Books aren’t going anywhere

Despite a slow decline, book printers find ways to stay competitive

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Mark Twain speaking to reporters in London, England, in 1897

The current state of affairs in book printing and publishing is best summarized by the above quote. Yes, printed books are in decline, but they’re not disappearing any time soon. A report from Smithers Pira titled The Future of Digital vs Analogue Printing to 2020, revealed that sales of printed books (a $32.1 billion market in 2016) were down from $38 billion in 2010. And yet, digital equipment that adds value to offset-printed books is enabling many businesses to stay competitive, the report stressed. But one must also include the ingenuity of today’s traditional book printers.

Book printing – the good news

It’s been about 15 years since the first e-readers were released. Today, only 20%-30% of books sold are e-books. Also, e-reader sales peaked in 2011. For the past several years, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales have actually not risen at the expense of their printed counterparts! Furthermore, seldom mentioned are the health benefits of reading printed materials. No matter what e-device you’re using, you’re exposing yourself to the same blue light that’s affecting the melatonin in your brain – which can make you feel tired. Other studies have found that found that children aged 3-5 had a lower comprehension when they were read to from an e-reader, rather than from a printed book – and that news stories consumed via e-readers weren’t recalled as well as those that were read from a printed page.

Today, book printers are also looking at new business models. One is ‘long-tail’ publishing. Established publishers usually hold a backlog of titles still under copyright. Demand for these is limited, however, and can rarely justify print runs of thousands needed to make offset cost-efficient. So publishers are monetizing these titles thanks to digital printing, making very short runs, or even single editions, financially viable. Also, the rapid turnarounds enabled by digital also allow publishers to exploit time-sensitive opportunities, such as a biography following the death of a famous person, or the winning of a sports championship.

The role of variable data

Variable-data print on digital platforms is ideal for printing personalized books. A more commercial application of this principle is in the textbook industry. Web-to-print interfaces linked to digital presses means that lecturers or teachers can design customized textbooks for their students. This value-adding option, said Smithers-Pira, is becoming increasingly lucrative, with the U.S. market alone worth over $8.5 billion in 2013. The price of books printed this way is obviously more than for mass-offset-printed titles. But these higher costs seem to have little impact, as customers are willing to pay more for a personalized product.

Book printing’s outlook

Overall, book printing will see the most radical switch to digital during this decade. Digital had only a 14.2% share of the world market by value in 2010, but Smithers Pira’s analysis shows that this will rise to 46.1% of world value by 2020. And most experts agree that the key in coping with all this is to be agile in combining traditional offset with value-added digital, while keeping a close eye on future trends. A great example of this mindset is employee-owned Friesens of Altona, Manitoba, one of Canada’s largest and most successful book printers. They’ve been in business since 1907 and specialize in large-run and short-run books, yearbooks and history books, to name a few. And they’ve been able to thrive in a very competitive market through innovation and strategic investments.

“We have a proud tradition of staying on the leading edge of technology by imagining what future markets will look like, then investing in the best possible solutions to fill the needs of today and tomorrow,” said Byron Loeppky, book/web general manager and corporate vice president of operations. Though primarily an offset shop, Friesens has also made major investments in digital short-run printing. Using LED technology has also been huge, enabling faster turnarounds while accommodating different papers – especially uncoated covers with heavy ink coverage. “Our ability to accommodate a broad range of print runs, increase output speeds, achieve plate savings, and accurately estimate a press’s life expectancy, are all keys to our success.

In June 2015, Friesens nearly quadrupled its productivity by installing North America’s largest perfecting press from Manroland Sheetfed Canada – an 8-colour Roland R900 HiPrint XXL with several automation modules. This allowed expansion to include books in the 20,000-run realm. It also invested in Canada’s first Roland Evolution R708P – a high-speed perfecting press with optional LED UV technology. This was Friesens’ first entry into the UV market for an offset press. Another recent investment was a new Muller Martini Diamant MC Casing-In Bookbinding System that significantly improved book production efficiency. A second Muller Martini line will be installed early in 2019.

Now while all this technology drives sales, Loeppky stressed caution. “Yes, we continue to invest in new offset technologies like LED, and are ‘bullish’ regarding the book-printing market, but we always proceed with caution. We got into digital about 10 years ago and continue to evolve our digital solutions while partnering with our equipment suppliers. Right now, we’re moving slowly with digital adoption, shorter runs and customization. We know digital has a place in our book business, but matching the right technology to our needs is key. Our run lengths are dropping slowly. However, our team at Friesens continues to investigate digital book printing and finishing equipment, and opportunities in this area. But it’s critically important to take a balanced approach. There is indeed a place for both, but right now 85% of our revenue still comes from offset.”

Short-run digital books

At the other end of the spectrum are Canadian companies who’ve successfully carved out their niches by investing in short-run, digital-only book printing – including ‘book-of-one’. Printing Legacy (formerly Printing Icon), a company based in Scarborough, Ontario, is one of those firms that’s been successful since it opened its doors almost four years ago. Today, it serves all major business sectors while specializing in advertising collateral, direct marketing, stationery and corporate communications – in addition to short-run, digitally printed books. “We’re widely recognized as a printer of choice for short runs and ultra-quick turnarounds, due primarily to our cutting-edge digital presses and full in-house bindery,” said owner John Gnanasekar.

“What I’m seeing in the marketplace today is a trend for customers to order shorter runs, say 50 to 500, then make subsequent changes or updates on a second short run. Even ‘book-of-one’ is gaining popularity because these books can be used to position authors as ‘experts’ in their chosen field – for example, real estate agents, plumbers, healthcare professionals, and so on. Some even request one book as a proof before ordering more; others may use one book as a high-end prototype. Here, digital short-run printing allows for amazing flexibility without a large financial investment.” Another value-added Gnanasekar often utilizes is the latest finishing technology. “We can use gloss or matte finish laminating films made of nylon that helps prevent curling at a book cover’s edge.”

Next month in part two of this series, we’ll examine newspaper publishing and its challenges.


Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.