by Melissa Donovan
Despite the existence of the web and the many ways to read content online or downloaded onto an eReader or tablet, printed books remain relevant. Two Sides North America, part of the non-profit Two Sides global network, published its 2023 Two Sides Trend Tracker Survey in June and found that consumer demand for printed books, magazines, and catalogs is positively trending.
When asked how they preferred to receive and read various types of media—paper, mobile/tablet, reader, laptop/desktop, or no preference—results showed an increase from 2021 in the preference for paper over digital communication in the book, magazine, newspaper, and catalog categories. Particularly in books, the survey found that 50 percent preferred paper—which was up from 44 percent reported in a 2021 survey.
Evolving interest in printed literature influences how books are produced. Shorter runs, limited editions, even one-off books are efficiently and cost-effectively printed on digital presses and bound with automated finishing systems. “Books are a print application that demonstrate value, relevance, and resilience. Digital printing technology continues to transform book manufacturing by offering print providers and publishers new options to improve efficiency and profitability. While book printers have been producing books on digital presses for some time, innovations in technology are moving more work from offset to digital, improving productivity, and offering new opportunities for products and services,” shares Tonya Powers, director of marketing, Canon Solutions America, Production Print Solutions.
Under the Umbrella Tree
There are a number of ways to breakdown the various segments that fall under the book umbrella.
Bob Flinn, director of business development, Standard Finishing Systems, says that printers and book manufacturers in the U.S. usually group books based on the printed format, finishing system, and run length.
“Printed formats usually fall under two large umbrellas—hardcover and softcover/paperback. A majority of hardcover books fall in a size range of between 6×9 and 8.5×11 inches while softcover/paperback books typically fall under four types—pocket, digest, trade, and board books,” continues Flinn.
For run length, Ray Hillhouse, VP sales and marketing, Plockmatic Group Offline Business Unit, categorizes by short run or even run-of-one, citing vanity publishing and photo books as two examples. “Digital print offers the buyer great options for low quantities of book or booklet products.”
Dividing by genre is another popular option. “There are some segments such as adult trade publications, higher education, children’s, K to 12, and religious, but these categories are broken into further segments, which makes it difficult to really define the book umbrella,” admits Carlos Martins, solutions manager, Muller Martini North America.
“The books category can include a lot of application types, like books, manuals, catalogs, periodicals, journals, kids books, personalized books, textbooks, coffee table books, photo books, and yearbooks,” attests Powers.
Alternatively, Armen Snkhtchianm marketing manager, C.P. Bourg, believes it’s important to consider the book industry in the broadest sense. Ask what can be considered a book today and which formats are standard. “The demand for publications is so diverse that it’s difficult to cover all needs. On demand production of books, and publications of all kinds, is the safest and most competitive option today.”
Out of all the segments, the consensus is adult trade fiction, particularly paperback is the healthiest category.
For example, Stephen Sanker, manager, digital printing, Koenig & Bauer North America, believes growth in softcover book demand comes from books on demand over the last couple/few years and also an increase in trade paperbacks. He expects this to continue as a result of new consumer buyer trends and self publishing.
“For us, working at the low- to mid-range style and quantity of publication, markets continue to expand and grow. Be it one-off photo books, vanity products, or volume publications of several thousand paperback books. There is every reason to imagine the short-run sector to almost continually expand, as costs-per-copy seem to be forever tumbling due to print efficiencies,” states Hillhouse.
Martins notes that coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a big rise and subsequent demand for books in all segments—particularly educational and adult trade. During the pandemic, the personalization market for books, such as photo books and yearbooks, certainly struggled, but is now rebounding as more people travel and schools return back to normal.
Donna Covannon, director, marketing, Xeikon, shares Bookscan data provided by the Book Manufacturers Institute. “Adult fiction shows the most growth opportunity in terms of sales of printed books from 2019 to 2022. Young adult fiction and nonfiction show a slight to moderate year-over-year decline in unit sale of print books. January 2023 year-over-year publishing trends indicate that the largest year-over-year 2022 versus 2023 growth is in adult books; higher education course materials and university presses.”
Overall, “there continues to be a push-and-pull between eBooks and printed books, so we don’t expect positive growth in demand for printed books to continue at a certain level forever. But these past few years have shown us that the book manufacturing industry has a strong foothold and can withstand competition from alternative format,” explains Flinn.
Finishing tools from cutting and folding to binding advance to support digital inkjet for book production. This is seen in all book segments.
