Does On-Demand Catalog Printing Make Sense?

Technology advances are driving our industry like never before. The reality is that our customers consume content in digital, electronic and print channels without giving a thought to what silo they are in.

So it makes sense that technology will propose solutions that cross those boundaries as well. And many of these — for example, variable data printing (VDP) that allows a company to create a highly relevant and specific consumer message — offer great advantages to both the brand and their readers.

Some ideas, though, have us scratching our heads wondering if they make long term sense. Print-on-demands catalogs are one example.

While the POD revolution has done wonders for small-print authors, enabling them to offer print books for sale instead of, or in addition to, e-books. And as we all know, there’s nothing like print when it comes to books. But the overall quality of a POD demand book just can’t compete with a traditional offset run, without a price tag that would put it out of reach. And yes, you can tell a POD book from a “real” book almost at a glance.

As the saying goes, “Quality, Price, Speed … pick any two.”

So the announcement that Ingram Content Group will be partnering with Edelweiss to offer print-on-demand catalogs has us confused.

Per John Rubin, CEO of Above the Treeline, parent company of Edelweiss, “It is both a physical and digital world, and through our collaborative work with Ingram, publishers will have a simple and flexible way to develop and distribute print and e-catalogs from Edelweiss.”

While on paper (or on the Edelweiss website, to be precise) it sounds good, a deeper look makes us realize that their idea of “an online, interactive, cross-publisher catalog service that supplements or replaces traditional hard-copy publisher catalogs” seems counterintuitive to us.

Let’s break this down.

The first part, online, makes sense. Consumers (which in this case includes booksellers, librarians, publishers, sales reps and industry bloggers) use the Web for information gather and ordering. Interactive? Okay, anything digital is inherently interactive so that’s a given. Cross-publisher? This is where they start to lose us, but we can see some value in making your own custom-created catalog in a digital format, specifically chosen for your particular search.

But we fail to understand how they can print these cost-effectively, while maintaining the value of the item to the brand.

We already see how on-demand publishing in the magazine industry results in steep end costs to the user. HP’s solution for POD magazines like Munch bring the cover price to $12 a pop. At that price, it would take a dedicated fan to opt for the printed version. Do I get a print version for each search I run? And what is lost by not having the entire publisher’s catalog in front of me; i.e. where does this leave room for discovery?

Catalogs are traditionally not bought and paid for the way magazines are, but are a marketing tool with the costs borne by the brand. The overall costs of a traditional print run — which, granted, are not “cheap” when you consider set up costs, etc. — still offer tremendous value to the company, as printed catalogs provide tremendous returns.

As a marketing tool they are unquestionably effective, and carefully designed to highlight particular items in a way that makes logical sense to their users. We don’t see how this translates to the POD world of patch-together reference guides that Edelweiss is proposing.

Skepticism aside, seeing innovation in print and technology is always a good thing. Try it, test it, modify it and then decide on the best way to move forward. But we aren’t betting against traditional catalogs any time soon.