Talking POD With Lightning Source's David Taylor

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One could, if one wished, explain away David Taylor's enthusiasm for print-on-demand technology simply by noting that it's part of his job; he is, after all, president of Ingram's Lightning Source, a global provider of on-demand and distribution solutions for the publishing industry. However, after a half-hour talk with Taylor, it's easy to see that his enthusiasm, and that of a growing segment of the book industry, is firmly rooted in the myriad possibilities presented by POD technology and the options it provides publishers and booksellers facing a challenging environment. Among its benefits, POD -- which allows a publisher or bookseller to print or order one copy of a book at a time -- is green: it cuts costs and waste, and it can keep titles that might otherwise be lost to history alive, Taylor told BTW in a recent phone interview.

David Taylor, president of Ingram's Lightning Source

Importantly, for booksellers, print-on-demand technology can maximize sales, Taylor said. "The technology is great news for booksellers." In the past, he noted, if a customer wanted a book that was out-of-print, there wasn't anything a bookseller could do to make that sale. Now, with print-on-demand digital technology, as long as the book is available in a digital library somewhere, a bookseller can capture the sale.

Since its founding in 1997, Lightning Source -- which is headquartered in LaVergne, Tennessee, and has facilities in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Milton Keynes, U.K. -- has printed about 70 million books. Some 9,000 publishers now partner with the company to offer more than one million titles through the Lightning Source Digital Library. About 1.4 million books are printed every month, and print runs average 1.8 copies.

Taylor, who has been in the book trade for 25 years, grew up in Wolverhampton, England. He joined Lightning Source U.K. in June 2003 as business development director, and was named managing director in December of that year. Five years later, in June 2008, he was named president of Lightning Source. He currently splits his time between LaVergne and Milton Keynes.

When industry people discuss digital printing, they are generally referring to one of two main types, Taylor explained. There is POD, where a publisher or bookseller sells the book first and then has it printed. This allows for a virtual inventory. "This is where you print one copy when you get the order," he said. "The speed is such that when you get an order, POD can print one copy out of the box." POD is also scalable. "You can print single copies, or it can be brought to the industrial level ... where you're printing many thousands of books every day ... including both paperback and hardcover."

There is also "short-run digital printing," where a publisher prints in small batches rather than one big run. "Printers will offer that service, but it's not really POD," Taylor said, noting that it's not premised on selling the book first. "It's not single-copy printing."

Taylor believes POD is creating a significant and fundamental shift in the traditional supply chain model. "POD isn't about printing -- it's a way of you getting your books into the marketplace," he said. "There are two broad groups using the POD technology, traditional and non-traditional publishers."

Traditional publishers, Taylor said, might use POD to publish previously out-of-print titles or books that would have never seen the light of day when they were bound to huge print runs. "Publishers can potentially never lose a sale," he explained.

In addition, Taylor said, "A lot of publishers are using our facilities to export titles.... In the mid-'80s it might take a U.K. bookstore two to three months to get a U.S. copy of a book. University presses in the U.S. now make many titles available in POD form. Now, it's two to three days for publishers to get books out to the market, and they don't tie up money in inventory."

For non-traditional publishers, POD has lowered the barriers to marketplace entry. It has provided solutions for small publishers and authors looking to self-publish, Taylor noted. "POD's ability to deliver single copies of a book has transformed the self-publishing industry."

Overall, a huge number of books are being "brought back to life from the out-of-print graveyard," he said. "There has been an explosion in micro-publishing, where a company publishes a small number of titles ... or uses POD throughout the entire supply chain. It's a lessening of risks."

Since Lightning Source's founding, much has changed in the book industry to open the POD market to a wider audience, including self-published authors, independent bookstores, and large publishers. There is infinite demand for books, Taylor said. And over the past 12 years, thousands upon thousands of titles have become available for order via POD. Customers can also access a huge database of books via online tools such as Google Book Search, he added.

Moreover, because of advances in technology, costs have come down to the point that a company or retailer can make money from a single copy order. "The recent economic downturn has increased interest from publishers as they make sure they never miss a sale. [POD] also reduces the risk. One of the hardest decisions a publisher has to make is, How many copies do I print? They may either print too many or too few, and both are unattractive."

It also certainly helps that the print quality of POD books are no longer considered "inferior" to the mass produced copies. "From a technological point of view, the quality of the books that can be printed with POD has made the whole 'inferior' issue go away," Taylor said. "Publishers understand now what POD can do, and they realize that the single-copy model allows a publisher to re-engineer what publishing is all about."

POD also means booksellers won't have to turn away customers simply because they don't stock a particular book. Taylor noted that booksellers can also use POD technology to enhance a particular niche in their store.

A bookstore can also house its own POD technology. Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, operates an Espresso Book Machine, an on-site, fully integrated book-making machine that can produce a high-quality, trade-size paperback book in minutes. In June, Lightning Source announced the availability of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) distribution channel to all publishers that work with the company. The EBM Channel gives publishers the option of making the books they have stored in the Lightning Source Digital Library available for printing, binding, and delivery at the point of sale, on demand.

Taylor stressed, however, any bookstore that has an account with Ingram, has access to a million POD titles.

In the future, Taylor predicts that there will be an acceleration of titles available in POD, and that there may be more books that start out as a POD book. "Many more publishers are using POD technology and among existing publishers, the general trend is to reduce inventory," he said. --David Grogan