Book trade on verge of printing revolution

Laser technology makes small `on demand' runs affordable

JR HARTLEY will never again have trouble finding his favourite book, Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. The fictional author from the Yellow Pages advertisement and his real-world counterparts will remain perpetually in print at the click of a mouse, thanks to new "on-demand" printing techniques.

The generation of laser printers being introduced by Rank Xerox and its leading rival, Kodak, are set to make back-list and out-of-print titles a thing of the past. In the process, they will save publishers millions of pounds and transform the economics of the industry.

The latest machines have already carved a niche printing manuals for manufacturers but are now being picked up by mainstream printers, say the makers. Peter Vincent, industry marketing manager for Rank Xerox, says his company sold seven DocuTechs in Britain even before demonstrating them at the Book Fair in London last week. "Five or six publishers have told us thie week that this is going to change the way they do business."

At present, the machines are only economical for print runs of under 1,000 copies, but that is getting close to the typical run of 2,000 that a first-time novelist can expect to see printed. And even if the first run is still done on an offset press, the technology could be used for shorter re-print runs.

The technology is expected to counter the pressures that publishers claim they are under since the collapse of the Net Book Agreement last year. Proponents of the price-fixing cartel claimed it allowed them to subsidise worthy books for small markets by charging more for popular best-sellers. That argument no longer holds when small quantities of any title can be printed profitably.

Although laser printers are considerably slower than offset presses, they gain on flexibility. They print books individually (page one, followed by page two) rather than in large batches (5,000 copies of pages one to 32, followed by 5,000 copies of pages 33 to 64).

Paper moves through both at about the same pace. However, it can take 20 minutes to an hour to set up a press, and the process has to be repeated when a new set of plates are put on. That makes offset more efficient for long runs, and laser printers a bargain on short runs.

The biggest financial gains are to be made on warehousing costs. Publishers order more copies than they expect to sell immediately and store the excess until re-orders begin to flow in. Up to 30 per cent of their annual production could still be gathering dust a year later. "It is a huge sum of money," said Clive Bradley, chief executive of the British Publishers' Association. "Keeping the size of your back list down is a very important part of management."

But with laser printers, five copies of Fly Fishing (ghost written after the character became a TV star) ordered by Dillons in Birmingham could be followed immediately by 20 copies of PD James' new detective novel for WH Smith in Newcastle. The capital would be tied up for days instead of months.

There should also be increased sales. When warehousing space runs short, publishers pulp titles that are not moving quickly. Individuals who go looking for one of those books are told it is out of print and have to search for it in second-hand shops. With laser printers, the title will remain available on demand, and the publishers will retain the copyright. "It can directly affect publishers' current and future revenue streams," said Ralph Bell, managing director of Antony Rowe, one of the first printers to buy a DocuTech.

Niche publishers use the technology because it is easy to amend documents. Equipment manuals can be updated on screen if a glitch is discovered after sales are made. IBM's plant in Copenhagen has 30 Kodak ImageSource printers churning out manuals for computers it sells in Europe.

Proponents argue that the laser printers will eventually, possibly within five years, be set up in book stores, helping retailers to reduce their own stock costs.

However, at pounds 150,000 to pounds 250,000 a unit, they are unlikely to become consumer items.

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