Digital Book Production: The Demands of On Demand

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.

The expectations of e-commerce have heavily influenced this trend. Not only can books be ordered online and delivered overnight; they can also—in theory—be highly customized, thanks to innovations like variable data printing (VDP) and custom content aggregation. In higher education, for example, professors may specify custom, bound coursepacks—creating a unique textbook for a class of 20 or 30 students. On the consumer level, photobooks and other highly personalized books are becoming commonplace. While mass customization is still far from universal, at least for now, the expectations of book e-commerce (“I want my book, and I want it now“) are playing havoc with traditional sales channels.

High-speed inkjet in particular is shaping up to be an even greater disruption than EP, as the optical density and quality of inks—and the number of available substrates—increases dramatically. “With the quality improvements in inkjet technology, inks, and papers, there are more and more books of the ‘coffee table’ variety that look just as good to consumers when done with inkjet as they did with offset,” says Crumbaugh. “It’s just a different way of doing the same thing. ‘Overcome’ is the wrong word for dealing with this kind of disruptive technology. I think it’s more accurate to say it needs to be embraced.”

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