by Cassandra Balentine
Photobooks present a unique opportunity in the digital print space. A consumer-facing application, commercial print providers batch jobs and utilize barcode matching to improve turnarounds, reduce errors, and turn a profit. Digital print engines continue to advance image quality while finishing equipment providers focus on automation.
The culture of photography has dramatically changed in the past decade. Consumers are able to take infinite pictures at their whim and share them with instant gratification. However, this hasn’t necessarily led to the demise of photo printing. In fact, consumers spend hours sorting though images to produce photo merchandise, a market that continually advances with improved software and smartphone camera resolution.
While 2020 has knocked many projections off their tracks, the market for photobooks has proved to be resilient. According to Len Christopher, worldwide NEXFINITY and NexPress product manager, Eastman Kodak Company, for customers specializing in photobooks, demand appears to be steady after some weakness during the first wave of COVID. “In general, demand has been on the increase over the last few years,” he comments.
Living in a Digital World
The demand for photobooks is generated through events associated with gift giving, including cyclical occasions like holidays and birthdays. Additionally, they capture highlights from vacations and other family milestones.
“Photobooks are personal and can serve as a momento, allowing users to experience images physically, rather than just digitally on a screen. Due to its personal touch, photobooks have grown in popularity as they make great gifts that consumers can flip through for years to come,” comments Richard Reamer, senior director, Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Growth in photobooks over the past few years hasn’t been linear. “People are taking and storing pictures digitally every day, and for many, that’s just fine. But the move away from physical media has—kind of ironically—made physical media that much more valuable to certain people. Having that tangible end product, full of memories, is a special feeling that you can’t get from scrolling through a digital album. That trend has accelerated and broadened significantly with stay-at-home mandates,” shares Roger Serrette, Customer Experience Center director, Ricoh USA, Inc.
Djawad Khorosh, CEO, Layflat.com, points out that premium layflat books are also being adopted by corporations, architects, artists, and photographers—as well as consumers—to tell their stories in an impressive way.
The good news is that consumers now have more options than ever for creating their own personalized photobooks. “The continued rise of book-on-demand printing has driven demand among publishers as well because they can be even more strategic with their production,” comments Bob Flinn, director of business development, Standard Finishing Systems.
We cannot ignore the effect of the global pandemic on all industries and markets—including photobook printing.
Kent Dalzell, president, FastbindUSA, admits that due to COVID-19, across the board, photobooks as well as all book markets have decreased as business shuttered and tried to re-open in a sluggish market.
“Since vacations, family milestones, and gatherings are the most popular subjects, photobooks have been stymied by the virus,” notes David Spiel, co-owner, Spiel Associates, Inc.
“This affects the traditional new content and that impacts demand,” adds James Tressler, VP of sales, C.P. Bourg Inc.
Christopher admits that during the first wave of COVID, there was a decline, but volume for this application picked back up on a year-over-year basis.
“The highest volume months for photobooks is October through January for gifts, so we haven’t seen how the economy will impact the application yet as a result,” he notes.
Tressler points out that the demand for photobooks appears to be stable and growing especially in the commonly busy fourth quarter, which we were heading into at press time. “I’ve heard mixed results throughout the COVID-19 period, however the market has become more saturated with providers all outputting outstanding products through numerous online and bricks-and-mortar retailers.”
Carlos Martins, solutions manager, saddle stitching and hardcover production, Muller Martini, explains that COVID-19 has had two opposite effects on photobooks. “On one hand, leisure travel and special occasions have been considerably reduced, and this has lessened photobook production. Conversely, since people are home, they’re finding more time to organize and sort the photos they’ve stored electronically. And, that’s resulted in new opportunities to create photobooks. Both trends will be re-visited in 2021’s ‘new normal’ to see if they’re permanent or temporary.”
Khorosh believes that photobooks are becoming a bifurcated sector, with larger, layflat books utilizing high-quality digital paper and printing or printed on silver halide photo paper, often with a rising average number of pages for repeat customers driving value at the top-end; while ready to use—targeting social media or quick to create, application (app)-based photobooks—are gaining volume traction at the lower cost end of the market.
From the consumer side of the coin, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of social connections, and how strictly virtual versions of them aren’t quite the same. “These days, we have less physical contact with the people we love. Photobooks are a great way for people under stay-at-home mandates to relive vacations with their families, being present with their friends, and sharing life milestones. As humans, we respond really well to seeing and handling our photos. It makes the remembering experience more real,” shares Serette.
From the business side, Serrette points out that many small-to-mid-size commercial printers are looking at new ways to drive business to adapt to the massive shift in demand resulting from COVID-19. “That’s led many print businesses to offer applications they hadn’t in the past, such as photobooks and personalized puzzles. But these additions to the portfolio represent much more than new revenue streams. They’re a way to strengthen and maintain customer relationships. Coming to a long-time customer to say, ‘Hey, we get how hard this moment is, and I’m not trying to push anything, but we recently did a photobook for so-and-so, and they really appreciated it. I’m not sure if that’s something you’re interested in, but we’d love to work with you on it if so.’”
From mobile apps to premium papers and metallic embellishments, several key trends continue to advance the appeal and value of photobooks.
