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HP can't save print industry, but big props for trying

BookPrep and MagCloud are trying to modernize old-world print with an on-demand concept. Such streamlining will keep book and magazine printing afloat, if only for a while.

Hewlett-Packard is announcing two projects Wednesday at the Web 2.0 Summit that it hopes will give new life to print--books and magazines in particular.

BookPrep and MagCloud let content that's been too expensive or difficult to print reach readers more easily.

Andrew Bolwell, director of new business initiatives at HP, told me these products are based on an understanding that the publishing industry is undergoing a fundamental shift--which he sees as the move away from printing items ahead of time, distributing them to locations in the hopes that people will buy them, and then disposing of the products that are unsold--into the more contemporary model of printing on demand. Each year in the U.S., 2 billion magazines, or 62 percent of all those printed, end up unsold and in landfills, Bolwell said.

Books are printed in advance in the same way, for the most part, and unsold copies are likewise destroyed. Furthermore, most of the books ever printed are unavailable to buy: Bolwell said only 4 percent of the 90 million books ever printed are available to purchase.


HP is set to rescue old books, making them fit to print again. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

HP's BookPrep is built to address that. The service takes in scans of book pages, cleans them up automatically, and preps them for sale as print-on-demand paperback editions.

The service, which has been in testing for about a year at a university library, is getting some high-profile partners and a business model. The service now gets scanned books from Google and from the Internet Archive, and sells its books on

The books are printed by various on-demand book printing houses. The covers are done on HP Indigo printers, but the book pages themselves are created on who-knows-what printer. Bolwell doesn't care, as the revenue comes from the sale of the books via Amazon royalties. HP said it will share a portion of its revenue with the source of each book's scan--in most cases, a library.

Unlike the Archive's more disruptive Book Server project, which is about making current books available online, BookPrep is about older, public-domain books. And the BookPrep service does not index the actual text in books--it leaves that to Google, Amazon, and the Internet Archive. All BookPrep does is take crufty scans of old books and make them presentable enough for print. It also can create nice covers for print editions.

So if you want a print edition of the 1887 White House Cook Book, this is how a surviving, aging copy of the book can appear new again.


The company also has a way for today's magazine publishers to print for less. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The MagCloud business addresses magazine printing. It's a custom magazine printing site, like Lulu but for glossy magazines, that's been live since February. The service lets people create their own print publication and customize single copies for users based on location or other factors. When a reader buys an issue, MagCloud prints a copy at a printer as close to the person's location as possible to save shipping costs and time.

The new addition to the product is a link into Wikia community sites. Users can now print "magazines" of Wikia pages, and the service will format them so they look nice. It reminds me of Offbeat Guides to an extent.

MagCloud isn't a complete magazine publishing system in the sense that it helps people create periodical publications. It doesn't do subscription management nor does it automate print advertising. But it does look like a nice way to get a fancy-looking color magazine-like publication created and distributed easily.

MagCloud publications are printed on HP's Indigo printers.

Taping up old pages

Bolwell has a modern yet conflicted appreciation for print, which is not surprising for someone who works at a one of the largest printer manufacturers. He believes that people will continue to love and want printed products and that, "especially for rich four-color content, the experience of the printed page is the preferred way of reading content." However, he also believes that the process for creating a printed product must change: "It's only a matter of time until the entire (magazine) industry moves to print on demand," he adds.

Both BookPrep and MagCloud seem to be Band-Aids for likely terminal patients. The demand for printed books and magazines won't vanish tomorrow. Nor will the demand for newspapers evaporate suddenly, though that's an industry even Bolwell doesn't think printing technology should try to fix.

The question is to what level the book and magazine printing industries, even streamlined, will decline, and how fast they will get there. I hope Bolwell has exit plans for this business, and I don't mean selling it to Google.