Amazon opens new chapter in books-on-demand

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Many people think of books that are digitally stored and printed on demand, often one at a time, as a service solely for unpublished authors. Then last week Amazon.com said it had acquired several four-color digital presses from Hewlett-Packard, machines that have a starting price of a couple hundred thousand dollars apiece.

Suddenly, the books-on-demand category looks more interesting.

"When someone like Amazon does this, it illustrates that this isn't a curiosity anymore - this is an established platform," said John Conley, vice president of publishing for Xerox Corp., Rochester, NY.

Web-based publishing is the fastest-growing part of the publishing business, he said.

Driving the growth in books-on-demand is the increasing sales for small-volume, rare and self-published books, according to HP. Other uses of the digital print technology include photo books, business and technical manuals and textbooks.

Though Amazon previously offered black-and-white books-on-demand - and reportedly outsourced those orders - now the Internet retailer can list a broader selection, including out-of-print titles and children's books, while realizing cost and time savings.

"They don't know yet what is going to be the biggest driver" of the books-on-demand category, said Michael Swack, a representative of HP Graphic Arts, Palo Alto, CA.

Buying a book-on-demand from Amazon "is a transparent process," Mr. Swack said. Not only is the shopping experience the same, prices are similar and shoppers have no idea that the book they just ordered and which has been out of print for 15 years was printed just prior to shipping instead of two years ago. This means the quality of the digital presses needs to be the same as offset presses, he said.

To help process all those digital files, which can be cumbersome to say the least, Amazon will be among the first U.S. firms to install the new HP Indigo Production Manager digital front-end controller.

"We've really just hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where the books-on-demand marketplace is going," Mr. Conley said. Xerox has helped clients create books-on-demand business models to serve marketplaces for universities, teachers and professional books.

One successful example of books-on-demand is self-publishing Web site Lulu.com. In the past year, the Raleigh, NC, company has tripled in revenue and in its customer base, representative Lauren Parker said. The site adds 25,000 titles monthly and sells 90,000 items a month.

But what really excites Mr. Conley is Google's project to digitize scholarly works of libraries. These are books that are out of copyright and previously could be accessed only if someone went to the specific library where a book was held.

"Eventually, there will be a demand for those titles," he said, making this a boon for the books-on-demand market.

Businesses such as John Deere that produce a lot of technical manuals also have discovered the appeal of being able to order as many copies whenever they want. The company's construction and forestry division uses 3,800 documents, from two pages to 2,200 pages long, that are updated constantly. Printing costs were escalating until the company created the online John Deere Bookstore, which is co-hosted by printer Ken Cook Co. Now its manuals are digitally printed on demand using Kodak presses, and John Deere has saved more than 25 percent.

The many applications of books-on-demand platforms are more exciting than anything that's happening in offset printing, Mr. Conley said.

"If you're not in the [books-on-demand] game, those titles are going somewhere," he said.
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