Just in time book publishing

HP used last week’s London Book Fair to announce a new set of cloud-based book publishing services called Piazza. This allows publishers to build a virtual warehouse for the management, automation, distribution, print, and direct fulfilment of book orders, while holding zero inventory.

From Left: Stephen Jones, International Production Director for Pearson, with Rob Hutcheson, managing director of Ashford Print Services.

Piazza is really an extension of HP’s PrintOS Site Flow. So the idea is that publishers will upload their titles into the Piazza cloud, where they can be routed to a book printer running HP equipment. Piazza optimises the files for printing on the PageWide inkjet web and Indigo presses. This of course also assumes that publishers have not already embraced the idea that digital printing would allow them to print books as and when they are needed and save a fortune in warehousing. But this very concept is the cornerstone of all digital book printing.

However, HP’s argument appears to be that as digital book printing is growing, so there is a greater need to manage the associated files. Eric Wiesner, Vice president and general manager for HP’s PageWide Industrial division,says that inkjet book printing is continuing to grow, claiming that about 40 percent of all digitally printed books are printed on a HP device, and that this is about 4 percent of all books in the publishing industry. He says: “The e-book market has been declining by about 20 percent over the last two years, while digitally printed books have gone up by about 7-8 percent in the last two years.”

This is echoed by Rob Hutcheson, Managing Director of Ashford Colour Press, notes that there have been some big changes for both publishers and book printers in the last ten years, adding: “Ten years ago we printed only litho and now 65 percent of our books are inkjet.”

Eric Wiesner, Vice president and general manager for HP PageWide Industrial division.

This in turn is putting more pressure on publishers to manage their files but is also opening up more possibilities to reduce their warehousing costs. Michelle Weir,Publishing innovation manager for HP’s Graphics solution business,says that publishers are moving from a business model of printing books, and paying to warehouse them whilst waiting to be paid for the books, to a new model of selling the book first and then printing it.

This is certainly true of Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishing groups, which is moving towards a ‘zero inventory’ model where every book is printed and immediately dispatched. Stephen Jones, Pearson’s International Production Director, explains: “Pearson is undergoing a digital transformation to become a simpler, more efficient business and our UK book supply chain is a key part of this.” He added: “We are moving from a ‘print to warehouse’ to a ‘print to order, direct to consumer’ model. Partnering with our print providers, HP Piazza will support us in managing our print workflow and optimizing our book supply chain to help reduce costs and better serve our customers.” He adds: “The key driver is the customer experience.”

Pearson, together with Ashford Colour Press has been trialling Piazza in the UK. Jones says that Pearsons was looking to rationalise its suppliers to give the remaining printers a greater volume of work and make it more attractive for them to work with the group. Pearson asked Ashford to tender for this work and Ashford explored different options, including working with HP as it developed Piazza. Hutcheson adds: “We did approach lots of other solution providers but Piazza gave us the whole process from the MIS to the dispatch.”

Michelle Weir, Publishing innovation manager for HP Graphics solution business.

So how does it work? Michelle Weir explains: “It’s a set of interlocking cloud-based services designed to put a tool kit in the hands of the publisher.” The system is split in two halves, between publisher and printer. The idea is that the publisher uploads the books into the system, complete with all the files to be printed, as well as the necessary metadata and ISBN number. The system assigns each book its own unique code. When an order comes in, Piazza routes it to the most appropriate print provider. There’s a dashboard so that the publisher can see how the system is working and that the printers are working to the Service Level Agreement or SLA.

The system uses rules set up by the publisher to automate the orders so that, for example, orders over a certain number could be sent to a litho printer. But the system could also send orders to the printer nearest to the customer so as to cut down on shipping costs. However, in this case the orders come from Pearson to Ashford’s MIS, which then sends the order to the SiteFlow production workflow. Piazza also oversees the fulfilment, with Ashford sending the book direct to the customer.

Ashford is free to gang orders together for greater production efficiencies. Weir adds: “That’s one of the major advantages, to be able to batch orders. You can impose them and drop them down to the RIP to keep the press running at its rated speed.” In practice, Hutcheson says that it also depends on the SLA in place, with Ashford currently working to a 72-hour turnaround for Pearson.

Hutcheson says: “Piazza is a gamechanger for Ashford in that we can expand our focus on supply chain initiatives and now offer true print-to-order, and book of one manufacturing. For the publishers, this means titles are always available, ‘never out of print’ and for us, exciting new opportunities to further strengthen our client relationships. Today, we are receiving hundreds of direct orders for titles stored in the Piazza repository, producing thousands of books – all printed to fulfil orders that the publisher has received, rather than to meet forecast sales.”

Piazza can check the specifications of a title and preflight the covers and the text to optimise those assets for the HP printers.

The beta system has been installed since December with Pearsons gradually uploading more and more titles. Now that it’s commercially available, with the launch of Piazza 1.0 it will include the ability to upload books in bulk.

Wiesner says that HP is only just getting started with Piazza, adding: “We want to reinvent books. We want to add features like watermarks and other types of codes that could enable more depth in the books to work with a mobile device.”

But HP has even more ambitious plans for Piazza. Jan Van Daele, Publishing innovation manager for HP’s Graphics solution business in Europe says that Piazza could be expanded to cover other applications such as labels and packaging. Ultimately of course, Piazza is about locking both printers and their customers into an eco-system where only HP printers can be used. This may well have benefits in the short term, but we should all be wary of the long-term implications of locking customers up and down the supply chain in to a single supplier situation.

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