On Demand

February 1st, 2010 Books & Publishing, Features

With the ebook hogging the headlines, close cousins print on demand and short run digital are also coming into their own, as Drew Turney learns.

There’s another digital book revolution close behind the Kindle, iPhone and ebook — that of printing ever shorter runs of books digitally. It might not overhaul the industry but it’s going to affect you somehow whether it’s keeping older titles alive or opening the market for small and self publishers to compete.

It can mean anything from a handful to a few thousand copies, and in the quantities lies the rub. We live in a world where the consumer expects to be able to find and buy anything they want in just a few clicks. Fulfilling that desire from the blockbuster to the niche is what digital short run print is all about.

Muscling In

Ironically it’s not a new concept. Since the advent of digital publishing in the 80s books have been made from electronic files, and businesses like Sydney-based Wild and Woolley have offered short digital print runs for self published authors for almost 20 years.

The key is quality. Most digitally printed books were presented on cheap paper with amateurish graphics that simply couldn’t compete with those from an experienced publisher. Today you can put a digital book beside a traditionally printed one and be hard pressed to see the difference.

The reason is because printers who live and breathe books are positioning themselves to take advantage of a market everyone agrees is full of potential. “There’s a lot of very ordinary digital print produced by digital printers,” says Griffin Press national sales manager Warren Griffin. “We’re using the same materials we use in offset. Corner shop style commercial printers generally use readily available digital materials and it just isn’t the same sort of book, the binding qualities aren’t there. The feedback we’re getting is fantastic because we understand what makes a book aside from ink on paper.”

For the unwary, digital has potential stumbling blocks. As outlined above, not doing your homework or giving your project due diligence can be a disaster — the field is rife with dodgy cut-price promises but for all digital printing’s benefits, it’s cheap compared directly with traditional offset printing.

Lionel Marz, Australian and New Zealand sales director for Chinese book printer Everbest relates a story about a client who’d been badly burned. “She’d paid in excess of AUS$30 per copy for 100 copies of an illustrated children’s book printed by a short run digital printer,” Marz says. “She reprinted 2,000 copies with us for less than what she’d paid for the original 100 and there was a very noticeable difference in the quality we produced versus the short run digital product.”

But the cost is making digital more compelling and if you go to right place they’re used the technology to drive it way down. At Griffin Press, Warren Griffin reports that the unit price to produce 1,000 to 1,500 copies digitally is now comparable to that of doing so the ‘old’ way. That of course means you aren’t restricted to a 1,000 minimum, so cost savings in warehousing, distribution and handling further sweeten the deal.

The digital spectrum

Random House recently forged an alignment with Sydney-based digital printer SOS Print and Media to produce digitally printed short run books on an ongoing basis (SOS director Michael Schultz told B+P he’d experienced ‘amazing growth’ in the sector). “We distribute Random House UK titles,” says Random House’s Schwarz, “so if someone orders one copy we’re air freighting it from the UK. If you can print those files here you’re taking out freight costs and can turn an order around much quicker. With local titles the value might not have been there to keep some books in print, but digital means we won’t have to, for the benefit of authors as well as the consumer.”

So while the agreement has a profit motive, it’s very much about keeping up with the demands of consumers already used to getting what they want. “We take a reduced margin,” adds Schwarz, “but it’s about service and availability more than anything else.”

At the other end of the publishing spectrum, Henry Rosenbloom saw a lot of activity surrounding ebooks at 2009s Frankfurt Book Fair but very little about digital print and its potential to open the market to the so-called long tail. The publisher of Victorian independent Scribe Publications believes the two are going to occupy very different market sectors that are driven from different directions.

“I don’t think ebooks are consumer led at all,” Rosenbloom says. “They’re an attempt by businesses to create models that will make money. Print on demand is more a reaction to the fact that print runs have been falling around the world and publishers have been trying to find a way they can keep books in print when they couldn’t justify a conventional print run.”

