By Noel Ward, Executive Editor June 18, 2006 -- Is there book production in your future? And can you make money at it? Why is it important? Those were the themes at the Xerox Book Printing and Publishing Thought Leaders Conference held June 7 and 8 at the Gil Hatch Center for Customer Innovation Webster, New York. Some 30 percent of the 200,000 new titles printed last year were printed in quantities of less than 100 units. That's 60,000 titles. The thrust of the conference--the latest of several Xerox has held on this topic-- was twofold. First, to encourage printers to think about books as a new and potentially lucrative revenue stream. Second, some publishers were on hand, to talk about how they used digital technology while others were trying to understand the changing business model presented by digital printing. The conference made it clear that digital book production makes a lot of sense and is very much in tune with the changing dynamics of publishing, making and selling books. After all, as Frank Romano has noted, some 30 percent of the 200,000 new titles released last year were printed in quantities of less than 100 units. Over half were in quantities of under 5,000 units. That adds up to millions of pages, all nicely covered, bound and shipped to authors, distributors or the growing number of start-up publishing companies. Some of these books reach readers through independent booksellers, others via websites, and many are readily available at the seemingly limitless emporium of Amazon.com. Most of these low-volume runs take place below the radar of traditional publishers who typically consider 5,000 copies the minimum for a print run. But unless a book is successful, too many of those five grand are returned to the publishers, thanks to the ridiculous and obsolete practice of allowing booksellers to return books that don't sell. As the costs of production rise--and superstar branded authors demand more money--publishers looking for a new way to do business. After all publishers' profits come from about 20 percent of the authors (think J.K Rowling, Pat Conroy, John Grisham). The other 80 percent are supported by these rock stars of the printed page. A Mix of Printers Many of the printers in attendance had digital printing equipment, but several were offset-only, looking to see how digital can change their business. Equally telling, about half had both digital and offset, and were actively looking for ways to produce books with a blend of the two technologies. What they all heard was that not only is digital technology being used to produce all types of books, the authors, illustrators and print providers are making money. Interestingly, some of the concerns expressed by printers and publishers were the same basic challenges printers found over a dozen years ago when they were first creating and producing digital files: Fonts, file formats, image and print quality. What was different in Webster was that there were those on hand who could say with authority that modern software and workflows had significantly reduced these issues and the greater challenge was selling the vision of digital books to publishers--and to authors. There were plenty of successful examples to draw on: * Volumes Publishing in Kitchener, Ontario, is a division of M & T Print Group, a highly successful commercial printer. Volumes produces a wide range of children's books and trade paperbacks in full color and black and white, providing turnkey services from obtaining ISBN numbers to helping with design to producing a title in the quantity required and supporting nationwide distribution. The business is expanding rapidly as self-publishing authors and new publishing firms--some with compelling niche markets--send their manuscripts to Volumes. One of the children's books published by Volumes is the BradyBrady series that's among the best-selling in Canada. Look for more on Volumes in an upcoming episode of Tales From the Open Road. * Trafford Publishing in British Columbia, one of the true pioneers of digital book printing, has become the largest book publisher in Canada. Authors from over 100 countries are published through Trafford, most notable of which is Jay Conrad Levinson, internationally known author of the Guerilla Marketing series, who dropped his deals with traditional publishers to go the self-publishing route and put more of his books' earnings in his pocket. * Edwards Brothers, headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a hybrid shop that uses offset and digital technologies to help publishers manage books through its "Life of Title" strategy. All titles are stored digitally, printed on demand using the most appropriate technology for the volume required and distributed as though the books were stored in a traditional warehouse. The bottom line is compelling for publishers because it improves their cash flow, reduces obsolete inventory and decreases overhead and transaction costs. * Lulu.com, one of the leading web-enabled self-publishing firms, supports authors through the entire publishing and print production processing, even providing basic marketing support. Titles with the Lulu imprint are sold on Lulu.com, as well as Amazon and are reaching into some brick and mortar chains. The companies web site