Briefing: Are SME printers being priced out of the books market?

While inkjet may be hailed as the saviour of book printing, small printers argue that the high cost of entry means they can't afford to compete

The UK book printing sector appears to be headed for further consolidation as the entry cost of high-speed inkjet web technology creates a ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ divide across the industry.

Printers at last week’s Interquest London Digital Book Printing Forum, held at the Royal Society, hailed the rise of inkjet technology, but warned that the multimillion-pound cost of Kodak’s Prosper and HP’s T series presses risked polarising the sector, as only the biggest players would be able to afford them.

Mark Jones, sales director of Ashford Colour Press, which specialises in printing educational books and training manuals and has a turnover of around £11m, described the inkjet innovations as "revolutionary" and "incredibly exciting", but argued that the cost was prohibitive for SMEs like Ashford.

He said: "We do eventually want to invest, but we can’t afford to get the purchase wrong. Bigger firms, such as Clays, can afford to be early innovators and that leaves companies like us in a difficult position. We have to invest when the timing is right."

Meanwhile, representatives from UK publishers said their businesses were evolving into content providers rather than book publishers as they seek to embrace new technology and develop applications and e-books for electronic devices. 

Louise Cameron, production director at Continuum International, an academic publisher with a turnover of £11m, said: "If we focused only on books we would be signing our own death warrant." Continuum has recently adopted a print-on-demand strategy and has reduced print runs for all of its new products.

Cameron added: "Over the past few years the number of titles we have available via print-on-demand has increased from none to 2,500. The number of reprints that we order has also increased significantly. In the future I think we will see a further reduction in print runs, as companies try to be more precise, and less  stock held in warehouses."

Content providers
Keynote speaker Marion Desmartin, from OECD Publishing, which produces books on public policy and economics, said that her company has adopted a print-on-demand model and that it has developed an online library where their customers can find the information that they want and print it for themselves. She explained: "We no longer think of ourselves as book publishers but as disseminators of information. Over the past decade OECD publishing has evolved to become a digital publisher. Our printing budget has decreased from €2.7m (£2.4m) in 2002 to €1.1m in 2011. We feel that we are moving from selling books to selling services."

Desmartin added that OECD Publishing aims to stop producing printed books completely.

While most attendees agreed that further declines in print runs are inevitable, no-one was willing to predict the complete demise of the traditional book.

Kate McFarlan, managing director of St Ives Clays, argued that there will always be demand for books in print, but said that printers must improve quality if they are to compete with content developed for electronic devices such as iPads and e-readers.

Speaking at the conference, she said: "If printed books are to compete with the beautiful images on devices such as iPads, we have got to be creative and produce high-quality books so that we can persuade people they are still relevant. Quality will be even more important as we go forward and it has to be available at an appropriate price."

McFarlan urged printer manufacturers such as HP and Kodak to invest in developing better full-colour digital printing. "At the moment the quality of full-colour digital is not good enough for us to invest," she said. "We will invest in colour when we feel that the quality is good enough for our customers."

While Clays may not be ready to invest, the decision to do so will ultimately be an easier one for a company of its size and financial clout than for the many SME printers that make up the bulk of the sector. Ashford Colour Press’s concerns about timing the leap into inkjet correctly are likely to be echoed by many, while others believe that the impact could be even bigger than Ashford anticipates.

Ralph Bell, chief operating officer of CPI Digital and the scientific, technical, medical and academic division, believes that the movement of the print sector towards digital inkjet technology, could result in more consolidation.

He explained: "There are some very good small printers, but I can see the difficulties: spending £3m on a press is a big decision for us and we are a company with a £125m turnover. For a company turning over £12m to have to spend 25% of turnover just to stay in the game is huge."

"I think further consolidation in the sector is inevitable. I just can’t see a way forward for smaller printers." he added.

• Further consolidation in the book printing market looks likely as few of the smaller players are able to afford the new high-speed inkjet presses that are currently taking over in the books sector
• While SME printers are keen to serve the market, they recognise that the multimillion-pound investment necessary must be wisely spent as they will be unable to cover the cost of making mistakes
• Meanwhile, publishers are increasingly declaring that they are in the business of disseminating information, rather than being producers of books. Some publishers are looking to stop producing physical books altogether
• Some argue that there will always be a demand for printed books but point out that the quality of colour inkjet print must improve if the format is to compete successfully against digital media
• Some printers are holding off on investment until they are convinced of the quality of the available equipment

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