Long live the book

Developments in printing on demand mean that book publishers need no longer speculate on print runs.

It's a sad fact, but more than half the book titles published in the UK today will sell fewer than 250 copies. If you're a mainstream publisher looking for the next Harry Potter phenomenon, you might as well forget it, because large-print-run blockbusters come around only rarely.

When they do, according to Suzanne-Wilson-Higgins, commercial director of Lightning Source, "you've got to have distribution and logistics to go with them".

According to Wilson-Higgins, in the not-too-distant future book publishing as we know it will be dead. Gone will be the piles of remainders in bargain basements commissioned by an over-zealous publisher; gone will be the post-Christmas surplus stock of unsold biographies of B-list footballers, and even the self-published author will no longer need to fill the cupboard under the stairs will his 'Recollections of National Service'. This is because "a sort of revolution, with all books being digitally produced, is happening now".

If nothing else, this revolution will have a positive environmental effect on a business that, in terms of its paper use, has always been extremely wasteful. From a commercial perspective, the main plus-point of the revolution is that you can make books financially viable on very low print runs. Of course, you need to watch your margins and keep overheads as low as possible to run a commercially viable business printing one-off copies. "This is what we do," says Wilson-Higgins, whose company is about to move its around-the-clock operation into a new facility four times the size of its existing Milton Keynes headquarters.

Out of stock

To be specific, what Lightning Source does is print books to customer orders with an average print run of 1.8 units. "We really are printing to specific individual customer demand," says Wilson-Higgins. There are other short-order digital book printers in the UK, but these tend to work in so-called 'ultra-short' runs (around ten), which means that there is still an issue of stock. When you print to customer demand there is "no stock, no warehouse, less risk and increased efficiency".

The term 'print-on-demand' has been kicking around for years in a wider context, usually related to corporate sector applications, such as customised bulk mail. But it is increasingly being used to categorise making printed books available in small quantities at short notice. To avoid ambiguity, Wilson-Higgins says that at Lightning Source "they try not to use the expression print-on-demand, because we are only a niche within that sector and prefer to say that we produce, or make available, books on demand". To add to the confusion, the technology used in both sectors is identical: "Print manufacturing industry vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oce and Xerox, use the expression print-on-demand to distinguish it from other types of print in general. Lightning Source simply took that technology and applied it to books," adds Wilson-Higgins.

Thrown a lifeline

Along with it came the term and the result is that many books that would otherwise be unavailable are now flourishing through the Internet vending environment. All a book needs in order to be printed by Lightning Source is an ISBN prefix, and it need never be 'out of print' again. This has obvious benefits for publishers of books with limited mass appeal, or simply technical titles such as instruction manuals.

Packt Publishing, based in Birmingham, UK, produces books for software tools developers that no high street chain is ever going to put on the shelves. You just can't see the buyers at Waterstones ordering bulk loads of 'Mastering phpMyAdmin for Effective MySQL Management' for their walk-in punter. This title was in fact Packt's first published book (back in 2004), and subsequently all its books have been available though their website. They get printed and sent to the client by Lightning Source, and, as such, Packt is only committed to holding the stock it wants to (if any). Because the titles have been designed to look good on the digital domain technology, they do look good; with covers consisting of expensive sunsets that somewhat mask the technically esoteric contents. Packt is so geared up to exploiting the potential of on-demand publishing that it even asks on its home page: "What would you like Packt to publish?" You don't get that on Penguin, HarperCollins or Faber's websites.

For the moment, on-demand books lag behind many traditionally printed volumes in their production values. While the products themselves may be either paperback or hardback, in a variety of trim sizes, the limitations of the technology mean that the book block (i.e. text area) must be black-and-white and the spine 'perfect bound' (in other words, glued individual sheets – frowned upon by the literary 'establishment').

The way this works is that a single computer file holding all of the book's pages (except for the cover) is printed out on continuously fed paper (with up to three different books in parallel possible on the same roll of paper) before being cut. The cover is printed on different machinery and is reunited with the book block in a separate process, and, after trimming, it goes to despatch. The time from placing your order with an Internet vendor to your book arriving at your front door is in the region of 48 hours.

Colourful outlook

Because every book needs to be stored as two separate data files, the system has obvious room for streamlining. But all that will change when the company sets up a colour shop in its new premises. Not only will the books themselves move up a level by having a full-colour throughout option, but other improvements, including the integration of conveyor automation, will mean that the speed of delivery will be increased to match that of the company's US parent in Tennessee, turning around an order in 24 hours.

Niche-within-a-niche

Printing books on-demand is not new, but it is just at the take-off point on the product development cycle, because, as Wilson-Higgins says, the numbers are now "starting to make sense". When Lightning Source started, it specialised in publishing academic books for imprints such as Elsevier, Cambridge University Press, Springer and so on. This niche-within-a-niche sector was ideally suited to the nascent print-on-demand technology because of small-volume markets calling for high-unit cost product. "The price point meant that we could make it work in the academic world, but, as developments in technology brought it further and further down, we found that we could compete in the trade markets."

Since the technology involved is on one level little more than a pair of large-scale laser printers hooked up to a digital book depository, it is easy to see how the unit price could fall with increased technological performance. Of course, it is much more intricate than that, with full digital integration high on the list of desirables at all times, while at the start file compatibility issues meant that full automation was something that could only be dreamed of. "Clients' files never seemed to work back then," says Wilson-Higgins. With these problems a thing of the past, Lighting Source is now adding 50,000 titles to its databank per year, with the half-million mark having been reached in 2007.

At the moment, Lightning Source prints 650,000 individual books per month, and the demand is growing. There are huge development plans to increase the business once the company is ensconced in its new facility. So is it a case of 'the book is dead, long live the book'? As Wilson-Higgins says: "There will always be books. People like books, but the way in which they are going to be published is about to change forever."

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