Digital Printing: What It Is,
What It’s For, and Why It Isn’t Just “POD’”
by Robert Goodman
A few people still remember
when offset printing revolutionized book production. Offset was easy and fast;
it produced high-quality printing; it could be interlaced with new prepress
technologies; and it was considerably less expensive than letterpress printing.
From the middle of the twentieth century until today, most books have been
printed using offset technology.
Over the last decade or two,
digital printing technology has emerged as an alternative to offset. It
promises to replace offset printing for many of the books that PMA members
produce. It extends many of the advantages that offset offered. It is easier
and faster; it produces pages of very acceptable quality; it is inseparably
linked to computers and all the digital equipment that publishers take for
granted; and, under the right conditions, it is more cost effective than offset
printing. Over time, digital printing will almost certainly accelerate the
evolution of book production.
Small publishers, authors, and
services that support them have eagerly embraced digital printing—so
eagerly, in fact, that the distinction between the technology and the way it is
used has become blurred.
The technology is digital
printing. The uses include—but are by no means limited to—“print on
demand,” “publish on demand,” and other translations of POD.
What Digital Presses Can
Commercial digital presses are
cousins to the inkjets and laserjets almost everyone uses for everyday
printing, although they are quite a bit larger and more robust. Most commercial
digital presses print on sheets or rolls of paper, as offset presses do. Many
of them can print and collate multiple copies of books in minutes. They can be
fired up almost immediately. They don’t need to be cleaned, prepped, or inked
every time they are used. And they make it feasible to print ultrashort runs.
Although unit costs are high when you print just a few copies at a time,
there’s less of a shock to your cash flow than a necessarily longer offset run
Digital printing has downsides
besides unit costs. The difference in print quality between books produced at
400 to 600 dots per inch on digital presses and books printed at 1,200 to 2,560
(or more) dots per inch on traditional presses is obvious to most booksellers
and many readers. The binding options for digital books that are collated as
single sheets of paper are limited. Digital printing offers few economies of
scale, and neither its cost saving nor its cash-flow benefits extend beyond
short print runs.
Publishers brought digital
printing to our industry to do short runs, on their own equipment, of backlist
titles that sold steadily but in small numbers. More recently, a digital
printing industry has grown up to serve publishers who wish to print short runs
not only of backlist but also of galleys, advance reading copies, and test
batches. Unit costs remain high, but, given the small printings, affordable.
And publishers that print early editions digitally can move up to offset when
they decide to print larger numbers of books with the economy of scale that
Publishers also use digital
presses to print copies as they are demanded—i.e., ordered and paid for.
The Lightning Source subsidiary of Ingram Industries is the best known but not
the only example of an “on demand” printer.
These printers work directly with
established publishers. They function as part of both the production chain and
the distribution chain. Publishers submit files, usually in PDF format. The
printer uses the files to fulfill a paid order by producing a physical book or
books, and then it ships the order to the purchaser, which is usually a
bookstore. Publishers can update their book files when necessary, but for the
most part, they can stand back and remain interested spectators in the
In other words, digital printing
can be, and often is, a production service for publishers. But the technology
can be applied in a variety of different ways, and, over the last decade, a
number of so-called POD companies have used it to provide production services
for authors too. These companies offer to “publish” authors’ books for a fee by
producing and selling digitally printed copies—usually to the authors
themselves and other individuals—primarily via their Web sites.
Although POD companies may share
features with old-fashioned vanity presses, they are often—and
mistakenly—thought to offer “self-publishing” services, which leads to
the disadvantages and criticisms discussed in two articles in the October issue
of the Independent,
“What Is a Publisher,” page 9, and “Pseudo Self-Publishing,” page 29.
Five or ten years from now, the
publishing landscape will look very different, in large measure because of
digital printing technology. Sooner than that, I hope, publishers will stop
using the term POD
to mean whatever they want it to mean. The technology does not erase the
differences among the various applications it makes possible.
Robert Goodman, a PMA board
member, is a San Diego book packager and publisher.