Questions about Books and Inkjet

Jim Hamilton
Apr 15, 2014

Recently, Barb Pellow and I participated in a Canon-sponsored Book Business/Printing Impressions webinar on the topic of books and inkjet. (The replay is available at this link if you are interested.) As is typical of most webinars, listeners were encouraged to submit questions, and in this case we received a lot of them. This blog is comprised of those questions and my brief response to each. While not intended to be comprehensive, I believe these questions and answers are a reflection of what is on the minds of the publishing community in regard to inkjet and books today.

Question and Answer

Q: What would be the cost per book difference to print offset vs. ink jet based upon specs such as black only, 250 pages, 5.5 x 8, quantity 5,000. For example $5 each if offset vs. $3 each if ink jet.

A: I can’t give you a specific price on this. You’d have to ask a print service provider that has both technologies. You’d need to provide a paper type as well (and cover specifications if that is part of your calculation). My assumption is that the crossover point is somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 books. In other words, somewhere around that run length, inkjet would become more expensive than offset. If the book were color, the crossover point would be higher.

Q: Can inkjet handle content with math, tables, and illustrations?

A: There is no reason why math, tables, and illustrations cannot be reproduced well by inkjet systems. They all support 600 dpi resolution or higher. Plenty of math textbooks have been printed using high-speed inkjet.

Q: Inkjet printing looks pixelated under a loop. Right?

A: Depending on factors like the inkjet drop size, the paper, and the type of image, you may notice some slight graininess in light tints. This is about as noticeable as the dots in a 120 or 133 line per inch halftone screen.

Q: Will the growth of inkjet printing make it easier for small publishers who do both e-books and print, as far as formatting requirements?

A: I don’t think that the growth of inkjet will impact the formatting requirements significantly, but I do believe that the expansion of output options (e-books, apps, print on demand, large print titles, etc.) leads to a need for a publishing workflow that makes it easier for content to be repurposed easily. We are certainly headed in that direction, but I don’t think inkjet is the prime moving force.

Q: Have you seen acceptable inkjet quality on any traditional offset 45# or 50# untreated matte coated paper with Kodak, Océ, HP, etc.? Assume 20-25% coverage. Hard-cover or perfect bound?

A: There may be some untreated matte coated papers that are usable (perhaps with bonding agent on an HP T Series), but I don’t know of any. Using a flood coat application (like Kodak does with its IOS for Prosper) would be a possibility, but that is similar to using an inkjet-treated stock

Q: What is the comparative profitability of a printed hardcover fiction vs. delivering an e-book copy?

A: This would be a fascinating area to pursue with a publisher, but I can’t give you a good answer. The production cost and potential overstock of a hardcover book would add to the expense, but the list price would be substantially higher. I suspect that publishers would love to have the profit associated with high-volume hard cover sales (as opposed to e-books), but that is just my hunch.

Q: What about publishing newsletters?

A: Newsletters could be a good inkjet application for a service provider that is aggregating volume. The drawback is that these are generally low page count documents, and therefore the volume may be better suited to cut-sheet, toner-based digital printing systems rather than inkjet ones.

Q: My experience is that the unit cost of ultra-short run digital (100 to 250) jacketed hardcover books are quite high. The technology allows you to order what you can sell, but it comes at a high unit cost relative to the book list price.

A: You are right, but I think a narrow focus on unit cost overlooks other risks and costs faced by publishers. For example, ultra-short runs and on-demand fulfillment can be accomplished without warehousing. In addition, the risk of having unsold books is less when you order in smaller quantities.

Q: Can digital books now use 80 lb. paper for fine art books?

A: It’s definitely possible, but I haven’t seen a lot of activity in this area. Part of the reason for this is the issue associated with inkjet printing at high coverage on matte or glossy coated stocks. The biggest successes for inkjet have been in educational book printing where lightly coated stocks and lower coverage levels are the norm.

Q: Has anyone developed a service yet that allows individual, customized single editions for each copy printed and shipped on demand. We have identifying security watermarks that we want to add which are different for each book.

A: I don’t know of any, though they may exist. The closest I have seen is for university course packs. My guess is that the systems that allow professors to select various content and publish it in book form for their classes could have the features you need.

Q: Are there short run inkjet printers available out there now for runs of say 30-100 of the same book? What binding options do they have? Hardcover, dust jackets?

A: A digital book printer with an automated workflow should be able to handle these types of jobs, and will offer a range of binding methods.

Q: Can you compare the differences between toner based digital web presses and ink jet? Obviously speed and cost are huge difference, but what else? Toner based digital web competes with offset up to 1500 quantity. Up to what quantity does inkjet compete with offset?

A: Another important difference is the ability to print on coated substrates. Toner-based digital web presses do a much better job of this, though inkjet is making important strides forward. As for inkjet versus offset, I think 3,000 or higher is a reasonable crossover point for a color book, though of course it depends on a lot of factors.

