Fairytale machines are rewriting bedtime reading

Once upon a time, the personalisation of a children’s book simply meant having a particular child’s name appear on the cover. At the time, it was mind-boggling, like something out of, well, a children’s book.

But, these days, that sort of thing fails to make the most of the technology available. Take, for example, the special edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory published for Roald Dahl Day this year. The complex array of personalisation did not just include the sprinkling throughout of two names of your choice and bespoke story details, but personalised treats, too.

That sort of personalisation is now normal, and personalised books as a sector is expanding.

“It’s growing by about 30%,” reveals Kevin Spindler, co-owner at Signature Gifts. He says that is down to a mix of reasons, not just better personalisation. 

“[There are] new entrants including leading publishers like Penguin and Egmont, who are adding more content and improving quality,” he explains. “Improving technology is also a factor, as digital printing has progressed and costs have reduced. Then there is the internet and growth of shipping where customers can buy direct.”

So how, as a printer, can you capitalise on this consumer demand? What do you need to know, what should you have in your kit room and where is the market going next? 

Well the first thing to realise is that this is not a traditional books market: instead, this is part of the gifting market. 

“70% of our enquiries for personalised gifts are for books,” reveals Jon Tolley, managing director of Prime Group. 

And Gary Peeling, chief executive of Precision Printing, says that this means a very specific approach for printers. 

“Personalisation elevates a book to a gift [and] the gifting market is dependant on fast robust turnarounds to maximise sales in peak seasons and the key is to ensure positive net promotor score (word of mouth),” he says. 

That essentially means you have to do the job not just properly, but often in a way that exceeds rather than just meets customer expectations. 

Admittedly, that is not always in the printer’s control: publishers need to ensure the offering is right, regardless as to how well the printers may print it. But Aaron Archer, business development director at Pureprint, says that most publishers now realise this. 

“Formats, materials and finishes are being cleverly used to target different price points,” he explains. 

Big asks

Multiple price points, multiple product types and a requirement to go beyond customer expectations... clearly this is a demanding sector. And yet the work can be lucrative – customers are willing to pay for the ‘magic’ to happen and that can bring decent margins. 

But you can only access this market if you have the right kit in place to match the market demands. The first area of key concern is workflow. Peeling says without a decent system in place, your time in the market will be short. 

“Number one is workflow,” he explains. “Siteflow from HP manages the whole process – pre-flight, imposition, scheduling, work-to lists, cover and book block reconciliation, shipping, customer notification and shop floor reprint requests. You cannot work in this space without a system like this. You can finish the work by hand if your like, but with no workflow you won’t know what to finish, it’s that simple.”

Archer agrees: “In advance of the presses, we operate highly advance cloud-based workflow platforms and IT infrastructure to capture orders from our clients’ systems. Often we use our onsite programming teams to assist clients and frequently develop middleware applications to manipulate order data, create order assets and funnel these into our production systems. Once into our production workflow systems, individual orders are routed from process to process, tracking their status and ordering their priority to ultimately ensure each order and item is printed, finished and fulfilled to meet the delivery timings requested.”

With workflow in place, you then need presses that are capable of high-quality, highly variable and fast-turnaround work. 

“As we’ve been producing personalised gifts for over 15 years now, we’ve become very slick at it. Our print technology has remained on HP Indigo for this time but of course, production of this type of product relies solely on automation,” says Tolley. 

Archer says Pureprint also uses its arsenal of HP Indigos, “with three of the SRA3-plus and three B2-plus high-quality sheetfed presses”. He explains that speed is critical: “Speed of production is always a focus and we are often handling orders with 24-, 48- and 72-hour turnarounds to meet customers’ cost/speed in-basket purchasing selections.” 

Spindler agrees kit is key, but says the Canon Varioprint i300 is more than a match for the HPs. 

“The VarioPrint i300 has been a game changer in managing the complexity of sizes and formats while providing quality on a par with the HP Indigos,” he says. 

Of course, printing is only half the challenge, though. As this is a gifting market, finishing is a crucial part of the process, says Archer.

“We are increasingly adding value to products within the finishing area,” he explains. “For one client we use padded covers for their cased product, along with decorative end-papers, head and tail bands and a ribbon marker to make a deluxe personalised product. Another client uses a matched and taped-in written personalised letter to engage with the reader at a specific point in the story.”

Peeling says certain techniques are starting to creep in. “Enhancements like laser cutting, Scodix finishes and digital foil are beginning to be used, also bespoke wrapping and inclusion of other gifts in the packs are a growing trend,” he says.

But while the presses are up to the numerous challenges of this sector, most printers have reservations as to whether finishing manufacturers are providing the kit needed to keep up with the demands of those buying personalised books. 

Peeling says post-press needs to develop to keep up with demand, while Spindler goes further to suggest there just isn’t the right kit at the right price point yet. 

“The biggest challenge is in the binding and finishing, which has yet to catch up in providing efficient low-cost options,” he says. “Without a large investment, finishing is still a labour-intensive area and volumes are still too small in personalised books to justify fully automated finishing machines.”

Tolley agrees: “There is still a massive gap that needs filling, as the leap in investment to go from lower volumes to high volumes is significant, with nothing (or at least very limited options) in-between. There’s a real opportunity here for finishing machine manufacturers to catch up. It would benefit from Kolbus type machinery at a mid-range price point and with a smaller footprint.”

Pre-media leads

Where the tech and product offering is already in place is in W2P software. Printers are now used to having shop fronts to sell direct to clients, with sectors ranging from bespoke fashion wear to photobooks and keyrings. Is the personalised children’s books market one in which printers should be going direct?

There’s some difference of opinion on this. Spindler and Tolley are experienced in selling direct or providing the W2P tech for clients, and they see huge benefits in doing so, not just for their own margin but also the sector as a whole. 

“We’ve been doing this for some time as we know where the barriers are to entry for a start-up. For the right company or individual, we help break those barriers down,” says Tolley. 

Archer says Pureprint is also active in providing the software for book creation should the client need it – and he adds that after-care is also sometimes provided. 

“In some instances clients are looking for a full provision of services to support their online photo or personalised book publishing businesses and we are always happy to assist in providing services to support them,” he explains. “We often create W2P shops that integrate with composition platforms for personalised or customised product creation and ordering. We also support clients with post-sale customer service, utilising cloud based support systems for managing queries and requests from customers.”

But Precision’s Peeling sees things slightly differently.

“I think the role of printers is to provide a robust and reliable service, leave the front end to the disruptors and those that have the content consumers will want to buy,” he explains. “What’s key is understanding that your clients are working for consumers and build the solution around that.”

There is more agreement about where the sector is headed: growth. 

“You can already see that brands, publishers, entrepreneurs and intellectual property owners are looking to this personalised publishing sector as a great way to open up new revenue streams for their businesses and leverage their assets and trusted names,” says Archer.

But Tolley also sounds a note of caution. It’s not just about complexity, or big names, he says, but getting the ‘magic’ right. Printers who want to get into this market do not just need the kit, the knowhow and the contacts: they will need to help curate something truly special, he says. 

“There are still things that we’re yet to see come to life in a book that we’ve worked on as part of our R&D work but let’s not take it away from the magic of reading a bedtime story to your child and making them the centre of the story,” he explains. “My children are much bigger now but they still have all the books I personalised for them 12 years ago.” 


© MA Business Limited 2020. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .