Digital Short Runs: What’s Great; What Can Be Trouble
by Linda Carlson
What is digital printing? Does your business need it? And if it does, what advantages and disadvantages do you need to consider?
“Really and Truly Print on Demand: The Pros and the Cons” (June) focused on the POD technology developed for manufacturing books only to fulfill orders (demand) from individual customers. Some publishers are using this technology (often via vendors such as Lightning Source and BookSurge) to get very short runs of digitally printed books for sale direct or through booksellers or for use as samples or advance reading copies.
This article examines using digital printers to get short runs for your inventory. Coming soon: an article on a third new “printing” option: downloadables.
Comes the Revolution
Most of us know that digital printing is less expensive in total cost than traditional offset, and that it’s the printing method of choice for many short-run jobs. Wondering why? Offset lithography requires several prepress steps, such as making a plate and mixing inks. Once a job is on the press, the inks have to be checked for accurate color and consistent coverage, and registration of inks has to be verified. The press has to be washed up after each job, and the printed sheets of paper have to dry before being cut, gathered, and bound. Covers are printed separately, often on a different press.
Digital printing, by contrast, is simply a more sophisticated version of what you do with your desktop printer. There’s no setup, no cleanup, and no waiting time to handle printed sheets. With equipment like the Espresso Book Machine being tested at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, and elsewhere, digital jobs can be handled by anyone who can upload a PDF and run a photocopy machine. And there’s no shortage of companies that will handle digital printing for you.
Some IPBA members declare that digital printing is revolutionizing their business. Being able to convert 1,400-plus Africa World Press and The Red Sea Press titles to digital has had a “transformative effect on the overall life cycle of our books,” says publisher Kassahun Checole, adding, “Its impact on our overall production and capital infusion is revolutionary.”
The Trenton, NJ, firm is able to keep more books in print, print more new titles, and reduce turnaround time on reprints to fewer than 10 days. Although it is still using offset for 3,000- to 10,000-copy runs of its most popular titles, the digital option has reduced its average print runs to between 300 and 1,000.
“Digital short-run technology can be the savior of literature,” says Richard Williams of Hollyridge Press in Venice, CA. “It allows books that wouldn’t otherwise be economical to be published, and it allows them to stay in print.” Because of digital, Hollyridge was able to publish a poetry chapbook series. “If I sell as few as two copies of a book a year, I can keep that book in print indefinitely,” he points out.
Florrie Binford Kichler, IBPA president and publisher at Indianapolis’s Patria Press, Inc., agrees. She’s using digital printing for runs of 25 to 150. “This keeps books in print that 20 years ago would have been scrapped, and lets us serve customers whose needs would have otherwise gone unmet,” she says, predicting that as digital technology continues to improve, it will become even more attractive as part of the “long tail” approach to bookselling.
Test marketing and beta testing are among digital printing’s most valuable applications for publishers.
Patty Crowe at Richer Resources Publications reports: “Every new title is first printed digitally—usually around 100 copies—to work out any kinks as well as to discover the best ways to market that particular title.” Once errors have been caught and corrected and demand has been assessed, Richer Resources goes to offset.
At Upper Access, Steve Carlson prints galleys digitally, usually about 100 for each forthcoming title, and he finds that digital is appropriate for some of his backlist, including Signs of Life by Tim Brookes. “The author has enough of a following that the book sells itself to a steady trickle of readers,” he says, explaining that these readers “don’t mind ordering their copies from me, online, or by special order at bookstores. They aren’t particularly price-sensitive, so I’m able to give the book a relatively high cover price—and it doesn’t need updating.”
Upper Access has other titles that Carlson will switch to digital once he exhausts his current inventory of offset-printed copies.
Harry Rutstein at Seattle’s Marco Polo Foundation cites marketing needs as another important reason for using digital printing. “Because September 15 is Marco Polo’s birthday, I need to have that as my publication date,” he notes, but copies of The Marco Polo Odyssey: In the Footsteps of a Merchant Who Changed the World were not going to be available far enough in advance for reviewers to see the September book, so Rutstein used a digital edition for his ARCs.
