Amazon’s entry into the photo business has increased the pressure on more and more of the established print providers. But what does the future of the photobook market hold in terms of technology and peripherals?
The printed/exposed photo and photobook business is definitely a lucrative one – this is validated not just by Amazon’s entry into this segment but also by advances in the quality of finished products. Price wars and crowding out play a major role in the low- to mid-price segments in particular. Although Amazon did offer a 75% discount on its photo products at Amazon Prints just before the turn of the year, in order to make use of the “festive season” to grab market share from Shutterfly among others.
Many people, who compile/configure and then order a photobook online, ratchet up their requirements or expectations as the abundance of available offerings increases. Ask any semi-professional or professional photographer and you will find that hardly any of them print or develop their own pictures themselves. That’s because several providers now supply “affordable” premium prints, even for more sophisticated requirements.
But why are photobooks set to sell in their millions in 2017 and beyond? Well now, processes and machinery, not just printing but also finishing, are getting better and better and efficiency is increasing. If providers have got their workflows under control, then they should be able to guarantee at least the same quality as previously. Perhaps at an enhanced level of quality – and that essentially depends on the competition in the market –prices will even be reduced as a result of competitive pressure, despite an increased sales tax rate. Ultimately we will have to wait and see what price trends are and how sales pan out in Germany – not every print provider is going to perform and progress the same in 2017.
One specialist finisher of photo products is the Swiss company, Imaging Solutions. Its recently unveiled fastBook Professional book block system allows photobook formats measuring up to 457 mm x 457 mm to be produced, featuring special lay-flat properties that enable double-page spreads to be depicted without any loss in quality. And how do you produce a photobook, which is 90 cm wide when opened, to ensure there is no gutter to cause a loss in quality, especially when sophisticated motifs are involved? Imaging Solutions partners with Fuji and HP Indigo – meaning that both real photo paper and digital print paper can be employed. At any rate hot-melt glue is used in conjunction with the Layflats. That has the advantage that its adhesive properties can be influenced to a major degree of flexibility by the nature and proportions of the components – in the case of large photobooks, a higher basic polymer (EVA or PA) content delivers stability and sufficient book block and pages-in-fold flexibility. What’s also important is that the rear of the block is not bonded with the inside of the book cover. In contrast to smaller individual pages, this avoids misalignment and cambering on panoramic pages. And to ensure that the pages lie nice and flat, cardboard inserts can be placed between the pages, which also enhances the haptic appeal of the product. This is a high-end print product of which there are now several providers, irrespective of the printing presses and finishing machinery used. Here are just four companies serving the high-price segment that regularly achieve top results in tests and customer reviews – Whitewall, Saal Digital, Bubu and Pixum. Pricewise we’re talking EUR 70 or more for large (roughly A3 format) premium hardcover photobooks with the number of photo paper pages starting at 26. At fotobuch.de this large format with identical features currently sells at less than EUR 60.
If we’re talking premium bookbinding, you should definitely keep an eye on Bubu AG (Buchbinderei Burkhardt). As a long-established Swiss bookbinding craft specialist, it is synonymous with high-quality, craft and industrial bookbinding of print products. A range of different photo products have been available from the Bubu-owned photobook platform, Bookfactory, since 2004. The presses it uses include HP Indigo and there is a very decent configurator available for photo projects. You can tell from its pricing structure and the information that Bubu AG provides that its photo products are products for the discerning, because Bubu, like other providers operating in the high-price segment, makes color management profiles and plenty of background information available.
Bubu offers flatbooks with special lay properties in both its Premium Flat/Professional Flat (on matt uncoated paper with a premium look) and its Photographic/Photographic Plus categories. As the name suggests the latter are produced on genuine photo paper (matt or glossy) and a comprehensive range of finishing options is provided. Up to 100 pages are feasible, even in the jumbo landscape format (400 x 294 mm), as are elegant embossed covers in a choice of various leather finishes or with Japanese silk. Yet as a limited edition of 1 this configured-to-the-max 50-page haptic sensation will set you back more than 250 EUR. But it is an investment that makes sense for one-off, special occasions!
