Book Printing

SIC 2732

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category includes establishments primarily engaged in printing or in printing and binding books and pamphlets, but not engaged in publishing. Establishments primarily engaged in publishing or in both publishing and printing books and pamphlets are classified in SIC 2731: Books: Publishing, or Publishing and Printing. Establishments engaged in both printing and binding books but primarily binding books printed elsewhere are classified in SIC 2789: Bookbinding and Related Work.

Industry Snapshot

The earliest printing techniques were developed in China in the second century A.D. The printing industry was inaugurated in the Western world when Johannes Gutenberg, Johann Fust, and Peter Schoffer invented movable type and the printing press around the middle of the fifteenth century, which they used to produce the first printed books in the Western world. Printing came to the United States with some of the earliest English immigrants. The first book printed in the new world was the Bay Psalm Book, printed by Stephen Day in 1640. Since that time, design improvements and new inventions have made the process quicker and less costly. Almost from the beginning, printing and publishing were separate enterprises, and not much has changed. In the twenty-first century, publishers decide what to print and how it will look, and printers put the words on the page to the publishers' specifications.

The book printing and book publishing industries are closely intertwined, however. In 2008, 3.1 billion books were sold in the United States, according to the Book Industry Study Group, reaching a value of $40.3 billion. The continued movement toward automation, computerization, and other new technologies spurred radical changes in the industry. Desktop typesetting and formatting at the point of origin (the author), digitized color scanning and imaging, electronic publishing over the World Wide Web, e-books, and new media formats available for the conveyance of information constituted some of the driving forces of the industry.

Book printers generally are divided into two categories: long-run printers and short-run printers. For the largest book printers, such as R.R. Donnelley and Sons Co. and Quebecor World Inc., book printing was just one of several types of printing services they offered. Short-run printers, on the other hand, tended to specialize in book printing. They typically offer publishers both hard and soft-cover printing on editions of 500 to 15,000 copies.

Organization and Structure

Historically, books are separated into many different categories, such as trade; mass market paperbacks; textbooks; and scientific, technical, reference, and professional books. These have been marketed through traditional bookstores, super- or mega-bookstores, book clubs, and via direct-mail order and the World Wide Web. The book printing industry is influenced by several factor, including the publishing industry in general with its mass and specialized book marketing, the economy at large, and technological innovations, particularly those relating to increased quality or production.

The publication of books in the United States is characterized by a clear division of labor between book printer and book publisher. The publisher selects the books to be printed, makes all of the decisions regarding the appearance of the final product, from page layout and illustrations to type font and paper quality, and finances the production. The printer takes either a camera-ready copy or a film negative and reproduces it in the quantities required by the publisher on the paper specified, which is often already purchased by the publisher. The printer's role in the publishing process is one of reproduction rather than production.

Depending on whether the publisher supplies the camera-ready copy, a phototypeset film negative, or a computer text file, the printer's job begins either with making film negatives of each page or printing plates. In some cases, graphic artists working for the publisher take the corrected typeset hard copy of the text and lay out each page with any necessary graphics. These camera-ready pages, called mechanicals, are then sent on to the printer. The printer then photographs these mechanicals to produce the film copy necessary in the plate-making process. With recent advances in computer graphics capabilities, many computer systems can bypass both the layout process and the photographing process. Computer programs combine text and graphics, so page layout can be done on a computer rather than the drafting table. Hardware peripherals generate output in the form of a film, ready for plate-making.

Metal, paper, or plastic plates are what actually place the images of the text onto the paper. Using photochemical processes, the image to be printed is transferred from the film negative onto the plate. The prepared plate has image areas that chemically accept ink, and can therefore pass the ink onto a piece of paper. Conversely, non-image areas chemically repel ink and therefore pass nothing on to the paper, leaving spaces between the letters, images, and lines.

Having made the plates, the printer begins the reproduction process. Most printing is offset, which tends to produce a clearer image than direct printing. The inked plates pass a reverse image onto a rubber sheet, which then passes a positive image onto the paper. Black and white graphics and text-only pages need pass through the machine only once to produce the complete image. Color pictures complicate the process, however, and are usually sent through several times for different colored inks. After the actual printing, some print shops also bind the books; others ship the unbound product back to the publisher or to the bindery.

