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Digital Book Production: The Demands of On Demand

November 2013
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In "Crossing the Chasm," Geoffrey Moore described the stark difference in behavior and preferences among technology innovators and early adopters—about 16 percent of the population—contrasted with those of the remaining majority.1 Companies that don't account for these differences often fail, even when the technology itself thrives. Novelty and scarcity appeal strongly to the 16 percent, but for the remaining 84 percent of any given market the drivers are based on social proof. Conforming to what others see as a successful path may not be sexy, but it is the way viable technology use gets past the so-called tipping point in the business world.

For the book industry, digital print has reached such a point. Non-offset print reproduction has been embraced by technologists and visionaries (the 16 percent) and is now being adopted by more pragmatic and even conservative decision makers. Admittedly, one form of digital—electrophotographic or EP (toner) reproduction—is further along the adoption curve than high-speed inkjet. However, as print quality and workflow efficiency improve, both EP and inkjet are becoming mainstream technologies for book publishers and their print providers.

For the majority, then, it is critically important to understand how to implement digital, on-demand printing—with all its disruption of adjacent cost and profit centers, like finishing, inventory management, resale channels, fulfillment, and customer relations.

Root Causes

Digital printing itself—replacing offset inks with charged bits of toner or sprayed droplets of pigment ink—is actually a byproduct of a much larger shift in consumer behavior. The Internet-driven demand for personalized, customized content—or at least content aimed at smaller and smaller interest groups—has changed the expectations of consumers who prefer their media content in book form. "Readers want what they want, when and where and how they want it," says John Crumbaugh, Marketing Executive, Ink and Paper, at Canon Solutions America. "This is the beginning of a mass customization focus for publishing. Four years ago, people would have said that's crazy, but today you can get the same book with a different cover, based on your preferences. That's only going to increase."

The growing demand for more narrowly-focused books has led to a quest for affordable "run of one" book printing. The economies of scale in offset production made extremely low press runs impractical—outside the realm of expensive vanity projects. Digital, on the other hand, promises little or no makeready overhead. In theory, digitally printing a book could be as easy as making a photocopy. Of course, a printer's profitability ultimately depends on volume, so there must also be practical ways to combine thousands or millions of very short runs, and produce them at a sufficiently high quality to meet consumer expectations.

 

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