It was good to see that the second print run for my MBA book (Beyond The MBA Hype) was sold out on Flipkart. The book was published 1.5 years ago with very little fanfare.
I jumped up in slow motion, pumped my fist in the air and froze there hoping the credits will start rolling.
When I fell back on the ground with a thud, I realized two things.
1. Never mess with the laws of gravity.
2. The ‘sold out’ tag might give me reason to be happy. But it was going to choke the supply on India’s biggest online book retailer’s site till the stock was replenished. Not a good thing!
I was already in discussions with HarperCollins, my publisher, about a new edition for the book as opposed to a regular print run. This meant that the time taken for creating the new content, editing, typesetting, printing and distributing would be significantly higher than a simple re-print. This also meant that we’d be blocking the supply chain just when the interest in the book was peaking.
That’s when the marketing team suggested going for a Digital Printing option as a stop gap solution to keep the wheels churning till the new edition was out in the market. I gave my nod, but had no clue what digital printing was, and why it could only be a stop-gap solution for the mainstream publishers. I did a little research and realized that digital printing is pretty much the standard way many smaller (especially self-publishing) players operate. Here’s the low-down on digital printing.
What is digital printing?
In the traditional printing world, Offset Lithography is the most common method used to print books, newspapers, magazines. It involves transferring an ‘image’ from a plate onto the printing surface. The literal translation of ‘lithograph’ is ‘an image from a stone’.
In contrast, digital printing doesn’t need ‘plates’ (or the need to replace the source that carries the negative image). Instead, inkjet or laser printers are used. The printing surface doesn’t need to be flat or non-porous. So it can be used for many more applications than just printing books.
How is digital printing better (or worse) than regular printing?
Digital printing is quick, easy and more flexible. There’s no loss in the image quality, as there’s no wear & tear of the image source. Correcting mistakes is much easier in the digital form. No ‘plates’ to be fixed, just the digital file.
On the flip side, digital printing is quite expensive compared to traditional printing. A digitally published book can cost 2 to 4 times more than a traditional published book. For bigger volumes, lithographic printing can offer huge savings as the cost per page goes down. With digital printing, the cost of producing every new book remains the same. So there are no (wait for an impressive MBA term) ‘economies of scale’.
Where is digital printing used?
Digital printing is popular with publishers that follow a ‘Print on demand’ model. This is where there’s no need to maintain a big inventory, like in the case of the traditional publishing model. Books are printed whenever there’s an order. These are immediately shipped out to the reader through regular post or courier.
This means you can cut out the intermediaries (retailers, distributors) and get a bigger slice of the revenue pie. Many self-publishers try to sell the book back to the author, who in turn can play the role of retailer, distributor or book sales-person.
Should you, as the author, choose digital printing?
Use the following rule of thumb to decide:
Are you aiming for the big publishing houses?
In this case, you don’t need to worry about the decision. The publisher will take the call. Most likely, they’ll use lithography printing. Unless of course, they need to go for quick, stop-gap solutions to push a few hundred extra copies in the market, before the main stock arrives.
Are you aiming for self-publishing?
Again in this case, the publisher probably has only one option (digital publishing) for all their authors. Most won’t take on the risk of publishing a whole lot of books at their own cost without knowing if there’s a market for it.
Are you thinking of e-books?
You might still want to have a few hard-copies for yourself and your relatives. In this case, digital printing makes more sense.
Irrespective of the option you choose (or one that’s decided by your publisher), always keep in mind that the laws of economics (& physics) are as important to authors as they are for the rest of the human species.