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Commentary & Analysis

Coming Soon to a Bookstore Near You

By Greg Cholmondeley October 26,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: November 13, 2006

By Greg Cholmondeley October 26, 2006 -- Or maybe that should be, Available Now at a Bookstore Near You. After all, it was only a few years ago that digitally printed books were thought of as a modern version of vanity press for wannabe authors or only appropriate for titles with narrow audiences. It was acceptable for volumes catering to niche interests, product manuals, and the college course packs but not for "real" books. After all, the machinery was relatively slow, digital printing was low quality, and existing binding equipment couldn't deliver a marketable product. Digital book production is not merely a different way to produce a book--it changes everything to do with the book business. How things have changed. Now there are digitally printed books at major book stores, at Amazon, and through numerous online booksellers. The Changing Landscape Publishers--even some of the largest--are seeking out print providers who can deliver on the promises of digital printing. * Out of Print is Out of Style: Backlist titles can be maintained at minimal or even zero-inventory levels when supported by digital printing, maintaining revenues for publishers, booksellers and authors. Similarly, out-of-print books get a new lease on life, For example, out-of-print titles may not exist digitally but hard-copies can be scanned and reborn as digital versions and be ready to print as needed to satisfy readers and add incremental revenue. * Short Runs Getting Longer: Short run digital printing no longer just means print quantities of 1 to 50. Digital printing can often deliver better profit margins than offset with print runs into the thousands. In addition, new workflows for traditional offset printing can also support hybrid digital/offset print operations for traditional large printers and publishers. * More Titles, Less Risk: Always in search of new titles, publishers can produce books in shorter runs--maybe just a few hundred copies--to "test the waters" with a new author before going to full production. In addition, specialty titles or those with small audiences can be profitably produced by the secondary imprints of large houses, taking advantage of economical shorter runs with high print quality. * Shorter Runs/Fewer Returns: Publishers can limit or even curtail the number of books returned by book stores. Already some all-digital publishers that produce books on demand have no-return policies. * Better Quality/More Opportunity: Both monochrome and color digital quality has dramatically improved over the past few years making a broader range of titles suitable for digital production. Reliable color and black-and-white digital presses, a broad range of substrates (many of which are the equivalent of offset papers), and comprehensive finishing solutions can provide top quality books that are virtually indistinguishable from offset versions. The New Value Chain Such choices do more than pique the interest of publishers. They ultimately change the entire value chain for every player involved with creating, publishing, printing, distributing and selling books. Digital book production is not merely a different way to produce a book--it changes everything to do with the book business. Big box bookstores are looking at how they can become publishers and use digital technology to produce books with their imprint for sale in their retail outlets * Traditional Printers and Publishers can implement hybrid digital and offset systems to support the long runs of their best-selling titles while more cost-effectively producing the works of lower volume authors. For example, as demand for a leading title declines, production can shift to digital presses, helping control inventory and production costs. A title originally produced digitally that becomes a strong seller can be switched to offset as demand increases. By leveraging the advantages of hybrid systems publishers can manage costs effectively without limiting the range of titles available. * Small Publishers are increasing in number, taking advantage of digital printing technologies to bring new authors to market at a lower cost and with less risk. According to data from Bowker, the number of publishers swelled to over 78,000 through 2004, more than double the number two decades earlier. Many of these are entirely digital or use the technology to bolster their business model. Some, like iUniverse or Lulu.com produce books only on demand splitting the profits with the authors and printers. * Self-Publishing Authors are publishing books that have narrow markets and pocketing the profits. Some of these may only reach a family, a small circle of friends and colleagues or a special interest group. They are books that would never be of interest to a traditional publisher. Typically available only online, they never see the inside of a Barnes and Noble or Borders. But since books are purchased with disposable income, these renegade titles compete for share of wallet with the volumes in traditional retail outlets. * Authors with Larger Followings are beginning to replace traditional publishers, working with a digital print provider for production and dealing directly with book distributors and sellers. The BradyBrady series, a successful children's series in Canada is entirely self-published and poised for expansion to the U.S. and even international markets. The book is produced digitally and printed--often with custom covers--based on demand. Jay Conrad Levinson, author of the successful Guerilla Marketing series also shifted to self publishing and digital printing. In each case, and others like them, the margin that once went to the publisher now increases the bank accounts of the authors. * Book Retailers--especially independents--can increase the range of titles and authors lining their shelves by offering more titles from self- and small publishers. With the ability to order books to be printed on demand they can begin eliminating the unrecoverable costs associated with shipping unsold books back to publishers. And since books from those new voices compete with the mass market titles for same share of reader's income, booksellers and readers both have greater choices of what to sell and read. * Big Box Bookstores like Barnes and Noble are already looking at how they can become publishers and use digital technology to produce books with their imprint in their distribution centers and supply their stores on an overnight basis. This means a book retailer is able to acquire, edit, produce, distribute and sell a title. This circumvents traditional publishers and distributors, changing how the revenue stream flows. * Savvy Print Providers are taking advantage of the technology to produce the books for the growing ranks of authors and publishers. Not only do they bring in new revenue, they broaden the services they provide and are ultimately growing their businesses in a time when less forward-thinking printers are seeing only modest growth at best. Because books are purchased with disposable income, new renegade, short-run titles compete for share of wallet with the brand name authors in traditional retail outlets. Disruptive technologies always bring changes to the markets and industries where they are implemented. On one hand there is the opportunity to forge new business models that leverage digital printing technology. On the other hand, there are real threats for those companies that won't adapt and continue doing business as usual. In the coming months I'll be drilling into these issues and many others. Digital book production is a fact of life and is on the verge of dramatically changing the entire book publishing industry. It's going to be an exciting ride. So get on board.



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