There is nothing too new in the idea that printing a book as close to the end customer is a good thing: it saves shipping costs, it saves time, it reduces carbon. Further, if you apply the genuine print-on-demand model to the idea and print a single copy of a book when you have actually sold it, you can move to zero inventory. All your books can be made available in a market without the need to carry inventory. No need to guess which titles to carry in stock, no need for warehouses, no need to tie up cash in stock, all of which reduce your carbon footprint even more.
Now take it one step further: link your virtual inventory to selling channels in a market. Provide a data feed with the deepest and most comprehensive metadata you can get your hands on. Show the title as in stock and available. Reflect the speed of supply in what you tell your customer. Make the sale, print one copy, supply at speed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Ingram pioneered this idea in the late 1990s with the launch of what became Lightning Source. We have since expanded this supply model to many corners of the globe, either via our own operations or via supply arrangements with other organizations who can do this: offer a book for sale to local channels and print one copy when there is an order. This network, known as Global Connect, now covers 11 countries from Poland to South Korea, from India to Brazil. This is much more than the simple movement of a print file around the world: it is an active wholesale ecosystem allowing many millions of books to be made available at speed to a market and with one of the greenest footprints available.
At the recent Independent Publishers Guild conference in London, I was asked to talk about some of the trends that our Global Connect partners are observing in their markets in what, hopefully, we can refer to as the post-pandemic era. We sent out six questions and asked about sales patterns, what had happened to bookshops, how they were viewing the next couple of years and how they’d been affected by the challenges in the supply chain. The markets covered included France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, India, and Japan. Each country has an active Global Connect partner capable of single-copy book production, and linked to wholesale and retail sellers in that country.
Here are some of the key findings from their responses:
Sales since the end of the pandemic?
- Europe: flat at best, in some cases decline in low single percentages
- Asia: growth, largely fueled by online
- Brazil and South Africa: growth, largely fueled by online
Online sales since the end of the pandemic?
- Europe: dropped back as a percentage of total sales, but still above pre-pandemic levels
- Asia: stayed strong, no decline
- Brazil and South Africa: ditto
Bookshop numbers since the end of the pandemic?
- Europe: many have not reopened, especially smaller independents
- Asia: many lost to pandemic, a few have reopened but general decline on pre-pandemic number
- Brazil and South Africa: decline with shift to online sales during pandemic maintained
Outlook for next 2 years?
- Europe: flat sales at best. Macroeconomic factors expected to impact, especially hits to disposable incomes due to inflation, impact of war in Ukraine
- Asia, Brazil, and South Africa: growth, but fueled by shift to online
One thing that came out quite clearly was the state of sales in the European markets, which were marked as flat at best, compared to a more optimistic view in the Asian countries. Another quite striking trend was what has happened to online sales. During the pandemic, online sales grew hugely in pretty much every market and turbocharged the long-term growth trend. In Europe, the percentage of book sales that were online has fallen back, but not to the levels seen pre-pandemic; in Asia, South Africa, and Brazil, they appear not to have fallen back but stayed at the same levels reached during the pandemic.
The final question asked how their businesses had fared in the face of supply chain disruptions. The picture here was quite uniform and can be summed up in one word: inflation. Not only is this hitting the costs of production, transportation, labor, and energy, it’s hitting disposable incomes for book buyers. Further, publishers are already increasing the retail prices of their books in a number of these markets. Margins are under pressure.
Against this backdrop, the attractions of the zero inventory/ local-selling channel/print-local model have similarly grown. We saw a surge in this type of supply chain activity during the pandemic, largely fueled by the turbocharging of online sales. Now in the post-pandemic era of inflation, squeezed margins and a strengthening desire to de-carbon the book supply chain, the global print-on-demand model continues to grow in relevance and attractiveness.