Digital Printing: The New Normal

From Publishing Trends (July 31, 2020 – mid-Pandemic):

In the olden, pre-pandemic days when most books were printed offset, digital files were stored in case a book needed to be reprinted quickly. But this March, that dynamic was upended: everything shut down, some publishers’ warehouses and bookstores closed, and even Amazon slowed its bookselling to prioritize sanitizer over bestsellers.  

All of these abrupt shifts resulted in enormous strains on the supply chain, says Ingram Content Group’s Kelly Gallagher. Publishers couldn’t access their inventory; books couldn’t be shipped even to the few retailers who were open; printers couldn’t get their titles where they were supposed to be. Within weeks, Lightning Press, Ingram’s print-on-demand division, found itself creating everything from “virtual warehouses” for some clients, to print-to-order titles that were delivered direct-to-consumer via orders through bookstores and online retailers. 

Then, just as stores were coming back, protests erupted around the country and readers rushed to read up on social justice – often opting for backlist titles with low or no inventory on hand. Again, publishers looked to Ingram and other printer/distributors to supply those titles. While some, like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2018), went on to sell hundreds of thousands of ebooks, print versions often had to be produced using short-run and print-on-demand (i.e. digital) techniques just to satisfy immediate demand.

“The pandemic has accelerated the move from print to digital by three years,” estimates Books International’s David Hetherington. Now, “more and more titles are born digital.” This isn’t simply a shift to ebooks, though some outlets, such as libraries have doubled their ebook downloads. Instead, “born digital” content refers to the shift from traditional first printings using offset, to smaller first runs that are printed digitally. Though the quality is not (yet) as good and the costs are higher, savings come in time and the ability to customize. 

Baker & Taylor’s Eric McGarvey agrees that digital-first is on the rise but says the shift has been taking place over the last five years, especially with university presses eager to keep overhead down while making the full range of backlist available. University presses have been in the forefront of innovation over the last few years, in part because of funding issues that forced efficiencies, and in part because some have been folded under their academic libraries, which have long embraced digital resources.

Many of these transitions are a result of improved technology. Digital presses can now handle everything from roll-fed printing and heavy paper stock to full color, a range of formats, and customization. Even the Big Five are looking to third parties to ensure books can be quickly printed and distributed through the appropriate channels. McGarvey cites a new largescale backlist title effort between a new PRH Publisher Services client and Baker & Taylor as an example. 

And BISG Executive Director Brian O’Leary sees a possible “broader conversation” than one dedicated solely to how the book is printed. “This technology enables the shift in publishing from fixed to variable expense and the ability to match capacity to demand,” he says. In other words, the old model of looking at the unit cost of a manufactured book has morphed into looking at the cost per unit sold. And, as printers close and consolidate, he and others note that flexibility becomes more important, forcing publishers to look at “total cost of ownership.” How do the advantages of having inventory on hand in your own warehouse weigh against the carrying costs – or the possibility that the warehouse closes, or the inventory can’t get to the end user? It’s possible to play this scenario out, as publishers like Duke University Press are already doing, where the printing, warehousing, inventory, and fulfillment of all books are handled by third parties, leaving the publisher to focus on only on acquiring, editing, and designing the IP.

The other looming question of the moment is this: What happens when all the frontlist titles that publishers held off launching this spring and summer need to be printed this fall and winter?  Tyler Carey at Westchester Publisher Services has worked with Macmillan to make its files, including active backlist titles, ready for digital printing. Speaking at PW’s Publishing Now conference, Princeton University Press’s Cathy Felgar said that, though the press didn’t hold off on publishing their new titles this spring and summer, they are expanding their digital printing because of concerns about printer capacity this fall.  

Meanwhile, the move to custom printing this spring has increased direct-to-consumer sales.  Though born of necessity – bookstores and other retailers wanted their customers to receive their books even when there was no physical place for them to pick them up –  having D2C options is an important (and, many would say, overdue) step for publishers and their distributors and wholesalers. 

Link to the rest at Publishing Trends

PG posted this to illustrate how far behind the technology curve publishers were and continue to be with respect to printing.

PG started TPV over eleven years ago and has been exclusively digital ever during that entire time. For at least 20 years before that, PG was exclusively digital, printing only what had to be printed due to lagging technologies in the business and court systems. As a matter of fact, PG typically developed PC-based home-brew document assembly systems for any documents he had to prepare more than 2-3 times.

There are few American institutions that change more slowly than the court systems, both federal and state. US Bankruptcy Courts began allowing digital filing of the voluminous paperwork involved in starting a personal bankruptcy petition (30-50 pages, sometimes more) twenty years ago. Various state and federal trial courts have different rules regarding whether/how they’ll accept paper filings (or won’t).

PG thinks that individuals who aren’t represented by an attorney in bankruptcy court may be able to obtain paper forms and submit those, but in his brief dive online, he couldn’t confirm that, but can confirm that trying to dig through a government website looking for forms of almost any sort is definitely not an easy task.

If traditional publishers are behind the courts in the move to exclusive digital, they have to be the last in line.

Those who use Kindle Direct Publishing know that everything is digital. PG doesn’t think it’s ever been otherwise (but he’s not certain about the dawn of KDP).

4 thoughts on “Digital Printing: The New Normal”

  1. The irony here for me is: While I wrote the “Bible” on digital printing back in 2003-2005 (“Mastering Digital Printing,” Thomson-Reuters-Cengage), the content of the book was 100% about digital while the book itself was printed offset. I think there was a PDF, but it didn’t do anything.

    Now, I breathe digitally.

    • PDF never went anywhere in the ebook world because it was never intended as an ebook format but rather an archival “electric paper” format. It lacked all the features that make ebook useful (reflow, font selection, layout controls). It was a “here, take it or leave it, as is”. ebook users knew to leave it. format

      Which proved wise when Adobe shut down the authentication servers and left a lot of people high and dry. Fictionwise did the best they could to get publishers to let them offer up alternate format copies but not all publishers were willing.

      • Yep. I remember seeing a handful of PDF copies being sold on royalty statements, but basically nothing compared to the mid-five figures being sold as trade paperbacks.

        And the kicker is that I’m making more now per $3.99 ebk (not this title) than I did on the $39.99 traditional paperback of Mastering Digital Printing. Boy, how things have changed.

        • Unlike the enthusiast-only days (where most desirable ebooks were only available via Scan&OCR “unauthorized editions”) there is an actual ebook market to sell into.

          I still remember the time I walked into CompUSA and they had the display model of a Jornada PDA running a LoTR ebook. I dug up one of the sales staff to ask where I could buy it and he snarled “You can’t” and took the PDA away.

          I had to wait five years to buy a legal set of Tolkien from fictionwise.
          These days a book without an ebook edition is a “man bites dog” report.

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