August 17, 2004

'Print on demand' gives BookSurge critical edge

Michael Buettner  /  Post and Courier

In some ways, book publishing hasn't changed much since Johann Gutenberg sold the first printed Bibles almost 550 years ago. But a small, fast-growing North Charleston company is at the forefront of changes that are reshaping the way books are bought, sold and printed.

BookSurge LLC was started in 2000, but it already has operations in six countries outside the United States and plans to open two more soon. It has business relationships with the biggest distributors and retailers in this country and abroad. The company's catalog includes about 4,000 authors, and BookSurge also prints books under contract for a variety of other publishers.

What's revolutionary about the company's business is that it keeps almost no printed books in inventory, noted chief executive Robert Holt. Yet it still offers a guarantee that titles will ship within 48 hours of ordering, or the order is free.

"When we first opened our doors, people didn't believe we did what we did," he said. "They thought you had to have it on the shelf to do that. We don't have room for that kind of inventory, even if we wanted it."

The missing inventory highlights the biggest difference between BookSurge and traditional book publishers. Traditionally, a book publisher picks a text that he thinks people will be interested in buying, and publishes thousands of copies. Then he sends out those books to booksellers and hopes that he made the right choice. If the book sells, the publisher and the booksellers make money. If not, the publisher gets nothing, and the booksellers end up with thousands of copies of a book no one wants to buy.

What BookSurge does instead is publish copies of a book only after someone offers to buy them, and only as many copies as there are willing buyers – even if that means printing books one copy at a time. What inventory the company has is strictly in the form of computer files, along with the paper, binding materials and equipment needed to turn those files into retail- or library-quality books.

The model is known as "print on demand," said Mitchell Davis, senior vice president for business development and one of the four partners who co-founded BookSurge. "Our original vision was to do virtual publishing: Take a manuscript over the Internet and send the PDF files off to someone to print when needed – no inventory, just print as needed, print on demand," Davis said. "But after three or four months of looking, we found there just wasn't anyone in the market doing that. The only way to do it was to put together the systems to do it ourselves."

Part of that effort included creating a process-management software package the company calls Global Publishing System, which allows BookSurge to track every title and every order from beginning to end. Just as important, customers can also log on to the system to track their orders.

In fact, other publishers are among BookSurge's best customers, Holt noted. With BookSurge's GPS, he explained, "Publishers can log in and see how many sales they've made and where they've made the sales. That's something they've never had before – they knew what they sent out, and five years later they'd have about a 95 percent idea of what happened with it."

Among BookSurge's most enthusiastic supporters are big book distributors such as R.R. Bowker and Baker & Taylor, Holt noted. The company's print-on-demand and rapid-shipment services enable these companies to reduce the size, and the cost, of their own inventories.

For instance, BookSurge has a partnership in the Netherlands with Centraal Boekhuis, that country's largest book distributor. "They wanted to carry more books without increasing their inventory – they carry 50 million books, but they believe their physical inventory should be about 30 million," Holt noted.

Besides those who publish and sell books, BookSurge is also making its services available to would-be authors. In effect, the company provides self-publishing services. Traditional so-called "vanity" publishers require authors to pay for a minimum number of books, usually 1,000 or more. With its print-on-demand approach, BookSurge has no minimum requirement. Books are printed only as they are ordered. The company promotes these books through its other distribution channels, including and other online booksellers, as well as on its own Web site,

The company's operations on these multiple fronts are adding up to rapid growth. Sales last year totaled $2.1 million, according to Lisa Ryan, director of marketing and communications. "We've doubled sales every year, and we expect to do that or more this year," she said.

What's driving that growth is a simple matter of helping bring publishers into the modern era, Holt suggested. "Publishing is a dysfunctional system," he said. "We're trying to bring rationalization to it."