Print finishing specialties like premium paper options and finishes as well as metallic embellishments improve the appeal of photobooks as they offer consumers a high-quality look and feel. “Whether it be something as simple as adding a high-quality sheen to the pages to raising certain text blocks for emphasis, it is an added measure that can help elevate messages and memories to the next level,” comments Reamer.
On the production side, Khorosh believes that advancement of layflat equipment enables printers to manufacture premium books without the need for highly skilled operators. Photobooks are also getting more pages. “As more printers enter this business, competition is keeping prices from rising. Additionally, the choice of covers is expanding, enabling customers who wish to invest the time and money to create unique photobooks.”
“We see growth for our customers in higher end photobooks, as the online retailers garner a large portion of the direct-to-consumer market. Our customers offer custom printed hardcovers and layflat digital paper, which allow them to provide more custom finishes and compete and win against the online retailers,” agrees Dalzell.
In recent years, simplified photobook interfaces and mobile compatibility have made a big impact on the market.
“On the creation side, mobile apps continue to improve, especially with the addition of artificial intelligence (AI), which enables photobooks to be easily created immediately after the photos are taken. Under development is software that permits people to verbally create their photobooks,” says Khorosh.
The biggest impact in recent years has been the simpler photobook interfaces/processes that manufacturer websites have made available to mobile devices. In addition, social media sites as well as picture cloud storage applications have also simple interfaces to manufacturers’ web-based sites to create photobooks,” shares Martins.
Khorosh explains that there are basically two types of photobooks—those without text and those with text. The creation challenge is to be able to tell a story, grouping the events accordingly. “Whereas there was once a 70 percent abandon rate during creation, the arrival of AI has made it possible to create books automatically and very quickly.”
Image quality also plays an important role. “Not only are smartphone cameras better than ever across a wider price range of phones, but there are now an array of cheap—or free—editing apps that let the average consumer create professional-level photos. In addition, consumers now have access to a range of cloud storage solutions, allowing them to store thousands of photos without running out of space on their phones or computers. Some cloud storage services have begun using AI technology to group consumers’ pictures together into automatically generated photo albums, making it easier than ever to create a photobook,” says Flinn.
One issue with ultra-short volume runs is productivity and efficiency. To remain profitable, quality cannot come at the expense of a streamlined workflow. Depending on the cover option, the process can be time consuming.
Companies must learn to become profitable at short-run custom products, which is harder than is sounds. “With the same company in-place processes honed over the years for large complex orders, the in-house overhead per order is relatively high, which can eat up a good portion of the profit on a short-run order. This can be overcome with planning and understanding how to address this internally,” says Dalzell.
“If you consider that most photobook orders are for a run length of one or two copies, the sheer volume of orders in peak periods are a challenge, not just in printing but also in the bindery. Automation is key here so operators aren’t required to set jobs up on the press or report when a specific job is printed, and that the bindery knows how to complete the jobs efficiently,” shares Christopher.
Flinn admits that in the past, finishing was traditionally viewed as a bottleneck because binding and finishing equipment was not designed to handle the book-of-one, custom nature of digital photobooks. “However, this has improved as more automated solutions hit the market and are integrated into the book production. Not only do we now have finishing equipment that can keep up with digital presses, the equipment can easily handle the unique characteristics of photobook production.”
Generally, the construction of a hardcover book is complex. Martins says there are primary processes when making a hardcover book of one. The first is case making/construction that may require certain embellishments and the second is the production of book blocks that are to be finished while being fully variable in content and format. “These separate processes require some semi-manual intervention in order to marry both together to form the finished product,” he shares.
While printing and bookbinding are becoming automated, marking and finishing a variety of covers is still handled separately. “Large scale photobook manufacturers have developed production lines with softcovers and even with some hardcovers. For smaller printers, there are still manual tasks that must be performed. However, more of this production is being automated,” notes Khorosh.
“A softcover photobook can be produced by a perfect binder very quickly. The bottleneck comes when the book needs to be hardcover bound,” emphasizes Spiel. He explains that manual machines can produce between 25 and 200 covers per hour, before they are cased in. Calendars can be punched and/or wire bound at speeds up to 600 books per hour on table-top machinery.
Photobooks are often high-value consumer focused items, and quality is of the utmost importance. It is critical that these high-end products are accurate and durable.
Christopher reiterates the importance of quality, not only in terms of the printed pieces but also in the composition. “Consumers want to show off their work, so badly composed layouts from a template, images that are too small for a group photo, or similar challenges must be addressed.”
“One of the most critical elements of the production of photobooks—or photos in general—is making sure the output matches the input,” comments Serrette.
Image consistency is also essential, “as the same photobook might be reprinted in a couple of weeks, so if there is significant color shift between the two runs, consumers will not be satisfied,” says Christopher.
For photobook production, toner-based digital production technologies are commonly used to produce high-quality results. Further, automated finishing tools support faster turnaround times and aim to reduce errors to improve profitability. Continued advancements in front end software tools and smartphone cameras also propel the demand for photobooks as it becomes easier for consumers to order these products. Tune in to a webinar featuring photobook production. Find more details at dpsmagazine.com. dps
Jan2021, DPS Magazine