On-demand printing helps sustain the printed page

Technology allows old books to stay "in print" indefinitely.

Kai Ryssdal: There was big news in the publishing world this week that had nothing to do with books on shelves. The Department of Justice sued Apple and a handful of publishing houses for what the government said was price fixing for e-books. Downloadable novels and the like have been cutting into sales of old-school hardcovers and paperbacks. But technology may help save the printed page yet.

Blake Farmer reports from WPLN in Nashville.


Blake Farmer: Next time you order a book online, consider this: odds are increasing that the book itself hasn't been printed yet. Welcome to the world of on-demand printing, where books live electronically on a hard drive somewhere until someone wants a copy.

On the factory floor of a company called Lightning Source in LaVergne, Tenn., rolls of paper six miles long zip through printers in a blur of gray. As a stream of freshly bound books trundles down a conveyor, it becomes clear what a potential game changer this is for the publishing industry: these are all single copies of different titles being printed one after another.

Larry Brewster: "Storming the Tulips," "Depth Psychology and a New Ethic," "Massage During Pregnancy."

Larry Brewster helped start Lightning Source. Industry wide, a billion more pages are being printed on demand every month, though they are still a tiny fraction of the 1.7 trillion pages printed last year. Online retailing and the rise of e-books have spurred the growth in on-demand printing. Amazon is one of the biggest customers for Lightning Source.

Brewster: We actually show Amazon that we have 100 books on hand, but we really have none. We print the book real fast and ship it out within 24 hours, and they don't know the difference.

Such turnaround would be impossible with traditional offset printing, which uses presses and plates instead of ink jets. Initially, the knock against on demand had been quality. But the technology is now reaching parity with offset printing.

Bob Edington: There's a difference, but it's really hard to discern.

Bob Edington is a vice president at Thomas Nelson, a publisher. The company is moving more of its books into the Lightning Source database. Printing one copy at a time does cost more, but Edington says on-demand printing makes it possible to keep every book effectively "in print."

Edington: With digital storage, there is infinite shelf space. So if it's avaialable, it could be very obscure, but someone will probably order it.

Lightning Source has a database of 9 million titles, 8 million of which are in the public domain. Every once in a while, the literary lottery hits and old books come back en vogue. Like when TV pundit Glenn Beck talked up an obscure book of economic theory from the 1940s.

Glenn Beck: We're talking about "Road to Serfdom." I don't know what happened to my copy -- here it is.

Beck's endorsement cleared the book off the shelves of the original publisher. Picking up the slack was Lightning Source, which is a division of Ingram Content Group. Ingram is a long-time book distributor. CEO Skip Prichard says even now as a printer, his aim is still to work with publishers and retailers, not compete with them.

Skip Prichard: We are trying to be neutral players to just help content reach its destination wherever it is.

But neutrality may go out the window as one of Prichard's biggest clients -- Amazon -- becomes a competitor. The online retail behemoth has been inking deals with the Library of Congress and other national archives to scan and print books as needed. And in a written statement, Amazon said it's begun offering on-demand printing services to would-be self-published authors.

Marco Boer is a consultant with IT Strategies.

Marco Boer: It's causing a lot of uncomfortable conversations between publishers, between book printers, between retailers.

The more Amazon starts printing its own books, the less it'll need on-demand contractors like Lightning Source.

In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.

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