Shel Horowitz, with AWM Books in Hadley, MA, suggests another reason for going digital: gifts, either personal or corporate (a company history, for example). “I did a vanity project as a gift for a family member,” he reports; “no ISBN and a print run of six copies. Unthinkable 15 years ago, now easy and economical.”
Other limited-appeal books done with digital printing include Communication Unlimited’s large-print edition of How to Create a Great Second Life. “It looked just like the original, sold out quickly, and we did 100 the next time. A perfect solution for a wee need,” says Gordon Burgett.
Similarly, at Reno’s Beagle Bay, two new books intended primarily to support speaking careers will be printed in digital short runs, Jacqueline Church Simonds reports.
On the Other Hand
Of course, there are many reasons for publishers to stay with offset, including:
text and cover stock options
image quality, especially for full-color photographs and illustrations
complexity, which may involve PMS matches, bleeds, die cuts, finishes, trim size, inserts, gatefolds, and binding
As Steve Carlson points out, special sales and sales through distributors usually require low cover prices and large discounts. “Therefore,” he explains, “I need to keep most unit printing costs as low as possible. Digital is getting better and cheaper, but it is still several times more expensive per book than offset printing.”
Given digital printing’s constraints, your book designer must think digital when creating both cover and text.
At Dick Margulis Creative Services in New Haven, CT, Margulis lists some of the special cover effects that he describes as “simply unavailable” with digital: “embossing, foils, spot color, special stock, to name just a few.”
So, he says, “If you’ve gone all out on the dust jacket for a long-run offset hardcover and now you want to print a few hundred paperbacks digitally, well, yes, you’re going to have to cut back to what you can do in four colors.” And the same is true if you’ve done a paperback with offset and now need a short digital run.
Poetry publisher Richard Williams brings up another important printing point, the tolerance issue. “The major design challenge we faced on our first books was discovering that the printing method—or perhaps I should say the trimming available from the vendor we were using—does not have the precision of a NASA moon launch. The first trims looked awful because the cutter missed the margin.”
Other possible problems with digital: poor registration on two-sided jobs, with shifts of as much as an eighth of an inch; poor coverage of large blocks of color; and patterning glitches, such as streaking or inadequate saturation of color.
Pointers for Publishers
If you are converting old book files to digital, be prepared to ask detailed questions of the printers you consider. As Wendy Ronga, creative director for Judson Press in Valley Forge, PA, makes clear, the potential for problems is significant.
Judson Press has been publishing since 1824, “and there were no digital files for about 80 percent of the backlist—more than 400 titles,” Ronga reports. “We updated each book’s cover and copied it to a CD. We needed the interior to be scanned by the printer. If there were any changes to the interior pages, those were also submitted on a CD.”
Ronga had visited a major player in digital printing and was enthusiastic about its state-of-the-art facility. But, she says, “very quickly, I realized that the internal operations fell short of the claims that the marketing staff had made.”
Very basic mistakes were common.
“Right-hand pages ended up on the left because when the production people set up the PDF files, they left out blank pages, throwing the entire book off. Cover elements were often missing, even though the files were fine and we had submitted hard copies as guides. Front matter and other pages were often missing, and I would be asked why the page count of the proof didn’t match the page count I had submitted,” Ronga continues.
The excuse for every problem? “Do you realize the volume of books we produce each and every day? One or two books are bound to become a problem.”
“I guess that was an accurate statement,” Ronga says. “However, every job I gave this vendor had a variety of mistakes and delays. It sometimes took six months to get a proof of a 196-page book.”
In the end, the finished books were unsatisfactory. Ronga describes the entire process—customer service, printing, accounting—as “a nightmare.” She has since selected a new vendor for digital printing.
If you are considering a switch to digital, Ronga and other IBPA members have lots of advice:
Select a vendor with knowledgeable customer service representatives who are available by telephone. If you are expected to handle everything via an automated Web site, you’ll have difficulty with errors, limited menu choices, or Web site snafus.
Digitize your files before submitting them to the printer. This may mean more than the quick-and-dirty PDF you create with an InDesign “export” command.
Ask for samples and references from at least a handful of vendors.