Bubu provides a wide range of information about layflat photobook options in its Technical Fact Sheet. What I do like is that a technical reason is provided immediately if a finishing request is not feasible. This gives you an idea of the finishing options available right from the word go. Although you have to dig a bit deeper into your pocket if you order your photo project from Bubu, you do get a quality Swiss product in return. And incidentally, at the last Photokina show I saw various different photobook providers from Eastern Europe, who don’t provide any software, have a comparatively ‘low-impact’ online presence and charge the same prices as Bubu and comparable providers, despite having lower costs. Quality has its price and it always make sense to pay that price.
If in future more and more customers, who are willing to pay good money, like these supremely configured photobooks, this means that buyers, who previously tended to order inexpensive versions, will look at these prices in a different, more affordable light. And since the manufacturers are increasingly set to automate their processes, be they digital, printing or finishing, this means that both prices and production lead times will decrease. Depending on the level of capacity utilization, shipping represents the slowest link in the chain. It remains to be seen whether Amazon can also do high-quality and fast, following its ongoing assault on the low-price photo segment in the USA. I already stated in my forecast for 2017 that Amazon is providing offerings aimed at specific target audiences and is expanding.
“Despite the shrinking digital camera market, mobile devices, printing, exposure and finishing quality enhancements as well as increasing competition in the photo products business will continue to ensure dynamism and movement in this segment.” – Bernd Zipper
However those customers with an interest in photography are set to benefit from such technical enhancements relating not just to design-it-yourself photobooks but also to published coffee-table books, which are admittedly produced in significantly smaller quantities, but which are also set to make quality gains.
What also points to increasing photobook sales?
A lot of folk, who order photobooks, don’t give any thought to this issue, but some providers make color profiles available to anyone, who expects true-to-color reproduction of their photos in any photobook they order. Quality standards have to be applied before printing or exposure and professional color management is what’s required. But it’s often the case that irritated customers don’t lay the blame for these color issues in the photobooks they order at their own door but rather at the provider’s. So if you want to produce a high-price photobook, you have to be able to anticipate picture production quality in conceptual terms. In that regard the above-mentioned providers are already geared up to the max.
Given improving photo quality, smartphones too will in future be able to play more and more of a role in delivering “acceptable” print results. Despite fixed apertures, most consumers are definitely satisfied with the quality of the pictures, provided they don’t order photobooks with full-format pictures, i.e. > A4. The emotional and haptic value of a photobook usually outweighs that quick glance at a mobile device. You can also infer from the IFH Study among others that the benefits of print will continue to appeal compared to digital, and not just in the form of photos and photobooks. I have already reported on this in my blog.
More and more pictures taken using smartphones and tablets are even finding their way on to paper and other printable substrates directly from the Internet. In this respect consumers and professionals are often assisted by cloud storage facilities, which are gaining in popularity and benefitting from better availability and thus making the transition from file to purchase order quicker. And there are plenty of attractive offerings, which offer storage not just for photos. Well-known alternatives include, for example, Creative Cloud, iCloud, OneDrive, Dropbox or Google Drive. Each one of these providers offers sufficient storage capacity for as little as EUR 2.99, coupled with a range of different add-on options. This storage facility in conjunction with the matching app from the photobook provider makes the journey from taking the picture to designing the photobook a short one.
My take: the photobook business will continue to be a good one to be involved with, not least because of constantly improving quality. And since some (increasing numbers according to the trend) customers are prepared to pay for quality, high-end photo products will continue to generate at least the same level of sales for the providers as previously. In my opinion the increase in the sales tax rate will do little to change that. That’s because photo products continue to be ordered en masse in the lower price segments too – all thanks to the digital opportunities available…