Digital printing is made up of two separate approaches. There are toner-based systems, and ink jet systems. The toner side is better established, having been a growing factor in book work for the past 25 years. Ink jet is just beginning to get established as the primary technology for books, though it has been around for about as long.

There’s no doubt now that digital printing is a solid part of the book manufacturing scene. Not only can publishers print fewer and fewer copies — a highly desirable ability in uncertain times — but the quality of digital print is now every bit as good as offset, and in some respects I’d argue, superior. For instance the catalog for The New York Book Industry Guild’s 2015 Annual Book Show was printed digitally (ink jet) for the first time: see the photo below. In an offset world the pale blue tints — made up of tiny dots of blue ink — which appear on almost every page would have been difficult to hold consistent, as their color would be affected by the colors used on the rest of each individual page. Some photos will call for more blue ink, others for more yellow etc. In an offset job, to serve that need more blue, or yellow ink will need to be delivered to that area. This ink can’t instantly disappear when the press revolves on to the next part of the book needing to be printed. If that’s just a page of black text, no problem, but if it’s a color tint, the ink buildup needed for individual halftones would make the background tint vary slightly from one track to another. On a digital press the ink deposited can be exactly right every time. (See Printing methods.)

Here’s a report on a 2016 Ricoh seminar from Book Business Magazine. which projects steady growth in digital printing. Notable in the projections, regardless of whether you think the projections are too high or too low, is the contrast between percentage of production and percentage of sales volume. Avoidance of unsold inventory is going to loom larger and larger in publishers’ planning.

Digital printing first made its appearance in the office environment, and was soon adopted for short-run book manufacturing. Initially this was available only for black and white work — which of course means about 90% of serious books — and this made it initially ideal for academic publishing. I recently discovered a couple of memos I wrote in 1982 in which I advocated for the setting up in our warehouse of a digital print engine plus a small binding line so that we could print one-off books in response to customer orders. This seems to me to be extraordinarily early for such a thing to be possible, but hey, you can call me a dreamer. In fact the first real digital book printer, Integrated Book Technology, wasn’t established till 1991. I’m not sure when the first on-demand setups in publishers’ warehouses were, but I don’t think it happened earlier than about 2005. Here, from Edwards Brothers Malloy, a pioneer in this regard tragically closing their doors this week, is a neat little illustration of why digital printing works.

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In the offset scenario 750 copies are manufactured and paid for. Publishers have long been hung up on the unit cost of production, a number which is often used to in calculating the retail price of the book. But of course the unit cost per copy sold is really the important number; you just don’t happen to know it ahead of time. You may claim that the 350 you hadn’t sold by the end of the 20-month period measured in the EBM scenario will eventually be sold: and so they may, but “eventually” might be a long time, and does come with a cost. Your capital is tied up in slow moving inventory, and you have to keep a warehouse going to house it all. If you don’t print the book till after you’ve received an order, you clearly avoid holding unsold copies in stock, even though each individual copy has cost you more.

BIGNY did a meeting in March, reported on at Book Business Magazine. Perhaps the most important message heard at this meeting relates to the economic difficulties presented by ink jet printing today. Paradoxically a technology which is ideal for shorter and shorter print runs really has an economic model which demands longer runs. The equipment costs a lot, and the per page cost is higher than printers are accustomed to. Maybe, as we have become accustomed to in the era of Moore’s law, both machines, and perhaps most importantly, inks will come down in price. Or perhaps we publishers will get used to paying the economic price for such a convenient technology. Still it’s evident that nobody’s junking their last offset machine just yet.

See also Print on demand.