Publishing-printing revolution DocuTech: Much more than just a powerful copier, this machine is already opening new business potential for one Baltimore publisher.

March 06, 1996|By Melissa Grace | Melissa Grace,SUN STAFF

For pulp-publishing, the future has arrived. It's a machine of the 21st century. Its inventors and its operators say it will revolutionize what people read, how they are educated and even how they do business.

It's 20 feet long. It will work 24 hours a day. It's called DocuTech.

Several of these beasts are out there right now, hard at work, and one is poised to crank up the hum and the drum of Maryland's publishing subculture.

With it, owner Paul Coates -- founder and publisher of Baltimore-based Black Classic Press -- is evolving from publisher to printer-publisher. "We are preparing to go into the unknown," he says. "This is a major step in self-publishing."

Essentially, DocuTech is a very fast and sophisticated office copying machine. But, it does what the traditional office copy machine can't. It scans information. It stores it. It prints 135 pages a minute. It binds books. It reproduces high-quality photographs. It can be networked to office computers, to the Internet and to the world of digital information.

The Xerox machine allows Mr. Coates to print books for his customers "on demand."

"This is going to have a huge impact in the publishing field," he says.

It will enable him to skip the age-old publisher's guessing-game: what number of books to print. It also means he has no book storage costs. He now scans pages into his machine and waits for someone to order the book. Then, it's print and ship.

An 18-year-old niche publishing house, Black Classic Press specializes in "publishing books by and about people of African descent," says Mr. Coates. "And within that, obscure books." He is careful about how many books he publishes because he doesn't know how well they will sell. He's in the business, he says, because "history excites me, the black voice excites me. I'm interested in making available what otherwise isn't to the black experience."

In the past, if he bet on a large print run for a book and it didn't sell, he was in trouble, Mr. Coates said. "Small business is life and death. You drown for a wrong decision."

On the other hand, he says of his investment in DocuTech, "This is a leap of faith. If you're not ready to take the leap, stay home."

Another leap for Mr. Coates was the quarter of a million dollar price tag attached to the DocuTech printer. With some creative financing and support from Xerox's business services department, he is leasing the machine. He will have technical support for six months, after which he's on his own. But, once the machine's technicalities are mastered, it's not difficult to use. Like traditional office copiers, only one person is needed to operate it.

Mr. Coates' DocuTech -- the only local machine currently being used to print books -- arrived in his Mount Hope Drive office in January. Using it, he estimates, will take the unit cost of producing a book up to $4, from about $3 on a traditional press. But, his newfound print-on-demand capabilities make the added cost of printing one book worth it. And, he says, he won't have storage fees.

"Paul is going to be creating a market," says Steve Durkee, document management consultant in Xerox's Towson office.

The market Mr. Coates is interested in creating, and that he thinks will be profitable for him because of DocuTech, is customized books. Anthologies are one possibility. Educational publishing is another.

Modern editions

One plan includes business with Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center: to issue modern editions of the center's large collection of rare and largely out-of-print books on black history, books that are otherwise unavailable.

Because Black Classics Press won't be tied to larger print runs, anthologies can be put together and tested for marketability. "With this machine, pilot titles can be made available, and there pTC are application purposes for compilations of our collection," says Dr. Thomas Battle, director of the research center. "This has exciting possibilities. We'll try and see how it works."

For many of these titles, says Mr. Coates, this will be their first mass circulation. Once digitized, a book can be put on CD-ROM and, he adds, "in other forms that you and I can't even imagine."

A second creative application for Mr. Coates' DocuTech will make both students' and professors' lives simpler at Sojourner-Douglass College. "There are several things we are attempting to do in the textbook arena," says Charles Simmons, president of the college. "Right now we're looking at how professors are using textbooks. If they are only using part of a book, then we'll repackage so students are buying only the portion they are going to use. It will also allow faculty to search and find materials that aren't otherwise in print, from the Internet or a conference report."

With enough planning, students would have only one book per course, says Mr. Simmons.

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