June 28, 2011
Where Are Your Printing Presses?
When people visit InterVarsity Press, they often ask where the printing presses are. I show them our copiers—the closest thing we’ve got. Our books are printed all over the country and sometimes around the world—all on printing presses owned by others. Even the biggest publishers do not own printing presses. Why?
In the early days of moveable type, printers and publishers were pretty much the same people. But over the years, even when a company did both, they have tended to go separate ways. There are several reasons.
First, printing presses are multi-million dollar pieces of machinery that usually need to operate 24/7 to be profitable. No publishing house, no matter how big, has enough sales to keep one busy. So you’d have to find jobs from other publishers to keep your equipment running.
Second, printing presses are also specialized. Some do one color, some four. Some do mass market books, some large format. Most publishers produce a wide variety of formats and use a wide variety of papers. So again, they don’t have enough of one format or use enough of one kind of paper to keep a press going full time.
Third, if a publisher owns printing presses, the publisher can’t shop around to see if a better price is available from a competitor, or several competitors. You are committed to using your own equipment.
In addition, once you invest in a multi-million dollar piece of machinery, you want to keep it going for many years. You can’t just replace it with next year’s updated model with all the new gadgetry. But if you outsource printing, you can take advantage of the latest technology because some printer somewhere will make the investment.
One exception that proves the rule is print-on-demand publishing. Even here, though, the vast majority of publishers outsource to print-on-demand printers (when they have the need) rather than take on this investment. And print-on-demand books usually have a retail price a few dollars higher than those printed traditionally. But for specialized books that would otherwise be hard to get, customers are often willing to pay.
In short printing and publishing are very different (though related) businesses—as different (and related) as publishing and the retail book business. They have different business models, different networks of customers and suppliers, and require different sensibilities. While “Press” is part of our name, it’s just not a part of our game.