As Lightning Source wraps up its 25th anniversary, the Ingram Content Group company has entered a new stage of life. When it was born, Lightning Source found its greatest acceptance from self-publishers and smaller traditional publishers, which used it not only for its ability to do small print runs but for its distribution capability as well. The 2013 launch of Ingram’s self-publishing platform, Ingram-

Spark, provided a sales spark for Lightning and deepened its ties with the indie author world.

But in 2023, Lightning has strengthened its relationships with the country’s largest traditional publishers, including the Big Five, said Kelly Gallagher, v-p of content acquisition for Ingram. “In the past two years, every single Big Five publisher has significantly increased their engagement with Lightning Source,” Gallagher told PW.

The turning point came, Gallagher said, during the pandemic. With supply chains a mess and demand for books surging, publishers of all sizes turned to Lightning Source to meet their publication deadlines. An example that Ingram has cited in the past bears repeating: in the week of June 26, 2020, five of the top 10 titles on the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list were supported primarily by Lightning Source.

Since the pandemic experience, “large publishing has a completely different viewpoint of how to utilize Lightning to ensure they have just enough copies, but not too many,”
Gallagher said. “Very little of what Lightning does today is merely solving a print problem,” he added, explaining that the company can supply the resources to be “the back-end engine to supply content on a global basis” for all of its clients.

Publishers see Lightning as a prudent way, for example, to print instant books, Gallagher said. Lightning printed several different publishers’ editions of the January 6th report, supplying publishers with enough copies to meet demand—but not too many, Gallagher stressed.

The company has also recently embarked on a new program in the large-print market. It set up a turnkey service that provides publishers with a conversion process to move their books into a large-print format, and creates virtual inventory that Lightning can print when orders come in. In the early going, two Big Five publishers are making 80% of their catalog available for large print rather than what has typically been around 15%.

But as important as these initiatives have been, Lightning Source has benefited the most from larger publishers getting a better understanding of how digital printing can be used in combination with offset printing. Gallagher has been one of a number of digital printing evangelists urging publishers not to merely focus on cost-per-unit manufacturing but rather on the total cost of publishing a book, including the costs of books held in inventory. He credits publishers’ sales teams with helping to make the case for digital printing by explaining to their bosses how POD can be used to capture lost sales opportunities. By providing files to Lightning as part of their regular workflow, publishers “can guarantee availability and maintain sales continuity” of fast-selling books, Gallagher said, noting the work Lightning often does to meet the demand for titles after they have won an award.

Ingram has had global aspirations for Lightning Source since its launch, and Lightning’s global operation is the fastest-growing part its business, Gallagher said. At present, Lightning Source serves publishers in 148 countries and in more than 350 languages. In addition to its POD facilities in the U.S., Lightning has built plants in Australia, England, France, and the U.A.E. Those plants augment 10 Lightning Global Connect partners, which constitute a network of POD operators that Ingram has formed to facilitate the digital printing of books in overseas markets. More partners are expected to come on board in 2024, Gallagher said.

Lightning’s overseas growth is being driven by several factors, among them publishers’ desire to make printing more environmentally friendly, which necessitates printing books closer to a publisher’s customers. “POD was focused on sustainability before the phrase was coined,” Gallagher said.

A second factor has been Ingram’s interest in adding more languages to its catalog beyond English. Its catalog currently has a “significant portion of world languages,” Gallagher noted. While the number of titles is in the millions, Lightning is working to add numerous international publishers to its global printing program. “We think this is a real opportunity and the right thing to do,” he added.

Lightning already has a substantial amount of Spanish-language content, and Gallagher said 45% of that content is sold in overseas markets. One of its top 10 Spanish-language markets is India. Gallagher emphasized that adding a breadth of languages to Lightning will be key to its growth. “We have a global network and we should be utilizing it not just by adding more English-language content,” he explained.

Whether it is its domestic or international operations, Lightning’s ability to work with publishers from pre-release titles through long-term backlist­—something larger publishers began to appreciate during the pandemic—has carried into the postpandemic period. “What our value proposition looks like today to larger publishers has completely changed,” Gallagher said. “We are excited about how our future looks.”