Lean Publishing

Kevin Meyer, in a recent posting on the Evolving Excellence blog, discussed how he and Bill Waddell are using a “print on demand” company for publication of their new book.

            I find that to be an interesting topic, at least partly because of the obvious fact that Productivity Press is a publishing company.

In addition, print on demand – in which books are literally printed one at a time, as needed – is a good example of what any company hopes to achieve by implementing lean principles.

However, most of what we do does not involve print on demand, with good reason.

            How many copies we print of any given book is based on how many books we expect to sell – and our print runs are conservative. (We outsource the actual printing.) While one goal of lean is to minimize or eliminate inventory, we need inventory on hand for the volume of orders we expect to receive. We sell a significant number of books to resellers, from Amazon.com to companies you haven’t heard of, and they may require large quantities.

(Projecting sales may be less of a concern when authors self-publish their book, meaning they pay a company to print it. That’s what Kevin and Bill are doing. We are a traditional publisher, meaning we contract with authors whose books we believe will sell enough copies to make a profit.)

We do use print-on-demand companies for short print runs – fewer than 100 books, for example. We might do that if we’re running low on inventory but don’t need a large quantity. I don’t believe we’ve ever ordered just one book.

            But for the most part, print on demand isn’t as economical for us; the difference in per-unit cost between bulk quantities and print-on-demand can be significant.

            Could the overall printing process be improved by applying lean principles? I’m sure it could. Since we outsource the printing, it’s not a process that we control. We’re also a small company, so we have limited influence over any printer.

As time goes on, I suspect that some smart printer or printers will adopt lean principles, finding ways to reduce the per-unit cost of small print runs so they become more competitive for traditional publishers. That will bring us closer to the true lean ideal of print on demand. We look forward to that day.



Ralph Bernstein said...

2/9/2007 3:08:37 PM
Re: Lean Publishing -1
By: wilhkar

When I was responsible for book publishing at SME, and since, I pondered and searched for acceptable on-demand printing. The problem is frequently binding - books fall apart. This is because sheets of paper, as produced by xerography and perhaps offset printing, do not hold well when glued only at their edges. The reason books bound by commercial printers stay together is that the pages are gathered into "signatures," bunches of sheets sewn or otherwise fastened at the center, then folded into pages. The signatures are bound by means of glue or sewing in specialized binding equipment. I have visited book manufacturers that said they were going to pursue lean, but nothing much has ever emerged.

For one thing, printers use immense web presses that hold gigantic rolls of paper. They operate at high speeds and have long changeovers. Binding is done "in line" via long conveying equipment from machine to machine.

It's entirely feasible to buy smaller presses that print large sheets that can be folded into signatures, and to use bindery equipment that's similarly right-sized, but printers are likely blinded by the big investments they have made in automated equipment. Furthermore, most of the lead time between ordering a press run and receiving it is queue time. As lean manufacturers know, that can be reduced to a minimum, if not eliminated altogether.

This is a massive opportunity for book manufacturers, yet I bet they still think of short runs as 300-500, not in quantities less than 100, which a very small publisher would need. Such very small press runs would also make the difference for slow-selling older or scholarly titles to be reprinted and not to be let go out of print. The publisher, as I was at SME, has the choice of too many shelves filled with too many copies, or allowing old titles to disappear. That used to break my heart.

It's possible that there are a few printers who have gotten the message, and if they have, they should let us know who they are.

But don't forget that the publisher's costs are mostly made up of the many hours spent by professional editors, proofreaders, book designers, and graphic layout specialists. Everyone knows that the accounting profession has this investment amortized over the press run, making first runs a dilemma for the publisher. Do you price the book below "unit cost" or run more than you want to? The finance department isn't likely to go for that.

And the initial investment is also the reason why prices for niche-market books are higher than Stephen King novels. A self-publisher can pay him- or herself $1.00 per hour, but professionals have to feed their families for the same work.

