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Lightning Source — Electrified Book Production

March 2007 BY Noel Jeffrey
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BY APPLYING ad­­vanced digital printing and workflow technologies to customer needs since 1997, Lightning Source has sent a current through the publishing industry. It’s charged a new business model and unheard of speed for delivery of one-off books based on print-on-demand (POD) manufacturing. POD means a customer orders the number of books needed, even if that’s only a single copy. Economically speaking, a title need never go out of print.

“Our mission is to be the global leader in on-demand solutions for the book publishing industry,” proclaims Kirby Best, Lightning Source’s president and CEO. Those solutions include maintaining a digital library for publishers, offering a selection of distribution models and more.

A division of Ingram Industries headquartered in La Vergne, TN, Lightning Source opened an additional production facility in Milton Keynes, England (north of London), in 2001 and continues to expand its reach.

In late January, the company announced it will open a third book manufacturing facility west of Allentown in Breinigsville, PA. Expected to start up in June, when fully operational the 130,000-square-foot plant will employ approximately 150 people and house 16 black-and-white presses, 10 webfed color presses, five sheetfed color presses and 12 binding lines. The company currently has 455 employees.

50 Million Books Printed

While Ingram Industries doesn’t disclose sales for its divisions, Lightning Source’s statistics are impressive. Its digital library houses more than 500,000 individual titles, and they have printed more than 40 million books. Best says the book manufacturer will surpass 50 million books printed this year as they celebrate their 10th anniversary this fall.

According to Best, they now work with some 4,500 publishing partners, including booksellers. Large publishers account for 63 percent of their business. Individual authors and self-publishers are referred to the various author services like iUniverse, although Lightning Source does print for the author services companies.

“We deal directly with companies like Barnes & Noble and Amazon,” he notes. “Other large retailers buy through distributors like the Ingram Book Group, Bertrams and others. The big publishers and booksellers have figured out the on-demand model. In book manufacturing, it’s growing faster than any other segment because it eliminates inventory risks. We’ve given them a whole new business model.”

Best cites Information Age Publishing, a social science publisher of academic and scholarly books, series and journals, as an example of complete transformation. Two years ago, after working with Lightning Source for five years, the publisher cleared its inventory and closed its warehouse. “They’re now 100 percent virtual with us. They loved finding authors and bringing books to market, but hated the inventory risks. Now they can concentrate on what they like,” he notes.

To make the on-demand model work, Best explains that Ingram’s distribution inventory lists 100 copies of titles in Lightning Source’s library as “in stock.” In turn, Lightning Source guarantees to print and deliver a title to Ingram in 12 hours or less.

Therefore, the in-stock inventory is virtual and orders are often for a single copy of a book. Short-run orders are shipped within five business days, while drop ship orders—orders that are sent direct to a publisher’s customer—are shipped in two days or less.

On-Demand Output

Charles Marshall, senior vice president and general manager at Lightning Source, reveals that the average number of books per title printed is just 1.8, with approximately 40,000 books printed daily. The company runs 24/7 with two shifts of back-to-back 12-hour stints followed by a six-hour swing day for production.

“We are the living end of the Long Tail,” Best says, explaining that the Long Tail comes from a math formula which posits that if something is still available and searchable, demand and sales go on. For publishers, that means they will probably sell more copies of a book from their backlists in the Long Tail and that a book need never go out of print. (He recommends reading “The Long Tail” by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson.)

Digital printing, plus sophisticated application of proprietary software and systems, are key to the lightning-quick turnaround on a daily basis. Marshall notes that the uniqueness of the company’s proprietary workflow and product handling depends on an extremely talented IT staff, and jokes that Lightning Source is essentially “a technology company masquerading as a printer.”

Lightning Source is in the process of transitioning its original output devices to 15 Océ VarioStream 9210s, one of the models built on Océ’s 9000 black and color-capable platform of continuous-feed digital printers. The large order also included the company’s PRISMA production software. According to both Best and Marshall, selection was largely based on improving halftone quality.

The VarioStream 9210 is a simplex or single pass duplex, 852 ipm or 196 fpm, device that offers 600x600 dpi graphic arts quality. Its web format width is 6.5x19˝, which means they can print 6x9˝ books three-up—a must for a digital book manufacturer.

Lightning Source’s proprietary software allows the operation to generate IPDS, PDF, AFP and TIFF data streams as standard output, so the manufacturer is not only running different books side-by-side, but also different PDLs. Content can also be mixed at any time, thus there’s no need to segregate workflow for text- and graphics-intensive books.

