Disruptions in Book Publishing Bode Well for Digital Printers

The book publishing industry has undergone tremendous change, much of it driven by new technologies and distribution outlets.

  • Disruption #1 occurred in the 1980s, with the creation of mass book retailers. Notably, Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books A Million created massive destination stores, with inventories on average 10 to 20 times greater than independent booksellers. Many contained in-store cafés encouraging patrons to linger.
  • Disruption #2 occurred in the late 1990s, as Internet commerce became entrenched as a powerful inventory control and consumer convenience alternative to physical shopping in brick-and-mortar stores.
  • Disruption #3 occurred in the early 2000s, as digital printing enabled micro-runs better aligning inventory to demand, as well as fueling the self-publishing industry.
  • Disruption #4 saw the introduction of electronic display tablets (e-books). Everyone thought e-books would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin. E-books cut out the pass-through costs of paper/ink, and more important, the cost of inventory and distribution.

The current disruption is occurring today. As sales patterns become less predictable, publisher inventory planning becomes much more crucial with a focus on printing “just in time” inventory vs “just in case” inventory. Book manufacturers are pressured to produce fewer books cost effectively.  

Initially digital toner devices met the demand. Continuous feed inkjet printing systems are now the production method of choice to meet the requirements of a shrinking but still very large book printing industry for the next decade.

At the same time the number of titles published annually is exploding. Depending on which statistics you read, there are approximately three times more titles published today than in 2005.

Publishers are using digital printing in four ways:

1) Life of title planning. In other words printing short runs digitally to “test” the market, long run (offset) to meet demand, then back to digital for micro inventory to meet demand and replenish as needed.

2) As a test. Placing 1 to 2 books per retailer, circumventing cumbersome distributor guidelines and storage fees, before ordering larger offset printed quantities.

3) For predicted strong titles. Publishers will print reorders as they occur via digital to supplement first-run offset printed books.

4) To customize. The ability to print a book of one or more for specific needs.  From traditional custom textbooks or training manuals to a book having small print runs and is updated with each printing.

As inkjet print quality has reached levels often indistinguishable from offset, publishers have generally become indifferent to specifying whether they want a book to be digitally or offset printed. It has largely become a return-on-investment decision rather than print quality one. For yet-to-be established author titles, production inkjet printing offers a means to mitigate the risk of printing too many books, carrying excess inventory costs and processing returns.

Offset and digital production printing will coexist for the foreseeable future, but few book manufacturers will be able to justify reinvestment in offset printing technology.

For more information, contact John at info@brprinters.com.

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