Frankly Speaking: A Brief History of the Short Run
Digital printing has saved the book industry. The old business model that printed an excess of books has been replaced for many titles by a more efficient on-demand model. Consider my personal example: Back in 1972, I wanted to self-publish a book. I only wanted 500 copies, but the printer said the minimum run was 5,000. I still have 4,000 copies in the warehouse, because someone may want a book on 1970s phototypesetting some day.
In 1976-1978 the IBM 3800 roll-fed and Xerox 9700 sheet-fed digital printers introduced a new approach to printing. But the infrastructure for accepting files, electronically collating pages and binding one book at a time was not available. It was 1990 before the Xerox DocuTech was able to produce one bound book at a time, and the late '90s before color-bound books were produced in the same manner.
Not long ago I visited ColorCentric Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., which is like Disneyland for on-demand book printing. Almost every model of digital printer was there and most were popping out one book at a time. The enablers that made this possible are front-end software that routes book files to printers and in-line book finishing.
HP sent me a sample book printed on their roll-fed T-series inkjet printer by Courier Corp. in Massachusetts. It was full color on glossy stock. The run was probably a hundred or so—what I would call a "longer short run."
King Printing in Lowell, Mass., was among the first to apply roll-fed digital book printing with the Screen Truepress Jet. They now have a contingent of presses from Kodak and HP. I should mention that Lightning Source in Tennessee was a pioneer in on-demand books.
Most backlist titles are now printed on-demand and over time; most of the books ordered online might be printed just for the buyer. But some books that sell well will require longer runs. Depending on the quantity, they could be produced via offset. A plant in Chennai, India, produces a few hundred books at a time on small offset presses for UK university publishers. Singapore was once the book-printing capital of the world, but that mantle now goes to China.
It all has to do with economies of scale. The more books you print on an offset press, the less costly each one is. The high up-front make-ready cost is absorbed into each unit printed. Digital printing has no major make-ready set-up, so one or a few books are less expensive than offset. It is that crossover point where digital and offset collide that determines the optimal printing process.
That is why some book printers have a mix of sheet and roll digital and offset presses. Each has its niche in terms of cost-effective run lengths. New inkjet digital presses are encroaching into the low end of offset production. Some roll-fed digital presses print a web width over 40 inches at increasingly higher speeds. Color printing now sells for what black-and-white printing sold for two decades ago.
Amateur market research: I was on a ship recently that went around the world. There were 2,400 passengers. About 30 percent had Kindles, a few had Nooks and about 20 percent had iPads. The rest read printed books from the ship's extensive library. The average age was 70 something. No one brought a physical book on board.
There will still be bestsellers that require a million runs. They will not be my books, but they will be there. Even with the incursion of ebooks, the printed book will continue and on-demand printing has made it possible. BB
Frank Romano is RIT Professor Emeritus with over 50 years in book technology and publishing.