As 2020 comes to an end, it feels all the more important for us to take a look back, reaffirm our company’s vision and the mission we have given ourselves. Speed has always been at the heart of what we do, each day helping to build our reputation. Where does this idea of speed come from and why is it relevant to our shifting industry?
Simon Dulac, President of Rapido Books, offers his answers to these questions and more.

How did you come to the idea that speed could contribute something new and of value to the publishing world?

The greater part of my career back in France involved the printing of magazines. There was a time when my company was responsible for producing 25 weekly publications. Depending on the day, we produced anywhere from 2 to 8. Altogether we’re talking millions of copies each week. I can tell you that under those conditions, it’s either make or break: either you crack under the pressure or you come out stronger on the other end. Despite machine failures, bad weather and all the other problems we faced, we never delivered a single copy late. It can be a lot of pressure. I’m proud to say that we printed the regional inserts for the French weekly Télé Star for 28 years in a row, without a single delay. Our biggest challenge was Télé Z, which we printed in runs of 2,500,000 copies. That’s more than 300 tons of paper, printed and bound in less than 48 hours.

When I became interested in the book printing market, I was struck by how long production times were. I quickly learned that it was connected to the issue of unsold stock and that my expertise could bring something new to the table for book publishers.

Could you say a bit more about this notion of time?

Time is tricky to master. It is a fluid element that slips through your fingers. We don’t all have the same notion of time. When it comes to deadlines, most people are working within an awareness of the next 24 hours. In some companies, time is measured in weeks, not days. To meet the demands of my trade, I had to organize my time in terms of 15-minute segments. When you’re working under the constraints of just-in-time production, there’s no room for error. I am relatively new to Quebec, but back in France I ran a company with six 50-meter rotary presses and five binding stations that ran 24 hours a day. The whole operation took about two hundred people to run—a small army. Running that operation demanded pinpoint precision, which suited me for I have always enjoyed exactitude.

I learned to live under pressure, which I believe requires a particular character and set of dispositions. After living under such discipline for years, you stop noticing that you’re constantly on the knife’s edge. It helps make one more resilient, I believe.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931.

What is at stake for the book industry?

Every publisher knows what a nightmare it can be to manage unsold stock. I believe that every time we reduce the turnaround time of a printed book, we help publishers reduce their risk of unsold stock. Production volumes are only high because publishers need to compensate for slow production times. Publishers increase their volumes in order to give themselves a cushion, which prevents them from running out of stock. But every time a publisher increases the number of books they print, they also increase the risk of not selling all those books. When you add up the reaction times of all the different elements in the book chain, you begin to notice gray areas that are unaccounted for. The manager in me knows all too well that reduced visibility always leads to increased costs.

Could you explain why we need to rethink how we manage stock?

By its nature, stock is always in flux. There are constantly entries and removals. If you take a picture of your stock in the morning and another at the end of the same day, you’ll see two different pictures. If you space out your inventory checks, you’ll quickly lose track of where you’re at. To make everyone’s job easier, it’s important to align the speed of inflows with the outflows. The auto industry has been doing this for decades. They even have a name for it, Kanban. The slower the reaction time of your inflows, the more likely you are to run out of stock. As I said before, this is where publishers compensate by increasing the volume of their print orders, but they’re also increasing the risk of unsold stock. It’s that simple. Rapido helps publishers replace stock with responsiveness.

How have printing technologies changed in the past several years?

The advent of digital printing has changed everything. We can produce books today with very low start-up costs. The quality is good from the first copy onward. Laser and ink-jet printers make it possible for us to print very short runs, as low as a single copy. Thanks to this, Rapido can print and bind a book in 48 hours. We’re currently investing so that we can make this turnaround time even faster. At the point we’ve reached it’s no longer a question of technology, but of organization. The most up-to-date machinery will never replace the performance of women and men when the pressure to produce on time is so high.

Going fast is a particular kind of sport, you know. You need a team of well-trained people to pull it off. It’s a bit like in rugby. You need a front line of solid guys, a good scrum-half that can quickly orient the play and wingers that work like beasts to score a try. Rapido’s strength is that we are short run specialists. It’s all we do, from January 1st to December 31st. This is how we’re able to print so quickly and offer such reliable turnaround times.

How is Rapido different from the competition?

As I said, it isn’t our machinery that makes us different, but our organization and the quality of our team. When we created Rapido, we went back to the drawing board. We started from scratch to build a radically different model. It helps when you want to innovate to not be burdened by a long history.

Rapido started in Montreal in 2013. At that time, a publisher typically had to wait a few days to get a print quote. Thankfully things have changed since then. We decided that we needed to drastically reduce our response time to quote requests. We developed an online portal that publishers could use to request quotes instantly. Around that same time, it took on average 5 to 6 weeks to print a book order. We brought that down to 2 to 4 days, depending on quantity. Our entire organization was built around this radically different approach, rooted in the idea that we are here to help our clients save time. Our client portal makes it possible to request a quote in less than 30 seconds via our quote request form which offers over 10,000 possible print option combinations. If it’s for a reprint order, we’re talking less than 10 seconds.