Background and Development

It is generally believed that the Chinese invented the earliest printing. During the second century A.D., they carved religious texts and images into marble columns around their temples. Devotees and pilgrims would ink the columns and press paper to them to make their own copies of the text. Small seals were carved for similar purposes, and by the sixth century, artisans carved wood blocks with which to make prints. The oldest known printed works were made with wood blocks in Japan in the eighth century. A million Buddhist charms were printed on paper and distributed to followers around 770 A.D. One of the oldest extant printed books, the Diamond Sutra, which is a Chinese version of the Buddhist scriptures, was printed in 868 A.D. using wooden blocks on seven sheets of paper attached at the top and bottom ends to form a single 16-foot roll. Although movable clay block type had been invented nearly 400 years earlier, it took the rebirth of knowledge, an abundant paper supply, ink that could be applied to metal and transferred to paper, a wooden press, and the availability of an alphabet to allow printing to become a major force in communication.

The geographical containment of Europe and sociological needs of the Renaissance, along with four essential elements (paper, ink from painters, a press from the olive and grape vineyards, and metal casting from the goldsmiths), set the stage for typography. Nonetheless, it took yet another 500 years for the age of automated typesetting and computer generated camera-ready copy to arrive.

Papermaking, a necessary predecessor to printing, came to Europe via the Arabian presence in Spain between the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. Woodcarving prints survive from the fourteenth century, but the printing industry really started in Germany in 1455 with the invention of metal movable type and a printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Gutenberg made molds of individual letters that could produce many type pieces of the same letter, all identical. The printer arranged the pieces in a composing stick in the proper order and fastened each stick onto the press, which could print many copies of each page. Type pieces could then be removed from the composing stick and revised for the next page.

In the first century of printing, printers were publishers and publishers were printers--that is, the printer decided what to print and provided the initial financial investment, and the publisher did the rest. In the sixteenth century, for example, as the church and different governments gained control over the trade and determined what would and would not be printed, these institutions granted licensing rights to only a small number of men to produce a small number of acceptable books. In England, booksellers were granted these rights rather than the printers, and the printers lost the power to decide what to print, giving rise to the publishing industry. The English booksellers' guild, called the Stationers' Co., had the authority to inspect any printing office and destroy unauthorized publications; the members of the company became the sole (legal) publishers in the country, and law-abiding printers worked on commissioned jobs.

Printing and publishing have always been separate ventures in the United States. The Reverend Jose Glover, who might rightfully be called the father of printing in the United States, brought the first printing press from England to America in 1638 and hired Stephen Day, a locksmith, to do the printing. Glover died during the voyage, and the press was passed on to his wife, who brought it to the newly established Harvard College. The first president of Harvard, Henry Dunster, oversaw the 1640 printing by Stephen Day and his son, Matthew, of the first book in this country, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter (also known as the Bay Psalm Book).

The history of the U.S. printing industry is essentially the history of the technology. Minor changes in design and processes eventually became continuous improvements in the speed and efficiency of the presses, and major new inventions periodically altered production. In the process of stereotype, for instance, molds were made for each page before printing in order to free the type pieces before the printing process, which in turn allowed more than one press to be used simultaneously. By the end of the next century, photography was applied to the process, and - was invented. This process used film, light, and chemical reactions to engrave the text on a thin plate that was then used for printing. Desktop publishing capabilities have demystified the process of printing. By the late twentieth century, authors familiar with various type styles, point sizes, and page formats could adapt their computer-generated text at the point of origin to the styles required by publishers.

Composition, the process of setting the type, also underwent several changes. By the late nineteenth century, the invention of the Linotype and monotype machines improved typesetting speeds over hand composition. The first quarter of the twentieth century was characterized by innovative and creative breakthroughs in typography, such as sans serif type, which were driven by consumer needs rather than artistic design. In the middle of the twentieth century, the invention of computers revolutionized typesetting once again. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the type was set on the computer to be produced as a hard copy on paper to be photographed to make the plates or to generate the image on film to be used immediately to produce a plate. Some machines could make plates directly from the computer file, sidestepping the film stage completely.

The medium for printed matter was rapidly changing. CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web, with its ability to transmit text, color images, and even full-motion color video, provided new media for the printed word. Once data or text was entered into a computer for book production, it was an easy step to transmit it over the wire to a publisher or a consumer.

Predictably, the printing industry was affected by general economic trends. During the economic growth years of the early 1980s, the industry grew tremendously. The recession of the early 1990s brought this growth to a stop. The modest recovery that began in the mid-1990s, however, helped the printing industry regain its strength during the late 1990s. Book sales in all categories remained strong in the late 1990s, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP). In 1998, U.S. consumers spent $28.7 billion on books, while the AAP estimated total net sales of books for 1998 at $23 billion.

