Digital print production has long been heralded for its ability to offer publishers the capability to economically produce books as needed and in smaller quantities than traditional offset printing.

Technology advancements at all points in book manufacturing are enabling digital printing to accommodate longer-run production historically dominated by offset printing and in the process promise a boom in the number of pages produced by digital printers. The major change is ultra-high-speed, web-fed inkjet printers that redefine the economics to print books on-demand in larger quantities, without sacrifices in quality.

As many publishers recognize, digital printing offers a flexible solution to provide what publishers need, when they need it, where they need it, and in the quantity required. A brief highlight of the key benefits of digital printing puts the opportunity of producing longer runs digitally into perspective.

Risk reduction: Demand is difficult to forecast, but digital print technologies enable the economical production of books. Publishers can monitor demand and order only what is required to eliminate warehousing and return costs.

Cycle time for on-demand: A number of highly sophisticated on-demand printers are able to turn orders around within 24 hours. Publishers can quickly react to market demand for printed books.

Personalization: Every page printed digitally can be unique. Digital printing opens up creative opportunities for in-line customization, personalization, and real-time marketing activities such as cross-selling or including promotional material.

Bottom-line business results: By following the demand curve more closely and minimizing warehousing and return costs, publishers can have greater inventory turnover and improved profitability.

Sell, then print: Digital printing enables a business model that turns the old one on its head. For centuries, publishers guessed at the number of copies they’d need and then were forced to reprint if they misjudged demand. This was the “print, then sell” model. Today, digital print allows publishers much more flexibility. In the case of self-published work and out-of-print content, they have the luxury of not printing until they have an order in hand.

The market research and consulting firm InfoTrends projects that digitally produced book pages will grow at a 14.0% compound annual growth rate between 2011 and 2016, and surpass 107 billion pages in 2016, largely driven by more affordable inkjet technologies. Between 2011 and 2016, digitally produced books will add nearly 52 billion pages, according to InfoTrends’ “2011–2016 U.S. Digital Production Printing Application Forecast.”

Using digital printing technologies for book printing is not new. Book printing on toner-based digital devices is solidly entrenched in the book manufacturing supply chain. However, the latest generation of devices can print at speeds of up to 4,000 pages per minute, offering productivity that is well within the range of offset printing. The new inkjet printers also offer wider widths of 30 inches or more, and therefore make it easier to print larger page signatures.

Putting the significance of inkjet printing in perspective, Dale Williams, v-p of the digital book printer SCI (Strategic Content Imaging), says, “Today’s inkjet technology means that we can affordably move work from traditional offset printing technology to digital options so that publishers can produce content when they need it without compromising quality.”

SCI supports publishers with one of the largest integrated digital print production facilities on the East Coast. Its Secaucus, N.J., facility occupies 100,000 sq. ft., employs more than 100 people, and houses a mix of sheet-fed and web-fed digital printing devices. The company recently bought an HP T350 Color Inkjet Web Press to meet growing publisher demand for four-color books. The 30-inch-wide HP T350 provides full-color variable-data printing at speeds of more than 3,500 letter-size pages per minute.

SCI’s print production capabilities are accompanied by a full range of services and process automation to meet publishers’ needs. SCI can produce and distribute 1,000 book units in 24 to 48 hours. “With that kind of automated replenishment capability,” Williams says, “we are positioning publishers to eliminate what I categorize as an inventory wall of shame. Publishers can move into the realm of virtual inventory.”

Toronto-based Webcom is another example of a book printer investing in inkjet technology to address publishers’ plights of high inventory and production costs. The 200-employee firm serves publishers in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. The company invested $20 million to build BookFWD, a production program designed to deliver publishers cost savings at all stages of the book production and distribution cycle. Webcom’s BookFWD investment combines inkjet technologies, streamlined workflow, and unique bookbinding systems to significantly reduce costs for inventory, distribution, and production that are associated with printing books. The investment included the HP T300 and T350 Color Inkjet Web Presses for printing text pages, the HP Indigo 7000 for producing covers, a Magnum FlexBook finishing system, the latest workflow technology, and two new binders. Webcom’s high-speed inkjet press can cost-effectively run 3,000 or more trade books.

Commenting on the rationale behind building BookFWD, Webcom president Mike Collinge says, “Book publishers are challenged in many ways—from demanding time constraints, to evolving environmental considerations, to new e-product investments. The most critical determinant of a publisher’s ability to successfully navigate is improving the financial returns of their printed product.” He reports that BookFWD has reduced the average cost per order for an educational publisher by 49% and a trade publisher by 30%.

Book printers of all sizes are expanding their digital printing capabilities to better serve the needs of publishers and protect against a declining offset market. In the early days, the move to digital printing was to accommodate short-run book production; today it is about long-term survival. Every aspect of inkjet—speed, quality, flexibility, and format—is designed today to meet all the needs of book publishers. Improvements in continuous-feed inkjet printers will fuel the shift to digital printing within the book market.

Lisa Cross is associate director of InfoTrends’ Business Development Strategies Service ( InfoTrends is a worldwide market research and strategic consulting firm for the imaging, document solutions, production print, and digital media industries.