What Price for the 'Book-of-One' Model?
Industry savants, equipment vendors, and printers, have all piled on the "book-of-one" model for the book printing sector. This manufacturing model uses an inventory-less book manufacturing process. This is where sophisticated software manages retail and wholesale inventory levels in a continuous feedback loop to manage re-stock, or initial production orders.
From an IT and software standpoint, this is a perfectly "doable" enterprise. Even from the print side, current digital print technology makes this possible. It's on the manufacturing (finishing) end where the greatest challenges lie. The two major finishing methods for books are softcover and hardcover. Softcover is the easy part. That's because there are two components to a soft-cover book. The cover, and the book block.
Churning out either cut sheets, or folded signatures for a book block is easy for a digital press. You print the cover on a separate printer, mate the two in a perfect binder-trimmer combination and you're good to go. The price to manufacture soft-cover books in the "book-of-one" model will be higher than cranking out a run of ten thousand or so, but it will not be prohibitively so. The economies gained in warehousing and inventory will offset this.
Hard-cover production is a different story. Simply because of the many separate components needed to make a hard-cover book. You have a.) the book block, b.) the "crash" and endpaper, c.) headbands, d.) the case, and e.) the jacket, or slipcover. There are large, expensive, and highly automated machines for both casemaking and casing-in operations. Such systems may take some time to set up properly (even with automation), but they will then pump out 50 to 60 finished books per minute. So the unit cost of a five thousand run (or higher) will be within accepted parameters.
But when you're making hard-cover books in very small quantities, the equations change. Jason Johnson, owner of Midwest Editions in Minneapolis, runs an edition book bindery that has turned out very high-quality hard-cover books since 1970. Like most of his peers, Midwest is faced with the "book-of-one" dilemma. Although manufacturers have responded to this with well-designed short-run, hard-cover machines, the makeready and throughputs of these systems will not match the larger systems.
As a result, the manufacturing unit cost is higher than what a higher volume run would be. Jason noted, "An operator spends a much larger percentage of overall production time per copy produced. Some of the barriers to efficiency are such simple things as personnel moving the materials through the steps and verifying accuracy of materials and content. Any slow-downs and stoppages—even if simply to ask a question or verify information—mean money lost on producing the project."
He continued, "A distinction must be made between multiple unique copies of all the same specifications, with only printed content changing between titles/volumes; and truly unique one-off titles. Mostly all the mass-produced photo-books are the former; but publishers and book makers are clamoring for the latter at or near the same price point."
The "$64 question" then is whether the book binders' customer will accept a higher price for this type of production, or insist that they hold the line. We'll see how this shakes out.