Leading Book Manufacturers Explain Why This Market Is a Bestseller
Steve Johnson got his start in publishing at the age of 15 mopping floors before transitioning to the company’s in-plant printshop. His love for the craft was genuine, pure and immediate. So, when management offered to train him, he jumped at the chance to learn the trade that would keep him employed for a lifetime. He dabbled in platemaking, darkroom work and stripping—careers that, ironically, no longer exist. He managed the entire printing and binding operations by his 18th birthday, and now heads Copresco, a digital on-demand printer of books, manuals, publications and catalogs.
The president of the Carol Stream, Illinois-based supplier has seen a lot over his company’s almost 33-year history. There is one scenario, however, that repeats itself on a regular basis. An author or publisher schedules a book signing event. Roughly a month beforehand, they’ve ordered the first run or advance copies from a nationally known book printer. Fast forward to the week of the event. “Where are the advance copies?” they wonder. They’re told that the printer is behind schedule and can’t turn the project around. Panic sets in.
The author or publisher then calls the distributor that handles their business printing, who, in turn, calls their regular sources. “Sorry, we can’t help,” they say. “We think we know someone who can, though.” According to Johnson, that someone is him.
“By now, we have perhaps three days to turn the project [around from] start to finish, including delivery somewhere across the country,” Johnson noted. “Can we do it? Of course we can, and we do. It is a wonderful feeling not only to save the day, but also to have earned the credibility to gain referrals from others in our industry.”
But these aren’t normal times. There are no in-person events right now. Orders have slowed for industries across the board, and like the broader U.S. economy, the commercial printing industry has not dodged the COVID-19 crisis.
Another Illinois-based book printer, Total Printing Systems (TPS), is located just a few hours away in the city of Newton. Established in 1973, TPS is a family-owned business now owned by president Rick Lindemann, son of founders Rich and Wendy Lindemann. The company specializes in short-run and micro-run book manufacturing, producing books in quantities ranging from one to 10,000, and prides itself on being the first book manufacturer to install an inkjet web press for interior book production in 2001, replacing its offset equipment. Its customers include self-publishers, trade book publishers, religious publishers, education publishers, university presses, government, manufacturing, brokers/distributors and the insurance industry.
Lindemann hasn’t lost sight of the fact that these customers are struggling. For TPS, the resulting trouble peaked in the spring.
“April and May of 2020 were the two worst months we’ve had in my recollection,” he admitted. “April was down 26% from last year and May was down 40%. Many customers were still trying to figure out how to process orders remotely, and many had concerns about their inventory levels and how the shutdown would affect demand for their products.”
The news hasn’t been uniformly grim. Lindemann became hopeful in June when orders started to pick up, particularly in the home school publishing market. Children’s books, with a square trim size, are also popular, he said.
Investing in the Future
Despite decades of electronic experiences, there is still value in the printed word. According to Harvard Business Review, catalog mailings, for example, have been steadily climbing since 2015, with response rates having jumped by 170% from 2004 to 2018—and not just among “digital laggards.” Turns out millennials like more than avocado toast. Studies from the Data & Marketing Association have shown that the response rate for catalogs among this age demographic has increased in recent years in part because less mail is being sent and millennials are engaged by the imagery these products provide.
“The days when printers were archrivals are gone,” Johnson remarked. “All book manufacturers and print distributors have an obligation to promote the value of print. Our real competitors are the cloud, not even so much e-books, but the general perception that there is no need for professional design, layout, typography, printing and binding when we can just post text on the internet ‘for free.’”
Lindemann agreed, citing increased reading retention and advancements in turnaround times as additional benefits of print.
“With automatic makereadies and the speed of the latest print and binding technologies, turnaround times have gotten much better than in the past, so carrying a bare minimum inventory level on physical products is now more possible than ever,” Lindemann, who recently joined the Two Sides pro-print movement, maintained. “The main focus for many distributors when it comes to new opportunities has been with e-books and other digital formats, but incorporating print into those sales efforts is a vital component for many product types, specifically when reading retention is important.”
Always striving to provide better quality and fast turnarounds, TPS invests heavily in the latest technology from both printing and bindery manufacturers. Purchases have included a Muller Martini SigmaTrimming Center and Vareo PUR perfect binding lines, and, in 2019, a Canon ProStream 1000 series—the latter of which has made the company competitive in the higher-end, photo-intensive book markets, like yearbooks, some children’s books, magazines and catalogs.
Many factors went into choosing the four-color, web-fed inkjet solution, but, longevity played a role in Lindemann’s thought process. In other words, was there a press that wouldn’t have to be replaced in 10 years? He went on to explain other considerations.
“In the past, if you were looking to produce a higher-end, coffee-table-style book with heavy coverage, you would have needed to avoid inkjet printing,” Lindemann said. “Depending on the technology being used, in many instances, that’s still the case. With the installation of our ProStream, we’ve been able to meet the expectations [of such] markets. This press, [which prints on commodity-grade offset coated and uncoated papers], prints at 1200x1200 dpi, just like many of the higher-end toner devices on the market today.
“It’s best, in many instances, for customers to preview sample output from manufacturers who utilize inkjet printing,” he added. “There is a wide range of quality levels in the market today and many of the earlier models are not suitable for higher-end applications in today’s market.”
At Copresco, adding and tweaking its workflow to better accommodate clients is an ongoing and never-ending project. Johnson pointed to the company’s overnight printing and binding as strengths, noting that bottlenecks are more likely to occur on the front end, in preflighting, proofing and last-second alterations on the part of the customer.
Then, there’s the back end. “A project isn’t finished when it is bound; it needs to be in the hands of the end-user,” Johnson said. “Our fulfillment and distribution services can really give our customers a competitive advantage. We are always striving for better integration with carriers.”
Printing a book is a major project. As Johnson mentioned, it isn’t like “banging out a business card or a party invitation in Microsoft Word.” Appearance and readability arguably are as important as content. For these reasons, distributors must involve professionals from the beginning, not just for cover design (though soft-touch film lamination sure can make artwork pop), but for layout, typesetting and formatting.
Johnson stressed the importance of going beyond mechanical specs and uncovering the client’s objectives. Treating books as commodity commercial print jobs is shortsighted on the distributor’s part, yet it’s a mistake that Johnson sees often. The more information distributors give about the end-use, the more Copresco can help drive down “hidden” costs.
For example, is its purpose a one-time use, or does the item need to last forever or for a fixed time? The answer, Johnson said, will raise new questions about binding durability, paper quality and colorfastness, and affect cost. Furthermore, will individual copies of the book be drop-shipped? If so, weight is a consideration, especially if shipping will be international or overnight.
This brings us to Johnson’s next piece of advice for distributors: upsell.
“If a distributor gives us specs, for say, 32 pages saddle bound, all four color, plus four-page cover, with no further description, all we can do is give him a price,” he said. “Now, if we are told those specifications are for an annual report, we can suggest product-specific enhancements to add value, such as cover embellishments or switching to perfect binding. On the other hand, if we know those specs are for a calendar, the options just mentioned are completely inappropriate. Instead, we might suggest substituting double-wire binding with a hanger and notch-cutting.”
Lindemann shared three final tips for distributors to put into action:
- Learn about the manufacturing process. Even better if distributors know the various binding types that are available.
- Remember that all substrates are not created equal. Distributors should review their options in order to make an informed decision for the desired outcome.
- Research supplier partners. Any printer can buy a perfect binder, but not every printer can print a book well. Years of experience in book manufacturing make a difference in the overall quality of the final product.