There have been great advances in short-run digital printing (SRDP) and print-on-demand (POD) technologies over the last decade. The manufacturers of high-volume digital presses have made huge improvements in print quality, formats, speed, and workflow. Monochrome text printing solutions have evolved to support both monochrome and color book printing and have the ability to customize and personalize—all with the speed and quality required by publishers and customers. These developments have changed how publishers assess the life cycle of a book, and they come at a good time. With first printings down across the board, gone are the days when one large offset print run can cover demand for a book over its entire life.

Melissa Serdinsky, v-p of digital operations and manufacturing for Perseus Books Group, says that while, in the past, digital printing was only used “for extending the life of a title in the long tail, now titles are candidates for digital print at almost every stage after the initial lay down.” Perseus often sets titles up for digital at the same time as the initial print run, Serdinsky explains, so if a bookstore’s initial stocking order is short, additional copies can be produced quickly to meet demand. Because the content setup and transaction costs for digital printing are very low, print costs at every stage of a book’s life cycle are economical. And keeping books in print longer has given Perseus an extra benefit in the digital age: “E-book sales are actually driving sales for printed books in the midlist, especially in the nonfiction categories,” says Serdinsky.

Craig Bauer, senior v-p, publishing operations and strategic planning for Hachette Book Group, was also an early adopter of digital printing and has seen it mature to become a regular part of the company’s production mix. “We are seeing both toner and ink-jet technologies utilized in various segment and product combinations, such as memory books, self-publishing, and rapid replenishment during inventory stock outs,” Bauer says.

To operate most efficiently, POD and print-to-order content and order management should be fully automated. In such a system, publishers, retailers, and distributors receive and process orders that are then passed directly to the printing systems. Turnaround times range from one to four days when all the workflows are in place.

In the case of SRDP, individual orders might be for 20 or more copies and are typically for inventory replenishment. When a customer orders several titles from a publisher or distributor, but sales forecasts for some of the titles are unavailable, SRDP can reduce the risks of overstocking. Printers often have good Web interfaces, allowing orders to be placed online if an automated interface isn’t in place. Turnaround times on these orders are typically five to 10 days.

In the final stages of a book’s life cycle, when sales are infrequent and most orders are for single copies, a publisher can place the title on a print-to-order platform. Large libraries of out-of-print and otherwise hard-to-find titles have been aggregated and made available for sale online, creating new opportunities from older titles as well. And the inventories for these titles are entirely virtual, using print-to-order technologies. With the advances in both color toner and ink-jet printing, titles can be produced whose quality is comparable to that of the original editions, which were made using offset printing. In this case, the new printing systems provide a new lifecycle, when before there wasn’t one at all.

A key reason digital printing is now in the manufacturing mix is that current digital printing platforms have greatly flattened the cost curve across order quantities, and publishers that consider the total cost of ownership are rapidly taking advantage of these technologies. A new paradigm is emerging in which, rather than relying on large print runs, publishers order fewer copies of each title and then replenish their inventory more frequently, without increasing their expenses, thereby reducing inventory risks and conserving cash. And because of automated workflows, smaller publishers and distributors that don’t have large IT infrastructures can take full advantage of digital printing. Placing an order might not be automated, but much of today’s printing is. As Bauer says, “Ink-jet technologies have enabled improved inventory management in single and multicolor education and Scientific/Technical/Medical titles.” With the ability to economically produce very small runs to address niche markets, customize content, and meet demand at all stages of a title’s lifecycle, publishers have more tools than ever before to address the needs of their customers in the new book-buying paradigms.

This educational series is brought to you by Hewlett-Packard.