The Evolution of Book Printing in the Digital Age

Last Updated: 

June 3, 2024

Book printing has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent decades with the rise of digital technologies. From the Gutenberg press in the 15th century to offset printing that dominated the 20th century, and now to modern print-on-demand and web-based printing, book printing continues to evolve and offer new capabilities.

Here is a trace of the evolution of book printing methods and the advantages of modern digital printing for publishing. We will also look at the future of on-demand printing using web-to-print platforms and personalised printing enabled by digital technology.

Key Takeaways on the Evolution of Book Printing

  1. Evolution of Book Printing Technologies: From Gutenberg's press to modern digital methods, the evolution of book printing has been marked by advancements, offering increased efficiency and flexibility.
  2. Types of Book Printing: Offset printing, dominant for a century, contrasts with digital printing, allowing for cost-effective smaller print runs, while print-on-demand and web printing redefine on-demand publishing.
  3. Advantages of Offset Printing: Offset delivers high-quality prints for large runs, but its setup costs and time constraints make it less feasible for smaller quantities or time-sensitive projects.
  4. Digital Printing's Customization: Modern digital presses support variable data printing, facilitating efficient customization and personalization of content within a single print run, a significant advantage over traditional offset printing.
  5. Print-on-Demand Efficiency: Print-on-demand minimises waste by printing books as orders are received, eliminating the need for large upfront investments and reducing per-unit printing costs for very small print runs.
  6. Web Printing Platforms: Cloud-based web printing platforms, exemplified by services like Imprint, streamline the entire printing process, from typesetting to shipping, providing an easy online workflow for authors and publishers.
  7. Globalisation and Localised Printing: Cloud printing networks enable localised prints worldwide, reducing shipping costs and making multi-location printing simple, contributing to a more sustainable and cost-effective book printing industry.
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Types of Book Printing Methods

Several types of book printing methods are available, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the most common methods:

Offset Printing

Offset printing has been the dominant method for printing books for over a century. This analogue printing method first creates metal plates of the content to be printed. The plates are loaded onto the printing press and inked. The ink is offset from these plates onto a rubber blanket cylinder before being passed onto paper fed through the press in large volumes.

Offset printing results in high print quality and is suitable for large print runs of hundreds or thousands of copies. However, it requires significant upfront investment in plates and setup. Changing the content also means creating new plates, adding time and costs.

Digital Printing

In digital printing, content is fed straight from a digital file to the printing device. Ink, toner, or dye is applied directly to the paper without the use of intervening plates or cylinders. This makes digital printing more suitable for smaller print runs as there is no extra setup cost or time.

Digital prints have historically lagged behind offset in print quality, but modern digital presses can now match offset quality while supporting variable data printing. The ability to efficiently print customised or personalised content is a key advantage of digital printing.


Print-on-demand (POD) takes digital printing a step further by only printing books as and when orders are received. This eliminates the risk of unsold stock and the need to forecast demand. Print-on-demand enabled online portals like Amazon allow users to order even a single printed copy of a book.

POD is facilitated by digital printing technology and helps reduce waste. However, per-unit printing costs tend to be higher compared to offset printing. For very small print runs, POD is an on-demand lifesaver.

Web Printing

Web printing refers to a new generation of cloud-based printing platforms that connect authors and publishers directly with printing presses around the world. Services like Imprint allow users to upload book content online and receive printed samples or even full print runs shipped to their door without upfront investment.

Web printing platforms automate the pre-print processes of typesetting, file conversions, and colour proofing. Authors can print and deliver their books through an easy online workflow.

Choosing the Right Printing Method

When choosing a printing method for your book, there are five key factors to consider:

Print Run

What’s the quantity of books to be printed? For runs over 1,000 copies, offset printing offers the best quality and cost efficiency. For runs below 300-500 copies, print-on-demand and web printing may be more suitable. Digital printing on a production printer is likely the right fit.

Production Time

The available lead time determines what printing methods are feasible. Offset printing often needs weeks of preparation, but digital methods can deliver in days or even hours with web printing. For projects with tight turnarounds, digital/web printing is better.


Do you need per-copy variable data printing for personalised or customised editions? Digital/web printing is compatible with customised printing, but offset printing requires fixed imagery and text across the entire print run.


Digital printing works for most budgets, but very small runs may still have a high per-copy cost compared to large offset runs. Consider the number of copies and cost targets when picking a printing method.


Printing locally in multiple regions is better than shipping from a single facility for international distribution. Web printing platforms make multi-location printing simple by routing jobs to partner facilities closest to the shipping destination.

Five Advantages of Digital Book Printing

The rise of digital printing brings five notable benefits:

Flexibility and Customisation

Creating customised editions with variable data or personalised content is simple and efficient with digital printing. Unique text, images, and metadata can be dynamically inserted within a single print run for each print copy. This caters perfectly to self-publishing authors or enterprises wanting to tailor communications.


The ability to go directly from file to printing eliminates weeks of pre-print preparation typical for offset printing. With web-based services, fully printed books can reach international destinations in 10 days - a process that takes months conventionally.


Digital printing removes the need for upfront payments before printing. The infrastructure is also web-based and hence accessible without capital purchases. All of this greatly reduces initial investments, especially for first-time or independent publishers.

Single Copy Viability

Printing even a single copy for ultra-short runs is economically viable with print-on-demand. Publishers don’t need to speculate and hope that enough customers will buy a printed product after production. POD allows printing exactly the quantity required.

Globalised Supply

Cloud printing networks allow aggregating capacity across facilities spread worldwide. Print jobs can be routed to the nearest presses, enabling localised prints close to end-customers. Shipping printed products abroad also become unnecessary - saving substantially on logistics.


The arrival of digital technologies has redrawn the book printing landscape. Online web-to-print services now make printing accessible, affordable, and hyper-localised for authors and enterprises without the need for capital investments. As costs lower and locations decentralise, book printing itself could transition from speculation-driven mass production print runs to sustainable, localised on-demand printing driven by actual consumption.

Digital printing capabilities enable mass customization and personalization to engage readers more deeply, likely heralding the next transformation. The book, which has remained largely unchanged for over half a millennium, prepares to don a radically new digital avatar while retaining its truly human essence as a vehicle for knowledge sharing.

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