The Bookmakers; Selecting Printers Explained

Printing Press Heidelberg Speedmaster 106Without it we’d have nothing to curl up in bed with, even after all the hard work of publishers. Printing is one of the most important parts of the process, and one you certainly want to get right. Drew Turney finds out what’s impacting on the industry’s choices, and how they deal with them.

After six centuries in operation, you’d think the printing industry would be easier to pin down. Unfortunately, there’s a much older force – economics – that keeps printers in a constant state of flux, subject to the financial bloodletting, hostile (at times ugly) takeovers, hints of corporate corruption and old-fashioned competition that affect every industry.

As more and more of the services publishers employ to produce their wares are outsourced, book publishing becomes more a management than a production activity. Aside from fields that have long been outsourced like printing, so many other aspects of the process are handed on to contractors that it can be said today’s publisher merely makes decisions on others’ work.

It’s not unusual for a publisher to deal with external editors (both for vetting manuscripts and polishing them), designers, typesetters, publicists and digital archivists – Melbourne’s TypeFactory is one such operation that offers in-house version control and archiving to book publishers.

So one of the most important parts of a publisher’s job is assembling the best services for each step in the process. The service that actually creates the object we hold in our hands ‘ printing ‘ is one of the oldest crafts in publishing, but one of the most likely to keep publishers on their toes.

New Choices

Aspiring authors hear it all the time; things are difficult in the industry right now, publishers and closing their lists, profits are down, fewer new authors are being published. The ever-tantalising promise that if you’d started trying five years before you might have stood a chance haunts us all, but publishers suffer the same ever-diminishing freedoms.

We all know there used to be more players and they had more freedom to take risks, but business is all about aversion to risk, and the global media conglomerates who own most of the commercial publishing industry don’t like to operate by releasing low-key media properties across a single region and hoping for the best.

But while authors are increasingly locked out and Mr Brown and Ms Rowling vacuum up every cent of profit the industry generates, publishers are in much the same boat. Ten years ago their wide range of financially healthy printers told them about this great new thing called computer to plate which would mean the end of film costs, and that was the most difficult choice they had to make.

Digital, short run, print on demand and outsourcing offshore are giving publishing exciting new opportunities, but as in most industries, the bloodbath of consolidation that swept through printing in the late 1990s meant publishers had fewer providers – many of which are far more interested in Big W catalogues and similarly profitable work.

Over the Horizon

And it’s showing. Despite the print-on-demand predictions of publishing futurists like Jason Epstein, the biggest change (which would probably surprise some booksellers and certainly consumers) is that an average of around between 20% of books published by Australian publishers are printed overseas (including virtually all full colour work).

The question is why? Taking extended delivery times, the inconvenience of not being able to run down to the printer to check proofs and adding another link in the chain in the form of a local agent or representative, there must be something attractive about it. As you’d expect, it comes mainly down to the bottom line. “The price can be 30-50% lower than local printers,” says Lionel Marz, the local representative for Hong Kong-based Everbest.

And while there are plenty of Buy Australian pundits around who wouldn’t like so much of our publishing output going overseas, it’s the commercial reality, as Lou Playfair, production manager at Allen & Unwin, agrees. “I imagine the offshoring sceptics are not the people who actually bear the extra cost in production in the end,” Playfair says. “If pricing and quality are comparable between a local and overseas printer for a given title – including the shipping – we’d enthusiastically print locally. I can’t imagine any Australian publisher actually wants to print overseas, it’s logistically more difficult.”

If overseas printers – particularly those in emerging economies like China are one of the new best friends of Australian publishers (see sidebar China: Where it’s at?), the other must surely be digital printing.


Nobody likes returns. It’s bad for the environment, bad for business and bad for the tenuous grip the publishing industry has on artistic freedom. Digital printing’s saving grace for publishing was promised to be twofold.

The first was Print on Demand, which foretold onsite machinery found everywhere from print shops to shopping centres where you could swipe your ATM card, order a book that was long out of print, and wait for 20 or so minutes for it.

While the meeting point between the outlay for such machinery (up to $100,000 per unit) and the demand for obscure, out of print works seems a long way off, short run printing is a reality.

What makes better financial sense; print 10,000 copies of a book, then realise when you’ve sold 5,000 that nobody’s buying it anymore? Or printing 2,000 at a time until demand drops away? The latter scenario is the promise of digital. An added bonus is that it doesn’t take nearly as long as offset (traditional) printing. The downside is the quality’s not as good.

But digital already has a place in Australian publishing. It’s immediacy means it’s great for producing promotional or other materials besides books, but it does manage to slot nicely into the book making process as well, and it can only increase. “We’re looking into short run,” says Jill Donald, production manager at HarperCollins, “but price has always been the biggest restriction. As printers invest in technology in the area we’ll get closer to it being a viable option.”

