Printing revolutions

7 June 2010

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.


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.)

First impressions of the iPad

4 May 2010

The hype that we heard before Christmas about Apple’s new ‘tablet’ being the game-changer – and saviour of publishers – has now died away. Nonetheless, despite being criticized for sounding like a sanitary towel, the iPad is selling fast (over one million units sold since its launch only a month ago) and its advent has forced Amazon to grant publishers some say in the pricing of their e-books. (The scuffling between Amazon and different publishers is one reason why certain books have their ‘buy’ button disabled on Amazon, causing huge frustration among readers looking to get their hands on, say, the latest cult e-fiction from Penguin.) In addition, the iPad’s success seems to have scuttled plans by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to launch their own rival tablet computers.

Given all the hoopla, it was interesting last Monday when passing through San Francisco to drop in on Apple’s main store and take a look. No, let’s be honest, I intended to buy an iPad – but that wasn’t to be. Stocks had run out the previous week but a truckload of new iPads were delivered that Monday morning. Quickly, the word went out, a huge queue appeared and soon snaked around the block, but by 1 p.m., two hours before we got to the store, stocks were again exhausted.

Oh well, at least we got to play with one of the many ‘try-me’ iPads in store. These were all constantly in use, while in the background an army of young helpers were quick to offer help and advice at the merest hint that this was welcome. And upstairs, round the clock, were seminars running on how to get the best out of your iPad. (Yes, Apple say they are not advertising the iPad, it’s all word of mouth, but the sheer marketing effort behind the scenes is staggering.)

The first thing I noticed was how heavy the iPad is – only 1.5 pounds (680 grams), says Apple, but still a significant weight to hold upright in a reading position if used as an e-book reader. (And of course that is my primary interest in the iPad, its potential as a new medium for disseminating scholarly research. For the same reason, we have been taking a closer look at Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony e-Reader.)

Ultimately, the weight needn’t be a problem (after all, the iPad isn’t much heavier than a chunky hardback book). But the dimensions of the iPad – slightly smaller than an A4- or US Letter-sized piece of paper – means it’s not something you are going to just slip into your pocket and carry round with you all the time.

That said, the size of the iPad and its stunning colour display makes it the first e-reader with the potential to transform how we present scholarly research into something utterly new. This isn’t something that is a static, monochrome and two-dimensional imitation of the book (like the Kindle) but a dynamic, interactive, vibrant, loud and boisterous ‘unbook’, an entirely new beast in our backyard.

For instance, I could imagine using the iPad to view Robert Cribb’s Digital Atlas of Indonesian History (shipping to our warehouses right now). It would be more than stunning; it would be awesome. But the key word in the above is ‘potential’. For the moment, it is not possible to connect an iPad to a printer, let alone download files (there’s not even a USB port). Viewing the Digital Atlas might be awesome but using its maps (not least downloading them) would be nigh on impossible – in other words a sad, crippled experience.

However, what is feasible would be an interactive, multi-media history of Indonesia based on the Digital Atlas, coded to run on the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and priced at about $5 to appeal to student budgets. (Maybe we should start looking at this now. And this is why I think the iPad will be a game-changer.)

It is not for nothing, then, that the ‘noise’ about the iPad is confused (you could even say the discussion sounds like the static once heard on old radio sets). Yes, the iPad is groundbreaking and yes it has its limitations but YES it opens the possibility of doing many things previously not possible in academic publishing.

Sounds like we are in for an interesting time.