Ahead to the 19th century!
Why publishers are thinking about printing their own books
Welcome to the 127th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:
I had a serious conversation with another publisher this week about the need for publishers to start printing their own books.
Those familiar with publishing history will know that from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, most publishers printed their own books. Ownership of a press, as much as anything, was what made a publisher a publisher. In the course of the twentieth century, it was decided that publishing books and printing books were different businesses. Virtually all publishers outsourced their printing to high-volume printing specialists who were constantly upgrading their equipment, and who, theoretically, at least, were better, faster, and cheaper than in-house printing operations.
Virtually all. The odd publisher still owns a press. It’s like rolling your own when everyone else has quit smoking. Tim Inkster’s The Porcupine’s Quill (below), Stan Bevington’s Coach House Books in Toronto, and the Gaspereau guys in Nova Scotia print their own books using a combination of modern digital technology and semi-ancient offset presses and binding machines. They are known in the community as artisanal publishers. Great craftsmen, fiercely independent, meticulous, stubborn, a dash cranky (so I’m told—I’ve only met Tim), and they produce beautiful books.
The only downside to artisanal publishing is that it is difficult to scale. Porcupine’s Quill does about eight books a year (Gaspereau does the same and Coach House seems to do about twice that), most in press runs numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Again, they are fine books, sometimes award-winning books, but printing them is grueling work—I’ve watched Tim in his shop. Producing relatively small batches of a relatively small number of titles a year is a full-time job. I envy those who can do it but I don’t have the inclination, the aptitude, or the patience. You can see some of Tim’s work here.
Apart from that handful of artisans, today’s book publisher can no more operate a printing press than a backhoe. He or she outsources printing to specialists on a project-by-project basis.
The options for large-scale quality printing are increasingly scarce, thanks to a lot of consolidation in the printing business. Smaller shops (like the artisans) only do paperbacks; hardcovers require a lot of expensive binding equipment. If a publisher wants a big run of a hardcover title, the most likely printers are the industry giants: R.R. Donnelley (above) or CJK Group in the US; Friesens and Marquis in Canada. These companies all use huge offset web presses that are big as gymnasiums and only economically efficient at higher quantities (i.e., in the thousands). The technology involves metal plates and rubber mats and massive rolls of paper (if you’re interested, read more here) and the quality is first rate.
I should have said that the only options for a big run of hardcovers in Canada are Friesens in Altona, Manitoba and Marquis in Montmagny, Quebec. There are no hardcover printing options in Ontario, where so many publishers are concentrated (although Marquis does have a plant in Toronto).
As far as Sutherland House is concerned, Friesens (below) is the only Canadian option. It is reasonably priced and second-to-none for quality. Marquis doesn’t compete with American printers on price, even with the relatively cheap Canadian dollar, and I find its quality less impressive.
For a big run (thousands) of paperbacks, Friesens is again the preferred choice of most Canadian publishers, although here there are other good options, such as Houghton Boston in Saskatoon.
For shorter runs, publishers are sometimes now turning to digital printers such as Hume in Toronto. Digital presses use dot matrix technology, like a lot of desktop printers, although the quality is better. Not as fine as offset printing—it’s rather like comparing CDs to vinyl—but most people (even most people in publishing) wouldn’t immediately notice the difference. The digital guys tend to print in shorter runs, from 100 to 1,000 books.
The reason publishers are now talking about doing their own printing is that it is increasingly difficult to get time on any kind of press. Friesens, when Sutherland House started a few years ago, could usually do a job for us in eight weeks. There were seasons—the dead of winter, the height of summer—when they could deliver even faster and we’d get a discount because their presses weren’t especially busy. COVID-19 changed all that.
People have been buying more books during the pandemic, and publishers have been printing more. Friesens is now fully booked six to eight months out; its fall 2022 schedule is already crowded. The US printers we use as alternatives to Friesens are similarly backed up.