Rosenbloom is also quick to add that so far, short run digital print on demand won’t light any balance sheets on fire. “It’s extremely marginal,” he says, “print on demand is for books with a continuing demand where the numbers are small. So we’ll reprint small quantities –anything from 25 to 500 copies — but the unit costs are higher so it’s a trade off between cost and availability and it’s a problem for publishers really.”

A segment that’s bought print on demand books very much into the mainstream is the independent, often web-based publishers who’ve ridden the crest of the ebook wave in niche genres like erotic romance or sci-fi. Laurie Sanders runs US-based ebook romance publisher Black Velvet Seductions and digitally printed copies of her books are as important to her service as any other format.

“[Print on demand] lets us to offer our books to readers who prefer to hold a paper book to turn real pages,” she says. “It’s important to authors that we distribute books in as many formats as we can so as many people as possible can read their books. Print on demand lets us do that without printing vast quantities we’d have to store until orders came in. It takes out the guesswork and makes us more competitive.”

But even if print on demand has taken off hand in hand with the internet-enabled groundswell of niche publishers, won’t the sector now be under threat if much bigger publishers and printers can compete with them on the same turf, producing a single copy at a time?

Sanders sees it merely putting them on her level. “I don’t see it as a threat,” she says. “If traditional publishers went to electronic or digitally printed books and stopped accepting returns from booksellers who buy more than they can sell, we’d all be on even ground when it comes to distribution. We compete very well where the playing field is level.”

Fit to print

Griffin Press went to a lot of effort and expenditure installing high quality digital output equipment not long before the world’s finances tumbled. With economic recovery building, Griffin’s found itself with the systems ready at a time when interest in digital short runs are gripping the publishing industry.

“We’re very much at a tipping point,” Warren Griffin agrees to B+P’s first thesis about the Kindle and iPhone changing the game. But he doesn’t necessarily think consumer demand is driving it. “A host of other issues from inventory management to keeping some books alive has been doing that. Digital print has been in the background for some time but some of the back end tools we’re using have come together over the last 12 months.”

Such systems have streamlined Griffin’s digital workflow to the extent that the smallest print run the company can handle economically is a single copy. That’s not trials or system tests either, it’s work Griffin is doing for contracted customers right now. More optimizations will see it offered to any customer that comes in the door in 2010.

Of course, digital printing is what you do every day on your desk-bound inkjet. It’s easy and — in a manner of speaking — cheap. The Espresso, an in-store book printing and binding plant that’s been running in Angus & Robertson’s Bourke Street Melbourne store since last September, does much the same thing on a larger scale.

So if the technology is so easy to deploy and use, will the revolution eat itself, putting printers out of work before the market even matures? While TIME magazine called the Espresso the invention of the year in 2007, recent reports have been less glowing. Stories about paper jams and interminable waits remind us of photocopying a report at work, not shopping for books.

“So far introducing a shopper to manufacturing has gone bad,” McPherson’s Greg Brown thinks. “You might want to see a pizza get made but you certainly don’t want to see a car get made, you just want to buy the car. People want us to take care of that — they want manufacturers. Putting a piece of manufacturing somewhere else diminishes the whole experience.”

Of course, there’s the old chestnut about how the Internet didn’t kill books and TV didn’t kill cinema. There’ll probably be a time and place for an Espresso (or even a smaller, home-based) book delivery and manufacturing machine. It’ll be just one in a myriad of services for different markets and circumstances.

Talking shop

So what about where the real action is, among booksellers with their huge variety of sizes, structures and marketing budgets? Even though digitally printed books can be a premium product, it doesn’t mean booksellers will happily pay more. As Scribe’s Henry Rosenbloom put it; ‘it’s very hard to raise the retail price because the consumer isn’t interested in how the book was produced’.

Some booksellers might fear technologies they feel will only eat further into their market share. Hasn’t Amazon gouged us enough without customers buying from fancy vending machines or downloading books on their iPhones?

