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Digital Book Production -- Speaking Volumes

April 2003
by chris bauer

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but a book's economic viability can be judged by how it is produced. To keep costs under control, many printers have turned to digital production for short runs of books.

Short-run digital book manufacturing helps to reduce costly overprinting of offset runs and can keep publishers' titles alive after initial print run volumes are depleted. Overhead costs have narrowed profitability for book manufacturers in recent years. To remain competitive, book printers needed to find a way to overcome challenging price benchmarks and the effects of a flat economy.

Book printer Edwards Brothers, headquartered in Ann Arbor, MI, came up with a solution. It established remote short-run digital printing facilities at The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group's warehouse in Blue Ridge Summit, PA, in mid-2000, and at University of Chicago Press' distribution center in November 2001 for cost-effective runs of 250 books and less.

Full Service Facilities

Each site is staffed with two Edwards Brothers professionals, equipped with Xerox DocuTech and DocuColor digital printers, and supported by scanning and other services from Edwards Brothers' plants.

Bindery equipment such as an ODM casemaking line, sticker casing-in machine (glues book block into hard cover), and smasher building-in machine from On Demand Machinery is also in use at the Blue Ridge Summit site.

By manufacturing books at the publishers' distribution centers, Edwards Brothers eliminates overhead costs involved with shipping books from the plant to the customer. As a result, digital book production is even more cost-effective, enabling profitable production of as little as one copy in a run, as compared to minimum runs of 25 in the Edwards Brothers facilities.

"Digital printing enhances our role with the publisher, permitting us to help them produce the right quantity at the right time, for the right price," explains John Edwards, CEO and president of Edwards Brothers.

"Today, publishers build just-in-case inventories—just in case they have an order, they want to have the books. But that's expensive. Digital printing allows them to avoid overprinting by economically printing short runs that complement long offset runs to more accurately reflect the demand cycle. When these demand issues are worked together with an effort to reduce the overhead involved with doing business together, it really changes the dynamic of the relationship for the benefit of both parties."

In its first year of outsourced, onsite book production, Edwards Brothers' customer Rowman & Littlefield generated more than $1 million in revenues for books they otherwise would not have been able to produce.

"Digital printing has allowed Rowman & Littlefield to capture revenues we used to walk away from due to the economics of traditional manufacturing," notes James Lyons, president and publisher, The Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. "Now, it is never out of print and we can fill any order."

Edwards Brothers' overall digital book manufacturing sales have grown by about 20 percent annually in recent years, fueled in part by outsourcing arrangements, while offset revenues have remain essentially flat, the company reports.

"These distribution center printing partnerships give printers and publishers the opportunity to manage a title from its first printing on a web press down to the small quantities required to keep it in print forever," Edwards adds.

Even the giants of the printing world, known more for mass production, are getting into the short-run book business. Sales leader Quebecor World operates three digital book printing modules, one for the educational market, one for technical documentation and one for trade paperbacks.

"In each case, we selected capabilities that relate to each market segment requirement of print quality, trim size and finishing," reports Carlos Diaz, vice president of digital book services. "Most importantly, we looked for equipment with the ability to produce books that closely resemble those we produce on offset equipment in terms of quality, cost and durability."

Diaz says that, in most cases, Quebecor World encourages the print engine manufacturer to act as the integrator when it comes to merging the components of a digital book production system (printing device, front end, binding equipment, etc.). However, the company plays an important role in the selection of the appropriate technology and vendor for a complete solution.

Quebecor's Digital Trade Book Module in Martinsburg VA, is equipped with two Océ Demand Stream 8090-CX rollfed digital presses to produce one-color text blocks, and a KBA Karat-74 sheetfed press to produce four-color offset-quality covers.

For the educational and specialty markets, it depends on equipment from Océ Printing Systems, HP Indigo and Canon USA.

The digital book printing exec says the book market is becoming increasingly accepting of the cost structure for digitally printed products. Publishers recognize the cost savings opportunities that digital printing offers to effectively manage cost-based inventory problems, he notes.

"Quebecor World's digital trade book production model delivers flexibility to publishers who need to produce books from cradle to grave," Diaz contends. "In the educational segment, Quebecor World has the ability to cost-effectively produce custom books that allow educators to select the content of their textbooks. In all cases we archive titles, but we are not seeing the demand for Internet-based ordering yet."

Similarly, Chicago-based R.R. Donnelley (RRD) uses digital book production solutions to meet three criteria—capabilities for trade paperback books; desired quality for back-list titles; and a cost base that allows for a compelling unit cost.

The Nipson Varypress, married with a Muller Martini Amigo binder and Hunkeler integration components, is used for producing books digitally, reports Kevin Spall, director of solutions development at RRD. Four-color covers are being produced by an HP-Indigo Ultrastream 3000.

"Ultimately all three vendors were responsible for their integration," Spall says, "but they all worked as one integration team."

Currently, Donnelley's front end is no different than its offset front end as it relates to the digital book printing technology. "We drive our solution with a PDF file created from customer-supplied digital files or scanned pages that are then turned into PDFs," he explains. "Internet ordering and archiving are both capabilities that improve overall customer satisfaction and lower cost, but is not necessarily a must to get started.

"Our solution is much more about the financial gains to a publisher rather than the technology. The power of digital printing, from our perspective related to this module, is through improved inventory management. Publishers can save up to 50 percent in cost as compared to a traditionally printed, short-run offset title."

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