BIGNY Panel Weighs Impact of Inkjet on Book Production
There’s no publishing books without manufacturing books, and there’s no assessing the state of either activity without understanding how the printing technologies that underlie them have changed.
That kind of insight can come only from a printer, and on March 20, the Book Industry Guild of New York (BIGNY) got straight talk on the subject from three of them: senior executives of book manufacturing firms that are using digital print technologies to address some of the publishing market’s most fundamental requirements in ways unavailable to conventional production.
Running through a panel discussion before about 80 book publishing professionals at the Manhattan headquarters of Random House was the idea that while the publishing industry has been transformed to a considerable extent by digital printing, no technology can change the fact that publishing remains a business where custom manufacturing prevails and educated best guesses are still part of the profit calculation.
The panel, moderated by this writer, represented a cross-section of the industry’s digital printing capability.
Steve Franzino, vice president of technology for book operations at LSC Communications, oversees the largest inkjet book platform in North America: an armada of 12 inkjet presses with an annual capacity of 14 billion pages.
In the purview of Dale Williams, executive vice president, Strategic Content Imaging (SCI), are two 30˝ and one 40˝ inkjet web presses that together can produce three billion pages per year.
Thomson-Shore Inc. has toner-based digital equipment for short runs and is looking at its options in inkjet. Kevin E. Spall, president, said the company expects to invest in a cut-sheet inkjet press at some point this year.
Inkjet printing was the evening’s predominant topic, but the panelists were careful to avoid overhyping it. They agreed that while inkjet may be a formidable production solution, it isn’t a business model unto itself.
Williams pointed out that although 50 copies of a book might fit perfectly on an inkjet press, “if it’s not part of some sustained program, it becomes a lot more difficult to manage.”
“From a company perspective, you really want to feed programs rather than worry about going to get individual jobs,” he said.
If inkjet does have an economic model, it’s a high-volume one, and that could give pause to some potential adopters. “When I first heard of inkjet as an offset substitutable, it was being sold for two cents a page,” said Spall. “I can’t live on two cents a page. At two cents per page, you need a lot of pages to fill a press that’s going to cost $4 million.”
On the other hand, the appeal of the technology for book publishing is undeniable. According to Williams, inkjet was probably the first technology introduced into printing “where ‘good enough’ became standard.”
“When inkjet came along, it was good, and it started to be really good, and most people on the book publishing side said ‘definitely good enough.’ Inkjet was unique in that,” Williams said.
“The gains you get in efficiency, inventory management, direct ship programs, customization and everything else that digital brings to the game is really where it shines,” Franzino agreed.
Much of the discussion about inkjet presses focused on operating them cost efficiently. Always to be kept in mind along with run lengths and paper requirements, said Franzino, is ink coverage, because when it changes, so do per-page costs and crossover points with offset. There also can be issues with drying water-based pigmented ink (“we have to evaporate it off the sheet, without destroying the sheet”) and with its lack of gloss.
Above all, there’s the volume it takes to feed the beast that a high-capacity inkjet printing system is. According to Williams, after adding the cost of coaters and finishing equipment to the price tag of a 30˝ inkjet press, “you’re probably looking at a $10 million investment.”
“If you’re spending that kind of money, and if you don’t run that press, you’re going to go out of business,” he cautioned.
Inkjet may be gaining momentum, but it isn’t sweeping all other forms of book manufacturing before it. The panelists acknowledged conventional printing’s place in the production mix, and they didn’t predict that digital processes would eclipse it anytime soon.
“I’m not looking to replace offset,” asserted Spall. “If offset and toner are working for my customers, nobody is beating my door down saying ‘I must have inkjet.’ They’re saying, ‘I want this book at this quality level, at this quantity, at this price range.’”
“Without someone beating down my door, I need to have a strategic reason to invest in inkjet,” he said.
Nevertheless, inkjet represents the latest wave of a technological sea change that has reshaped book publishing over the years. “Digital has been taking on an enormous amount of pages, we’re talking billions of pages per year,” Williams said. For books at certain stages of their life cycles, “digital has done a great job of reducing inventories.”
But at the same time, he continued, producing books is “still a manufacturing process. There is no such thing as zero waste.” Nor is any forecast ever 100% correct. This means that for the foreseeable future, it will remain up to the publisher “to figure out how many books to buy at the beginning and what that unit cost is. It’s still a decision that’s going to have error.”
“Everyone thinks their book is going to be a bestseller,” Spall concurred. “And that’s a consultation: what is the unit price in printing vs. what you’re going to sell it for. That’s a discussion that has to take place. If they think they’re going to sell 2,000, print 1,200 or 1,500 offset. But, you have to be able to react quickly in inkjet or toner to allow them to react fast if you underprint a little.”
As a short-run process, digital can help publishers finesse some of these decisions. Williams said that for quantities under 5,000 units, it’s wise to consider printing digitally in multiple batches up to that number. This is because “it’s not the first order that adds up on the ‘wall of shame’: the area of your warehouse where all the books you’re about to throw away go. It’s typically not the first order that goes there, but it sure is the last one.”
Regardless of how their books are being printed, quantity isn’t the only conversation publishers must have with authors and printers. In Franzino’s view, “there’s too much of a unit cost mindset out there. What is the total cost? What is the inventory cost? What is the obsolescence cost? All of those things have to be baked into what it costs to put those books out.”
Another constant of the book business is the specialized nature of much of what it does. “There’s a lot of variability,” Williams observed. “Making books is not easy. There’s a reason why people who do other things say, ‘Well, we can do books,’ and then they fail miserably.”
Among the facts they don’t recognize, Williams said, is that “there’s nothing in this world that’s a print-ready file. Nobody agrees on stock 100% of the time. As a printer, we don’t want to say no, so we tend to get in the business of saying, yes, we can do it. And the next thing you know, you have 250 trim sizes and eight stocks, and the covers don’t match the text.”
“We’re a custom manufacturing business,” agreed Franzino. “That’s what books are. Nothing is standardized. It’s turning into a made-to-order business. You guys sell it, and we’ll make it and ship it to your customer.”
Digital printing can’t resolve all of the issues that complicate book publishing, but on the production side, it has made and continues to make real progress.
“The technology is evolving,” Franzino said. Putting aside whatever might not have been considered good enough a few years ago, “you should be taking a look at some samples, seeing what’s acceptable, and start putting that in front of people. Because the benefits you get from doing it digitally are really great.”