'Hot off the press' technology: textbooks on demand


September 10, 2010

Let’s say you’re a college student who owns a new puppy. You have a big test coming up in a few days, and suddenly, you discover that your innocent little dog has chewed your textbook to pieces.

Or, you’re a professor who has written a textbook that you’d really like your class to use. But one small problem has occurred: the ordered books have not arrived at the bookstore and classes begin tomorrow. Download Full Image

In both of these cases, it would be panic time to say the least. What if the campus bookstore was out of the text that the dog devoured? And the publisher says it will take three weeks to send the books for the class?

Students and faculty at ASU no longer have to worry about these scenarios coming true, thanks to Sun Devil Digital.

Sun Devil Digital is a brand-new partnership between the ASU Bookstore and Hewlett Packard that can provide textbooks within minutes, provided that the bookstore has the correct digital files and permissions.

HP has developed new technology that can print a perfect-bound book, with a laminated color cover, within minutes, and is rolling out the concept in a pilot program with three universities.

ASU, the University of Kansas and Portland State University are the only three places in the world where this technology is in operation at a retail location, said Dennis Mekelburg, associate director of ASU Bookstores.

HP is focusing on college bookstores because of the tremendous numbers of textbooks that are used, Mekelburg said, but authors who wish to self-publish their books also can use Sun Devil Digital.

“What we’re excited about is that we’re literally never out of a book if we have the digital file,” Mekelburg noted. And, he added, the “print a textbook on demand” process is very ecologically sound. “The books aren’t printed on the East Coast, stored by the publisher and shipped here.”

Thurman Holder, director of new business for HP’s Imaging and Print Group, said HP, which has been in the digital high-speed printing business for some time, decided to focus on an in-store product.

“We looked at both the retail and textbook markets, and we decided that textbook market needed help.”

Part of the problem for publishers of textbooks is the high percentage of returns, which waste tremendous amounts of resources, Holder said. “We asked, ‘What if we could eliminate returns?’

“We said to the textbook publishers, ‘Give us the titles (in digital form) and we won’t ever send them back.’”

Holder estimates that with on-demand printing, the textbook industry can reduce its carbon footprint by up to 25 percent.

In the Tempe campus bookstore, buyers can watch while their books are printed in a process that just takes minutes.

First, the text is printed on paper that is stored as a roll instead of individual sheets. The pages emerge in a neatly trimmed stack. Meanwhile, a different printer has spit out the cover, which is laminated. Then, the stack of pages is lined up using a “jogger,” and then put into a machine where the cover is glued on. Finally, the nearly finished book goes into a giant “paper cutter,” where the final trim is done.

(To enhance the operation’s sustainability, much of the paper left over from the final trim is made into notepads.)

Mekelburg said “print on demand” has been around for a while, but the HP-pilot is different because it focuses on textbooks.

“We work directly with the publishers so we have the right to print the books. All of the intellectual property is secure in HP servers, and all copies are accounted for. We adhere to copyright laws and pay the owner of the copyright on an individually negotiated basis. So far we’ve partnered with three of the five major textbook publishers.”

Over time, SDD will build up files of textbooks that are available from consolidators of digital assets, and from the larger publishers, “we will request digital files from them as the titles are adopted by faculty.

“The process is much easier, and cheaper, if a professor owns the copyright to his book. We can work with him to establish a sales price, any royalties, and printing costs. If the copyright is held by a publisher or another individual, copyright clearance costs and possible royalties to additional authors or editors must be factored in and these processes can be time consuming.”

If a customer wishes to buy a copy of an out of print book, Sun Devil Digital can, with copyright permission, send the book to a special scanning facility and print the book from the digital files.

Faculty who have self-published handbooks or other textbooks can also get better-looking books, simply by adding a coated cover, some graphics, and perfect binding, while not increasing the price of the book.

The whole process of ordering textbooks is complex and must be accomplished quickly in many cases, Mekelburg noted, so SDD will be able to fill in some of the gaps that inevitably occur.

“When the professor adopts a title, the bookstore has access to estimated enrollment numbers and actual enrollment numbers for that specific section to assist in ordering.

“The order then must be tempered by which edition the book is in, how many times the book has been used on campus (peer to peer sales and trading affect the sales) and how many copies may be available from off-campus competitors,” Mekelburg explained. “If it’s an older edition lots of copies may be available from online vendors, etc.“

“The mission of getting correct course materials on the shelf and on time is a monumental task. For fall semester, we had approximately 12,000 titles to source, some adopted the week classes began, and we had about 97 percent of the adopted titles available on the first day of classes.

“When more ASU instructors and authors request that the books (especially custom titles for ASU use only) be printed on demand by SDD, our students have the advantage of books never being out of stock more than a few hours, and in many cases, at a lower cost.”

On-demand publishing would be an easier and less costly method even for a large class, but pre-planning is of the essence, Mekelburg said. “The professor has to adopt a book that is in a digital format, arrange with the publisher to have SDD print the book, and allow for time to print.”

In addition to providing fast and economic service, on-the-spot printing also is an evolution strategy, according to Mekelburg. While some students like electronic readers, very few textbooks are available as yet in digital form. And some students still want a printed copy of a book, no matter what. So until the day that all textbooks are delivered electronically, on-demand printing fills the gap and will always meet the needs of those who insist on a printed copy.

And helps that poor student with a mischievous puppy.