Sunday, June 01, 2008

The rise in print on demand

I have become aware this morning of two articles extolling the virtues of print on demand, in two of the UK's most influential publications, The Economist and the Sunday Telegraph. Both make interesting reading, and are worth detailing here.

The first article in The Economist, is entitled Hard Pressed. The author, whose name is not mentioned, states that he has spent 35 years working in the publishing industry listening to the moans and groans of printing presses at work. Most commercial presses he says, these days use offset printing, but that is rapidly changing to digital (for this read print on demand). As distribution costs have sky rocketed, publishers have set up satellite printing plants to deal with regional markets (this is actually how Booksurge who are at the centre of the Amazon debate began). The economics of offset printing do not lend themselves well to short print runs. This is where print on demand comes in.

These machines, despite their advantages do not come cheap, with the author quoting a figure of around $750,000 for one 60 foot machine. Despite the initial cost, they have several advantages. Firstly, they do not have to print thousands of copies of the same image; the
impression made on successive sheets of paper can be entirely different. This allows publishers to tailor output for different markets - say for example Sydney, London or New York.

Second, unlike the wet inks used by traditional presses, the toners in digital printers are not absorbed into the paper, but form a layer on the surface instead. The images remain crisp and clear around the edges. It also means that they can be used to print on a variety of different mediums - such as packaging, fabrics and metal foils.

The disadvantage is that the cost per page remains the same no matter how pages are printed - against offset printing, where the more you print, the cheaper it becomes.

It has also led to the rise in print on demand publishing, where authors can choose to print their own books, bypassing the traditional agent, publisher route. This is no longer confined to the self publisher, as publishers both large and small also embrace this technology.

The advantages are obvious - you no longer have to guess how many copies to print, but can have them printed 'on demand' as and when the orders come in. It saves time and money, in terms of warehousing, shipping and returns, offsetting the initial higher print costs. At a time when everyone is trying to save trees, then this has to be a good thing.

Xerox, who are according to the article, the leader in digital colour printing, have upped the ante with their new generation of high-end presses, the iGen4. This xerographic leviathan can handle runs of up to 7 million colour pages a month. Their nearest competitor, the Indigo 7000 colour press from Hewlett Packard can handle just 4 million pages a month.

While you cannot tell the difference with books, such machines the article states, do not come close to matching the performance of traditional printing for newspapers and magazines.

The Economist prints about 1.65 million copies a week, with around 122 pages per issue, using eight printing plants around the world. On average, each of these plants handle 100 million pages a month - within a few hours of each other every Thursday, so that as many copies as possible can be delivered to news stands and newsagents first thing Friday morning. The best of today's digital printers would need a fourteen-fold increase in speed in order to match this.

What they lack in speed, the new generation of digital printers more than makes up for in quality. But this too could change, as waiting in the wings are some nifty ideas for applying ink-jet know-how to commercial printing.

Earlier this week, Xerox unveiled plans for a new gel-ink technology, with the consistency of toothpaste. When jetted from the print heads, this turns rock hard when exposed to a pulse of ultra-violet light. Because they are not water or alcohol-based like conventional ink-jet materials, they do not bleed into the paper and will cling to almost any surface, just like the digital inks.

This clever technology pioneered by Xerox's research centre in Canada could provide digital printing with its biggest chance yet to crack open the $400 billion offset market and break into the newspaper and magazine market. Watch this space.

The second article, on the Sunday Telegraph website says how 'new' print on demand technology is revolutionising the publishing industry, since it means that for the first time, publishers can bring back into circulation those classic out of print books that have a relatively small audience.

A new imprint, Faber Finds is soon to be launched with this aim in mind. There have been various impediments along the way, not least of all the industry's somewhat hostile attitude towards POD. It seems that even in these so-called enlightened times, agents and publishers are fearful of what this revolution will mean, and the very real threat that this presents to the industry, as if writers can publish their own works at such low cost, why would these agents and editors be needed at all? The article does not of course state this, and there will be always be a place for such people, but the fear is still there, and needs to be addressed.

Authors though were also concerned, especially given what happened with Simon and Schuster last year, where the company attempted to lock in authors whose books were available via POD, by stating that they were contracted to S&S for as long as the book remained in print, even though they may do nothing at all to promote it, and the author could earn more money from publishing themselves via a POD provider like Authors OnLine Ltd.

To overcome these issues, Faber and Faber put the authors at the very heart of this experiment, by approaching them and actually asking them to select titles for the new imprint. Initial talks were with P D James and John Lanchester, both of whom grasped the potential with great enthusiasm. This was mirrored by the many other writers who were approached, many of whom have written pieces for the new imprint's website and are championing books and writers that they cherish, but which are no longer conventionally (for this read via book shops for large discount via conventional offset printing) available.

Faber realised that authors are also readers, and that, according to Chief Executive Stephen Page, was the final piece of the jigsaw. Faber Finds will have a thriving online community who will be able to suggest books for the list as they buy them, review books and discuss their passions and interests with other visitors to the site.

In this way the technology of online life has been married to printing technology, creating an opportunity (perhaps) that has never existed before. This will bring together many excellent books, as well as writers, readers and the wider literary community to coax life back into some of the more fragile books in our culture.

The books will be available via all the usual channels, from either book stores or online.

This does sound, I must admit, like a imprint which will be very much going places, and will add a lot to the literary world, where publisher, author and reader work together to create a unique community designed to preserve and enhance our literary masterpieces. Whether it is truly unique is as always, open to debate.


Anonymous said...


Daniel said...

The Recycled Paper Printing can also be used in order to overcome the difficulties as paper is manufactured from the bamboo plant and hence the plant has to be cut off.
Green Printing using Soy Inks

Adam mark said...

Really nice post about the printing on demand...
Offset Printer Sydney