Book Binders Find Life in the Digital Age

by Dianna Brodine, The Binding Edge
Hardcover book sales continue to outpace sales of ebooks, with consumers citing a desire for the smell and feel of a quality paper product.

Despite the shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the rapid rise in popularity of electronic reading devices, printed books remain a staple in the hands of US readers. In 2013, the annual BookStats study reported that 457 million ebooks were sold the previous year, an increase of 43 percent over 2011. However, hardcover books were chosen 100 million times more – with 557 million copies sold in 2012. The trend continued in 2013, with hardcover book sales up 11.5 percent in the first eight months of the year when compared to the same period in 2012, according to the Association of American Publishers, and adult ebook sales were up only 4.8 percent.

Digital books may remain the fastest-growing part of the market, but digital books still only account for 20 percent of book sales reported by publishers.

Paperback books continue a slow decline, but hardcovers are on the rise due to what some publishers believe is an ebook backlash. Consumers initially enthralled by the convenience of digital books now long to return to the time when they could feel the physical weight of the story. Jim Milliot, editorial director at Publishers Weekly, was quoted in a May 29, 2013, article for The Post and Currier as saying, “Publishers saved money on cheaper paper and jacket design, but are now rethinking that (strategy) for people who want to own physical books.”

Delving into the study statistics

An in-depth study, commissioned by Ricoh Americas Corporation and performed by IT Strategies in conjunction with the University of Colorado, was released in December 2013. The study surveyed 800 consumers via email; in addition, double-blind telephone interviews were held with four publishers, five book manufacturers and 10 consumers. Survey respondents were 55 percent female and 45 percent male, with an average age of 39. Sixty-four percent have an undergraduate degree or higher level of education. The results of the study were released in a white paper entitled “The Evolution of the Book Industry: Implications for US Book Manufacturers and Printers.”

The following bullet points were provided in a press release issued by Ricoh:

  • Nearly 70 percent of consumers feel it is unlikely that they will give up on printed books by 2016. Consumers have an emotional and visceral/sensory attachment to printed books, potentially elevating them to a luxury item.
  • Despite their perceived popularity, 60 percent of ebooks downloaded are never read in the US. Since 2012, the growth of ebooks has slowed significantly as dedicated ereader sales are declining, and tablet PC devices are increasingly becoming utilized for other forms of entertainment.
  • College students prefer printed textbooks to ebooks as they help students to concentrate on the subject matter at hand; electronic display devices such as tablet PCs tempt students to distraction.
  • Current trends reveal that while fewer copies of books are being sold, more titles are being published.
  • Digital printing of “ultra short runs” has empowered book printers to supply books more tightly tied to actual demand.
  • The top three reasons consumers choose a printed book are: Lack of eye strain when reading from paper copy vs. an ebook; the look and feel of paper; and the ability to add it to a library or bookshelf.

With the study commissioned by Ricoh, questions were asked about the use of digital printing verses traditional offset. According to the study, publishers are using digital printing in two ways. First, a small production run can be produced as a test to place one to two books per retailer, “circumventing cumbersome distributor guidelines and storage fees before ordering larger offset or digitally printed quantities.” Second, for titles with strong sales, “digitally printed books are used for reorders as needed to supplement first-run offset printed books.”

“More than 500 years after the invention of the printing press, book manufacturers and publishers are playing a pivotal role in the next renaissance in books that is happening now,” said George Promis, vice president of continuous forms production solutions and technology alliances, Ricoh. “To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain, reports of the printed book’s death are greatly exaggerated. Print is alive, well and sought after in today’s book market.”

A book binder’s viewpoint

So, what does all of this mean for the segment of the binding industry that devotes itself to bookbinding?

Michael Roswell, president of Roswell Bookbinding in Phoenix, AZ, explained that it’s become important for his company to offer all types of services in order to address the changing industry. “We do all types of sewing of both hard and softcover books, as well as perfect binding and a myriad of both hardcover books, presentation boxes and portfolios,” he said. “We also do a wide variety of digitally printed books that are predominantly high-end wedding albums; and we still offer library binding, conservation and restoration which was my parents’ original business starting in 1960.”

At Roswell, the primary customer base consists of commercial printers, publishers and designers, although the bindery does work directly with authors, photographers, artists, galleries and museums. The bindery’s website touts its ability to produce run lengths of one to one million, whether miniature or oversized books. In a 2011 article in The Binding Edge, Roswell said, “We have evolved from a hand operation to a fully automated facility with state-of-the-art high-speed equipment. We still use all of the old hand binding techniques and materials in the same building as our 9,000-signature-per-hour sewing machines to create high-end bindings of all types.”

Roswell estimated that less than 15 percent of the bindery’s work is printed digitally, with most projects printed via sheet-fed equipment and another 20 percent web-fed. The company has expanded its on-demand capabilities by adding staff and equipment to handle the one-offs that often are requested.

While high-volume production on automated bookbinding equipment is one side of the bindery’s business model, it celebrates its deep roots in the more complex, handwork projects that come through the door. A recent project gaining media attention is a seven-volume handwritten, illuminated manuscript. The project contains all 73 books of the Catholic Bible and was begun more than 15 years ago at the Benedictine St. John’s University in Minnesota. The skilled craftsmen at Roswell Bookbinding are hand-binding 299 volumes of this Heritage Edition.

With nearly 100 employees in its 50,000 square foot facility, Roswell Bookbinding has found its niche in an industry that holds its own against the threat of ebooks. “Since we have survived three significant recessions over the years and still are flourishing,” Roswell said, “I believe that the demand for high-end finishing will never disappear.”

To download the IT Strategies white paper, “The Evolution of the Book Industry: Implications for U.S. Book Manufacturers and Printers,” visit