The Art of Business: Contemplating the Future of Print

Sometime before the end of this decade, humankind will pass a major milestone. By 2010, the number of electronic pages published will surpass the number of printed pages. The ascent is astoundingly quick when you consider that paper has reigned supreme since a guy named Gutenberg, and that only a few people knew what a PDF was 10 years ago.

“For 550 years, print was the primary enabler of education, entertainment, and business. It survived the telegraph, radio, television, movies and telephone,” writes Frank Romano in the July 28, 2003 issue of The Seybold Report. Romano is a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and chair of the upcoming Seybold-Romano Future of Print Conference in San Francisco, September 8-9, 2003. (, by the way, will be at Seybold San Francisco as well with its very own conference, September 9-10.)

Today, it’s estimated that 45 billion PDFs move over the Internet annually — 12 billion downloaded from Web sites and 33 billion PDFs via email. They represent at least 153 billion pages that move over the Internet annually. And that’s not counting Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and other files. Conservatively, there are more than 300 billion of these electronic pages that were once printed out in some form. By 2020, the number could rise to a trillion pages, according to Romano (see Table 1).

Table 1

Despite the trend away from print, the medium will continue to grow, if only at a minimal rate of about 1-2 percent a year. Take a look at the corresponding table and you’ll see, however, that much of that the growth will come from additional packaging (see Table 2).

Table 2

Live Long and Print?
So the question is not whether print will die, but how will print live, and more importantly, how those aligned with the printing industry will survive the communications transformation.

We don’t need to look to the future to find the answers; the past and present will do. In 1950, 100 percent of the revenue of a printing company came from ink-on-paper. Today about 80 percent is from ink-on-paper with the rest coming from new services, such as new media or fulfillment, according to Romano.

“If print got a report card, one important criterion would have to be ‘works and plays well with other media,'” said Romano.

The same lesson holds true, naturally, for creative professionals who focus primarily on print; print must become but one service along with a host of other provided services — be it Web development, PDF workflow, or asset management.

As for printers themselves, get ready to see an “industry consolidation” — the friendly term for people losing jobs. The first companies to go will be the inefficient ones.

But climbing out of the inefficiency hole is no easy chore, according to Thad McIlroy, electronic publishing analyst, author, and president of Arcadia House. Until recently McIlroy also served also as program director for Seybold Seminars.

“On the one hand, printers are forced by competitive pressures to continue to invest in new and more efficient equipment. On the other hand, where’s the money going to come from? If you’re a bank and a $20 million printer comes to you and says we want to buy a $3 million printing press with a 20-year loan, how can the bank possibly believe with any certainty that the company will be in any position to repay that loan?”

Making a Move
What can printers do? There’s no magic bullet, but rather a series of small steps, well executed. The most important step is to make the move to a true manufacturing model.

Technology investments fall into two categories — incremental improvements and major capital investments. Few printers are doing everything they can, incrementally, to explore asset management, color management, and PDF workflows. For relatively minor capital investments, they could be operating more efficiently, with fewer errors and greater customer satisfaction. Technologies like JDF, PDF, and CIP4 are going to make the concept of a press check obsolete and bring printers into the modern era.

“If a printer is talking about the difficulties of online proofing and the viability of their Web site, they’d better stop talking and get back to taking care of these things, because they will serve as the foundation for all that’s to come,” said McIlroy.

Printers also have to address the human factor. In a recent survey, 77.2 percent of web-press printers rated staffing as their number one problem (second to a 75 percent rate for “Competition/Low pricing”).

There are really only two ways to improve manufacturing productivity. Either you train and/or motivate your existing staff to produce more, or you buy better technology for existing staff to use. “Staffing is the most underrated problem printers face. Human resource management can no longer be assigned to junior management. It has become a top-management responsibility,” said McIlroy.

Embracing the Personal
Printers and creative professionals alike will also have to make the move to custom publishing. The Web represents a broad marketing shift away from a market-centric model to a customer-centric model, with companies engaging in one-to-one marketing rather than investing in mass advertising. Marketers are engaging in a personal conversation with customers rather than shouting messages at them.

In the printing world this translates into variable printing, a different message for each customer.

“The value proposition of digital printing is variability, and that can’t be underestimated. Variability will be required to meet customer needs in the future,” said McIlroy.

Jacks of all Trades
So printers and creative professionals alike will have to make a shift and become network publishing service providers — helping their customers get their content delivered in whatever medium it might be. It will require the mastery of full digitization of current processes, digital asset management, full online accessibility, database know-how, Web design and hosting facilities, and consulting abilities.

Not every printer or creative professional will be able to make the move. But if they want to become something other than curiosities in a niche industry, they’ll have to learn to make the transition.


Posted on: September 2, 2003

2 Comments on The Art of Business: Contemplating the Future of Print

  1. The future has been told and the writing is on the wall. The article couldn’t be more accurate from the way I see things going. I for one couldn’t agree more. Kudos to the author — we need more of your stuff.

  2. My cousin owned a small town newspaper and experienced the first shockwave of the digital revolution – about 1968, it seems. He lamented losing the smell of ink and the compression of the paper under the type. Small accomodation, it seemed to me. My print artist friends make similar comments thirty years later. A greater accomodation. I am a mechanical engineer who championed the transitioned from pencil on paper to bytes, but I sense that someting important is lost in the process. My designs are no longer internalized they way they once were. I no longer “feel” the design. Something is lost, but is it meaningful?

    There’s a distancing that comes from digitalization but no question of it, the digital revolution is upon us and I want to be a part of it. It’s more efficient. How did they say it ten years ago – faster, smarter, cheaper? Still, I wonder.

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