Better Read Than Dead is ahead of the curve, with manager Sally Shilvers seeing the Sydney-based operation less as a simple bookstore than a merchant to connect you with what you want to read, whatever the platform. “I can’t wait till we have agreements that equitably manage the remuneration needed to just press a button and put content together in a designer book for a customer,” she says.

Shilvers also recognises that a good book store has a part to play in the buying experience by being an advisory and recommendation service, not just a shop — a service offering that’s hard to replicate elsewhere. “For a bookshop to survive it needs to be the first port of call for readers. I’d love to be able to bundle ebooks, print on demand or a book on the shelf so it’s a real choice for an Australian consumer to come into their local bookshop and not have to bring something in from America. I want it so they always want to come to Better Read Than Dead whether it’s via our website or into the store.”

Shilvers also believes some in the publishing field will see Espresso-type machines as a way to cut sellers out of the picture and increase profit margins even further, but she has faith customers — and publishers — will know where their bread’s buttered. “We’ve talked to publishers who still value the well entrenched relationships book sellers have with a very loyal community. I hope we can convince those publishers to stay loyal to us on that.”

Gavin Schwarz of Random House agrees when we ask about commercial pressures to cut out the retail middleman. “We have no intention of doing anything like that,” he says. “We’re a book publisher, not a book seller. Some publishers sell direct to consumers on their website but we’re not one of them.”

Even if the temptation to slash costs in bypassing the retail sector gets too much, it’s unlikely to weight in for awhile yet. Although print on demand is growing fast (Warren Griffin reports that it’s doubled on last year) casual estimates by most people approached for this story peg digital printing at less than one percent of the industry as a whole. It’ll certainly keep growing, but it’s less about expansion and more about finding efficiencies in the bloated return-and-pulp business model.

In fact, digital short run print will by definition remain small — if a small, cult or previously out of print book catches on, there’s more likelihood it’ll be shunted to a traditional mass volume and warehousing process.

And while Meyer, Rowling and King are still publishing’s bread and butter, they’re not that of Better Red Than Dead, a business for whom short run could end up the rule rather than the exception. “Our bread and butter is the books we recommend to our customers,” Sally Shilvers says. “We have books with better margins but our customers keep coming back because they’re happy with what we read and recommend. If we provide those books at a reasonable price fast enough it’ll enhance the experience for our customers.”

Supply and Demand

With the market pulling everyone in different directions, a commercial sweet spot is yet to be found. Allen & Unwin’s Elizabeth Weiss told the Weekly Book Newsletter Australian consumers were ready for ebooks but the systems aren’t in place yet, and there’s indeed been no industry-spawning device or solution that’s thrust the whole field into the mainstream like the iPod did for music.

Even if there is, Henry Rosenbloom reminds us it still won’t be that simple. “Theoretically, print on demand means no book ever needs to be out of print, but every book kept in print has an administrative burden attached,” he says. “You have to manage the stock, produce royalty statements every six months, etc. Sometimes it’s just not going to be worth the money you spend on it.”

For now though, short run digital printing is finding its feet. It won’t make anyone rich for the time being, but the industry has a lot of catching up to do to compete with Blu-ray players and Playstations. Getting as close as possible to the ubiquitous availability consumers now expect might be its best chance.

Rights and Wrongs

How about the people who set all this in motion — authors? Agent Selwa Anthony reports that contracts aren’t specifying anything about print on demand or ebook rights yet because the standard revision clause covers it.

“At the moment all good contracts have a revisions clause,” she says. “Basically it says a publisher has six months to reprint a book after requests to do so, and if they don’t the rights have to be reverted. But the author has to request it, it just doesn’t automatically happen.”

Defending Google contentious book search technology, writer and editor Lynne Spender recently told ABC Radio National about the new opportunities for authors, from ‘subscriptions and consumer online purchasing and advertising’ to ‘per-page printing at public access terminals in libraries’.


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