It’s making the decision to print in hardcover hazardous. It used to be that if you printed a few thousand copies of a new book in hardcover and it was in danger of selling out, you could get back on press in six to eight weeks, maybe less, and continue to fill orders. Now, if that original press run is selling fast, you might have to wait six to eight months to print a second edition. You’ll be out-of-print for most of that time, and all momentum will be lost. Some publishers are thus moving immediately to digital paperback formats (none of the digital printers have hardcover binderies) for their second editions, even if it’s only weeks into a book’s life. There is more availability at digital printers, so resorting to the digital paperback format allows you to keep your momentum.
The digital option can be a lifesaver, but it is far from perfect. Digital printing tends to be more expensive because the press runs are shorter. A short run of a digital paperback can cost more than $5 a book, while a long run of a hardcover on an offset press can come in under $5 per copy. And if you need more than a few hundred books, you’ll still have to wait several weeks, or more, to get them from a digital printer. We’ve had to use multiple digital printers to get 5,000 copies of a single book in a tight time frame.
So you can see the advantage of stepping back to the nineteenth century and owning your own press. You would have immediate access to it. You could run off 5,000 copies of your hottest selling book in days. You would get those books at cost.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of press ownership would be the elimination of the overshoot. Publishers who outsource their printing usually order the highest number of copies they think they’ll need over the lifetime of the book because, generally speaking, the more you order, the lower the cost per copy. But estimating the number of copies you’ll need over the lifetime of the book is a mug’s game. You’re making your guess before the book has met the reading public, and you can easily wind up with thousands of extra books collecting dust in your warehouse. If you own a press, you can always estimate conservatively and avoid a lot of overshoots. It’s almost like printing on demand, so you’ll need less warehouse space, too.
Rapid improvements in digital presses over the last couple of decades make ownership still more enticing. Companies KonicaMinolta, Canon, HP (that’s one of their biggest models below), and Kodak are building inkjet web presses that offer “offset-class quality.” (Web presses use rolls of paper, unlike sheet-fed printers).
Again, if we’re being honest, these machines don’t match offset quality. They’re close, however, and the additional quality gained from offset matters a lot less when offset presses are booked until next autumn.
The new digital presses are fast, reliable, and relatively inexpensive to operate. They can handle more volume, with a lot less work, than artisanal offset presses (which you can buy used for under $20,000). And they are nowhere near as expensive as big offset web presses, which can cost between $50 and $100 million. A good digital web press can be had for $100,000-$200,000. A used one for half that. While they are not as easy to operate as photocopiers (contrary to claims in some of the brochures I’ve seen), they don’t require a multi-year apprenticeship, either. At twenty-to-thirty-five feet in length, they need space, but not a gymnasium.
It wouldn’t make sense for a small publisher like Sutherland House to buy its own digital press but some of the larger independent houses in Canada produce between fifty and a hundred books a year and spend $1 million a year on printing. That higher number of books compounds the frustrations generated by the prevailing limitations on press availability. It may make sense for one of them, or a consortium of them, to take the plunge. It is now being researched in some quarters.
Press manufacturers see the opportunity. Their marketing is increasingly geared to publishers rather than professional printers, as you can see on the Ricoh USA site. To assuage concerns about quality, they note that Penguin Random House is using digital presses for some of its titles (Hachette is publishing 20% of its list on digital). They enumerate the advantages and conveniences of digital printing, issue press releases every time they convert a book publisher, and insist that digital is the future.
That last point is arguable. It’s not difficult to imagine all the supply chain kinks being ironed out in the next twelve months and post-COVID reading habits returning to the lower level of pre-COVID reading habits. The big offset printing companies would suddenly be sitting with a surplus of capacity. Do the advantages of press ownership evaporate in that environment? Or are they sufficiently reduced that publishers choose to avoid the headaches of operating and maintaining their own presses and buying their own paper (without the discounts the big printers get)? Those questions require a lot of thought.
In any event, digital presses are not going away. They already make a lot of sense for books with shorter press runs, and for reprints. And the technology will continue to advance, likely making longer runs possible. They’ll at least be part of the future.
Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)
Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.
Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.
Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff
Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics
Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.
Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.
Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)
Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different
Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion
Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world
Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations
Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice
John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations
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