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Millions of books, one at a time

In 2008, the production of non-traditional print-on-demand books exceeded traditional book publishing for the first time. Since then, its growth has been overwhelming. The market is now closing in on 10 times the output of traditional titles. What is more amazing is that this growth has been one book at a time.

By Frank Romano
Published: May 20, 2011

In 2008, the production of non-traditional print-on-demand books exceeded traditional book publishing for the first time. Since then, its growth has been overwhelming. The market is now closing in on 10 times the output of traditional titles. What is more amazing is that this growth has been one book at a time.

What's a non-traditional title? Photo books, backlist titles, books supposedly out of print, scanned books, self-published books, and more. This category is fueling the growth of printed books.

The roots of on-demand printing go back to the first digital printers from IBM and Xerox in the late 70s. Even desktop printers were able to produce one book at a time, when the Canon LBP-CX hit the market in the 1980s. The Xerox Docutech changed this world when it entered the market in 1990. It re-affirmed the concept of electronic collation. Sheetfed and roll-fed toner and inkjet printers have reduced the cost of production while increasing quality levels. These machines have brought color printing not only to the masses but to the individual. A digital book, in my opinion, is now the standard in many cases.

At a recent conference, a Courier representative showed two textbooks, one digital and one offset. Only two people out of 30 could identify which was which. And if you only had the digitally printed version, there is no comparison.

This growth has also been fueled by innovative printers like Colorcentric in Rochester, NY, and Courier Corp. and King Printing in Massachusetts, among many others. Colorcentric even sells their unique software which is a cloud-based production and fulfillment system. A visit to their plant is like entering Willy Wonka's digital printing factory.  Without an Oompa Loompa to be seen. Books are routed to a plethora of digital devices based on color, size, substrate, or other attributes while tracking and preparing them for shipment. Actually, jobs are also routed to multiple different plants as well.

Bowker, the leader in bibliographic information, releases its annual report on U.S. print book publishing, compiled from its "Books In Print" database. Based on data from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that despite the popularity of e-Books, traditional U.S. print title output in 2010 increased 5 percent. Output of new titles and editions increased from 302,410 in 2009 to a projected 316,480 in 2010. The 5 percent increase comes after a 4 percent increase the previous year, based on the final 2008-2009 figures.

Bowker sees the non-traditional sector continuing its explosive growth, increasing 169 percent from 1,033,065 in 2009 to an astounding 2,776,260 in 2010. These books, marketed mostly on the web, are on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by publishers catering to self-publishers and "micro-niche" publications.

The last five books I purchased were bought over the web and printed on-demand. They were very rare issues residing in libraries in Europe, scanned by Google Books, and acquired via amazon.com and printed by them or one of their services.

The non-traditional market is dominated by a handful of publishers. The top three publishers accounted for nearly 87 percent of total titles produced in 2010. By number of books available, they are: BiblioBazaar, 1,461,918, General Books LLC, 744,376, Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 462,480, Books LLC, 54,737, CreateSpace, 34,243, Springer, 16,517, Lulu Enterprises Inc., 11,127, Xlibris Corp., 10,680, and AuthorHouse, 8,502.

In fact, O'Reilly publishing will no longer print for inventory. They will use Ingram/Lightning Source for a complete on-demand production service.

Numbers are gathered as a result of Bowker's maintenance of the industry's bibliographic database "Books In Print" and reported through "PubTrack Production Trends Analysis." "Books In Print" is the only bibliographic database with more than 12.8 million U.S. book, audiobook, and video titles. It is widely regarded throughout the publishing industry as the most authoritative and comprehensive source of bibliographic data available worldwide, and has been a trusted source of information in North America for more than 50 years. Audiobooks and e-Books are excluded. If changes in industry estimates occur, they will be reflected in a later published report. However, books without ISBNs, like photo books, may be under counted. A PDF with the data is at: http://www.bowkerinfo.com/pubtrack/AnnualBookProduction2010/ISBN_Output_2002-2010.pdf

The economics of book printing are changing. From black and while to color, digital printing is profoundly affecting the market. Our suppliers, our printing services, and our entrepreneurs are finding new ways to produce and fulfill the printed book. Print demand may be declining but print on-demand is growing by leaps and bounds.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



By Don Piontek on May 20, 2011

A great piece by Frank (once again!). This is EXACTLY the space where my firm works. Engineering finishing systems for true "on demand" book production, both soft-cover and hard cover. Business has never been better!


By Bob Raus on May 21, 2011

My wife recently wrote and published a children's book about how therapy dogs help children increase reading fluency. The book is based upon her seven years of working with our registered therapy dog Ben. We put it on Amazon and it is being printed on-demand for each order placed by Lightening Source (www.tinyurl.com/furryfriendben)

I've been promoting and marketing digital printing workflow software, hardware and services for over 20 years and it's exciting to experience the power of digital printing in a personal endeavor. Digital printing has transformed the publishing industry by bringing the power to publish within everyone's reach.


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