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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Trends in Print Buying (An Anecdote)

I’ve been noting the direction the wind has been blowing in my own commercial printing work recently. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence, and it only relates to print books, and only to a few of my clients at that, but I’m finding it instructive.

Government Textbooks for an Educational Foundation

For many years I have been brokering the printing for a 6” x 9”, perfect-bound textbook for an educational foundation that brings students to Washington, DC, to learn about government by interacting with congressmen, senators, and other policymakers. It’s a great organization. I worked there for 17 years starting in the early 1980s.

Once a year, my client prints about 3,000 copies of this book. Since the textbook is popular, she usually comes back to me for a reprint of 300 to 400 copies about nine months later, to tide her over for the remaining three months. The offset printing costs about $3.50 a book, and the digital reprint costs about $10.00 a book, but the final cost of the offset job is about $13,500.00, while the final cost of the digital job is about $3,500.00. Another way of looking at this is that my client pays a premium for the digital printing on a unit-cost basis, but the overall cost is less than an offset run. In addition, since she only needs about a tenth of the initial run, it’s much cheaper to produce the second set of print books digitally (since there’s minimal make-ready when compared to offset printing).

This year she let me know that the educational foundation had put a lot of money into a new online service. They plan to print a small number of books, but nowhere near as many as in prior years.

What Can We Learn from This Experience?

  1. The first thing I’m learning is that many of my book printing clients have been shortening their print runs. I think some of this is based on budget cuts. They have a good reason to do so because book printing consumes a lot of paper, so overall it is an expensive prospect. In addition, print books cost a lot to ship. Providing books to students in a primarily online format sidesteps both of these costs.
  2. Overall, digital printing is a good option for short press runs. Moreover, it is a good option for just-in-time printing. My digital printing clients don’t need to store inventory. They also don’t need to estimate exactly how many copies they will need for the upcoming year. If they run out of books, they can always reprint a short press run for a reasonable overall (as opposed to unit) price. This saves money in storage and inventory tracking. Of course, it would be ideal to exactly estimate the number of books needed each year, but this usually can’t be done. At least with digital printing, there’s an alternative.
  3. Since my client’s books have a 4-color cover and black-only text, the covers can be printed via offset lithography for a minimal amount (approximately 350 copies plus spoilage for this client’s reprinted version), and the text blocks of the 264-page print books can be digitally produced and still be of high quality. Once printed, the offset-printed covers and digitally printed text blocks can be bound together.
  4. Given how long this particular client has been printing 3,000 or more copies (I think I printed about 50,000 copies in the 1980s, when I worked at her educational foundation), there still is a need for physical printed textbooks–just not as many as before, and with a mixture of offset-printed, digitally printed, and on-screen versions as options.

Poetry and Fiction Books for a University

A second client of mine is producing a book of poetry and fiction incorporating the works of her creative writing students. She is a university professor. The book will be 6” x 9”, about 100 pages, with a press run of 40 copies. It will be perfect bound, due to its length, and it will have a nice soft-touch film laminate on the covers.

I have one vendor I work with who can produce the whole job in-house for a little over $300.00. That’s a great price. Even though the unit cost is comparatively high for 40 copies, you can’t touch this overall price for an offset print job—even for a print run of brochures, let alone a perfect-bound book with press scores and laminated covers.

This vendor came in with a price almost $200.00 lower than the nearest competitor’s because he has in-house perfect binding capabilities. Many printers do not. This will not only make the vendor with the lower bid less expensive to work with, but he will be able to do the job faster and have more control over the final product, since he already has the binding equipment on his pressroom floor.

My client has also been asked to look into online-only printers, such as Amazon.

In speaking with my client, I learned a lot about her job but also about her university’s approach to print books (as well as her own views and her students’ views).

For instance, since the production budget is very tight, she has been asked to consider publishing the book of poems and fiction online using WordPress. My client doesn’t think this would provide the same experience as the hard-copy version. She thinks the readers will appreciate a physical book to read more than a web page to visit. It will be a more personal, tactile experience.

My client also noted that students as a rule seem to prefer physical textbooks, in spite of the initial surge of interest in ebooks. After all, they can underline passages in the print books and write notes in the margins. It still appears to be a more comfortable way for her students to learn. Granted, this is just anecdotal evidence, but it is still interesting to hear.

What Can We Learn from This Experience?

  1. My client has been given an exceptionally tight budget. She plans to pay for about half of the cost herself in order to have a physical book for her students. That says a lot about her commitment, but it also says a lot about her students’ (and other people’s) desire to still read print books. Granted, it also says that university administrations must balance their students’ needs and desires with their own need to meet their tight budgets.
  2. When I think about how many of my clients have been reducing the press runs for their books—or moving them to an online option only–I have to pause. On the positive side, I see an increasing number of other clients self-publishing their work. Because of this I have been getting lots of bids from lots of printers who want to compete with online book printers like Amazon. The brick-and-mortar printers I frequent have been lowering their prices to get more work. Granted, in some cases this has meant reducing the number of options. A commercial printing vendor offering digital books might only provide a limited number of paper options. Or, perhaps they can do case binding of digital books but only using certain papers and not book binding cloth. By doing this they can offer pricing that lets them compete with online-only vendors.
  3. Self-publishing clients are using their own money. Therefore, press runs are exceedingly small. I call them micro-runs. And overall prices have to be minimal as well. So the total “spend” per client seems to be going down further and further. In spite of this, people still seem to want print books of high quality (with thick paper, smooth cover coatings, French flaps, etc.). They definitely like the tactile experience. It’s just very different working with an individual creating books for friends and colleagues than working with an educational foundation cranking out textbooks.

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