Print on Demand Turns Book Publishing Upside Down

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Ingram's Lightning Source division now prints 2 million books a month.
Ingram’s Lightning Source division now prints 2 million books a month.

Odds are increasing that a book ordered online hasn’t been printed yet. Nashville-based Ingram Content Group runs one of the book industry’s largest “print on demand” operations. Printing one copy at a time is a lonely bright spot for the traditional book industry, which has suffered as e-readers soar.

Roughly a billion more pages are being printed this way each month, according to research from IT Strategies. The driving force is a (not so) little company named Amazon.

“We actually show Amazon that we have 100 books on hand but we really have none,” says Larry Brewster, who helped found Ingram’s print on demand division called Lightning Source. “But we print the book real fast and ship it out within 24 hours, and they don’t know the difference.”


Ingram’s original facility sits near the company’s headquarters in LaVergne. Rolls of paper six miles long zip through printers in a blur of gray.

Printers have sped up over the last decade and now can do high resolution photos and color.
Printers have sped up over the last decade and now can do high resolution photos and color.

“These machines, when we started out [in 1998], would print maybe 500 or 600 pages a minute,” Brewster says. “Now they’re printing 2500 pages a minute.”

Those pages are collated just as quick and the edges chopped smooth. Only when the covers are slapped on is it clear – these are all different books coming off the same line.

And print technology has gotten so good, it’s hard to tell that the books didn’t come off a traditional press.

Warehouse vs. Database

“There’s a difference, but it’s really hard to discern,” says Bob Edington, a vice president at Nashville-based Thomas Nelson Publishers, which is moving more of its titles into the Lightning Source database.

Edington says it’s making less sense to keep some books on the shelves collecting dust when they’re only going to sell a few copies a year. Still, he says consumers expect to be able to purchase anything they’ve ever heard of.

“With online and digital storage, there is infinite shelf space,” he says. “So if it’s available and someone can find it, it could be very obscure, but someone will probably order it.”

It does cost more to print one copy at a time, but Eddington says money can also be wasted printing books that never sell.

Then sometimes the literary lottery hits, and someone like Glenn Beck spends an hour on TV calling Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom “brilliant.”

“Nobody would have thought a 1930s economic theory book would suddenly become a big seller,” says Ingram Content Group CEO Skip Prichard.

But the Lightning Source printers kept pace with tens of thousands of orders, Prichard says.


Besides being an answer for spikes in demand, Prichard sees a permanent way for the printed page to coexist with e-books, which is where the real growth in book publishing is.

“There are times when you might want a printed copy. And you could press the button on your device and we could make that book for you and have it at your house the next day,” he says. “We’re positioned to do that.”

Also in position is that goliath of book retailing – Amazon, meaning one of Ingram’s biggest clients is now a competitor.

Consultant Marco Boer with IT Strategies says the book printing world has been turned “upside down.”

“It’s a really dicey situation,” he says. “It’s causing a lot of uncomfortable conversations between publishers, between book printers, between retailers.”

Nashville’s Ingram Content Group is banking on being one of the middle men who makes it. The company expanded its Lightning Source operation late last month, with two new facilities in the U.S., and another in Germany.


Blake Farmer

Blake Farmer is WPLN's assistant news director, but he wears many hats - reporter, editor and host. He covers the Tennessee state capitol while also keeping an eye on Fort Campbell and business trends, frequently contributing to national programs. Born in Tennessee and educated in Texas, Blake has called Nashville home for most of his life.
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