By Simon Dulac,
Founder of Rapido Books

The events of 2020 have led to a lot of soul-searching. At the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Montreal Book Fair, there was a lot of talk about the need to invent a new business model, one that was both more frugal and more responsive, and therefore closer to demand. But in 2023, we heard a rather different point of view, with a somewhat disillusioned assessment of the reduction in print runs: “It’s not working well! We can’t manage it, and it’s not profitable enough anyway!” The end of the story? Certainly not.

The comeback of Asian printers, with a significant drop in prices, has revived the model of overproduction, although book stocks are still too high. Old habits die hard.

What we have clearly understood over the ten years that Rapido has been in existence is that the issue of reducing print runs will not be easily resolved: firstly because it is rooted in the DNA of the publishing business model and secondly because it is more complex than it seems.

1. The Fundamental Question of Flows

Rapido was created with a very specific aim in mind: to reduce book waste through better flow management. Since then, to put it mildly, our short-run model has set an example. Our colleagues have been inspired by our ideas, and that’s great! It proves that we were right.
At this stage, however, we are certain that without an in-depth reform of the entire distribution chain, the improvement will remain marginal.

At a time when artificial intelligence is interfering in an increasing number of business models, our sector of activity would do well to question all its standards and turn its back on the references of the blessed era of double-digit growth. We believe that, in the medium term, sobriety will make a comeback in our lives and in our businesses.

On-demand production remains the only serious response to the need to produce only useful books.
By Simon Dulac,
Founder of Rapido Books
Continuing to rely on the good old law of supply and demand will not be enough to overcome the difficulties that lie ahead:

  • Resources that will become more expensive;
  • Labour force in short supply;
  • And the number of producers which will continue to shrink under the mechanical effect of competition and takeovers.

2. The Big Changes are Underway

The world around us is on the move. The major geopolitical balances are shifting. The rules of the game are changing, and we need to be aware of this. We are moving towards a more complex world for which we are not yet prepared.

COVID-19 showed us the extent to which globalisation had weakened us. Whether for masks, raw materials or the supply of manufactured goods, we have received proof that deindustrialisation has placed us in a position of dependence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves and look at what has happened: when foreign suppliers faced an influx of orders in 2020, they gave priority to their domestic market, and then to the highest bidders. This will happen again as soon as demand increases again.

This risk is the consequence of our dangerous de-industrialisation, and it has only increased in recent years without any serious strategic plan to address it. We still rely too much on the unsuspected powers of the “invisible hand” of the market, when this vision is simply no longer adapted to the challenges of a world in which competition is less and less favourable to us.

Re-industrialising our country has become a vital issue. It won’t be easy in a society that no longer likes factories, is ageing and is already heavily in debt. But our economic independence and our way of life depend on it.

Restructuring in Paper Production

Another subject related to future tensions: hardly a month goes by without a major player in the paper industry announcing the closure of a plant, or the conversion of a graphic paper production line to more profitable products, such as packaging paper. You don’t need to be a shrewd strategist to realise that as soon as demand picks up again to higher levels, the availability of graphic paper will once again become a problem, as it was in 2021, with the chain of events that we have already experienced: longer delivery times, then higher prices.

3. The Consequences of Concentration

The concentration of production resources in the hands of fewer and fewer players represents a risk for their customers. Producers who managed to hold their own on the market during the lean years are now in a fairly favourable position to negotiate to their advantage. Supply is gradually regaining the upper hand over demand.
It will no doubt have escaped your notice that, over the last twenty years, competition has considerably diminished in our industry. In the printing industry in 2023, a good example of this is the takeover of the Marquis group by the American giant Lakeside. The decline in supply in North America and the favourable exchange rate for the Canadian dollar will enable them to achieve good margins, as was the case in 2022. And in this area, as in paper, if American publishers are prepared to pay a high price, they will obviously be the first to be served.

The World’s Factory is Running Out of Workers

Finally, there is one indicator that almost no one talks about: the number of active workers in China is falling dramatically. Every year in the Middle Kingdom, seven million people – almost as many as the population of Quebec – retire. In the long term, considerable production capacity will disappear from the world market. This alone should make us realise how urgent it is to regain our industrial independence.

Source : ScienceDirect

4. Canada’s Workforce Issue

In 2022, Quebec employers stated that the labour shortage would be “our society’s biggest challenge for the next ten years“.

In his book La crise de la main d’œuvre, un Québec en panne de travailleurs (published by Somme Toute) Eric Desrosiers writes: “the labour shortage that is currently affecting Quebec is the opposite of an unexpected crisis. In fact, few major problems are as easy to foresee well in advance as a demographic problem, since it is born, moves forward and grows in full view of everyone, at the pace of the generations“.

If you visit a printing plant in Canada today, you’ll notice that the average age of the workforce is quite high. Our profession no longer attracts many young people.
At Rapido, the average age is just over 30, because we have been able to bring together a young team around ideas they believe in. This is an essential factor in building a company that lasts. The quality of the men and women who make up a team is probably more important for a company than its financial indicators.

5. The Systematically Underestimated Energy Issue

The peak of conventional oil was passed in 2005. And the peak for unconventional oil (shale and tar sands) is likely to be passed before 2030. Price jolts are to be expected. We need to look closely at what has been happening in Europe since the beginning of 2022 to gauge the consequences of rising energy costs. These economies are in decline and the major groups are gradually relocating their production units to countries where energy is cheaper.

