The book publishing supply chain has been completely transformed by technology. New tools—ranging from electronic data interchange, which has become fairly standard, to new cutting-edge ink-jet technologies—have reduced supply-chain costs and eliminated steps in getting books from manufacturers to consumers. Improvements in printing technologies, in particular, are giving publishers new ways to manage the supply chain, both domestically and, increasingly, internationally. New digital print platforms have far less waste and require less set-up time than older ones, and that higher productivity allows lower prices to be passed along to publishers.

One of the pioneers in supply-chain innovations is Strategic Content Imaging (SCI), a New Jersey–based digital printer that offers tailored supply-chain solutions to its customers. Dale Williams, v-p of SCI, says that the company’s Automatic Replenishment Program (ARP) shifts the focus on reorders from per-unit pricing to sell-through rate. According to Williams, the program is perfect for publishers “that are not ready to embrace the true one-off POD mind-set.” Even for those not fully participating in the ARP program, the concept allows publishers to keep inventory on hand at predetermined levels, and that inventory can be shifted according to changing demand. As a book moves through its life cycle, Williams notes, another part of ARP gives publishers an option for a true print-on-demand service when a book’s sell-through rate falls to a certain level.

SCI offers these programs across an array of platforms, including HP digital ink-jet, Indigo, and others. It also has a broad offering of finishing options, including hardcover binding. According to Williams, having different finishing operations in-house extends digital printing into many lines of publishing that are just now switching over from offset. He says that recent trends support his view of how publishers should interpret manufacturing costs. “For years I have argued for total cost of ownership, rather than unit cost, to be the central concept in managing a publisher’s supply chain,” he says. “Now publishers are reaching out to us, and the discussions are about how fast SCI can implement an ARP for them. Certainly the adoption of high-speed ink-jet technology has been the primary cause for this shift.”

Blurb, a leading online publishing platform based in San Francisco, is another company at the forefront of improving the supply chain. Bruce Waterman, senior v-p of operations, notes that because of advanced workflows and common print file specifications, customers can order books from one area and Blurb can produce them domestically in several countries. This reduces the cost of freight and eliminates the administrative costs of exporting, and it shortens delivery times as well.

As indicated by Waterman, companies are looking to improve supply-chain efficiencies beyond the U.S. On the international front, HP, the market leader in high-productivity ink-jet systems, has more than 50 billion pages of potential capacity across more than 30 sites worldwide, including locations in Australia, China, Europe, Japan, Latin America, the Philippines, and Singapore, enabling global book publishers to adopt distributed print models.

For Pearson, in the Asia-Pacific region, production director Vicki Bzovy finds that hybrid printing is key to meeting her company’s varied market requirements. “We have used digital printing for short runs, customization, on-demand—even if it is just for one copy—as well as end-of-life stock fulfillment, ” she says. For Bzovy, there are many reasons to choose digital printing, but “the primary one in most cases is being able to print low runs relatively economically, whether for new titles, reprints, or custom titles. And as digital printing has become more efficient, higher quality, and more flexible in terms of trim sizes, stock availability, and finishes, we have been able to address other issues such as stock holdings, obsolescence, personalized publishing, and end-of-life printing.”

According to Bzovy, there are many variables to consider when choosing digital printing. “It is not always about price or quality or turnaround time,” she notes. “For us, digital printing is another option as a delivery method. It allows us to provide a different offering to our customers.” Digital printing also allows Pearson to reduce its inventory, freeing the company to invest in new areas of its business. “Digital printing provides us with more flexibility.... It is about selecting the optimum printing method for the right product—at the right stage of a book’s life cycle—that produces the best result,” Bzovy adds.