Acquisitions and mergers in the printing industry took place as the industry leaders became even larger. In September 1999 Quebecor Printing, then the second largest book printer in North America, announced it would acquire World Color Inc. for $2.7 billion. The new company, called Quebecor World Inc., was the largest magazine printer in the United States.

The book printing industry stayed fairly healthy into the first decade of the 2000s. Book sales in 2004 surpassed $23.7 billion, and shipment values for U.S. book printers were $4.9 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

New media formats continued to redefine the word "printing" to include a variety of media, including CD-ROMs, electronic publishing, and other products. Many reference books and technical manuals were sold with accompanying CD-ROMs. Furthermore, the perception of the industry changed as the diversification of media for transmitting information increased. Growing attention was paid to the marketing end of the printed or produced product, to digital technology, and to establishing a place on the information highway via whatever process is necessary.

In the mid-2000s, digital printing was still an emerging technology. A report by Interquest estimated that only 5 percent of the book market utilized digital printing, primarily in the category of black-and-white manuals. Ten billion impressions, or marks on a page, were made by digital printing in 2004, accounting for only 5 percent of the market. In five years, however, that figure was expected to grow to 38 billion impressions, representing a 26 percent annual growth rate.

On a smaller scale, some companies used technology to circumvent book printers altogether. On Demand Books LLC installed the first Espresso Book Machine in July 2007 at the New York Public Library. The fully automated machine is capable of printing and binding individual paperback books for customers in mere minutes. Google Inc. also introduced technology to enable end-users to print the content of books on demand. The Google Book Search project intended to capture the digital content of every book on earth, making them searchable by keyword and, in the case of titles no longer protected by copyright restrictions, printable at no charge. By mid-2009 Google had digitized more than 7 million books.

So-called "e-books," which consumers can download electronically via the Internet to devices like computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and special e-book readers, remained a growth category within the book publishing industry and pulled business from the book printing industry. In 2006, $54.4 million in e-books were sold, a 24.1 percent increase over the previous year. Nevertheless, at that time they represented less than 1 percent of the U.S. book industry. In the romance category, however, e-books were tremendously popular. According to Forbes, romance leader Harlequin digitized most of its new titles at the same time they were released in print. The consumers' desire for both discretion and the content of hundreds of titles on a handheld device are believed to account for the e-book's success in this category.

Current Conditions

The health of the book printing industry is closely tied to that of the book publishing industry, and economic pressures for both often correlate. Thus the book printing industry suffered along with the U.S. economy in the late 2000s. Still, sales for the book printing industry reached $1.1 billion in 2008, according to Dun and Bradstreet's Industry Reports. Massachusetts accounted for 27 percent of the nation's sales. Other top states in terms of revenues were Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Although some industry experts predicted the demise of the book printing industry in light of the technological advances of the early twenty-first century, others held that print was indeed not dead. According to a 31 August 2009 article in Newsweek, the number of books in print in 2008 rose 38 percent, after rising at the same rate the previous year. The author of this Newsweek article, however, acknowledged that the increase in books on demand contributed to these figures. In 2009 confidence in the printed book's future was evidenced by the signing of one of the largest book printing agreements in North America by Worldcolor Publishing Services and Macmillan. According to Internet Wire, Worldcolor will print 800 million major trade bestsellers, textbooks and mass market (paperback) books over a several-year period. Macmillan CEO John Sargent commented on the decision to enter the agreement: "We see increasing demand for shorter-runs, quicker productions turns, better distribution and innovative technology solutions."

Industry Leaders

A few large corporations dominated the book printing industry in the late 2000s. Some were part of large conglomerates that also owned publishing houses. Two of the largest U.S. book printers, Berryville Graphics and Offset Paperback Manufacturing, were part of Bertelsmann AG, a German-based corporation with expertise in entertainment, publishing, printing, and distribution. Bertelsmann also owned Random House publishing group, which had overall sales of $2.6 billion in 2007.

The largest printing companies had subsidiaries all over the country and the world. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., headquartered in Chicago, had operations in nearly 200 worldwide locations, including manufacturing operations in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. It had about 90 sales offices and manufacturing locations in North America. In addition to its leadership position in printing books, as well as telephone and business-to-business directories, the company also was a leading North American printer of consumer and trade magazines and offered a wide range of other printing services. For 2008 Donnelley reported sales of $11.5 billion.

