Lessons from the Printing Industry

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was simply uneconomical to think in terms of small production runs. Indeed, the term “economy-of-scale” alludes to the notion that it’s cheaper to produce a lot of something because the price per unit is reduced the more you produce. This economy-of-scale idea has been especially true in the printing business, where most of overall price for printing something was tied up in the initial setup costs of creating the artwork, producing the plates and setting the presses up for the print run. Of course it doesn’t just apply to the printing process… cars, furniture, food and most other things are cheaper to produce (per unit) if you make a lot of them, but the printing industry is a great example.

When I was at art school in the 80s, I did a lot of screen printing, and this was again a classic example of the way scale affected production cost. About 97% of the time and money required to produce a screened image was consumed in the preparation stage… preparing the screens, creating the artwork, mixing the inks, cleaning up after each colour was printed, and so on, and it added up to hours and hours of time. The time to actually transfer the ink and print each image was measured in mere seconds, making it seem ridiculous to spend all that time preparing the artwork unless you then printed enough copies to make it worthwhile. For fine art screen printing it is not unusual to do print runs of 100+ just to make all the prep work worth it.

I also dabbled with four colour separations. Not only was this was a very time consuming, labour intensive process, but it was quite expensive. Getting artwork ready for colour sep work involved scanning the image into 4 different plates – one each for cyan, magenta, yellow and black – and the cost just to prepare a single image often ran to hundreds of dollars.

And then as computers started to appear, all of that changed. Producing colour separated artwork in Photoshop is a now just a menu click. To me, this is evidence that when technology changes the old way of doing something, it does so in dramatic and revolutionary ways. The important point here is that the computer didn’t just make colour sep work a LITTLE bit cheaper and a LITTLE bit quicker… it totally revolutionised it. The processes and techniques changed radically, literally almost overnight, and the costs and technical overheads involved in that sort of work just vaporised to almost nothing… proof that when the right technology brings along the right change at the right time, the old ways can become immediately redundant.

But I want to come back to this economy-of-scale idea… for a while now we have talked about the way the Internet has democratised society. We’ve heard how the new Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, podcasting and so on, have enabled individuals to have a voice in a landscape where previously only big players like major media outlets could have had one. Blogging has brought the individual back to prominence again and changed the way in which people can share their ideas with the rest of the world. There is no economy of scale with Web 2.0. It doesn’t matter if your audience is 5 or 5 million… the cost to speak your mind, in terms of both time and money, is exactly the same. This is true in a web enabled world.

I was surprised to find a service this week from a company called Blurb. Blurb prints books. But the neat thing about Blurb’s approach is that they don’t require a massive print run to make it economical to do so; in fact they can print books individually. Blurb is an obvious extension to the Personal Book concept that Apple introduced with iPhoto, but what amazes me is the prices Blurb charge for what they do.

I write another blog from our time in Canada which I’m keen to turn into a printed form someday, and it seems that Blurb can extract everything I’ve written – including all 800+ photos – and print me a full colour, 300 page, hard bound book for less than $60! That is extraordinary! But apart from the fact that it’s a great price for what seems to be a great product, what stuns me most is the fact that we have reached a technological point where the economy-of-scale can now be reached at an individual level… and not just online, but also in a physical form. The fact that we can now produce a full colour, hard bound book for a single individual, at a price that could only previously be achieved through mass-scale printing runs, suggests to me that something very significant has happened to the way we can process information on a very small scale and still do it economically. This is about more than just cheap printing… To me, this is further proof that the world has shifted yet again towards the scale of the individual, a world where the unique needs and wants of an individual CAN be met, effectively and economically, with the right technology.

The bigger question is how will schools respond to this changing landscape?  With their predominantly one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and their 19th century production line mentality of moving students along a fixed continuum of content at a steady lock-step pace, how will our schools respond to this emerging age of the individual?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Lessons from the Printing Industry by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

0 Replies to “Lessons from the Printing Industry”

  1. This is an incredible resource. I’m thinking about all the photographs that I have taken since getting my digital camera and how few of them I have had “developed” (is this still the word to use???). What a great way to preserve memories! I wish I had learned of it sooner, would have made an excellent Christmas gift!

