Digital technology may soon rewrite the rules of the book business with a new process called on-demand printing.
If it succeeds, it will mean:
* Books custom-tailored to customer orders.
* No more out-of-print books.
* Lower book fees for college and high-school students.
* A new willingness among publishers to take chances on unknown writers.
The key: an emerging digital printing process that allows books to roll off the presses in small batches. Instead of several thousand of copies of each title, digital publishers can print 500, 200, even less than 10 books at a time - and still make a profit.
"There's a great wave of change that's taking place," says Mike Howard, vice president of industry marketing at Xerox Corp., a leader in the technology. "The publishers have a lot to lose if they don't determine exactly how to plan out their future."
One outfit taking the digital plunge is publishing giant Simon & Schuster. Using Xerox systems at a plant in Ramsey, N.J., the company stores 9,000 books on computer disks, then prints them on demand. The average run is just 13 books.
With the traditional printing process, "a lot of times we had books that sat in the warehouse until they were destroyed," says Don Seise, assistant vice president of Simon & Schuster's Demand Production Center in Ramsey, NJ. The new technology "has significantly improved profitability." The plant turned out 50 percent more books last year than expected and has added new shifts.
Simon & Schuster's experience is not lost on others in the industry.
Baker & Taylor, a publisher in Bridgewater, N.J., announced last June that it was forming Replica Books to produce hardcover editions of hard-to-find books. The output - between 50 and 100 copies a year.
The nation's largest book wholesaler, Ingram Book Co. in LaVergne, Tenn., launched a service called Lightning Print in November. It will print hard-to-find books one at a time, with help from IBM and another partner.
But the digital printers can only succeed, for now, by thinking small. Above a certain number of copies, traditional offset printing is cheaper.
So it will probably take at least a decade before bestsellers get printed digitally, predicts John Windle, president of State Street Consultants in Boston, which researches the graphic arts industry.
But that leaves plenty of opportunity, since most of the 50,000 to 60,000 titles printed each year aren't bestsellers and quickly fall into obscurity.
One big market is course materials for students. Through its publishing arm, the University of Pittsburgh allows professors to customize their course textbooks. They can take sections of various texts and make a course book.
By printing and binding materials into a single volume (and paying copyright fees for one-time use only), the university can save its students perhaps a third or more off what they would normally pay for textbooks, says Frank Lehner, editor in chief of the operation, Cathedral Publishing.
And the university still makes a profit, he adds.
Quebecor, a large Canadian printer, does much the same thing for textbook publishers through its year-old on-demand plant in Dubuque, Iowa.
"There's no reason to put a title out of print," says Jerry Allee, general manager of the operation.
"All your blockbuster books," he says, "I never see impacted by this. [But] as we look at various types of guides for people - travel guides, restaurant guides - that can almost come down to the individual. That can be a one-for-one product."
The technology also breathes new life in out-of-print books.
For example, when a University of Pittsburgh professor wanted a 1985 text for his English composition course, he discovered it was out of print.
So the university's publishing arm got copyright permission to publish the book digitally.
That persuaded the original publisher to bring it back into print, Mr. Lehner says.
"That's the great thing about this technology," he says. "Otherwise, this book would have just languished."
On-Demand Digital Printing
* Short runs - 100, a dozen, or even just one book - allow publishers to test market new books.
* Printing and binding takes days instead of weeks or months.
* More flexibility allows authors to make last-minute changes.
* Titles can be sent electronically worldwide to digital printing plants, saving transportation costs.
* Each book costs more to produce. Fifty copies of a 288-page paperback cost $4.32 per book, according to Simon & Schuster. That's more than twice the cost of traditional methods, if you print 3,000 copies. (But if only 500 copies are printed, the traditional method would cost $3.90 per book.)
* Print quality of photographs is not as good as traditional, offset presses.
Bookstores to Become Book Printers
Some entrepreneurs plan to build digital publishing systems simple and cheap enough for local bookstores.
Let's say you wanted "Smart Questions to Ask Your Financial Advisers," by Lynn Brenner (Bloomberg), but your book dealer didn't carry it.
Today, the store would order you a copy. In the not too distant future, the store might print you a copy. The clerk could get the electronic file and create a bound paperback within minutes.
"We can all foresee a day when bookstores will have a device like the Book Machine and will only carry books that sell at a higher rate," says Steven Lewers of On Demand Machine Corp., which hopes to build what it calls the Book Machine.
The idea has piqued the interest of Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. If On Demand can get the funding to create its machine, she's eager to test it. "We're always looking for ways to serve our customers more efficiently and with greater speed," she says.