You might be forgiven for thinking that, in a world of rapid digital transformation, where eBooks and audiobooks continue to rocket in popularity, the era of printed books might have started to fade. In fact, millions of print books were purchased last year in the UK, and many of these started life in an Amazon facility just outside Luton. Welcome to the Amazon print-on-demand centre, designated “LTN5”, one of the UK's largest book-printing facilities, standing at the intersection between tradition and cutting-edge technology.
The first thing you notice about LTN5 is the scale. The large facility is split into two sections - with both running during peak season - with a variety of different printing and binding machinery working in a harmonious rhthym to ensure books keep rolling off the press.
LTN5's massive production capacity plays a vital role in meeting the demands of publishers, partners and customers across the UK. But nothing would be possible without the unwavering commitment to excellence from a dedicated team.
Eilish McDonald, Change Manager at LTN5, guides us through the different production lines and equipment and explains when the peak periods are for printing. After several years at LTN5, she's able to tell what time of the year it is from what kind of books are being printed.
Abdul, a Level 2 Machine Operator, shows us the inner workings of one of the larger printers, and explains the paper's journey from plain to printed. After specialist training with a printer manufacturer in Barcelona, Abdul now holds a rare qualification for the specific machinery used in LTN5.
Perfection is critically important to the crew at LTN5. There are quality checks at every stage of the process. Here at printing, James shows us common issues and printing mistakes that might occur, and the processes in place to both catch and fix these before the prints make it to binding.
Eilish pauses for a moment to show us the Author Alley, which showcases some of the authors who have visited and had their books printed at LTN5. The newest addition is 11-year-old author Alexandra, who had the book she wrote, Autumn's Diary of Dreams, printed at LTN5 this year.
Back to the books. Marius, an RME Technician on Amazon's Career Choice program, demonstrates how to use the 'Titan' to cut printed paper down to size before binding. He also tells about the 'test books' they produce to calibrate the cutting and binding machines, which look like paperback notebooks. These are donated to schools, hospitals and charities by the boxload for them to use. Marius tells us he even took a box to his local vet clinic to thank them for helping him out in an emergency!
Finally, we see our first books! Rolling out of the 'Inifinitrim' cutting machine, each book is printed depending on the order requests, resulting in an apparently random order of finished books that resembles a library shelf.
But the production line doesn't end there. A team of sharp-eyed associates examine and inspect every book printed for defects, misprints, covers that have been cut incorrectly or bent. Anything that isn't perfect is sent for reprint, to ensure that all finished books are of the highest possible quality. This strive for perfection is a source of pride for everyone at LTN5, and it's easy to see everyone pulling together in order to achieve it.
Our visit finishes in the cafeteria, where we're surrounded by associates eating lunch, taking a break or playing pool. Despite the number of people working at LTN5, everyone seems to know each other - whether it's a friendly wave on the manufacturing floor or a fierce game of table tennis, the sense of community is everywhere.
Beyond the whirring machines and laser printers lies an appreciation for the books themselves, and a deep respect for the craft of bookmaking. At LTN5, every page printed is an opportunity to transport readers into different worlds, teach them something new, or inspire change. Every day is Day One at the centre, with plans to increase printing efficiency and capacity even further before the end of the year, to bring more stories to even more people.