  2. Chris

    What worries me is if we look back 10 years at all the information that was stored electronically back then, it is on systems and languages we have trouble accessing today. So to say it is great that we can put all this info into various electronic forms could possibly be a great hindrance to us in the future.
    I have always thought of all the great visual/digital memories people have sitting in their computers, in years to come the future generations may not be able to access these images due to improvements technology or worse the computer dies.
    At present we all have photos of our ancestors sitting in a box somewhere we can pull out and show our children. What will our grandchildren do in the future.
    It is important to have these documents and images on a media that will stand the test of time. This printing service you speak of sound like a great idea to preserve our present for future generations.

    NOTE TO ALL READERS: please print your photos so your grandkids can enjoy them too.

  3. That’s true Grant. I can’t find a reader for a 5.25 inch floppy disk that I used to store the original Suzuki Club Driver training document that I wrote many years ago… I still have the disk, but no way to read it. It’s becoming harder to buy a computer with a floppy disk. CDs have given way to DVDs which in turn are giving way to BluRay or HD-DVD (we don’t know who will win that little battle just yet). There’s no doubt the formats will change over time.
    I do think though, that digital media has become SO pervasive in the last 5 years that there will be greater consideration given to the idea of backward compatibility… in the same way that DVD drives can also read CDs. The basic storage methodology of saving digital files, I can’t see that changing too much, although the compression algorithms will undoubtedly get better in the future. It’s an interesting problem.
    And even though, as you say, there is a certain security to having photos in hard copy, you know as well as anyone the convenience that comes from digitising those resources, as we did for the Suzuki Club archives earlier this year.
    I’ve been making good use of the Apple iPhoto Books as a way of creating a tangible product from our photos, and I’ve have amazingly positive responses to them. We need to make sure we do print the great photos, while making sure our digital collections are intelligently archived for the future.

  4. I am part of a start up company, and after reading your post on Blurb, I thought you might like to know about beta iMemoryBook as well. It is an online memory book system that we just released. Unlike blurb there is nothing to download because it is all Web 2.0 (drag and drop). Plus it is completely collaborative. You whole family can get together and create a book.

    I have personally published 7 books with the iMemoryBook system. I think i am addicted.

    Take a look at it. http://imemorybook.com/memory-book

    Next year we will be releasing a import feature that works for:

    Blogs, MS Word, and even Online Obituaries

    Happy Christmas,

    Jeff Harmon
    Team iMemoryBook

  5. Thanks Jeff. I deliberated about releasing your post at first… I wouldn’t normally approve such a commercial comment on my blog, but I’m sure you had the best intentions despite your obvious vested interest in the product. At least you were up front about it.  Thanks for letting us know about your product, and I wish you good luck with it.

    By the way, just had a look at your site and while the concept of it being a Web2.0 application is very interesting, at $1 per colour page it seems far more expensive than Blurb?    I have absolutely no commercial affiliation with Blurb whatsoever, but according to their site a 300 page, full colour, hard bound book costs $59.95…  based on your site’s FAQ the same thing would cost me over $300, is that right?


  6. Good question. iMemoryBooks start at $1 per color page, $0.15 per b&w page. As soon as you print quantity pages your prices begin to drop, for example (lets compare to Blurb’s 201-300 page price):

    A 200 page book would be:
    $114 Color book
    $24 B&W book
    A 300 page book would be:
    $164 Color book
    $29 B&W book
    (You can also mix and match your books 50/50 color/black and white. You can find a book pricing calculator in the “publish” section of your book)

    Plus, for a small cost, you can add ribbons, print in leather, print with die cuts, and other things.

    From there you get quantity discounts. I hope this clarifies things.

    Jeff Harmon

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?