Photo Books: Updating the Family Album

by Nancy Cates, contributing writer, PostPress
Photo books provide binders and finishers a unique opportunity to offer complementary services to their customers.

As a result of digital technology, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to capture life’s special moments. While most digital photos end up solely on Facebook, Twitter or other social media accounts, physical prints are making a comeback. This resurgence represents a unique opportunity for binders and finishers looking to provide complementary services for their customers, namely in the form of photo books. Representatives of the printing, bindery, equipment and supply sectors offered PostPress their thoughts on today’s photo book opportunities, equipment and trends.

Some 600 million units of photo merchandise were sold in 2015, and recent data from InfoTrends market consultants show that more than a third of those who create an electronic album, card or other product also are interested in buying a printed piece. Growth trends of printed photo products have averaged seven percent in recent years, with growth expected to stabilize at a three percent rate by the end of the decade.

FutureSource Consulting has projected that the photo book market in the US will exceed the $1 billion mark in 2016, and the global market is expected to add another $600 million in sales. With this in mind, printers and binderies are tapping into that segment. Some are expanding with traditional clients – for example, offering wedding photo books to individual clients along with wedding invitations. Others have focused on establishing partnerships with a business customer base.

“The photo book industry, just like most of the print world, is seeing a shift toward digital print technologies,” said Lance Martin, sales director for MBO America, a provider of postpress finishing solutions based in Marlton, New Jersey. “Demand for short runs is on the rise, and traditional print or finishing processes are not made for the short-run environment. Photo book printers are looking for fast makeready times, ease of use and high-quality end product to meet the needs of the short-run digital environment without sacrificing quality.”

MBO America began offering the BSR line of equipment about four years ago to meet the need for diecutting solutions that fit the short-run production environment associated with digital printing. The BSR 550 basic rotary diecutter offers fixed cut-sheet diecutting with pile feeder, rotary diecutter, inline waste removal and shingled stream delivery. The BSR 550 servo rotary diecutter is compatible with cut-sheet or web-fed production and works for those running a wide range of cut die products.

“All flatbed diecutters have to ‘nick’ the outer matrix in the sheet to remove scrap from the die,” Martin explained. “Both BSR 550 basic and servo produce ‘nickless’ product, giving the service provider a huge competitive advantage: It can strip the scrap from the product and take the scrap matrix away without nicks or a secondary operation, and the dies are capable of a layout accuracy that a flatbed cannot make.”

“Nearly all those (binders/finishers) who are interested in producing photo books already have the necessary equipment and capabilities on hand,” he continued. “However, printers who invest by upgrading their existing equipment to finishing systems built for the short-run digital environment have the potential for tremendous increases in production efficiency. Our experience has been that those who buy one BSR unit often come back to buy more.”

Spiral Binding – a manufacturer and distributor of binding, laminating, paper handling, photo finishing and custom imprinting equipment and supplies – offers the patented Pinchbook™ line of photo book products. The design of the spring-clamp cover does not require tools or equipment.

“It’s perfect for the short-run digital photo market,” said Sara Kaufer, a Spiral marketing associate. “Because PinchbookTM takes only moments to make, little staff training is needed. For private branding, Spiral offers custom printing or debossing, which can be done in small- or larger-volume production runs. With more outlets for digital printing becoming available, the market for PinchbookTM has increased consistently year after year.”

She continued, “Because of the ease and simplicity of use, integrating the photo finishing product mix to Spiral’s existing portfolio of products was conducted with ease. It has opened a new mix of customers who had previously not been familiar with all of our product offerings.”

“Digital printing is driving investment,” said Bill Hingle, Spiral’s director of marketing. “Costs of using the digital platform have come down significantly in recent years, and that growth has fueled investment in various binding methods. Our larger volume in-house print service providers are looking to upgrade and add to their capabilities. We have a large product and service offering, and we can help grow their businesses by allowing them to trade up.”

Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., Agawam, Massachusetts, got into the photo book business several years ago when the company – along with other binders – was approached by Hewlett Packard to consider adding digital printing to its existing business. Bridgeport, which has been in business nearly 70 years, was established as a traditional, conservation/restoration binder and textbook rebinder heavily used by libraries and educational clients.

