Books Printing on demand: a solution for the future for the publishing sector?

The Spanish publishing sector is currently experiencing a time of paradoxical contrasts

Books Printing on demand: a solution for the future for the publishing sector?

The Spanish publishing sector is currently experiencing a time of paradoxical contrasts. Although the caution caused by the pandemic has left unthinkably good figures -according to data from the Gfk consultancy in 2021 and 2022 industry sales have grown by 24.6%, reaching 1,100 million euros each year, the best data since the crisis-, inflation and the increase in the cost of paper and storage have led to an increase in the production cost of the book, which implies the readjustment of the margins and some price increase, slower reprints... As he stated a few months ago Luis Hedo, printer of the Gómez Aparicio Group, one of the largest in Spain: "Paper rose by 60%. From around 800 or 900 euros to 1,600 per tonne."

Although the costs have been stabilizing these months, the sector does not stop exploring ways to improve the profitability of a key element such as printing. Especially when the figures -again from Gfk- indicate that in 2022 the book sales of the publishing fund exceeded 50% of the market in all genres and remain at an average of 68%. As a possible solution to this task of putting the funds in value and improving the process, the so-called printing on demand stands out, a type of digital printing -as opposed to the traditional manual one, called offset- which, according to its defenders, allows reducing costs of production, storage (another expense that has increased brutally) and return, by making smaller runs and adjusted to the market.

It is not a new debate. The advantages of printing on demand have been weighed up since 2011 (another time of crisis that did have an impact on sales at the time), even in its most radical version of printing 1x1, that is, each book ordered instead of making short runs, which It is the system that seems to fit the most with the logistic and commercial reality of the sector; but then the difference in quality was much greater. Now, when technology visibly improves, it may be time for a new try.

This is firmly believed by Víctor Trillo, general director of Liberdúplex, one of the largest printers in our country with a volume of 35,000 copies per year that, making the idea of ​​promoting investment in digital technology to continue making paper books a flagship, has inaugurated last November a new digital printing plant that has cost 13 million euros. "It is something that the sector demands. We have spent many years in which the average print run has been falling, now it will be around 3,700 total copies, which in offset is very expensive and slow. Digital printing allows shorter and faster prints, and quality is no longer in question, as it was in the beginning. We were very clear that the day we offered this technology it had to be at the same quality level as offset, and today it is like that. If we don't tell you that one of our books are digital, you don't notice the difference", he defends.

One more step that they intend in Liberdúplex is to integrate the computer systems of the printing press with those of the publishers, "so that when they send us the orders they already enter the system and go directly to the factory. In other words, that the printing process is either automatic as soon as it is detected that there are few copies of a title", points out the printer, who assures that both models will coexist. "We will continue to make large runs in offset, of course, but there will be more and more digital. In 5 years I estimate that 50% of printing machines will be digital, because the quality is increasingly even and the costs are lower."

However, despite this optimism from printers and large groups, a good part of the publishing sector is still refractory to this type of printing. His motive: quality. This is how Enrique Redel, from Impedimenta, defends it: "The type of book that we make has production characteristics that make it extremely difficult for digital printing to come out well. In other words, the digital model works very well for a certain standard book, with a matte cover , simple, like those of Random, Nórdica, Anagrama or Seix Barral, for example", he points out. "Yes we have tried in Latin America, but we are not convinced." Nor does it pay off when it comes to reprinting: "The minimum we throw is 1,000 copies, the minimum the market asks me for, so it doesn't compensate us. That's why we have a very long line of reprints, because we have to see the opportunity of market to make them".

Going into more detail on what pure print-on-demand would be, that of the single copy requested by a reader, Redel recalls that the result is "terrible, for which reason nobody does it in Spain". Luis Solano, from Libros del Asteroide, had a similar experience, who in his day carried out a book-to-book printing experiment in the United States, and "what the client received at home was similar to our books, but it did not have flaps, the paper was worse and shiny... The books we make cannot be produced like this. This book-by-book system does not solve anything for Spanish literary publishers, who take great care of production".

He also believes that the digital model is not for his publisher, since the colored covers made in pure pantone and the stitched books that Asteroide makes are not compatible with this system. "You have to bet on a catalog that can be sold, that you can run print runs of at least 500 books. At the moment we have a catalog of just over 300, so storing 100 copies of each one is not very difficult."

The publishing house Páginas de Espuma has a much larger fund, but its editor Juan Casamayor has resolved, at least, the storage part. "In 2009 we bought a 4,000-cubic-meter industrial warehouse to save that cost. I saw what it was going to mean for me to keep a growing stock and, after all, it was profitable," he explains. In his case, he does use digital printing, but he defends that "minimally powerful circulations must be made so that the books are visible and successful promotions can be made in the press. We move at least 2,000 launch copies, we do not want to enter into the game of making small print runs, the minimum reprint is 1,000 books".

A particular element in his case is the large distribution network that he has in Latin America, where he prints, with the same criteria as the Spanish, in Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Bolivia. That is why he thinks that making small print runs would be "sabotaging our own work, that of the distributors, the commercial and marketing network that are in charge of distributing our books in different Latin American countries. Printing book by book on demand or making minimal print runs would be bombarding our own waterline, therefore it is also a model that does not interest us at all", he sums up.

A new front in the debate opens Rubén Hernández, from Errata Naturae, who, in addition to returning to the question of quality, which he describes as "mediocre", adduces another key factor: sustainability. "Although one may think that it is more sustainable, because only what is needed is produced, the materials are not very sustainable," he reveals. «The paper mills in Spain refuse to give the consumption data they generate to obtain the paper, it is not known how many liters of water they spend or what the real footprint is, the CO2 emissions per kilo of paper. Our paper has 75% less CO2 consumption than the average offered by the union of paper mills and printers in Spain, so digital printing is not an option."

"There is a part of the sustainability of this system that is true, that it limits overproduction, but the digital printing scheme, to the extent that it uses materials and processes that do not meet sustainable criteria, loses that advantage", nuances. "It happens as with the ebook, which we do not publish for the same reason. The emissions generated by producing a digital reading device, according to a study by the University of California, are only offset by paper production if 128 books are read per year for 7 years. If not, it contaminates the ebook more. With this type of printing the same thing happens. Perhaps the process will improve technically in the future, but for us currently it is not viable".

Where it has succeeded for a long time, not only digital printing but also the 1x1 model, is in the world of desktop publishing. As Alberto Cerezuela, founder of Círculo Rojo, the largest publisher in this field in Spain, assures. "We are firm supporters of digital printing and making as few copies as possible (the average is 300 copies), because that avoids costs for the author and also storage problems. And we also try to get bookstores used to working on request. Since all the books cannot be displayed, we offer the possibility of ordering copies one by one in the catalog and for the reader to receive it in 48 or 72 hours," he explains.

But beyond the advantages offered by the model for self-published authors, many of whom reach thousands of copies in reprints, Cerezuela believes that a sector is heading towards it in which "overproduction is evident. We know that there are warehouses with thousands and thousands of books collecting dust. In countries like the United States, it is already common for bookstores to have catalogs on demand. I think the future is there." We will see if, finally, the different print-on-demand models coexist or if another period of alarm will be needed in a sector that, yes, has a lot to celebrate.

In 2021, the sale of print-on-demand books grew by 665% in Spanish, according to the first Print-on-Demand Report published by Bibliomanager, the main international distributor and printer of this book model, which operates in Spain, Portugal , Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States. More than 143,800 copies were sold through the platform alone, 130,000 of which were sold by Spanish publishers.

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