Q: How well does inkjet product hold up in the long-term? Is there any fading or loss of quality?

A: I believe that the quality levels in most cases are comparable to offset and I have not heard of issues with fading or loss of quality.

Q: Are you suggesting publishers bring the inkjet printers in house, or find/use a service?

A: I do not think it makes sense for American publishers to bring the inkjet printing in house. In other parts of the world where publishers maintain their own printing plants, it would certainly be something to consider.

Q: Quality of product: Inkjet vs. Offset. Can the consumer tell the difference?

A: When the substrates are the same (or very similar) it would be hard for a consumer to tell the difference.

Q: How well does the end-product hold up? Does it fade, can you get it wet? Does it rub/scratch off? (As compared to offset.)

A: Getting wet can be an issue depending on the ink type and system. You can confirm this with your print service provider. Another issue to keep an eye on, particularly for educational books, is whether the use of a highlighter will cause text to streak. Rubbing or scratching off is not likely to be an issue.

Q: What are the average costs for printing 1,000 or more picture books? Is this cost effective when compared to working with companies overseas?

A: This would depend on a lot of factors (page count, use of color, format, paper, binding, etc.). I can’t provide an average cost, but a service provider could help. A recent example from a video I did shows how the reprinting of a high-quality art book could not be achieved in the required timeframe when working with an overseas provider. In this example, the printing method was liquid electrophotography (not inkjet) but I think it does speak to the requirement of short-run, high quality production.

Q: Could you talk a little bit more about the embrace of inkjet printing in educational publishing? Besides the color options, what’s the appeal for educational pubs?

A: The educational market fits into a nice sweet spot for inkjet. Coverage levels are not extremely high and many books are on lightly coated (and sometimes uncoated stocks). All of this puts inkjet printers in a good position to act as a virtual document repository for educational publishers, allowing them to fill their channels in a more flexible fashion. Another key aspect of the education market is custom texts and course packs. These applications tend to be shorter run and personalized, so they are very well suited to digital print. This kind of work can also be produced on cut-sheet or roll-fed toner devices, but the speed and productivity of inkjet put it in a strong competitive position.

Q: As a publisher, I need to know early on how much a book will cost to print. But my printer requires a PDF of the layout for a quote, so the book needs to be nearly complete. How can I judge whether to start a book project if don’t know cost to print?

A: Do you have a previous edition with similar use of color or images for comparison? Do you know the page count, trim size, binding type, and paper type? This type of information should be enough for your printer to make a ballpark estimate. Even without a final file they should be able to provide a range if you give them the key specifications. The per-book price will be very different depending on whether you want 1,000 or 100,000 copies of your book, but a good book printer should be able to provide the information you need for your planning process. If your printer can’t provide this, I suggest you look for another printer.

Q: What percentage of inkjet installs do you project being for book publishing applications?

A: About 25% are placed in book printers. Today, more high-speed inkjet systems tend to be placed in transaction (40%) and direct mail (29%).

Q: Are there substrate limitations other than treated stock? (i.e. coated stocks)

A: Coated stocks present a challenge for inkjet. The coating makes it harder for the water-based inkjet inks to absorb and adhere onto the paper. Light paper stocks are also a challenge because of potential showthrough. High coverage is another challenge, since applying a lot of ink to the page can cause waviness/cockle. Inkjet system manufacturers have a few methods of addressing these issues. For example, inkjet-treating can make it possible to print effectively on coated papers. Also, some systems apply a bonding liquid in targeted or flood coatings to help inks adhere and improve quality.

Q: What do you mean by an ‘impression’ in your print volume data?

A: InfoTrends uses the term ‘impressions’ to represent a letter-sized image. A duplex page would represent two images (one on each side of the page).

Q: What is the lifespan for the current inkjet print devices in the marketplace…particularly for book printing?

A: This is a new product category, so it’s hard to tell how long they will last, but devices placed in the field six years ago are still active, and many devices are upgradeable so that they are comparable to new devices shipped today. Print shop owners will typically amortize these products over a five-year period, but these products may end up having useful lives much longer than that. These trends are no different for book printing (as compared to transaction, direct mail, or other environments).

InfoTrends Opinion

Questions about quality, cost, and specific advantages are clearly on the minds of many publishers. This is understandable, given that the use of inkjet for high-volume inkjet applications is relatively new. What is certain, however, is that high-speed continuous feed inkjet technologies are having a huge impact now and will continue to impact the publishing market for many years to come.

InfoTrends covers issues related to the publishing market in its Digital Marketing & Media Trends consulting service. For more information, try this link. If you have any questions (or if you’d like to comment on this Q&A), please don’t hesitate to contact me via Twitter (@jrhinfotrends) or LinkedIn (jrhinfotrends).

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