“If our average book run is 1.8 copies,” Marshall points out, “I can’t very well print two- or three-up of the same title very often. We have to be able to put three different books across the width of the web.” He does say that the majority of files coming in today are PDFs. Lightning Source uses PDF/X-1A:2001 as its preferred PDF format. Publishers can also submit a hard copy book, which the company will scan and add to the library.

Meeting Color Needs

For its color covers, Lightning Source employs five HP Indigo press 3050s. An HP Indigo w3250 webfed model prints interior color content and full-color books. Marshall indicates that they’re getting ready to add a second w3250.

HP Indigo 1000s are currently printing color covers in the UK plant, and color book printing capabilities are planned for the UK in the near future. Currently, the U.S. facility handles those color orders.

Bindery operations are all near-line. “With our 12-hour window to move product from printer and cover printer to binder and out to trimming and shipping, we can’t afford to allow any one piece of equipment to shut down any other piece of equipment,” according to Marshall. He says they use barcodes on totes to move the book blocks among processes. Much of the bindery equipment, including its Duplo binders and Horauf three-knife trimmers, has been substantially modified by Lightning Source’s engineers and combined with extensive program logic control interfaces by the company’s IT department.

In addition, crucial homegrown MIS systems automate the shop. “We’re printing 40,000 books a day, so you do the math as to how many orders that could be. The system has to catch the orders, classify them, sort them, control output to the presses, and bring it all back together and ship to the right customer—mostly in 12 hours,” he points out. “There’s nothing in the marketplace that I’m aware of that can turn you into a one-off printer. It makes no difference to us if all 40,000 books are single orders.”

Production systems in the UK facility mirror those in the U.S., as do the business benefits of a print-on-demand workflow. David Taylor, senior vice president of global sales for Lightning Source and managing director of Lightning Source UK, adds that the United Kingdom made sense for the company’s first overseas location because a number of British publishers—such as Cambridge University Press, with whom Lightning was already working with in the U.S.—wanted to see the same model in their domestic market. “The core reason,” he says, “is that we were asked to do so by our customers. The market wanted us to print more titles…POD is the key driver. It’s attractive for publishers at a strategic level because they always get the print run wrong.”

Currently the facility in the United Kingdom, which grew 40 percent last year, works with hundreds of UK publishers. They have also begun to expand their efforts to other European publishers. They have hired their first sales representative for Germany and are also looking at opening facilities in other countries.

“Another aspect of POD,” Taylor points out, “is the ability to publish profitably in minority languages. These are very small markets and the publishers are very interested in the technology, not only for financial reasons, but for cultural ones as well.”

User Group Feedback

The British operation is also bringing new ideas to its American counterpart. Taylor explains that Lightning Source has a user group for its UK customer base that serves as an advisory group to management. The suggestion for a pilot journal-on-demand program came from this group. Aimed largely at academic and small periodical publishers, the idea is to improve speed to market, as well as to be able to offer one-off article reprints. A U.S. user group will be set up this year.

Lightning Source’s large print initiative, launched in 2005 and supported by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), is also a UK program. Through it, standard-sized books are converted into large print-format books for visually impaired individuals around the world. Publishers on board early included Time Warner, BBC Audio, A&C Black/Bloomsbury, Echo Library and Harper Collins.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for publishers to make available thousands of titles to readers with sight problems in an efficient and cost-effective manner,” Taylor contends. “For the first time, large print books can become widely available in book shops.”

Best adds that Lightning Source’s HP Indigo equipment is also allowing them to launch a new photobook initiative. “We’re jumping into the market for 4x6˝ prints developed and set up in a hard cover book for display,” he says. “There are about 80 companies that have photo software projects, and we’re hoping to be the back end for all of them.”

However, printing is not the end of the story. In addition to maintaining its secure digital library of titles for publishers, Lightning Source’s distribution models include e-books in a number of formats. They also pay publishers for each book sold, less the cost of printing, and send detailed sales reports monthly. Like commercial printers that have added mailing capabilities, these ancillary services attract and hold customers.

There are also ancillary activities for collective release from the intense pace and sometimes long hours that the POD business model requires. For example, last spring Best shut down the plant for 30 minutes so that everyone could go to the parking lot for a massive water balloon launch. Coming up shortly is the annual indoor golf tournament.

“People dress up for it and the course weaves through all the cubicles,” he says. “We’re growing at such a pace and there’s always pressure to improve and make our systems more efficient. I want to make sure that Lightning Source remains a friendly and collaborative place to work.” PI


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