Allen & Unwin’s Lou Playfair agrees. “Five percent goes to digital printers but this area is definitely growing,” she says. “Apart from promotional material we only use digital printing for reprints. With the spreading knowledge that digital printing is faster, the decision to reprint is being made later to reduce risk. This Christmas (2005) we noted that booksellers were ordering books much later, so there’s a general last-minute decision making process in the book industry now.”

Richard Celarc, general manager of specialist book printer Ligare, has seen the changes from his side of the fence too. He acknowledges canny printers have to stay on top of such changes, especially to stay ahead of publishers who know their stuff. “The main pressure on short run digital work is coming from particular publishers for particular markets,” Celarc says. “Publishers these days are very attuned to where digital prints fits. It’s still not the same quality as offset, but it’s a lot closer than it was 10 years ago. Publishers realise this and select the best quality and price according to the market the title is headed for.”

But there’s more to digital printing. Just like the Print on Demand machines were supposed to address the fabled long tail of the market (where much more is available than just recent releases in a given media because of the budgetary constraints of maintaining and offering backlist assets for sale), digital may well be a factor in that particular mother lode to readers of obscure out of print work. It’s a possibility publishers will have to factor into their choice of printing suppliers more and more.

“The titles we’re printing digitally are out of print, so they’re additional business for us,” says Greg Brown, national sales manager of McPhersons, one of Australia’s two major book publishers. “It could even lead to a particular title coming back into favour and going back into conventional print. It’s additional business when you can sell quantities or titles into markets not currently accessible.”

In short, publishers ignore all the jargon about digital print at their peril.

So many printers!

Nobody disagrees competition is good, and there’s still some healthy competition in Australian book printing (at least, that’s what our faith in economics dictates).

So printers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are less interested in books than more profitable works, some print only books (a further small few do the lot ‘ from pre-press to binding and everything in between).

Theoretically any printer can print a book, but it’s not just an unskilled factory worker slapping some paper in a sheet feeder. “We consider ourselves experts in our field as we’ve spent years fine tuning and honing the business to suit a particular product,” says Ligare’s Richard Celarc. Describing Ligare as ‘the only serious book printer in Sydney’, he might be right. As Ligare’s website says “We consider ourselves to be a one stop shop in that customers supply files for production, and all processes from pre-press to printing, folding, collating, sewing and binding are performed on our premises at Riverwood.”

It’s also a philosophy that means more than fluffy PR for a company brochure. While Celarc admits Ligare isn’t ‘necessarily always the cheapest’, he does claim an edge; “[Having everything under one roof] does offer a cost saving,” he says. “It makes us more competitive with overseas printers.”

Publishers themselves have a varied approach. On one hand, having a range of providers means you can call on the strengths of one according to the project at hand or take advantage of places in their schedule. But it also spreads your spending around, leaving you with less ammunition to ask for good rates or favours when the time comes, or even develop relationships as fully as when you’re using fewer services.

To Jill Donald of HarperCollins, the triple bottom line is the key. “I have deliberately reduced the stable of printers we use,” she reports. “It’s the only way to ensure quality, price and turnaround. If you use too many printers, it makes it somewhat hard to negotiate better service and price.”

“We do stick to a ‘stable’ of printers,” agrees Janine Drakeford of UWA Press, “but we use them depending on the project. For childrens’ 32 page picture books we go offshore with Everbest, but for web printing like novels we print with McPhersons.” By contrast, Allen & Unwin use any of six local and eleven overseas printers depending on the project, according to production manager Lou Playfair.

So as long as tight turnaround times and the increasing downward pressure on margins continue, Australian publishers seem unlikely to abandon the relationships and expectations of speed they have with local printers in favour of the more obtuse, short-term cost savings offered by overseas printers.

The answer

So with a dizzying array of choices facing production managers at publishing houses, how do they choose? It’s far more positive than it sounds, as new technology, new supplier markets and new choices open the scope of a publisher to reach an audience even wider.

Smart publishers will maximise the choices laid out in front of them by the advances in printing to select the best options for each project. Does the schedule allow you a little breathing room? Your printer doesn’t have to be down the street, nor does it matter if they have a lot of other work on.

Do you need to start out small but be ready for a surge in demand for a no-frills title? Digital is more expensive but the reduction in returns can justify the extra. Do you suddenly realise a cult market for a little-known author that doesn’t justify a traditional offset print run? Before digital printing it would have stayed on the dusty shelf of your backlist.

Is it a full colour job? Emerging markets across Asia are offering a very good argument to ease the strain on your budget – the theory is the book will cost less on the stand, and that can only be good. Or maybe you have a raft of promotional materials that have to be done fast and cheap? 10 or 15 years ago you might have had to let it pass.

After everything from the Playstation to the GST has attacked books over the last few years, the whole industry (from the author right through to the reader) could do with a few lifelines. More freedom in printing could be one of them.