Compare your standards with those of other publishers. If your idea of quality is higher, you might be disappointed with the printers others recommend.
Look for established offset printers that now also offer digital printing.“They will be accustomed to printing the highest quality and so will have more exacting standards,” advises Martyn Beeny of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press in Pierre.
Make sure samples’ specs are similar to the specs for your upcoming job, and try to see the paper you plan to use, says Margaret Black at Spring Harbor Press in Delmar, NY, who adds: “We examine random pages with a loupe (a 10× magnifying glass). It will reveal toner specks that aren’t visible to the casual eye. For example, we check the holes in the letters e and g. They should be clean, not filled in.”
Be aware that some digital vendors provide dozens of paper and trim-size choices.“You don’t have to change all your book specs to accommodate the printer,” says Ronga.
Design new titles to meet digital parameters. This may mean using CMYK or process colors instead of PMS matches. No special inks—metallics, overglosses, fluorescents.
Remember that the colors you see on your monitor are unlikely to be the same colors that come off the press.“The PDF that the designer emails to the publisher may not display the same colors that the printed cover will have,” Black cautions. “If the designer and the publisher are looking at different monitor screens, they will see slightly different colors—and when a cover is output from a PC’s printer, that’s what the designer hopes the printer will reproduce.” The solution? Have the digital printer send a physical proof for the designer and publisher to approve.
If your vendor uses templates, follow them carefully—in fact, conservatively, to ensure that the finished book has adequate margins and gutters. If you’re not using a template, have your graphic designer contact the printer to verify requirements.
Consider the marketing opportunities that digital printing offers. For example, it allows you to personalize copies with different covers, text, and images.
Linda Carlson(www.lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is awaiting the results from her first POD project.
Titles Made to Order at the Bookstore
Your publishing operation could use the ultimate in vertical integration when the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) manufactured by On Demand Books is released in a commercial model, possibly by late 2008.
On Demand (ondemandbooks.com) declined to quote a price for its “book making” equipment, and so did Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, which is one of the bookstores beta-testing the EBM, but a quick Google search turned up rumors of a $50,000 price tag.
Would one piece of equipment that starts with a PDF and 15 minutes later produces a finished bound book be worth that? Chris Morrow, Northshire’s general manager, and Lucy Gardner Carson, the store’s print-on-demand coordinator, are enthusiastic.
“You would have more control and flexibility,” Morrow points out. “Run out of galleys and need 10 more? Send the file over and print them yourself. Want to see how a new cover looks on a book? Print one out. Want a custom run of 50 for a special event or a good customer with a unique cover or front matter? Easy!”
Carson is also excited about the opportunity to reprint books in the public domain. “There are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of books in the public domain in many different languages that are available in online archives. With the Espresso Book Machine, we can locate computer files of titles that interest us—or fulfill customer requests—and print them right in the store,” she explains.
“Essentially, our EBM allows us to expand our inventory by many thousands of titles without taking up any additional retail floor space,” Carson adds. “As a friend says, we take a book that’s basically dead to the world and bring it back to life; we can put a book that has been unavailable for years into the hands of people who want to read it.”
The EBM is far more resource-efficient, too, says Carson. “With print on demand, we can print only what we need, when we need it, right on site to meet customer demand. We can offer our customers more books to choose from without squandering a lot of energy and resources.”
Then there’s the pleasure of handing authors the first copy of their books: “Literally, it’s still warm as it slides out of the chute after that final trim!”
Carson says Northshire is testing the 1.5 model (it’s the 2.0 that On Demand will release next) and has found few glitches. “It can print, bind, and trim a 200-page perfect-bound paperback book with black-and-white interior pages and a four-color cover in about 10 minutes, and most of the books it produces are virtually indistinguishable from traditionally published paperbacks,” she reports. “As with any complex office equipment, it can hit a snag—maybe in the shearer when a cover gets hung up moving from the binder.”
Covers print one side (4-0-0-4) with CMYK colors. Northshire stocks three text papers and three for cover stock. However, it can use any paper that is guaranteed for laser printers.
In general, Carson sums up, “The Espresso Book Machine is an amazing invention.”