Book Biz: Ann Arbor and short run printing; Weekly Reader gone; Zondervan merged

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It’s always been true that the technology a printer has in the shop defines the products that can be produced most efficiently. Now the digital age has redefined “short run book printing” by introducing technology that expands the meaning of “short run.”

When I started in book manufacturing in 1979, Michigan, and especially Ann Arbor, was known as the “Short Run Book Capitol.” There were seven companies from Chelsea to Saline to Dexter known as Ann Arbor book printers, jostling for a piece of what seemed to be an ever-expanding pie, a market that national printers pretty much ignored.

And while Ann Arbor book manufacturing goes back to the 1860s with Dr. Chase and his steam press in the building at the corner of N. Main and Miller, it was a little before the turn of the century when Thomas and Daniel Edwards began mimeographing and selling their law school lecture notes that trade book publishing began in Ann Arbor.

As Edwards Brothers grew, some of their employees saw the volume of work available and left to start their own shops. Today there remains five companies in eight Washtenaw County locations dedicated exclusively to making some of the highest quality, most affordable books in the world.

We’re all aware of the changes that are occurring in all aspects of printing. From over 50,000 print shops in America at the turn of the century there are fewer than 30,000 now, and adapting to the digital revolution has not been easy for the Ann Arbor book industry where multimillion dollar investments in state-of-the-art presses and bindery equipment efficiently produce 1,000 copies of a book but don’t adapt well to fifty copies.

But one of the most informed print industry observers claims that the same need for short run books that originally powered the Ann Arbor book manufacturers still exists, albeit with the new interpretation. In fact, Frank Romano (lecturer, author and professor at RPI) claims that ultra short run book manufacturing may keep the printed and bound book relevant in the future. So as he traces the history of digital printing he points out that there has always been a need for ultra short run book manufacturing and that unmet process has breathed new life into the form.

So long as the next best sellers like Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey are being written and sold there will be a need for conventional offset book printing, but that market is changing and is rife with over capacity.

Ann Arbor may or may not be the Short Run Capitol of America anymore because everyone’s still adapting to the new definitions of short run. But currently, everyday, over a hundred tons of books are loaded onto semi-trailers headed for warehouses and distribution centers across North America from Ann Arbor.


Books Live, but Publishers…?

In response to an article that argues for the continued existence of the book form, questions are raised about the future of publishing as it’s practiced today. I was quite amused by the comment that BEA exhibitors were “terrified” about Consumer Day at BEA. Once publishers went to BEA to sell books and everyone in the booth knew how to do that.

I wish they would get the BEA Expo out of NYC where the legacy publishers live.

Weekly Reader Euthanized

Just months after purchasing Weekly Reader, Scholastic has announced it’s shutting down the print version but planning an online edition. Former executives claim Scholastic bought the Weekly Reader for its circulation information and by closing it now has only one competitor for its Scholastic News.

…and The Writer Goes “On Hiatus”

After 125 years of publishing, The Writer magazine will cease publication and search for a buyer. The Writer fueled dreams and fantasies for many of us with its writer’s contests, tips and directories.

The Rise of Self Publishing

Some time ago I was castigated for using the term “self publisher” in a newsletter. I explained that the term no longer was seen as derogatory. Not only has the University of Arizona just released a study of self publishing, Media Bistro serves up a weekly Self Publisher Top Ten list and Penguin (a division of Pearson) has just purchased Author Solutions to actively market services to self publishers. The acquisition has provoked some criticism.

eBooks: Less Experiment, More Business

Defining when a new product is no longer a fad but a marketable, profitable product is no easy matter (think Facebook). Perhaps the time has come to quit debating the viability of eBooks and concentrate on the content, creation, piracy, and marketing of them.

Pirating eBooks

Fascinating but grim thread on Reddit discussing eBook piracy and all the rationalizations that people use to justify it.

Thomas Nelson/Zondervan Are Merged

Having recently closed on the purchase of Thomas Nelson publishers (Nashville TN), Harper Collins just announced it was merging it with its other Christian publisher Zondervan (Grand Rapids MI). Thomas Nelson can trace its origins to Scotland in1798 and was the first publisher of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Zondervan began in Grandville MI in 1931, started by two nephews of publisher William B. Eerdmans.

LTL Freight Rates Rise

More LTL (less than truckload) carriers have announced general rate increases (GRI) of nearly 7% effective in July.

Damaged Books and Freight Claims

Over the years I’ve received many phone calls reporting damage to a shipment of books that had just been received. This is a comprehensive overview of the applicable laws. My advice? Whenever you sign a freight receipt add the comment “Subject to Inspection” beside your signature. Also, keep a small camera wherever your books are delivered to immediately document the damage (before unbanding the skid).

2012 BEA Attendance Up

After years of falling attendance it’s great to see an increase this year, although exhibitors and rights personnel still greatly outnumber the book buyers.

Progressive Hotel”

Sensing that the Gideon Bibles in their guestrooms weren’t being used, the Damson Dene Hotel in England’s Lake District has replaced them with copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Sure, but will they lull you to sleep?

Bookstore Map

Publishers Weekly has provided a scalable map of bookstores in America and identified each, including closed Borders stores. I know they missed a few because some independents that I know aren’t included.

Final Thought

Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing. ~ Iris Murdoch

Past newsletters can be found at

About Wayne Johnson 69 Articles
I've worked in book manufacturing for over 30 years, closing my company Baker Johnson, Inc. in 2005. Currently I work freelance with a large group of publishers, advising them on the printing options available to them as the book industry endures major restructuring. My wife Cathy is a retired psychologist and spent most of her career working with the youth at Maxey Boys Training School. She is a small mammal rehabilitator with Friends of Wildlife. Our daughter Whitney is a PharmD working in the Denver area evaluating the pharmaceutical requirements of nursing homes. Our son Eliot lives in Waterloo and is an editor at Mathematical Reviews in Ann Arbor.