Ingram’s Lightning Print operation outside of Melbourne isn’t massive (at least not yet), but it sure has a lot of capabilities. It can deliver hardbacks as well as paperbacks, color as well as just black, and pretty much an infinite number of trim sizes. It’s built for true POD, meaning runs of one copy, but it is being used for short-run digital. I am told that the vast majority of the books delivered are runs of one, but I saw a few that looked like 10 or more in the various machines on our tour.
While I don’t know the actual annual output, I do know there has been very steady growth since the operation was launched in 2012 and it may even be accelerating as the market learns that it is here and figures out how to use it.
Expanding its use isn’t a trivial challenge. In the US and UK, wholesalers list the titles set up for digital delivery as “available” so stores and libraries and online resellers access them seamlessly from established sources of supply. But there are no significant stockholding wholesalers serving the trades over here. Stores do their ordering direct from publishers. So the 18 million titles that are “set up” at Lightning (which, for rights reasons, are not all available in this marketplace), and even the four million that are “priced” for Australia (in local currency), are not necessarily known to the parts of the supply chain that interact with the buying public.
There is an internet bookseller here called Booktopia, which long precedes Amazon’s arrival in this market a couple of years ago. Tony Nash, who runs that company, told me that he actually stocks a copy or two of many of the titles printed-on-demand by Lightning. When he told me that, he maintained that this was to improve the service to his customers. That was counterintuitive to me, because there are so few books that require immediate delivery to satisfy demand. Most of the time waiting a few days would hardly matter.
But Nash believes in his predictive algorithms — so the stocking results in very little actual waste even if it ties up some capital — and he points out another aspect of how the margins play out from his perspective. His average order is 2-3 books. He pays the freight. So the difference between being able to put the whole order into one shipment and having to split it has a major impact on his margins.
Another complicating factor here is that freight costs from Australia to New Zealand are very steep, reducing dramatically the value of the more-localized delivery of these books for New Zealand-based customers.
Nonetheless, the growth is steady in both Australia and New Zealand and both global and local publishers are finding it useful to have books available through the service. Four million titles available in this market through Lightning is a mind-boggling number if you compare it to what was really available here five or ten or twenty years ago. It isn’t an increment, it’s a multiple.
Another aspect of having Lightning “understood” in this market had escaped me until Lightning folks pointed it out. The global capability it delivers — a single database that can make a printing happen here, in the US, in the UK, and in other places in the world including Germany — offers a way to the world for publishers who are based here. Now an Australian or New Zealand publisher can use global Internet capabilities to promote their books and actually have them deliverable anywhere in the world without inventory investment or risk. Ingram Spark, the Web-based service they offer to enable small publishers and self-publishers to deliver books and ebooks, is being discovered here as a way to facilitate global sales.
Of course, the initial motivation for a local publisher to put a title into the database might be to make export easier, but once it is there it is available through the service here as well. So the “just in case” capability I referred to in the last post is achieved for local publishers seeking export to be employed if there is a local spike in demand. Just like it is there for US- and UK-based publishers to use locally even if their initial motivation to set up the title was to make it more efficiently available outside their home market.
Ingram has a fabulous tool called iPage, the way booksellers around the world keep up with what they’ve got to sell them. They have been rolling iPage out in this market, and will continue to. Ultimately that will be the way that the intermediaries between Lightning and the end customers find the books that are available and get them to end customers. This is analogous to how the microfiche launched Ingram as a major wholesaler in the 1970s in the US: once booksellers and libraries know what books are there, they will order them. Versions of “build it and they will come”.
So there are definitely challenges to deal with to make this capability as useful as it could be for both the publishers and their customers in this market. One would imagine that volume growth could ameliorate the cost-of-freight problem for shipments to New Zealand. (The market is too small for a local printer to make sense, at least not for a long time.) There is definitely a learning curve on iPage for booksellers and librarians to get the maximum value from it. But the title base just continues to grow, both of books originating here and around the world. As people learn to use iPage, it will grow faster. I can easily imagine that the day will come when Ingram will be able to point to titles that achieved significant sales in Australia and New Zealand because they were in Lightning that would not have if they hadn’t been. That kind of evidence, as it piles up, will accelerate the transition.
Transformations take time. But one is definitely happening here.