Quebec has exceptional infrastructure that will enable it to produce abundant, cheap and renewable energy for decades to come. We must pay tribute to those who had this vision and enabled these giant dams to be built. Today, this advantage is still worth its weight in gold.

It is up to us to put this energy to good use by building a new model that is less fragile than that of globalisation.

6. Speed Means Transparency

Given all these uncertainties, to which we should add the risks weighing on our environment, it seems to us that publishers should think in the longer term. We know that with shorter and faster circuits, it is possible to adjust the quantity of books as we go along. It won’t be easy to do, but it’s the direction we need to take.

Since it’s the distribution channels that cause the most problems, that’s where we need to work to reduce all stocks, in warehouses and in bookshops. While this may seem difficult to manage at first sight, it’s important to remember that other businesses have already done this before us, such as the pharmaceutical sector, where production start-ups have been correlated for years with sales recorded at points of sale. In Japan, this model has been operating for around twenty years. Rapido has been working on this for three years now.

Why is Rethinking Our Businesses so Difficult?

Decades of high growth have numbed our critical thinking. We are probably witnessing the end of the way of thinking that has been called progressivism, which doesn’t mean the end of progress. It’s up to us to invent what comes next.

It is no longer thanks to coal, electricity or computers, but thanks to collective intelligence that we will be able to negotiate this great human shift. It’s a resource that’s cheaper and more abundant than our oil wells, and for the moment we’ve used it relatively little and poorly.

7. One Step at a Time

At the risk of lacking humility, let’s take the example of Rapido, with its status as the new kid on the block when it comes to book printing. With limited resources, our team had to rely on its own ideas from the outset. By dint of hard work, and by improving the way our team operates, we have constantly enhanced our methods. With each success, we gained confidence and set in motion the next evolution. As we wrote two years ago, each member of the team is a pillar of our company.

If Rapido is in discussions with the most important players in the sector today, it’s because we’re concentrating on the right subjects. It’s the quality of our analysis and our work that has got us to where we are today.

The customers who have made the switch to print-on-demand with us tell us that their lives have been transformed: no more stock management, no more overworked printers to deal with and no more unsold stock. The change of software hasn’t weakened them, it’s made them grow.

Print Fewer Books or Label Them?

What significance does the environment still have in such a tense context? Are we sure that eco-friendly labels are really up to the challenge? What’s the point of affixing a beautiful logo, with all the guarantees it conveys, if we print two or three times too many books?

The truth is that no-one has yet found a miracle solution to the problem of unsold stock. What’s more, it probably doesn’t exist and the paths we’re exploring won’t suit everyone. But we are in the process of inventing it. We have been moving in this direction for several years. It’s what makes Rapido as much an organiser as a producer. It’s a choice we can live with.

8. So What Should We Do?

Like Emile Zola, the idealists of the 19th century imagined that moral progress would accompany technical progress: “I believe that the future of humanity lies in the progress of reason through science“. In his 1932 lecture entitled The Outlook for Intelligence, the writer Paul Valéry expressed an entirely different point of view: “the difficulties I am talking about are merely the obvious consequences of the intense intellectual development that has transformed the world“.

Paul Valéry (1871-1945)

When Valéry wrote this sentence, neither the atomic bomb existed nor the issue of global warming had been discussed. Having turned the whole world upside down, abolished distances and exploited every subsoil resource beyond our satiation, shouldn’t we too be asking ourselves Valéry’s question, to understand whether our intelligence, so efficient at taking advantage of everything, would also be capable of repairing the world it has damaged so much?

Will this intelligence, which has created its own competitor in the form of artificial intelligence, continue to exist if we persist in ignoring the question of its usefulness, i.e. what purpose does it really serve?

In his book Nœuds de vie (Knots of Life), Julien Gracq wrote: “The time is approaching when man will have nothing seriously in front of him but himself, and nothing but a world remade by his own hand according to his own ideas.”

Conclusion : Now Is the Time to Take Responsibility

There are two ways of looking at things: the one that consists in waiting for others to come up with a solution, whether they be scientists, politicians, investors or government officials, or the one based on our own responsibility. At Rapido, we favour the second solution because we are convinced that tomorrow’s world will not be designed by cowardly bureaucrats, but by people who work, who build, who take risks, who have children – in short, who treasure life and who aspire to a different world.

If this world is to have solid foundations, we will not be able to avoid this other question: what do we want? Do we want a society that is more like who we are, or one that is limited to what we produce and consume?

Don’t we see that, in most companies, work, instead of being a source of fulfilment, sharing and pride, has become a kind of modern curse? In The Art of Idleness, Hermann Hesse had this to say about work: “A man’s work and passion are not in vain,… beyond the overwhelming solitude in which everyone lives, there is a good shared by all, a desirable and wonderful good.” That’s how we see things at Rapido.

Instead of continuing to follow in the footsteps of economic theories that are showing clear signs of running out of steam, theories that we have inherited without even having thought them through, let’s let go of the ramp of this old world and invent, with courage, the path that will lead us to greater freedom. That’s what we wish you for the upcoming year.