Video publishing is a different story, or used to be when we could order very few at a time. DVDs can be a different story. SME would amortize the initial investment in automatic monthly journal entries independent of the duplication run. Steve Bollinger and his colleagues have done a great job of pursuing demand-based duplication on SME's videos. They've done the best they can with print, but it ain't easy.

Ralph Bernstein said...

2/9/2007 4:30:08 PM
Re: Lean Publishing
By: Mike Gardner

Sorry, Ralph, but your argument sounds like those manufacturing guys I run into who keep saying that lean won't work for them because their situation is "different."

Map the whole value stream from author through retailer and see where the waste is at. Maybe the publishing process is an outmoded process that could be eliminated as waste. Why does an author need a publisher today? Why are traditional printers needed when print-on-demand technology is available? I hate the fact that I have to pay twice as much for a book from Productivity or LEI as I do a fiction novel on the shelf at my local bookstore because the limited runs make the per-piece cost high.

And don't even get me started on training videos that cost between $500 and $2500 each.)

Ralph Bernstein said...

2/11/2007 12:01:27 PM
Re: Lean Publishing
by: superfactory

I hate to say it because you guys publish top-notch books (I have many in my library!), but that sounds suspiciously similar to what I hear when I try to convince a traditional manufacturer of the benefits of lean. "We're different... it won't work here." Many of your comments are probably correct for most smaller print-on-demand shops, but I'd suggest taking a look at the two big POD players I mentioned. I had concerns similar to what yours, so I purchased a few books from them to gauge quality, and it was indistinguishable from a traditional publisher. I wanted to ensure "available" really meant that from the customer's perspective so I ordered a couple iUniverse POD titles via Amazon and a couple much smaller online bookstores (Elephant etc), and they arrived in 3 days. Again identical to a traditional publisher (and admittedly surprising to me). Our 450-page book, printed on demand, retails for $29.95 including very fair author royalties and the substantial bookseller discount. Perhaps a little higher than mass market books of the same size, but less than most professional books. Zero inventory, zero storage space, zero overruns. No "temporarily unavailable" or "temporarily out of print" when inventory runs out. Cafeteria-style editing, graphics, and support services to only deliver what adds value. It was simply a better deal than what two of your competitors offered us. And it was lean, which is what we're all about to begin with.


Ralph Bernstein said...

2/15/2007 3:20:54 PM
Re: The Baldrige Award Controversy
By: JDarrouzet

Brown claims that Dale Crownover, a two-time Baldrige winner (1998 and 2004), "has, for some reason, soured on the award program and has created his own blog that bashes the award and the criteria." Brown's claim is unfounded. He obviously has not read Dale's blogs. Dale has demonstrated over the years his commitment to the Criteria, the Award, and the Program. He has not "soured" on the Baldrige Program, nor does he bash the Award or the Criteria. Read Dale's blogs (found at www.baldrigeblog.com) and judge for yourself. Like so many others in the Baldrige Community, Brown is unable or unwilling to weigh in on the ethical issues being raised by Premier's stakeholders in opposition to this nomination, perhaps because the processes involved in role model determination are not as familiar to him as they are to Dale. Dale has not only been a two-time Baldrige Winner, but a Baldrige Examiner, Baldrige Judge, and Chairman of the Baldrige Foundation. If Brown had read the blogs (for example, "Catch Up on the Debate" http://www.baldrigeblog.com/blogs/JD-1-22-2007-2.aspx), he might see that Dale and his fellow bloggers have been suggesting alternative standards and processes as ways to improve Baldrige for over a year. Brown's quick dismissal of this debate shows a lack of systematic perspectives on leadership so clearly needed in the Baldrige Community to address the ethical, legal, and practical consequences of Premier's nomination. Too bad. Given Brown's long-standing involvment in describing the Baldrige processes, I am disappointed that he fails to address the substantive ethical issues in his own use of the Internet. Brown is welcome to read the blogs and offer comments, as are readers of the Lean Insider. Premiergate is worth learning more about and worth the time and effort to provide deeper and more thoughtful responses.

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