«We're not like other companies»
With its creative hardcover and softcover solutions, Kösel, Germany's leading book producer, has made a name for itself as an innovation leader well beyond Germany’s borders. “Panorama” spoke with Managing Director Erik Kurtz about the 425-year-old company’s recipe for success.
“Panorama”: In 2016, you were named Germany’s printing plant manager of the year and your company was crowned German print finishing plant of the year. The year before that, Kösel was named Germany’s book printing plant of the year for the fifth time. In addition, it has been a regular winner of book-of-the-year awards in other countries for years now. What is your company’s recipe for success?
Erik Kurtz (Managing Director at Kösel GmbH & Co. KG):
A special feature of our company is that everyone really enjoys taking care of special jobs. We’re not like other companies, where a special request or a unique solution makes everyone say: “Oh no, don’t come to me with that. It’s much too complicated and will only disrupt our processes and our rigid procedures.” We think the exact opposite. When someone comes to us with a new idea, our managers, machine operators and sales reps enjoy doing something that’s a bit unusual. We also have very competent consultants on our sales force who take a look at the customer’s idea and can offer some initial guidance as to what is possible and what isn’t. And then we often do a test on the machine. We take the material, the machine operator plays around with it and then says: “We could try to do it this way. That would be another idea.” Everyone experiments and plays around with it. Of course, we are driven by figures and have to provide results. But allowing employees to play around like this has been our recipe for success.
And what is the result of this “playing around?” In other words, what makes your books so special that you’ve won so many awards for them?
We are able to understand customer requests – we really listen and understand what customers want and what’s important to them. We delve into the processes and tasks of our customers and their end customers, and then develop a technical solution based on them. So the process we’re involved in is a creative one, but at a technical level.
So is the creative process the strategy behind this success story?
So the book as a haptic experience?
Yes, but not only that. Just as we had developed Kösel edge coloring (and this is not a haptic experience), there was a publishing company that wanted to enter the market for women's fiction – a market that was already dominated by other publishers. So they decided to use edge coloring as a unique selling proposition in order to appeal to female readers and make the books more noticeable among the piles of books in the store.
Have you noticed a trend toward high-quality and more sophisticated features, especially for hardcover books?
The trend applies to both softcover and hardcover books, but the options are much greater for hardcover books. In the softcover area, we have also come up with our own developments, such as book-in-book, where one brochure is placed in another. This offers very specific benefits for business reports in particular. But the variability is much higher in the hardcover area because it is possible to play with different materials..
Kösel is known in the industry for constantly coming up with innovative ideas. Do you have an in-house team of developers?
None who are specially tasked with this role. I’m often asked how large our development department is. I usually say it has 180 people in it. This is because everyone who works for us enjoys developing ideas. I get personally involved in this work, too, contributing a number of ideas and designs. But the important thing is that everyone at our company abides by this philosophy and contributes to it.
Winning a lot of awards for beautiful books is one thing – commercial success is something else. What effect have your awards had on sales?
The awards are an important (marketing) resource for maintaining our presence. They do a lot to help us maintain our positive image and they are no doubt partly responsible for making Kösel renowned for high-quality and special books – at least in German-speaking countries, but also in many other European countries as well.
How many books do you publish each year?
How has this figure changed over the last ten years?
It has remained relatively constant.
How many titles do these 13 million books represent?
What percentage is hardcover and what percentage softcover?
These two areas are about the same, and the ratio hasn’t changed much over the past few years.
How have print runs changed over the last ten years?
They’ve fallen by about 10% – much less than the book market as a whole.
What do you think the next ten years will bring with respect to print runs?
I believe they will continue to fall. But this is due in part to the fact that – driven by investments in digital printing – we will be able to take on orders in the future that we previously wouldn't have.
Who are your customers?
We operate in three business segments: publishing production (which makes up 65% of our revenue volume), corporate publishing (20%) and bookbindery services (15%).
In 2017, you visited seven German and Swiss cities as part of the Kösel roadshow whose theme was “Color Management in Book Production.” Why exactly did you hold these events and what was the public response to them?
There were two main focal points. The first was data processing in the pre-press area, and the second was the new standard offset printing process, based on the new DIN standard 12647-2, which has created a lot of uncertainty in the market. The response to our events was very positive and we managed to present ourselves as a specialist in this area. We had another roadshow this autumn, this time taking bookbinding as our theme. We let participants take a look behind the scenes and talked openly and critically about potential stumbling blocks and pitfalls.
Three years ago, you commenced operations with Kösel JuraJET, a digital printing system for lightweight printing that you designed in conjunction with printing press manufacturer Koenig & Bauer. What were some of the technical difficulties you encountered during development and what products do you print on it?
We didn’t want a machine that was already available on the market. Instead, we wanted to cover a segment that other companies could not or did not want to cover. We focus on lightweight printing and now print as little as 36 grams per square meter on the Kösel JuraJET. We are targeting a weight of as low as 33 grams. This presents a few challenges related to printing technique and print finishing that need to be resolved. With respect to printing technique, the ink drops need to stay on the surface and not penetrate too deeply into the substrate (the keyword here is “pre-coating”). We have devised a new print finishing concept that makes it possible to produce both perfect-bound books and signatures for thread sewing. This is a unique feature that doesn't exists anywhere on the market. We are capable of producing signatures for thread sewing – and we can do so in variable strengths. They can have 32, 40, 48, 56 or 64 pages and be integrated in the book. Similarly, several years ago, we worked with Muller Martini to develop the Frontero front trimmer. It’s always especially fun when manufacturers are open to receiving feedback from their customers in a collaborative manner.
Do you use other machines for digital printing?
No, we do all of our digital printing on the Kösel JuraJET.
Speaking of digital, but in a different context: In your view, what is the greatest advantage of a printed book compared to an e-book?
We’re starting to get very philosophical there. Personally, I find a printed book easier. I find it more pleasant, but ultimately it’s a question of how we learned to read – in other words, it’s a matter of habit. But it would be wrong to say the same thing of the younger generation. However, I do find it more pleasant to read a large chunk of text on paper. By contrast, smartphones and tablets are vastly superior for short bits of information. But they’re not so great for reading larger amounts of text, such as novels. So I still see the advantage of printed books.
Worldwide, the e-book share of the overall market has been stagnant over the past three years and in some countries – including the US – it has even fallen, with printed books benefiting from the decline. What do you think are the reasons behind this retro trend?
The trend appears to have stopped. But the more interesting question for me is: Will future generations still want to read a text all at once? The way people absorb information is changing. I think the traditional book has been transformed somewhat into a luxury item. It will no longer be a medium for mass entertainment.
Is this why additional features are increasingly being added to your books in line with your company philosophy?
Precisely. This is the conclusion we have come to.
The overall market share of e-books is four times lower in Germany than it is in the US. Why do the Germans love print so much?
I think Germans are generally more conservative than Americans. Personally, I don’t really see an enormous benefit in e-books – except that I can take a lot of books with me in a compact and lightweight form when I go on vacation. But I don’t really find reading an e-book to be advantageous.