“Each book market segment is facing the same market pressure—demand for short runs and book-of-one from established publishers and self-publishers alike. This demand has pushed book manufacturers to incorporate digital inkjet into their workflows for more cost-effective production and has forced manufacturers on the finishing side to develop solutions to keep up,” explains Flinn.
Automated finishing solutions like page integrity, cover book block matching, job tracking, and fulfillment increase efficiency, according to Flinn. Automated setup and changeovers on-the-fly allow a shop to process more jobs with varying page counts and size formats. This is all achieved with fewer touch points and operators.
These intelligent systems, as Martins refers to them, rely less and less on human intervention. They combine processes, allowing data to be shared, which is used to make informed decisions in an instant.
“A good, reliable operator requires years of training before reaching an adequate level of performance, and what’s more, needs continuous training as production technology evolves too. Add to this the human error factor, and publication production automation is essential today if we are to be competitive and guaranteed not to be left behind by technological progress,” suggests Snkhtchianm.
According to Hillhouse a good example of Finishing 4.0 in action is photo book production. Mainly produced in runs of one or two copies, these shorter run lengths make a touchless workflow essential. “The production system needs to be capable of setting itself up automatically for each new product, based on digital job data, and launching production with the absolute minimum of manual intervention. Any changes to the process need to be detected and managed. The aim is to coordinate these three components, ideally enabling a touchless workflow while keeping production costs low, despite shorter runs and an increase in product variety.”
Vision and inspection tools also play a role. “Vision systems are critical to the process and today’s smart factory would not work without them. These intelligent license plates are what drives the automation in finishing equipment,” notes Martins.
“Verification and integrity software can perform sheet, signature, and book block-level tracking as well as cover-to-book block matching. Depending upon the configuration, these systems can reject incomplete book blocks or book blocks with the pages out of order, alerting the operator or even generating a reprint file,” shares Flinn.
Systems driven by barcodes are also used. In the instance of finishing, a barcode can provide instructions for equipment to follow, sending a digitally printed job to the correct unit, which leads to greater efficiencies, notes Hillhouse.
“For the increases we see along with the new trends toward reducing labor and increasing automation, fully finished books via digital press production are getting attention. Our focus is to provide this type of fully integrated solution via a digital inkjet web printing machine. With this solution we are able to fully integrate with finishing systems to produce a finished book,” shares Sanker.
Room for Improvement
Despite advancements in the overall book manufacturing process, there are still areas that could improve. Tools are being developed to target these issues.
As a whole, the top challenges—as with any other part of the print industry—continue to be “labor; paper/supply chain related; sustainability; inflation; and general economic uncertainty,” shares Covannon. Automation addresses all of this, reducing labor and supply chain issues.
“Communicating and integrating solutions from different manufacturers remains a real challenge in the industry. While we increasingly emphasize flexibility and automation in publication production, it is crucial to offer customers a clear evolution path, enabling them to integrate machines from different producers into their solution,” shares Snkhtchianm.
Flinn notes one area with room for improvement is streamlining hardcover—case bound—book production. “The casing-in process has traditionally been an entirely separate step in book production, and while greater automation has improved the casing-in process for longer production runs, short-run and book-of-one have remained manual processes. Fortunately, there are new solutions arriving on the market that can streamline the process and reduce the costs associated with short-run hardcover book binding.”
Other inefficiencies in hardcover book production revolve around “the complexity of producing covers with embellishments and then matching the content to the required text block to produce book-of-one. However, smart systems are being developed with smart sortation devices and robotics to combine content so it can be finished more efficiently,” says Martins.
In terms of softcover books, Martins believes there are no challenges that need to be addressed. “Standardization on format size and using intelligent finishing equipment to finish and trim to size already exists and works well. Producing book-of-one with intelligent workflow to manage cover print and sequencing is easily managed. Many successful production lines are running from blank roll of paper to a finished, one-off book.”
Open and Shut
While digital inkjet technology and finishing solutions manage to keep pace and react to the demands of consumers, there are other external factors at play.
“The industry as a whole is moving in a positive direction, but there are still ongoing concerns about paper and labor shortages. Digital workflows and higher degrees of automation have relieved some of the burden of the labor shortage, but book manufacturers need to get creative to handle the paper shortage as demand increases. It will be interesting to see how the industry adapts going forward,” notes Flinn.
Of course, there is no reason to think the industry as whole won’t succeed in moving past these challenges. “Book printers were early adopters of digital printing and production inkjet. Much of the early growth in production inkjet volume was in the printing of monochrome book blocks. The next phase for digital book production is sheetfed inkjet presses that can affordably produce high-quality monochrome and color work on a variety of substrates,” foresees Powers.
Sep2023, DPS Magazine