Book manufacturing in the U.S. is still a profitable business—for those making changes. New printing technology, shifting consumer demand, and publishers’ attention to the cost of owning inventories are having a profound effect on the way printers and paper manufacturers operate. In addition, the continued consolidation of publishers has also led manufacturers to make adjustments to their businesses.

To accommodate the changing market demands, manufacturers are making investments in new printing, content, and order-management technologies. The investments are aimed at lowering the costs of producing smaller runs and processing orders. Some companies are also broadening their suite of services to expand into underserved markets such as independent presses. Reflecting the trend of smaller print runs, most book manufacturers have shifted their investments from buying large offset presses to acquiring high-speed ink-jet and digital systems and creating the IT infrastructure to support them.

Webcrafters has long been a key supplier to the education market and sees print lasting far into the future. Brad Koch, v-p of sales and marketing, says that a new Prosper 5000 press has greatly increased Webcrafters’ printing capabilities. The company was an early adopter of ink-jet technology which gives their customers a range of printing options, particularly in custom publishing—with its smaller print runs and much faster schedules. “Our digital workflow and great people have streamlined the file preparation and order-management processes, which affords our customers greater flexibility,” Koch notes. Webcrafters uses Kodak digital platforms and works closely with the company to meet different printing challenges. Koch adds that “pricing remains under competitive pressure, but has not dropped precipitously as it did in prior years.”

Courier Corp. was also an early adopter of ink-jet platforms, adding digital presses to complement its offset capabilities. Now with five HP ink-jet systems, Courier can meet, and sometimes anticipate, its customers’ demand curves better than before. Pete Conway and Don Hunter, both v-ps at Courier, also note that automation has made it possible to process digital-printing orders far faster than orders for offset. Sales in Courier’s manufacturing operation rose 4.5% in the fiscal year ended Sept. 27, 2014, as the company benefitted from doing work for trade, education, and religious publishers. In the fiscal 2014, Courier reported that education sales rose 5% over fiscal 2013, while trade was up 3%, and religion gained 4%.

Courier provides e-book conversion services and owns two publishers, so it has some insight into the trade-offs between electronic and print sales. “We are not experiencing replacement of print with e-books, but it is notable that some of our publishers have removed the bound copies of their titles from their lobbies, to message that they are about content providing, not just books,” observes Hunter. International production is a key strategy for Courier, as its customers have asked to use Courier’s capabilities in Brazil, India, and other markets, says Hunter. To ensure consistent results abroad, Courier uses its order-management system to route orders to its print and binding equipment.

Increased demand for digital printing has also helped Gasch Printing grow in a challenging market. The company has focused on digital printing over the last few years in order to meet the growing demand for shorter print runs, quicker turnaround time, and greater use of print on demand, explains Jeremy Hess, director of sales and marketing for Gasch. At the beginning of the year, Gasch installed in-house case binding, something Hess says also helps the printer meet growing demand for shorter runs. The company has also been taking advantage of the increase in the number of self-publishers. “Self-publishing is not going away,” Hess says. “Gasch has embraced this market by really partnering with these authors, giving them the personal attention and service they need.”

Ingram Content Group has recently expanded by opening a Lightning Source automated print-on-demand operation in California. Kelly Gallagher, v-p, content acquisition for North America at Ingram, notes, “In today’s market being close to the consumer is key”—which is what prompted Ingram to continue expanding around the world. In addition, digitally printed books are now available in a very wide selection of formats, giving publishers more choices in how they want to use print on demand, Gallagher adds.

Bang Printing has also expanded over the past year with its acquisition of the Press of Ohio, giving them coast-to-coast reach. Chris Kurtzman, president of Bang, is seeing more stability in the industry, noting that capacity has been taken off the market. “Press time is at a premium this time of year,” he notes. Bang has continued to invest in printing technology to meet their customers’ needs. Smaller runs, shorter schedules, and multiple-plant capability has kept Bang growing in a highly competitive market.

Thomson Shore has adopted a strategy that puts an emphasis on providing a complete supply-chain solution for large and small publishers. With its acquisition of the distributor Seattle Book Company, Thomson Shore now provides pick pack and ship services, as well as retail-order acceptance for publishers. Kevin Spall, president of employee-opened Thomson Shore, explains the recent moves by noting that “we have looked to expand the service offering in-house, which extends our relationship with customers.” Thomson Shore is also adding a color-offset press that will provide another new product line. While e-books have not replaced print editions, “run lengths have come down,” Spall acknowledges.

The Sheridan Book Group has invested in technology to lower the cost of processing an order. Joe Thomson, v-p of sales at Sheridan, says the company offers an array of ways to automate the ordering process, including web and print solutions and accepting orders directly from customers’ Enterprise Resource Program systems. “We take these orders and route them to the appropriate print platform internally based on quantity or to their partners outside the U.S.,” Thomson says. The automated order processing, Thomson adds, is another way Sheridan tries to create a “deep involvement with our customers.”

Edwards Brothers Malloy is consolidating their Michigan facilities, but has added a second Ricoh ink-jet press to their North Carolina plant. Donna Coleman, director of marketing, sees the same trends of steady demand, steady pricing, and shorter, more frequent print runs as other printers. She observes that “just printing books is no longer enough. Our goal is the help publishers realize efficiencies all along the supply chain. The more we can offer, the more we can help publishers respond quickly to changing customer demand.”

Andrew Pate has held executive positions with a number of printing companies and now is an industry consultant.