Montreal-based Quebecor Inc. was another leading North American book manufacturer in the late 2000s. It printed hundreds of millions of books annually, with a client list that included major U.S. book publishers. Both the parent company and its subsidiary grew through a series of acquisitions, including the additions of book printers Arcata Corp. and William C. Brown. Quebecor's other print products, in addition to books and directories, included magazines like Time, Sunday magazines and comic books, inserts and circulars, catalogs, and specialty printing products. Quebecor Inc.'s annual sales reached $3.0 billion in 2008.


The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 32,735 individuals were employed by the 600 book printers in existence in the United States in 2007. At that time, printing companies employed skilled technicians, midlevel management, and high-level management. The actual production, however, was carried out by skilled workers using highly complex machines. Vocational and technical colleges offered training, as did some high schools and two-year colleges. Workers could often rise to mid-level management jobs, such as foreperson or production control. A college education was frequently required for the higher-level management positions. A few schools offered degrees in printing technology, but science, art, or business degrees also were helpful.

Printing occupations were divided into three main stages: prepress, press and binding, or postpress. The industry had moved into "digital imaging," or direct conversion of customer-submitted computerized text to printing plates by the late 2000s. Typesetting and layout was frequently done prior to coming to press and increasingly at the source. Authors produced their product on a preformatted computerized layout that was transmitted directly to the publisher via e-mail or disk. Hot-type composition was replaced with electronic type or computer-to-plate technology.

Research and Technology

Book printers became increasingly responsive to the needs of their different customers. Publishing firms that needed large quantities of best sellers were only one segment of their market. Demands for shorter runs and quicker turnaround in a computer environment increased. The printing industry sought new technology to meet these needs.

To help printers keep up with rapidly changing printing technologies, some of the manufacturers of book manufacturing machinery and systems set up the Book Technology Group in 1995. This international group held meetings and helped printers to utilize the latest in book production technology. Heidelberg, a well-known manufacturer, established a Print Media Academy to offer training opportunities within the industry. The academy, located in Heidelberg, Germany, served as the hub of a network that incorporated locations in other countries including the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Egypt, China, and Russia. In 2009 Heidelberg opened a branch in Amsterdam.

Small publishers and publishers producing books with limited appeal, such as university presses and the scholarship they support, frequently did not want large runs of books. Mass production required amble storage for the finished product, and was often an unrealistic expectation of the market. In response, book printers began to specialize in smaller runs with new computer composition techniques. Computer graphics produced illustrations more efficiently than draftsmen. New machinery introduced new methods of plate production directly from a computer file without the middle step of a film. Some companies could cost-effectively produce any number of books from 25 to 5,000.

Digital printing systems also had an impact on printing. Newer formats, such as CD-ROMS and web publishing, demanded new skills but increased profitability. Computer storage and laser technology meant that books would never be out of print. On-demand and short-run color printing bypassed film intermediaries, creating printed images directly from data, and was growing twice as fast as conventional printing. By the end of the 2000's first decade, devices such as Random House's Espresso Book Machine could print and bind a 320-page entire book in less than four minutes for about a penny a page.

Many large industrial or technological firms needed to produce manuals for their employees and consumers but did not want to get into the printing business. Companies such as Corporate Publishing Services of Fremont, California, were established to fill these needs. Its goal was to take data from clients, usually in the form of computer files, and provide custom quantities of publications within hours by utilizing high-quality computer printers, xerographic copying machines, and in-house bindery presses. Advances in computer laser printing and computer composition made this service realistic and economically feasible.

Digital printing was replacing traditional print processes in most segments of the printing industry. In book printing, digital printing made on-demand book production systems possible. Ingram, the largest book distributor in the world, introduced its Lightning Print digital on-demand library, which allowed single copies of books to be printed on demand. Lightning Print later became a subsidiary of Ingram and was named Lightning Source Inc. Based in LaVergne, Tennessee, the company also had operations in the United Kingdom. By 2009 Lightning Source had evolved into one of the largest digital libraries in the industry with more than 500,000 orderable titles. It printed, on average, 50,000 books a day.

© COPYRIGHT 2018 The Gale Group, Inc. This material is published under license from the publisher through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group. For permission to reuse this article, contact the Copyright Clearance Center.

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