“HP knew binding was the issue,” said Michele Brennan, vice president of business development for Bridgeport. “Large binding machines take an hour to set up, so it was impossible to do a book of one and make money, but we had the processes, staff and equipment in place. We hired someone to do the programming to make it all work.”

Digital technology has made it easier and cheaper than ever to capture life’s special moments.

Now, she says, online customers can use such platforms as Blurb and Lulu to create their books. The customer chooses from a set of layouts and covers, and then submits the order. The book project comes to Bridgeport electronically, with the printing and binding specifications encoded. It is automatically separated by text and cover needed, sent to the proper pieces of equipment, printed, collated for assembly and binding, and prepared for labeling and shipping.

While photo books do not represent a large portion of Bridgeport’s business, Brennan said, “the opportunity presented itself, and we don’t need to do the marketing – our customers do it. Now there are so many online tools, the business is segmented.”

Unibind, a manufacturer of photo books and binding equipment for the behind-the-counter retail market, was one of the first companies to originally enter the market, according to Jeff Atkinson, Unibind’s vice president for photo in North America and Australia. Its products are sold in major retail chains such as Walgreens, Target, CVS and Sam’s Club, as well as photo specialty shops, commercial printers, binderies and cruise lines in more than 130 countries.

“Unibind is renowned for its super-fast binding, laminating and presentations systems,” Atkinson said. “Due to high interest in the photo market, Unibind began adding technology to its current line of presentation books to add sophistication and ability to incorporate photos into its offerings.”

Worldwide demand led Unibind to create an entire department dedicated to photo books. The UniFoilPrinter can complement the traditional foil stamping process, Atkinson said, and includes a software package designed to produce books and prints. It can print text, drawings or logos directly on flat, smooth, semi-smooth and coated surfaces. Colors can be combined in one print, and the latest software release offers an import function for PDF files. The newly developed UniPaper allows bound documents to lay flat with a panoramic view across facing pages.

“The UniCover System’s built-in crimper allows users to professionally bind materials by creating a precise fit around the documents,” he continued. “The system is compatible with existing stock covers, making the switch to the new system seamless.” Atkinson added that he has seen a trend toward custom covers and larger sizes in photo books as family keepsakes or for gifts.

Other trends, according to David Ashton, vice president of sales and marketing at Linemark, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, include faster distribution with higher expectations of quality and consistency.

“Each player – whether large and trying to maintain or smaller and looking to grow – is seeking consistency to support their individual brand, similar to a franchise model for manufacturing,” Ashton said. “We also are seeing the packaging element playing a larger role. Between protection and branding, the creativity and innovation is amazing.”

“Originally, the market was moving faster than the manufacturers and the software,” he said. “There was and is a tremendous amount of creativity involved in setting up the manufacturing lines and general integrations. Certainly all aspects of manufacturing, from software to press to bindery, have now jumped in front of the market and are providing some great solutions. While our experience is invaluable, our business still requires an innovative and creative culture to navigate the unique requirements of this market.”

Automation and shelf life are the items of focus when Linemark adds equipment for photo book creation, Ashton said. The company is looking for fewer steps with more consistent results, along with adaptability for future needs.

“We increased printing capacity on the digital printing stage with three new HP Indigos recently,” Ashton said. “On the bindery side, we have added a Kolbus casemaker, numerous laminators and book bindery equipment including PUR, stitching, book assembly, shrink wrapping and packaging equipment. Because this portion of our revenue was net new, it has increased our operators, management and administrative team.”

“The opportunity was presented to us as more of a test case because we were into digital printing early in the technology curve,” he continued. “We were already seeing the value of personalization and perceived this as a market that could add significant organic growth if it caught on as anticipated. Originally it was on the fringe of our business model but today fits squarely into the direction and strategy of the business. We are seeing more volume and revenue within our current partners and are adding new partners on a regular basis.”

As digital print technologies become more mainstream, photo book printers are in a unique position to take advantage of emerging short-run solutions. Today, more and more machines are being designed to meet the needs of the short-run digital environment, allowing more printers and finishers to produce high-quality photo books without sacrificing speed or quality.