Clays, a 19-acre print shop that employs 700 people in Suffolk, the UK, is reporting growth in its business, which it contends is due to the falling sales of e-books. Clays is best known for printing the UK editions of the Harry Potter books, so it knows a thing or three about large-batch printing. But Clays is not exactly opposed to using new technology itself, to make smaller batches possible. It has invested in new printing equipment that allows it to print anywhere from 500,000 copies of a book over a few weeks to a single copy for one consumer overnight.
The article suggests that this is due, in part, to Waterstones dropping the Kindle from its stores last autumn. (It might also have something to do with Barnes & Noble outright deserting the UK e-reader market more recently, though the article doesn’t say so.)
In any event, with this new equipment, Clays has considerably more flexibility in how it makes books available. The new ability to print on demand for individual customers or in small batches for bookshops means less need for warehousing stock—another of the benefits traditionally associated with e-books. Though sales are down from recent years, they appear to have stabilized since 2015.
The report said: “Sentiment within the physical book market has improved, with e-reader penetration appearing to have levelled off within the UK and the US and with physical book volumes stable for the first time in a number of years.”
The most interesting thing is that print-on-demand technology is maturing enough to be used by major print shops. Articles predicting a bright future for print-on-demand have been popping up for almost twenty years, but when such a big printing business invests in the technology, it’s a clear sign that maturity is finally here—at least for some businesses. Imagine a 19-acre large-batch printing business also being able to serve the needs of one customer or one bookstore so readily even a handful of years ago!
But on the other hand, the UK is so much smaller than the US that it’s difficult to imagine the same sort of thing would work so well over here. You’d probably need print-on-demand shops of that size in almost every state to have the same sort of reach, and I can’t see the Big Five publishers investing in that kind of infrastructure here. But you never know.