There are limitations as to what we can or cannot do in digital print - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

We are now at the end of digital disruption. Digital printing is here to stay, no questions asked. Yet, it is not going to replace offset. Both technologies have their pros and cons and we will need both at one point or another. It’s time traditional print processes and digital worked together. Hybrid print process is the future. Now, the struggle is to find a way to balance this in the shopfloor.

02 Sep 2016 | By Noel D'Cunha

To take care of the finishing side in this brave new world, the German maker of continuous feed printing machines, Manroland Web Systems, has come up with a series of digital finishing solutions, namely, FormerLine and FoldLine, which can take care of finishing in either processes, traditional or digital, or a combination of both in the shopfloor.

This sounds like an ideal solution for book printers, who are traditionally and still offset players, looking to utilise the fast turnaround time and short run that a digital kit affords. Most book printers today have either invested in a digital kit or planning to acquire one. Print on Demand is the buzzword. There are tremendous opportunities, of course, but we are yet to arrive at an ideal situation where we could combine offset and digital effortlessly in book printing.

On 26 August 2016, Manroland Web Systems organised a ‘Book Printers and Publishers’ Conclave’ in India Habitat Centre, New Delhi to discuss the use of digital in book printing. Taking a cue from the topic, Noel D’Cunha talks to Priya Singh, general manager, production, Hachette India, how a trade publisher is using digital printing, not just for POD, but also to maintain its backlist.

Noel D’Cunha (ND): What has been your digital print experience thus far
Priya Singh (PS): The experience has been good, but digital print is still in a nascent stage in India. There are limitations as to what we can or cannot do in digital. Our requirements are not very large, but we still print quite a bit for optimal inventory management. So far, it has been a successful experiment. We are looking at major growth here.

ND: What is your assessment of digital presses in the post-Drupa landscape in 2016?
PS: As a publishing house, our requirements are still not that big that we get into Drupa level engagement and do analysis and stuff. We leave that to our print partners. Eventually, they will need to justify their investment and recover it, or make a profit out of it.

ND: The Nielsen India Book Market Report 2015 estimated India’s print book market to be worth Rs 26,060 crore. Some say the numbers are more. How much of this, according to you, will migrate toward digital print and why?PS: You can ask Thomas Abraham (managing director, Hachette India, who was on the panel at the conclave) about the Nielsen bit since he was actually on the interface committee for trade. Digital is still all back and not a primary driver. So right now one can only arrive at guesstimates by surveying the top 20 publishing businesses and seeing how much of their work has gone digital year-on-year for the past five years. That will reveal the initial pattern. I think it will grow exponentially over the next ten years.

ND: The educational books sector, which forms 70% of the book market, is the bulwark for the publishing industry. In what way can digital print be an asset to this segment?
PS: It has been a big asset in other parts of the publishing world with custom printing, etc. It has been around for a long time already. There is a huge scope here in terms of customised recommended reads, selections for extra reading, and precise syllabus-wise curation of material from across publishers, etc.

ND: Do we need to look at the costing structure and business model?
PS: It will require a standalone business model and pricing to cater to this segment. Otherwise, it’s going to mean nothing and will never take the shape of a profitable model that it has the potential of becoming.

Priya Singh is a graduate in print technology from Manipal Institute of Technology

ND: The big challenge in publishing is the loss due to delays in printing. How can fast turnaround times and Print on Demand solve these issues
PS: To correct you, I don’t think there are any major delays in printing anymore. Even offset turnarounds have become pretty impressive. But digital printing is solving issues already as far as backlist is concerned, and this is what we are mainly in for right now. I don’t think POD can solve issues of piracy. These issues mean we are mainly talking about new books or standard high selling backlist.

ND: Then there are issues of piracy, client confidentiality and slow-moving inventories...
PS: I think if we reduce our front list titles mainly to POD, we are giving the pirates a scope of better profitability and a larger share of the market! Then there are issues of piracy on online platforms. We have seen this happen. We have to first understand and see how POD works. It is easy to say we print multiple times as per requirement, but it’s a fine line. Publishers need to be clear of titles. Every person in the chain, if not educated about how POD can work for you, can make it a loss-making proposition by their imprudence.

ND: Why print partners are not confidence in investing in this technology?PS: They are not investing because the market is such (there’s a churn right now, and it will be some time before it all settles down to some sort of a predictive pattern) that there can be no commitments. In the absence of this, it is purely up to the printer’s vision whether he wants to invest and make it work. The printer has to evaluate and decide on how he will recover the cost of investment, in how much time, who are his clients, what can he expect from each of his clients, what more clients can he acquire and so on. I, from the publisher’s side, can give him indicative estimates, but the market is so volatile and unpredictable that it is difficult to give any commitment.

ND: How can publishers work with printers to eliminate waste, enhance operational efficiencies and thereby lowering the costs in the value chain? Who will bear the cost in all this? Nobody is prepared to do it!
PS: Yes, nobody is prepared to do it, not unless the whole industry stand unified in one decision and makes that change. In trade books specifically, where book prices are not rising, where print runs are seeing a dip (even when overall there is still a growth in the number of titles) all the time, how can we think of increasing costs? Yet, printers need to make a unified representation. We work closely with the printers and are open to working closer still, if only the solutions offered make sense and are suited to adjust to our requirements and concerns.

ND: What would you be looking for in your partner in the area of digital print/ POD?
PS: We work with print partners who have basic pre-press facility unless they have such a great workflow that is automated to fix our basic problems. Data storage is equally important and so is its security.

ND: What would be your advice to a book publisher or a book-printing firm to cope with in this brutal day and age?
PS: One, focus on a core segment, and master it (don’t spread yourself thin trying to do everything together). If you have profitability as your prime driver, then work on getting a good price but justify why. Two, make your turnaround even faster, and develop value-additions (quick hardback options, foiling, UV finishing, staining, etc). Three, see how you can make your all-round offering even better (for example, by setting up logistics solutions where you might actually have more scale than a publisher; and that may reduce end consumer delivery turnaround).