«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?

Yes, absolutely.
We delve into the processes and tasks of our customers and their end customers, and then develop a technical solution based on them.
Your company’s motto is “enthusiasm for books.” What does this mean for you, your employees and your customers?

There is a quote by the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson that I really like: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” In line with this saying, we want to convey our enthusiasm for developing and producing beautiful books to our customers as well as to inspire this enthusiasm in them and their customers (readers and book buyers).

The hallmarks of many of your books are exclusive finishing, such as shiny, matte or soft-touch foils, digital spot lacquering, one-color or multicolor hot foil embossing, rounded corners on the book block and cover, laser die cutting, and personalized printing of the trimmed edges of books using Kösel edge coloring. How important are such added values, especially in view of the need to compete with digital media for readers?

The question is always: how and where do customers make a decision to purchase? If the purchase decision is driven solely by content, then I’ll download an e-book or enter what I’m looking for on Amazon – in this case, spot lacquering or foils are not important. But added values do have an impact on the purchase decision at the point of sale. So Kösel really shines when it comes to special bookbinding processing. Such processing includes, for example, a flexible cover, special layflat behavior, a unique book shape, or special materials that are not usually used and are not so simple to process using standard equipment. Such products attract a lot of attention in a bookstore and can lead to customers making an impulse purchase.
Added values do have an impact on the purchase decision at the point of sale.

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.
Our development department has 180 people in 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? 

13 million.

How has this figure changed over the last ten years?

It has remained relatively constant.

How many titles do these 13 million books represent?

Around 3,500. 

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.
I really don’t see an enormous benefit in e-books.
How confident are you that the printed book will continue to hold its own against digital competition over the coming years?

I am pretty confident that it will be able to do so – but I also don’t think it will be a growth market overall. The market will probably continue to shrink a bit, but books will not disappear the way vinyl records were replaced by CDs and then CDs were replaced by streaming services. The trend is much more muted and slower for printed books.

425 years of Kösel

Kösel’s history dates back to 1593, when Prince-Abbot Johann Erhard Blarer von Wartensee founded a royal book printer in Kempten. The name of the publishing house comes from Joseph Kösel, who purchased the royal printer from Imperial Abbey of Kempten in 1805.

At its highly modern operation in Altusried-Krugzell near Kempten, which employs 180 people, Kösel produces 13 million books annually – hardcover products on a Diamant MC 60 bookline, thread sewing on two Ventura machines, and softcover products on a Muller Martini Bolero (see also Panorama 2/18).

3 Kösel-Spezialitäten  

Edge coloring 
Its digital edge coloring machine, which the company developed together with a partner in the mechanical engineering industry, enables Kösel to finish the trimmed edges of books with four-color motifs. This innovation allows customers to make full use of the advantages of digital printing in their designs. Products with individualized and personalized motifs can be produced industrially in large quantities using this process.
A sophisticated book-in-book production process enables Kösel to include one or more components in such a way that they can be easily removed and then placed back in the product. The design, material and type of binding may vary from the rest of the product, giving the interior a unique character. Die cutting and the use of different types of paper allows the book to be divided in a way that makes it easy to recognize and distinguishable by the way it feels.
Lamella cover
The unique feature of the lamella cover is that it makes rigid hardcover books flexible in places where this is important for the way the book is laid flat and read: The covers are soft like the interior pages, yet they retain their vertical stability. This is based on an old concept that was supposed to involve the use of real wood, which however proved to be too expensive. But thanks to technology developed in other industrial sectors, it was eventually carried out using paper materials.

Erik Kurtz

After obtaining his school-leaving certificate, Erik Kurtz, 48, completed an apprenticeship as a typesetter and then studied printing technology at Stuttgart Media University. He has been Managing Director at Kösel GmbH & Co. KG since 2008. Erik Kurtz has a creative mind and enjoys tinkering with technology – among other things, he developed Kösel edge coloring for four-color motifs on book trim and the new lamella cover.