provides a cost calculator to help estimate production costs and offers turnaround times as short as a day or two once a book is ready to print. * ColorCentric in Rochester, New York, prints a substantial volume of the books produced through Lulu. The company handles both full color books and monochrome book blocks with color covers in a highly automated system. The books range from one-off titles that may be of interest to just one family or individual to thousands of copies. And the work from Lulu goes beyond books to a range of calendars, greeting cards and other items typically found in your local bookstore. The company's three digital color presses and three cut-sheet printers are busy with books for a large part of every day. * Mercury Print, also based in Rochester, started in a garage and has expanded to become an offset and digital print provider. The company focuses on shorter runs, customization, re-binds of existing titles, and reducing the cost of inventory for a publisher. Publishers who expected mediocre quality and high unit costs found high quality digital printing, fast turnarounds, consistent reliability, and overall cost savings. New Thinking Required These examples demonstrated the sea change now taking place in publishing and book manufacturing. While most of the big publishing houses have yet to make the jump, nearly all are looking closely at how they must modify their business models to take advantage of digital book production. One publisher I spoke with was especially interested in the implications for books like the 24-page full-color children's titles--like those produced by Volumes--which typically retail for around $6. He questioned how the unit cost of digital printing--which is higher than for offset--allowed for financial success until he realized the author had become the publisher, the printer provided distribution and a traditional publisher was no longer part of the deal. The same model holds true for the thousands of titles produced by self-publishers via iUniverse, Lulu, Trafford, and Volumes. Trafford Publishing in British Columbia, exclusively digital and a pioneer in digital book printing, has become the largest book publisher in Canada. Traditional publishers aren't quite running for cover, but they know they need to adapt. In his presentation David Davis of Interquest noted there is substantial consolidation in the book market along with need for shorter runs and tighter cycles. Add to this competition from Asia and Eastern Europe, associated price pressures and a corporate emphasis on cost reduction and manufacturing efficiency. Davis said the modest growth in digital book printing over the past decade is a harbinger of much faster growth soon to come. Interquest research shows that digital printing currently represents just two percent of all book production, but is expected to grow to five percent by 2009. After that it is likely to grow faster as the adoption curve swings up. Enabling this is more productive equipment, acceptable print quality, a wide range of substrates, and improved finishing and binding. Further, digital color is enabling a broader range of titles to be economically produced. In addition, various self-publishing business models are changing the market, price pressures and the need for shorter runs are forcing publishers to look beyond the offset press, and the availability of longer digital print runs are key trends that will drive digital book production forward. Indeed, nearly 39 percent of professional books and a quarter of trade paperbacks are now produced digitally. Broad Potential Raising these points was part of the idea behind the conference--to get publishers thinking about how parts of their business can take advantage of digital printing. Best sellers will never come off a digital device. But the other 80 percent, the titles where profits are thin or non-existent, is fertile ground for digital print. At this conference attendees from the publishing companies were looking at how they could begin making the transition. For example, most big publishing companies have specialty imprints that cater to narrower audiences. These are typified by smaller marketing budgets, shorter print runs and thinner margins. All are tailor-made for digital print and execs from those imprints were on hand to see just how digital printing could be turned to their advantage. Some said they were still studying while others were preparing to make a move. Digital book production is a market with enormous potential for everyone involved. For print providers it is an opportunity to expand to new markets and customers. For publishers it is a way to bring more books to market, increasing the potential for more best-sellers. For authors, illustrators, artists and photographers it opens up the world to their thoughts, ideas, images and imaginations. For equipment vendors it is an opportunity to sell more digital presses and finishing and binding equipment. It is truly a market of opportunity in which every player can win. And there is a lot of room on the field. If you are in one or more of these categories the time is now to begin finding how you can become a player in digital book production. There's a lot happening in this area and I'll be back with more. Stay tuned.