The time it takes to get a quote and to print an order are not the only things we have sought to change. We have also reduced the response time to our clients. We are very responsive: where a client used to have to wait somewhere between 12 hours and a day for an answer, they now barely need to wait at all when communicating with us. We’ve reduced the chain of communication, in part by clarifying the role of each person within our team. We’ve also increased our availability to answer our clients’ requests by freeing ourselves of most zero-value tasks. This makes us more available to advise our clients on the technical aspects of their book, which counts for a lot when talking about proper file preparation and colorimetry. We do more than just put ink to paper. Our greatest strength is that we’re constantly reinventing ourselves.

What developments can we expect from Rapido in the near future?

Firstly, we’re doubling our efforts to further develop our IT, which is all done internally, in order to improve productivity as well as data management and user experience for our clients and team. We try to automate as much as possible while still remaining flexible. It’s a real art. We develop our online platforms in collaboration with our clients, to make sure our solutions are adapted to their needs while at the same time suggesting to them new ways of doing things. But I’d say it’s generally we that learn the most from listening to our clients. The past 9 months since the start of the pandemic have led to particularly enriching exchanges. Some really exciting ideas have emerged.

We’re also working on a way to automate the quote creation process by pulling on statistics about publishers’ sales. I won’t say more on this since the project is still in development. Feedback from publishers is already very promising. Our goal is to help publishers stick as close as possible to the demand for their books, so as to reduce the need for inventory.

Ergonomics are also very important to us. Our systems and solutions need to adapt to the entire range of publishing organizations, whether the publisher is alone managing their company or part of a large institution with an established hierarchical structure.

Finally, we are adding more logistical components to our solutions, notably with our management of single-copy deliveries, which are particularly appealing in the case of advance reader copies. We have also begun to manage small stocks to accelerate fulfilment time while still minimizing the risk of printing copies that don’t sell, with a minimum threshold that automatically triggers a reprint order. All these solutions are being met with increasing success, moreso now that we are also able to connect directly to a publisher’s website in order to manage the fulfilment of their online orders. Gone are the long and tedious afternoons spent by publishers in their meeting room packaging and shipping out copies to hundreds of recipients. We take care of all that now.

What are your objectives for 2021?

To accelerate and accelerate some more. In a few weeks, we will be doubling the capacity of our binding station in order to meet increased demand and also reduce our turnaround time when needed. We also plan to further improve our responsiveness and provide more information to our clients to help them better oversee the progress of their print orders. In a not so distant future, our clients will be able to log in to their portal and follow their order progress as though they were standing next to the production manager.

We’re also in the process of integrating a new production model that could be summarized as building without destroying. We believe that we are all on the cusp of a new era in which waste will be prohibited, where energy consumption will have to be limited and where people’s wellbeing in the workplace will have become a priority. Schumpeter’s beloved “creative destruction” is a thing of the past. Our world can no longer accommodate the mass exploitation we’ve been doing for over 200 years. This project is particularly important to us.

Our numbers will be rising with the arrival of new recruits. I’m pretty sure Rapido has the lowest age average in the industry. We see this as an advantage. But time flies as I’ve said before, and we can’t just rest on our laurels.

What are your thoughts about the current state of affairs in the publishing world?

Times are complicated for everyone. At the macro-economic level, it’s honestly hard to see clearly. I won’t dwell on this because I think everyone knows what I mean. One benefit of this crisis is that people aren’t going out as much as before and are reading more.

Difficult times must serve as opportunities to ask difficult questions. If things aren’t going the way we would like them to go, then let’s ask ourselves what we can do to change them for the better, instead of waiting for miracle solutions to fall into our lap. It all comes back to time. Time is what we have that’s most precious. Money is gained and lost, but time is spent and lost forever. As Seneca once said, “a man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life.” At Rapido, we work hard every day to give meaning to what we do. I’ll say it again, our job is more than simply putting ink to paper. We have a mission, defined by the strong teamwork of everyone at Rapido, which can be summed up as: increasing production speeds, recognizing the crucial role that IT development plays in improving our productivity, and the goal to reduce stock for publishers.

We also need to think about the future. For a company leader like myself, it’s truly fun to work with such a dynamic team. What’s most important is for us to continue developing Rapido so that it becomes an agent of modernization in the publishing sector. They say that to govern is to foresee. I know how important it is to pave the way to the future and that’s why I’ve surrounded myself with such a skilled and young team, including my son Henri with whom I’ve already discussed the distribution of our respective roles for the years to come. I love my trade and I still want to accomplish good things, with him and the rest of the team.