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In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Brothers, Commodore launched the Amiga personal computer, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, and Bill Gates issued the first version of Windows. It was also the year PW launched the first report covering the Asian printing industry, of which you are now holding the 25th annual issue. (In case you wonder about the calculation, we skipped one year at the beginning.)

Since then, we have narrowed our scope to cover mostly the industry in Hong Kong/China as it expands to become the world's print manufacturing hub. Its evolution from mom-and-pop (or, to be precise, dad-and-son) shops into sleek multistory one-stop facilities makes for a fascinating story. The best commentary on this change comes from industry experts and professionals who have been working with Hong Kong/China suppliers and print brokers all this while. They, more than others, have seen the ups and downs, challenges and opportunities, past and present. So PW calls on a few of these professionals to sum up the past two and a half decades or so of the Hong Kong/China print manufacturing industry.

Looking Better than Ever

"The fact that most printers we use are now located in large purpose-built plants with climate control instead of cramped high-rise factory buildings has changed the workflow, working environment, and logistics involved in printing a book. It has definitely improved the chance of getting a high-quality final result," says production director Neil Palfreyman at Thames & Hudson, noting that "the massive leaps forward in prepress and press technology have also ensured much greater consistency in the printed result and higher chances of reproducing the original work, whether it is a painting, sculpture, photograph, or some other art form."

25 Years Ago Today...

Back in 1985, Hung Hing, then located in a multistory industrial building in Tin Wan, Aberdeen, was just recovering from a severe fire that originated in a neighboring factory. "Production was halted for over a month, posing the first major challenge in my career," recalls executive chairman Matthew Yum, who eventually built his own factory—now housing around 300 employees and 10 presses—in Tai Po industrial estate. "We were into packaging printing and corrugated carton manufacturing then, and we did not start children's book manufacturing until after our first Shenzhen factory was established in 1990."

What has not changed in the past 25 years is suppliers' inventiveness and their willingness to find a solution to a problem, be it some wild and wacky imposition scheme or out-there style of binding. "We have produced many limited editions in the past three or four years which, if somebody had asked me 10 years ago whether we could make those books, I would have said certainly not," says Palfreyman.

Despite being approached by suppliers from Southeast Asia and beyond, Palfreyman has yet to find a better balance of cost, service, and quality than those that he currently receives from his Chinese suppliers: "However, the reality is that in this Amazon era, where so many books are discounted, consumers are looking for bargains as the norm, regardless of the costs that have gone into the making of the book. We will continue to look to our suppliers for better prices due to productivity improvement and new, more efficient plant investment."

Asked about the rise of tablets and e-book readers, he says, "Either the software available is too limited for us to reproduce the more complex page layouts, or the screen size and tactile element are too limiting or lacking. Thames & Hudson wholly believes in the unique qualities of the book and the connection people make with it on a basic level. What you get on an e-book reader is exactly that: an e-book, which is an approximation of the physical object. The physical and the digital are two distinctly different products. However, the e-book technology is developing so quickly that we certainly do not want to stick our heads, ostrichlike, in the sand. We do not want to be a dinosaur looking over our shoulder asking, ‘What meteor?' At the same time, we do not want to be stuck with the publishing equivalent of the Betamax video player. We are devoting a lot of resources and money into developing a workable model."

Digital printing, says Palfreyman, is still a long way off in making inroads into the kind of full-color illustrated book that he does. "Sheet size limitation and high production cost make it commercially unfeasible. We printed a couple of monochrome text-only titles digitally, but they were more of an experiment. The size of print runs for such titles still makes offset litho affordable for us. But as the pressure on inventory control increases, who knows what the future may hold."

Not Exactly Light Stuff

In the past 20 years, says Derek Hill, director of the British and Foreign Bible Society, innovations in prepress technology have transformed the printing industry. "Shifting from mechanical artwork to digital files, especially PDFs, has resulted in lower production costs and faster turnaround," he says. "It also provides publishers with greater mobility, enabling work to be transferred easily from one printer in one country to another printer in another country. The latter has benefited Asian print suppliers enormously." Another major transformation, he adds, is "the rise of China as a viable source for printing Bibles on 28 gsm and higher for both short and long runs, from 3,000 to 300,000 copies."

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