All is fair in love, war and printing

April 1, 2008

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson has announced that any books printed on demand must be printed by Amazon itself if the book is to be made available via the Amazon Web site. In the interest of keeping things open and honest, I should remind you that when I'm not serving as mayor of “Johnson's World,” I am a digital printer of shortrun books.

This means one of the most lucrative and successful implementations of digital printing (books on demand) is to be severed from one of its highest profile distribution channels (

This is somewhat akin to a “do not mail” law for ondemand book printers.

The first reactions I've heard have been, “This isn't fair!”

Actually, it is fair. Unethical, some have said. Perhaps. Unwise, I surmise. Illconceived,I believe. But perfectly fair.

If your printing business is in any way connected to the book business, now is a good time to re-examine your strategic plan. (You do have a strategic plan, don't you?) If you think this doesn't apply to you, I suggest you re-examine your business.

If you ever print anything in signatures, you are affected by this. If you own any digital presses, you are affected by this. If you have perfect, saddle or mechanical binding capability in your bindery (or inline), you are affected by this.

Here are a few random thoughts inspired by this newest development.

Print is alive and well

I know I say that a lot, but think about it. Amazon has chosen print manufacturing as a strategic growth area to bolster its bottom line. More power to ‘em! And good luck.

Print is bigger than all of us

Wait! Amazon is an online retailer. How dare they enter print? People always said Kinko's wasn't a printer, but boy was the print community up in arms when it added a print button to Acrobat. How about Office Max? When will WalMart begin seriously to offer printing services?

Who cares? Apparently, Amazon does. It has enough interest in the business of print that is wishes to lock the rest of us out of it. Could this affect the entire industry? Who knows?

At inception, Amazon was an online bookseller. To save its bacon, it evolved into an online retailer that now sells the gamut of consumer items. You buy books, music and movies on Amazon. You also buy auto parts, jewelry and kinky lingerie. If the inhouse print model works, why not business cards and postcards? Why not brochures and catalogs?

The rich are very different from you and me

Amazon has about $3,000,000,000 in cash on hand right now (count those zeros — that's billions) and only $1,000,000,000 in debt. How does your balance sheet compare?

Amazon needs to do something with all that cash. If it succeeds in the printing business, it will be lauded as a foresighted vertical integrator. (And excoriated by printers.) If it fails, I'll bet the entire writeoff will be much less than 1¢ per share. In other words, even if Amazon fails miserably, it has nothing to lose.

We're not gonna take it

Amazon actually has been a boon to the concept of ondemand printing. By providing a painless, albiet expensive, retail channel for anyone to sell their books directly, they helped encourage content creators (writers) to take control of their material, sell it themselves (with help from Amazon and the Web) and print it themselves (with help from us digital printers).

These books, printed one or five or 100 at a time, are not the books that used to be printed 50,000 in a run. These are book titles that never would have been printed at all.

Now, Amazon wants to eliminate the printer. Instead of complaining, how about we eliminate Amazon?

There is no reason printers can't enter the online distribution business for the products they produce. Leave the Halloween costumes and plasma TVs to Amazon.

Some call this W2P or digital storefront; I call it plain ol' print on demand. It isn't rocket science; it is just automated distribution and fulfillment.

Get the big picture

Many printers are already doing this. One market I've written and spoken about is color picture books (see “Johnson's World,” August 2007). Existing entirely in the online world, Amazon has absolutely no presence in this promising new market. Do you?

The more things change

As I write this, Amazon's decision to lock out printers is hot news. By the time you read this, it might be old news. Read my advice anyway. This is really about constantly reinventing yourself, your company, your product and your services in an everchanging marketplace. This will happen, Amazon or no.