The book printing market is now a hodgepodge of terminology: ‘digital printing’, ‘offset printing’, ‘short-’, ‘medium-’, and ‘long- runs’, ‘POD’, and ‘long-tail’. Publishers, printers, and the eco-system that supports them seem to use different terminology to define many of the most important concepts in the sector.
Offset litho prints from a static image carrier (plate) and every impression is the same. If an impression is different, you did something wrong. Because of the non-productive period of press set-up (the ‘makeready’), short runs are not economically justified. But, because makeready is absorbed into each sheet, unit costs decline as run lengths go up.
The term ‘digital printing’ should only include toner and inkjet technologies that re-generate the image for each impression, so every impression can be different. The advantages of image re-generation are electronic collation (print all pages for a book in order), versioning (different versions of book), personalisation and one-off printing. Digital printing unit costs remain constant over all run lengths.
A major difference is that digital has no makeready. Theoretically, with digital printing you can have your book almost immediately (on-demand). The decision to go digital or offset is usually based on run lengths: shorter runs go digital and all other runs go offset.
‘On-demand’ (also expressed as POD, or Print On Demand) means the book is not printed until an order is received.
Short-run generally means fewer than 1,000 books, which may be printed digitally or offset. Digital loses some cost advantage as run length increases, although newer roll-fed inkjet systems are pushing digital run lengths higher. I contend that ‘short-run’ should mean one to 20, ‘medium-run’ should mean 21-100, and ‘long-run’ should mean anything over 100.
Cut-sheet or sheetfed printers offer excellent halftone quality for monochrome and are designed for duplex printing with expanded substrate choices. They are best for short runs. Some sheetfed printers use a roll of paper, which is cut into sheets as the paper enters the printer. That does not make it a roll-fed printer.
Roll-fed (or web-fed or continuous-feed) printers bring speed improvements and print on wider webs (supporting 3-up impositions). They can generally handle lower substrate weights than cut-sheet and print longer (short) runs.
The ‘long-tail’ concept states that markets can be sustained with everything from high to very low unit sales. It has gained popularity as a retailing concept describing the niche strategy of selling a large number of unique items in very small quantities in addition to selling fewer items in large quantities. The distribution and inventory costs of this strategy allow profit from selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers in addition to selling large volumes of a reduced number of items. As long as you can print one book cost effectively, there is a never-ending market for “one-sies.” Google scanned millions of books in libraries around the world. I found one and then ordered a hard copy via Amazon.com. Millions of old books have a renewed life because of one-off printing.
Publishers gamble on every book and it is difficult to forecast demand in today’s market. Publishers traditionally focus on unit cost, which has favoured offset. Roll-fed inkjet printers offer a meaningful alternative to offset and publishers have a tinge of POD religion.
Major book printers offer digital and offset alternatives and suppliers have many new systems for them. The economics of these new systems are changing the way we print books as well as the terminology we use.
Frank Romano is professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology
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