John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Content Group, said his inspiration to create what would become Lightning Source occurred after he attended a BookExpo America show in the mid 1990s where Xerox was showing off its DocuTech machine, a huge printer that could quickly produce a single copy of a book. Back at Ingram’s LaVergne, Tenn., warehouse, he asked Y.S. Chi, who was then a senior executive at the company, “Why in the world are we wallpapering the warehouse with books? Wouldn’t it be better to store a digital file and print a book when there was demand?”

Chi took his boss’s suggestion to heart and hired Larry Brewster to develop a business model. In 1998, Lightning Source printed its first book: Hanged Man, published by Kensington.

That first book was printed as a black-and-white paperback in LaVergne. Twenty years later Lightning Source has plants in Fresno, Calif.; Fairfield, Ohio; and Breinigsville, Pa., in addition to its LaVergne location. At all sites, Lightning Source’s digital platform consists exclusively of HP PageWide HD color and mono presses, said Kelly Gallagher, v-p, content acquisition for the Ingram Content Group, allowing Lightning Source to print color and hardcover books.

Gallagher acknowledged that Lightning Source was not an immediate success: “In the first few years, the print-on-demand concept had a slow ramp-up, as publishers tried to wrap their heads around the idea of new concepts like ‘inventory free’ and ‘print to order,’ along with a belief that the consumer would question the difference in quality.” But, he noted, as results started coming in and publishers were able to keep backlist titles in stock indefinitely while growing their sales, they began to embrace POD. Lightning Source printed its one millionth book in 2000, and, as publishers and authors started coming aboard at a more rapid clip, it printed its 10 millionth book just three years later.

As Lightning Source and POD began to be accepted in the U.S., Ingram opened its first overseas operation in the U.K. in 2001. Lightning Source now owns print and distribution centers in Milton Keynes, U.K., and Melbourne, Australia, and is in a joint venture with Hachette Livre in France. Ingram upped its international presence again in 2011 when it launched Global Connect, a program in which Lightning Source partners with companies abroad that offer print-on-demand and distribution services. Lightning Source currently has deals in place with companies in eight countries, and under the program, a publisher in the U.S. or U.K. can send a file to a Lightning Source partner, who will print and ship the book in its country and conduct the transaction in local currency.

In 2008, the Lightning Source print library surpassed the one-million-title mark for the first time, and, 10 years later, the company’s global catalogue exceeds 15 million titles, Gallagher said. Lightning Source’s title count has grown, in part, because the subsidiary has evolved its business to keep pace with industry changes. According to Gallagher, Lightning Source’s clients come from all publishing segments and include publishers of all sizes—from single-book authors to the world’s largest publisher. “We also support frontlist bestsellers where the publisher suddenly discovers it is out of stock and needs a GAP printing, which is a backup print/distribution service for titles that should be physically available but run out of stock due to demand shocks,” he noted.

Steve Zacharius, who helped facilitate the printing of Hanged Man and is now president of Kensington, said Kensington uses Lightning Source like most publishers: “We use it for short runs to cover books temporarily out of stock or to keep the book available when there’s not enough demand to do a full offset printing. We also, of course, use it for ARCs.”

Lightning Source has also been front and center in the self-publishing boom. Gallagher noted that, though Lightning Source always worked with small presses and self-published authors, the launch five years ago of IngramSpark, which is aimed at indie authors, “has brought our engagement with independent and self-publishers to a whole new level.”

As Lightning Source has grown and changed, one thing that remains the same is its basic functionality: the ability to print one copy of a book at a time. Asked whether there is such a thing as an average print run, Gallagher observed, “As a print-on-demand printer and distributor, Lightning Source is engineered to print efficiently to a unit of one, so our average print run is actually not much more than that.” But, he added, its new equipment is perfectly able to handle print runs into the thousands.

For all of Lightning Source’s success, John Ingram believes that most publishers are only using a fraction of what POD has to offer. “If I could tell publishers one thing, it would be to give us a file of every book they have,” he said. “That way, when something happens and a book unexpectedly becomes in demand, we can quickly fill immediate orders while the publisher develops a larger printing plan.”

Ingram said he is excited by the success of Lightning Source (“It is an important, serious business for us”) because he likes businesses that are incentivized to be aligned with its clients’ needs. “We only do well if our clients do well,” he added.