Digital Printing for Art Books

[Original German blog post]

During the debate about the changes in media and the future importance of the Internet, you could get the impression lately, that the age of printing would come to an end after 500 years. In deed many industries that make a living from printed media are in a state of retreat since the dawn of the digital era: newspapers, magazines, intaglio and even offset printing, shown in an impressive way by the financial downturn of global market leader Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG in 2009.

For classical methods the main effort to print is to produce the printing plates – typesetting book pages, engravings for figures or today the making of plate cylinders in offset printing. Effect: the higher the circulation, the lower the price to print per piece. Everybody who has let something been printed in the classical way is familiar to the print shop’s quote: “it’s the same price if you take 1000 or 2000 pieces.”

The consequence: also valuable books that will address only a small circle of readers are printed in stacks of thousands, although only a few hundred are sold for the targeted price. The remainder of some art catalogue for which its buyers are willing to pay 98 Euros, Dollars or Pounds, goes for 14.99 to the bargain bookseller. Everyone who bought an expensive book once and later found it – fresh from the press and in original wrapping – on rummage table at WHSmiths or Barnes and Noble, will think twice if it would not be worthwhile waiting. A catastrophe from the angle of marketing. And apart from that also ecologically dubious, to go one producing remainders, using toxic ink, wasting lots of energy and paper.

Digital printing technology like laser or ink-jet printing put text and images on paper without printing plates, directly from the digital file – a PDF, a Word-Document etc.

In the last thirty years the publication process had adopted the digital options initially. “Desktop publishing” was the buzzword in the eighties, database publishing in the nineties and during the last decade the Internet brought content management up to “real time publishing”, immediate and instantly from the laptop to the web site. Step by step, publishing was thus detached from paper.

Digital printing for a long time could not compete with offset printing – neither with speed nor with printing quality. But this has changed just recently.
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During the last weeks I was involved in a large exhibition project: Hundred Masterpieces for Haiti – a charity event that was arranged with support by the Rotary Club in Munich in our Galerie Royal.

Such a short-term project profits especially from the possibilities of digital printing. The time for preparation of this charity is extremely short – due to the circumstances of a sudden desaster like an earthquake, the consequences of which should be eased.

First, forty artists had to be found, willing to contribute the one hundred works of art. The works had to be photographed, the pictures were processed and brought into the same resolution. The correct caption had to be formulated for each piece, the biography of every artist had to be looked into, a price had to be set in negotiation with the artists and these information had to be authored into an accompanying text to every image. Graphics and layout were at the same time developed by the graphic arts expert Gisela Knobel in close coordination with the specialized digital printing service provider MSDD that took on the printing and post production process.

The digital printing machines like the hp Indigo, on which also the substantial catalogue to this exhibition was printed, produce as fast as classical printing machines. A broad variety of different glossy and transparent paper qualities where deployed, as well as special colours giving a realistic and brilliant reproduction.

The production of this catalogue – creation of pictures, text, layout and prepress, finally printing, binding and finishing must not take more then ten days, or there would not have been a printed publication available at the exhibition. Such a time frame would just be impossible for classic printing.

Thereby for our catalogue we had been using only a small fraction of the additional options that digital printing provides compared to classical offset printing. Digitally printed books can be individually produced practically without additional costs, i. e. every book with exactly the content the buyer would want. For catalogues of large collections or museums, a number of special catalogues could be offered: didactic working books for schools that, e.g. would just cover one defined epoch; catalogues that show the exact hanging, i.e. the works of art in the very order, in which the visitor of the exhibitions will find them in the location – no limits are set to creativity. And the catalogues could consider always the latest acquisitions of the collection – they would never become outdated.

Books are useful, they do not need electricity, they are quite robust, get never blue-screened and they can be very well read even after centuries if taken good care. The materiality gives books their pleasing, haptical quality – they lie well in the hand. Printed books show a resolution and colour reproduction that cannot be reached by electronic screens today and for a long time into the future. However books seamed to become old-fashioned, slow and sluggish by the speed and the easy accessibility of digital publishing, particularly in the Internet.

Digital printing has been used mainly for job printing – personalized advertising mailings, leaflets, business cards and so on. Today digital production can revolutionize book printing – liberate the book from its ties to production and give to it wings, like Amor did with the turtle on our Emblem!