14 Digital Printing

POD Presentation

Part of the benefit of digital production technologies is the ability to create multiple outputs based on a single file source. Therefore the ability to make print documents from mark-up code is a viable and lucrative method to create print books to complement your electronic edition. However, does a print book always need to be restricted by the requirements of conventional printing? One great cost-reducing factor of e-books has always been the fact that you need only make them once. But, the print market relies on multiple copies being made available for customers to purchase. However, this model is done only to satisfy the costs of sale involved in physical book printing.

For many years, digital printing has been the technology of choice for offices due to its speed. Over the years the quality of it has improved to provide crisp black text and sharp colour reproduction. Unlike analog printing, the intial set-up costs are generally very low and a consistent cost per unit can be established from the outset. Whether using toner particles or actual ink, digital printers rely on real-time imaging, that is to say, they don’t use plates. This makes them slower, but also means that the publisher can make use of variable data printing.[1] Large scale digital printing can be done on both sheet- and web-fed systems and can produce a quality of print arguably on-par with analog printing methods.

The most beneficial use of it however is that a digital small-scale, industry-grade digital printer can easily produce a single copy of a book at a reasonable price, that is unchanged no matter the length of the run. For this reason, digital printing offers publishers two very distinct services, Print-on-Demand (POD) and Short-run Printing.

Print-on-Demand

This is the concept of providing an e-book-like purchase experience to print books. Rather than following a system in which a store is required to keep a limited number of copies for a book, the POD system dictates that there is infinite stock, which is printed only to an individual’s order. With this method, the book does not exist in a physical form until it is purchased. This model has been widely adopted by self-publishing companies[2] as a cost-effective means to produce a book. In fact, where the author has decided not to make an e-book, POD copies are the next best thing. It negates stock worries, and allows the self-publishing author to focus on marketing.

Short-run Printing

This is intended for small runs of about 50.[3] Short print-runs can be useful for advance copies, small sales, infrequent orders and so forth. The general rule of thumb in the industry is that for up to 500 books it is viable to print digitally. After that however, the unit cost of analogue printing becomes more worthwhile (depending on the specific project).

Digital printing service providers

A degree of digital printing can be done from a home desktop printer, while semi-professional work can be done at print and photoshops. Therefore, one could technically sell POD books through the local photo shop, however, there is always a limitation on the dimensions. Most small printers will be sheet-based, and will not do imposition. In other words, a page would need to fit onto an A4 or A3 page. This needs to be considered during the publishing phase and the dimensions need to be calibrated so that they can withstand the preferences and alterations of individual machines. What’s more, the binding method is often limited to office style bindings (such as ring, spiral and side staple binding) and more often for books, perfect binding (with which the loose pages are held together by a tight, but fragile glue bond).

On the larger [industrial] scale, digital printers (such as Ingram’s Lightning Source) can provide more flexibility, with traditional books sizes and a variety of stitch-binding methods. However, it does all depend on the printers themselves. Some are able to do a variety of finishing techniques and handle different grades of paper, while others might only be able to create soft covers and gray-scale interiors. If using a digital printer, the publisher needs to find one that can best provide the quality that the publisher requires.

It is also worth noting that quality POD and Short-run prints require an adequate delivery model. These runs are intended for focused markets and often individuals, and a worthwhile service provider should be able to deliver the books right into your customers’ hands. The industrial nature of Short-run printing requires that a store-front is maintained in some way. What is happening is that a more manageable level of stock is being created, and therefore to adequately serve customers, a suitably-sized batch would need to be printed and sold. With POD the business plan is different. The intention is to create a print per sale[4] and this presents its own set of difficulties as it requires a custom binding station for each printed book. Therefore, the most adequate form of POD is one done by a mail-order system, through which a dedicated printed can create copies to order. The dream of making this possible in-store is a hard one to achieve. The main problem is an engineering challenge, as the store would need a device capable of printing and binding the title, while still keeping track of sales for royalty purposes. The one company that has tried to address this On Demand Books with their Espresso Book Machine. Unfortunately the sheer cost of this machine has limited its roll-out. That said however, as more are made the costs may come down, and at present 57 machines exist around the world,[5] with the biggest overall market being university bookshops.

Going where no book has gone before

Digital printing’s real strength is that it allows for a virtual storefront. So long as the postal service can reach you, you will get your book. What’s more, any aspiring printer can become a bookseller. While the Holy Grail of digital printing is to reproduce a high-quality, perfect format, finished book, so long as the publisher allows it, a book’s content can be made available in simper forms. Especially for communities starved of bookshops, it makes perfect sense for a local printer (even a copy shop) to make the content of books available. Here enters Paperight, a South African start-up working off this very model. They have created the infrastructure to turn any simple copy shop into a bookseller through a web-based POD solution. Using this channel, books can be distributed through previously under-served communities with simple, stapled A4 renditions of books. Every page of the book is marked with identifying information to track the origin of that specific print in order to provide traceable copyright enforcement.

Unfortunately Paperight has closed down, the owner/creator Arthur Atwell cites lack of sufficient sales to maintain operations as the primary driver behind their financial difficulties. Originally intended to provide legal, fast versions of titles to copy-shops through a POD system the company faced difficulties based on the lack of sales and customer interest. The implications of this is that the cost of content is the primary driver behind illegal copying/ non-buying book culture, not the ease of access. They have published their successes, failure and stories here: http://story.paperight.com/

By taking advantage of the existing infrastructure of copy shops, it becomes possible to create an affordable distribution chain whereby a traditionally elite commodity can be easily shared. In the future of course, our simple desktop printers and copiers may be capable of advanced finishing and cheap colour reproductions, in which case POD becomes the mean for obtaining books. As it stands now however, POD serves two fundamental purposes: it reduces some of the price barriers to publishing, [6] thus making more books available; and it makes them available in places where they may not have been available otherwise.[7]


  1. This is the printing of several versions of a document in a single run. For instance, the printing of invitations where the design remains the same, but the names change per copy. This can also be used in book printing to create customised editions.
  2. Companies such as Lulu.com, Amazon CreateSpace
  3. This, at least, in what local provider Publisher.co.za can produce.
  4. The fixed unit price of digital printing negates the benefits of digital printing, though shipping costs will still be a factor.
  5. This number has come up from 3 just a few years ago, possibly thanks to their partnership with Xerox.
  6. POD has it's own costs, but it circumvents the 'normal' outlay needed for analogue printing and warehousing
  7. Assuming of course that geographic restrictions allow for this.

License

Publishing in the Digital Environment Copyright © 2013 by University of Pretoria. All Rights Reserved.