Printing revolutions

Most of us have a secret vice, something we don’t usually brag about. Mine is that I balance all the serious, academic material I read on the job by consuming more trashy literature in my spare time – thrillers, historical fiction and (especially) crime. And in a word, that’s what I do: consume – borrow what I can via the Danish library system (quite a lot) and for the rest buy via an internet bookseller. Once I’ve read a book, I pass it on to another or even (and this enrages my wife) throw it away.

This may be a vice but it’s a darn sight cheaper than going to the movies.

You may be wondering, what’s this got to with printing? Quite a bit, as we shall see.

e-This, e-That

Nowadays we hear a lot about the internet revolution and how this is ushering in a new era of e-books, ‘green publishing’, greater consumer choice, etc., etc. Gone will be the days of that dinosaur, the printed book. Gone, too (though this is hardly talked about) will be the bookshop and that creaking edifice, the book trade, which sustains it.

Indeed, it is said, the printed book has only ten five two years of viable life left in it. Game over, enter the Kindle, the iPad or something that will prompt us all to go digital – and go digital all the way, 100%.

There is, however, a wee fly in the digital ointment. Another revolution is also in full swing: a printing revolution.

e

p-This, p-That

The computer and advent of digital communication have brought us the internet but they have not been the only technological developments happening. Globally, there has been a general shift from electro-mechanical to electronic technology. This has had an impact on all areas of life and all types of consumer product (think about modern cars, washing machines and telephones, for instance).

It has also had a major effect on the whole production process in publishing. In an earlier post, I described the changes in typesetting technologies and practices in recent years. Fundamental changes have also affected the printing world but here the transformation is incomplete and indeed several different developments are happening at once. Some of these are:

  • Printing presses are becoming faster, more sophisticated and can print fewer copies than before at an economic price.
  • Introduction of new print-on-demand (POD) technology has made single-copy printing feasible.
  • Some big booksellers are thus experimenting with in-store printing of stock.
  • The globalization of bookselling and entry of non-traditional retailers like supermarkets have driven down book prices dramatically. This is forcing publishers to cut costs, hence they are squeezing printers and other suppliers.
  • Printing prices are falling, not least because publishers have become willing to go offshore to find the best printing deal. In academic publishing especially, there has been a major shift of production and printing to India and China.

Let’s explore some of these points in greater detail.

Traditional book printing

Traditionally, books have been printed using offset lithographic presses in a lengthy process that essentially has three phases:

  • Pre-print: converting the material for printing to a print-ready state. (Once upon a time, typesetting was carried out at the printing works and was part of this phase.)
  • Physical printing of the book pages and cover material.
  • Gathering and binding of the printed sheets and covers into finished books.

Here, the presses must be set up for each new print job. This is time-consuming and expensive but, once done, copies can be printed off at very little additional cost. That means there is a high initial cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy.

Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies. As such, it is still the dominant form of printing carried out today. However, it is ruinously expensive if you only want dozens of copies, or even just a single one.

Enter POD

Major hassles for publishers are reprints (when, say, only a few copies are needed), overstocks and warehouse storage in general. The advent of new, digital print-on-demand technology in the 1990s promised a solution to these problems. Well, the solution isn’t there yet (especially in the early days, the print quality of POD copies was far inferior) but the prospect of a solution is still there.

With POD, publishers do not print books for their warehouse shelves, but only print as and when orders are received. Printing digitally means that there are few set-up costs, so the unit cost is the same whether you print one book or 1,000. Many printers now offer such a digital service but in addition warehouses are now offering such POD services.

The trouble is, though, that – while the unit cost of printing small quantities or even single copies is much lower than for offset printing – it is still too high to be profitable for the initial printrun for most publishers. In practice, POD is therefore mainly used as a service to authors, keeping their books in print indefinitely. But the hope is that in the near future unit prices can come down to a level where POD-only publication becomes a real option.

Printing inside the bookstore

Print-on-demand technology has developed to the point where proponents now talk of placing POD printing equipment in every bookshop. Instead of carrying stock in the form of books, then, bookshops could become ‘content kiosks’ where customers browse through files before placing print orders for immediate execution, a little like today when ordering ‘instant’ passport photos from a camera shop. By the time you have had a latte in the bookstore’s in-house cafe, the book you ordered is ready for collection.

The aptly named Book Expresso machine offers such a service. I described it in operation in an earlier post.

Currently, the initial investment in equipment is huge and beyond the reach of smaller bookshops. It is also quite likely that shops would continue to carry a certain amount of stock for impulse purchases, so we would be surprised if bookshop fronts became as small as passport photo booths. But it could happen, and POD systems are already being trialled in a few major bookshops (at Blackwells on Charing Cross Road in London, for instance) and at least one large library.

The question is, of course, unless that latte is exceptionally good, why people should continue bothering to visit bookshops if the browsing experience becomes limited to looking up a print catalogue? That could be done at home over the net.

The p-book isn’t dead yet

As a result of these printing revolutions and the associated bookselling price war, all of those thrillers, ‘krimis’ and historical novels which I buy are getting relatively cheaper to buy. Indeed – morality and the fate of our planet aside – I can afford to consume and discard them.

Yes, I’m taking away Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to read on our iPod Touch this summer. I also look forward to buying an iPad sometime soon. But for my serious reading, for the meantime at least, I’ll be sticking to physical books. I am not alone here – and that has major implications for publishing and bookselling, whatever the hoopla is about e-books.

More specifically, the knock-on effect is it’s likely your book will be more than just an ethereal digital being. It will be printed, become a physical object, something to fondle and show to your mum.

So, after this long digression, let’s follow that process of physical creation. This starts with the publisher doing a final check before sending the print files.

(Post #2 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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6 Responses to Printing revolutions

  1. […] Printing revolutions « GETTING PUBLISHED […]

  2. […] Finally, there is the difference between traditional offset, lithographic printing and the new digital, printing on demand – something explored in my earlier post on printing revolutions. […]

  3. Marcela says:

    Today I received a book I bought from Amazon. I had thought I had ordered a paperback. I got something that looks like a book, yet has “Copyright Material” printed on each and every page (even on top of some page numbers). What I got seems to be a sophisticated photocopy, “Made in the USA, Lexington, KY, 04 October 2011”. If this is POD, quality is terrible. I can barely manage to read the body of the text; to read the quotations inserted I’ll need to get a magnifying glass. And for $24 it wasn’t that much cheap.

    • With the Lexington address, sounds like it’s a copy from Lightning Source. We gave up using them when a similar thing happened. It seems that, instead of accessing the book files we supplied them, they printed from the copy held by Google. Yes, I know this sounds weird, but all the fingerprints looked to be there. Quite possibly a similar thing happened to you too. Reject the book and complain to Amazon.

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