Forget E-Books

Print-on-demand could be publishing's future

A few years back, e-books looked as though they would take the market by storm. The grand promise was that the low cost of publishing and distributing books electronically would transform publishing forever. But so far, e-books have enjoyed only modest success, mainly in such niche areas as textbooks. It seems consumers dont want to give up their ink-and-paper libraries just yet.

Behind the scenes, though, a different kind of technology — called print-on-demand — is subtly altering the publishing landscape in many of the ways that e-book proponents had predicted. Print-on-demand technology promises to lift many of the book-publishing industrys traditional restrictions, allowing more authors to publish their work and providing consumers access to a broader array of less-expensive books.

Traditional offset presses use camera copies or digital forms, which are placed on film and then on plates. The preparation required for a run reduces speed and flexibility, so its only cost-efficient for printings of about 1,000 copies or more. Printing on demand, which uses specialized computer printers and back-end software, costs more per copy than traditional offset printing, but the setup costs are far lower. With print-on-demand systems, its feasible to print a few hundred books — or even a single copy.

"What this has done is dramatically shifted the economics," says Ed Marino, president and CEO of Lightning Source, an on-demand printer. "The cost to publish a book in the old days was thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. To us, its $100." Marino says its the sophisticated back-end software — not the printing technology — that is fueling the revolution in on-demand printing.

The new economics of print-on-demand mean that books can remain "in print" and cheaply available, even when the demand is very low. While the next Harry Potter book will still be run on offset printers, for large-print editions or titles published long ago, on-demand printing may be the only feasible way to make them available.

"Of the roughly 60,000 books forced out of print each year, some should go out of print, but many of the rest could be kept available, on-demand, indefinitely," says Peter Perine, vice president and general manager of Xeroxs publishing division. Xerox sells print-on-demand machines that can print, cover and glue a 300-page, 6-inch-by-9-inch book in roughly a minute.

The technology also makes it easier for writers to publish books, since it reduces the economic risk of publishing a book that generates low demand. Indeed, several Web sites — such as, and Random Houses Xlibris — enable first-time authors to publish and order single copies of their books.

For publishers, print-on-demand technology is a chance to increase sales and lower costs. Smaller runs mean lower warehousing costs, and keeping books in print lets publishers sell more copies of each book over a longer lifetime. It also means more efficient distribution of books, because a digital copy can be transferred electronically to printers in distant markets.

Book Vending Machines?

The result of print-on-demand technology is a potentially dramatic increase in the total market for books. Someday, perhaps, print-on-demand machines will be a huge hit in bookstores or other places, such as airports. Using a "book vending machine" connected to the Internet, customers could order from a list of millions of out-of-stock titles and have them printed on the spot.

But Lightning Sources Marino says that such a system wouldnt be very practical with existing technology. "The machines dont always work, and they dont provide the right consumer experience," he says.

The other near-term issue in deploying book vending machines widely is the up-front expense: The suites of on-demand printing equipment IBM and Xerox offer cost several hundred thousand dollars per system.

So currently, most on-demand printing happens in the traditional book industry among publishers, printers and distributors. For example, Edwards Brothers, an Ann Arbor, Mich., printer of scientific and medical books, is now providing print-on-demand services for its publishing customers, typically in runs of 50 to 100 copies. The companys ability to do those smaller runs is limited by the binding equipment, says Ken Thompson, director of technical services. While the print-on-demand machines can also bind, Thompson says, the quality of the in-line binding does not meet Edwards Brothers standards. Still, there is considerable demand from customers, he says.

However, despite its economic advantages, print-on-demand accounts for less than 1 percent of total book sales. Industry analysts say publishers are reluctant to give digital masters to companies other than those with which they have worked before. "Every traditional media company has built its business on control of distribution," says Daniel OBrien, an analyst at Forrester Research. "Thats how you enforce prices, and keep a barrier to entry for competitors."

For Marino, Lightning Sources tie to Ingram Book Group has facilitated its relationships with publishers.

"Were very trusted in the business, and that really gave us a head start," he says. "The people in the industry know Ingram and trust Ingram. They arent crazy about putting their family jewels in digital libraries in lots of places, but theyre very comfortable putting them here."

Lightning Source, a three-and-one-half-year-old subsidiary of Ingram Industries, prints orders from, Ingram Book Co. and book publishers. The company prints about 5,000 books daily with an average order size of only 1.6 copies. A single 300-page book with a four-page laminate cover costs the company $4.80 to print, but that price is independent of the run size.

Based in Nashville, Tenn., Lightning Source has a digital warehouse of books that the printing system can automatically access. The printing process occurs on four different stations: One prints the inside pages of the book, another the cover, a third binds the book to its cover and a fourth trims the final product. A scanner checks bar codes on books and covers to make sure the covers and their contents are correctly mated — a potential problem when printing a large number of small orders, Marino says. Books are then shipped to the publisher, or directly to the retail customer.

Whether or not print-on-demand technology comes to the corner bookstore, its slowly but surely changing the way the publishing industry does business.