlists and older titles through digital as demand diminishes.
In these hybrid examples, not only is the need to warehouse books reduced, but the opportunity exists for inventory-less publishing.
Hackett Publishing Company of Cambridge, MA, first started using digital printing in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they routinely targeted digital printing for lower-quantity runs. Shorter press times, the ability to order small quantities (or even fill specific orders), and lower prep and printing costs led the decision, say Liz Wilson, production director for Hackett. “Our inventory management has always been very good with very little waste, but digital printing has helped us improve even further.”
Hybrid approaches are good for other reasons too. “Digital is ideal for book events and conferences to gain traction for a title before switching to offset,” says Miraz.
Adopting digital book printing can also enable publishers to accept emerging authors who wouldn’t have been considered in the past.
Reconsidering the Stigmas of Digital Book Printing
Alas, digital isn’t right for every title. For books requiring full-color photos of extreme detail, folded and differently sized inserts, unusual paper sizes and stock, and quantities of a thousand or more, you may find offset is still the best option—but this will depend upon the technology and equipment of your print partner.
Based upon his experience servicing thousands of publishing clients large and small, Tillinghast of Snowfall Press says, “The best fit for digital—a book cost-effective to produce—is one with standard characteristics allowing for automated and standardized manufacturing. Digital printing can handle a wide variety of trim sizes, but features such as folded inserts or tear-out return postcards, are processes difficult to automate, and thus, the full cost savings of digital is not realized.”
Non-standard books usually require offset and this means much more set up, which comes at a cost. But even when standardized, not every short-run digital production will be less expensive. With both methods, prices are affected by paper size, paper type, binding, and a host of other factors. With offset though, the cost-per-unit drops as the print run increases and set-up costs can be amortized across the larger quantity.
Offset has long been thought to produce superior results, but digital equipment has improved and the quality of an average black-and-white book printed digitally is, in most cases, indistinguishable from an offset print. Thus, what has long been cited as the primary reason for not choosing it as a production option in the past is waning. According to Francis McMahon, senior vice president of PPS Marketing at Canon, “The quality of digital is equal to that of offset, even for color covers, with the advantages of customization, short run, personalization, and versioning.”
Michael Weinstein, production director at Teachers College Press (the university press for Teachers College of Columbia University), says he first tried digital printing nearly nine years ago while a vice president at Pearson. Today, he routes all short-run titles—even those with four-color covers—to digital presses. Weinstein ventures most university presses approach their printing requirements in the same manner, and though he acknowledges there has been a stigma about the quality of digital, he believes most of his peers would agree the current quality is equal to offset when it comes to text, line art, and most images. He says concerns over quality are unwarranted except in the case of images such as x-rays, where density and clarity are critical.
Liz Wilson agrees. “I think the quality of digital printing has come a very long way, particularly for black text. There is still a noticeable difference to me between digital and offset, but these days I don’t think many general readers would be able to spot the differences,” she says.
“The need for specialized cover treatments, which are harder to digitally automate, is less relevant for books sold online. Specialized cover treatments are designed to catch the eye of a customer in a retail bookstore.” Tillinghast continues, “Most printed books are shipped to an online retailer—the first time the reader sees the book and assesses its quality is after they have already purchased it.”
Some publishers initially used digital primarily to manage the economics of deep backlists, thus keeping older titles in print without being forced store piles of physical books. Today, publishers have many other compelling reasons to consider digital:
- Increasing book-return rates by profit-driven booksellers
- Consumer sensitivity to pricing and price increases
- Exponential growth of authors, subjects, and specialized titles with smaller targeted audiences, calling for shorter print-runs
- Increasing demand for backlist and out-of-print books
- Reprinting issues necessitated by minor or major content revisions
Choosing a Digital Printing Partner
Choosing a digital print partner is much the same as choosing your offset partner: In both cases price and services are likely to be your primary concerns, but not always. When Hackett Publishing Company was in search of a long-term partner, they looked first for printers with impeccable customer-service records and then considered prices, equipment, and proximity to their warehouse.
Tillinghast encourages his customers to print a mix of offset and digital in order to take advantage of additional cost savings. “If my customer has 1,000 titles, and 700 are big enough for offset, but they cannot move as many units of the other 300 in six months, we’ll run those 300 digitally in smaller runs of hundreds or any number of variations on the same approach. Book publishers must become more sophisticated in supply chain and inventory management in order to get the full benefit of savings digital enables. They need an automated approach and that should be a primary consideration for choosing a vendor,” asserts Tillinghast.
“A good portion of our digital printing is short-run, case-bound books, so printers with case-binding services in-house were most appealing to us,” says Liz Wilson of Hackett. “We bid every job competitively (even reprints) and welcome new printers into our bidding pool.” Hackett has thus developed great relationships with a select few digital printers and enjoys the benefits of working with a company of people familiar with their books.
All publishers will weigh needs against cost in both offset and digital, but when demand isn’t sufficient to absorb the set-up costs of offset, digital becomes the best option—be that toner or inkjet. As with Hackett, cost is just one of many factors to consider, but digital printing offers distinct advantages in areas where offset is either not cost effective or—as with variable data—not possible.
“Look for a mindset,” says Miraz. “If the digital-print provider has a service mindset, it will make a winning combination. If the printer has a commodity mindset, it won’t be scalable and it won’t create any value for the title. Companies with a service mindset innovate, reduce costs, and improve quality because they want to continually raise their value proposition and drive value for themselves and their partners.”
On the technical side, consider these service offerings as part of your vetting process:
- Prepublication and review copies
- Sample and complimentary copies
- Trial editions
- Variable-data printing
- Keep-in-print programs
- Course packs
- Single and multiple book fulfillment
- Pre- and post-production services such as file conversion, file management and storage, component-cover printing, binding, and finishing.
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Cyndie Shaffstall, founder, Spider Trainers, is a successful entrepreneur and prolific author, with many books, dozens of eBooks, and hundreds of articles to her credit. She is the former founder of ThePowerXChange, editor and publisher of X-Ray Magazine, and the current founder and managing member of Spider Trainers, a managed automated email services provider for companies around the world. Connect with Cyndie on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, or join her LinkedIn Group, the Marketing Resource Library for daily links to marketing-critical resources.