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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for the ‘Book Printing’ Category

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

Monday, September 9th, 2019

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min, of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.

2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.

3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.

4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension, when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.

5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student) or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Book Printing: Finding Your Optimal Minimum Print Order

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

A commercial printing client whom I have mentioned before regularly reprints a series of color swatch books during the year. They are a bit like miniature PMS color swatch books, but their purpose is to help my client’s clients choose colors for make-up and clothing based on their complexions.

These little books are approximately 1.5” x 3.5” in size, are 118 pages plus covers, and are bound with a single screw and post assembly in one corner. The printer prints the swatches, drills and round corners the pages, collates the pages, and then binds each print book prior to shrink-wrapping it.

There are 28 master copies with titles related to the four seasons. During the year my client reprints a certain number of copies of each master text based on the orders she has received from her clients. The most recent reprint, for instance, was for 81 books. For these she paid $1,862.00, or $22.99 per book. On another occasion, she printed 154 books for $2,809.00 or $18.24 per book.

Explaining the Numbers

The first question most people will ask is why the unit costs are different. Why should my client have to pay $18.24 per book for one reprint and then several months later, when she has another batch of customers interested in her product, why should she pay $22.99 per book? Moreover, how can she know what to charge her clients if the unit cost keeps changing?

First of all, the overall price at any level, whether 81 books or 154 books, reflects two things: fixed costs and variable costs. I never formally studied economics, but I have learned this over the years. The fixed costs reflect the activities needed to prepare the job and set up the print run. These tasks include loading and opening the job files for my client’s product, making any corrections, producing PDF proofs, and, after proof approval, reloading the job into the computer and preparing for the actual print run.

My client usually prints between one and six copies of each master print book depending on her clients’ needs. This is one of the reasons the job is printed on an HP Indigo press. That is, her job is produced digitally via electrophotography (laser printing). Fortunately this involves less make-ready of the press than offset lithography, but there is still some work to do before the actual custom printing process. After the set up is complete, the press run cost varies based on the number of copies produced: hence, the range noted above from $1,862.00 to $2,809.00 for 81 to 154 copies. The length of the press run itself reflects the variable costs because these change depending on the number of copies produced, ranging from $18.24 to $22.99 per book.

Ideally, my client will produce more rather than fewer books. This actually benefits everyone. The printer makes more, and my client pays less per print book (you can see graphs of this sort of thing in economics books, where the unit cost drops as the manufacturing run increases).

If my client wanted significantly more copies of each master book (and a printer would need to figure out the exact number that would be appropriate for this), it would be less expensive to produce the books via offset lithography rather than laser printing. In this case, the make-ready (all activities, in this case, related to getting the offset press ready to produce the first and then all subsequent copies of each page) would be more involved. It’s a more time consuming, and more complex, procedure to make and hang custom printing plates on the press, prepare the ink, wash up the press when needed, etc., than it is to run clean, contained digital printing equipment.

That said, there would be a large magnitude of an increase in the final number of printed pages, so the overall cost of the print run (in the multiple thousands of copies range) would yield a lower unit cost (fixed preparation costs plus variable job-run costs divided by the number of books in the press run).

As noted before, in your own work it is prudent to ask your printer where the optimal transition point would be in choosing digital laser vs. offset lithography for your print books. It will depend on the number of copies and the number of pages in your print book, as well as the commercial printing equipment your supplier has on his factory floor.

Your Minimum Order Based on Page Count and Press Run

My client just took orders and deposits from a handful of customers and now wants to produce a reprint costing approximately $1,000.00. That’s her target “spend.” So I asked the book printer how many final copies this would yield, assuming that there could be any number of copies of any of the 28 master print books.

Since the $1,862.00 press run yielded 81 copies, I guessed that $1,000.00 might yield 20 or 30 copies, at most, since a lot of the $1,000.00 would be committed to the make-ready costs.

So I was surprised to receive the following cost spreadsheet from the printer:

5 copies: $1,765.00
50 copies: $1,806.00
81 copies: $1,862.00

In his email, the printer noted that the high cost was due to the set up time and minimum charges for lamination.

Now upon further review, I also thought about the following. The round cornering is a die-cutting operation (a metal die cuts rounded corners on all sides of each color swatch card). So between the laminating of each sheet (done by an outside vendor) and the die-cutting, the job is more complex than initially conceived, and it also involves minimum orders for the subcontractor to avoid his losing money on a short run.

Therefore, the book printer advised that my client use the 81-copy press run as a target minimum order (an order yielding a reasonable unit cost and factoring in all preparation and clean-up costs). This would avoid the $353.00 unit cost for 5 copies or $36.12 unit cost for 50 copies (as noted in the printer’s spreadsheet above).

With this information plus the job history of printing 81 to 154 copies over the last year or so, my client could get a really good idea of how much each print book (each unit) would cost, depending on how much her overall “spend” was ($1,862.00 to $2,809.00 ), and she could determine an amount to charge her clients for each book that would cover the costs and also yield a profit. (On small orders, then, she would make less per unit; the cost to her clients would be closer to what the printer had charged her per unit. And on larger orders for clients, she would make more per unit.)

Again, it would behoove her to wait until the last possible moment to receive client orders and then place an order with her book printer. Larger orders would always be better.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I’d encourage you to do what I did. Get an economics textbook at a thrift store and study the section on fixed expenses, variable expenses, unit costs, and marginal costs (the cost of “one more unit” of anything produced). It will be much more interesting than it was in school because it will apply directly to your own print buying work, right now. Studying this will help you understand why longer press runs are better.

Learn the differences between digital printing (such as inkjet and laser printing) and analog printing (such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography, or gravure). Pay particular attention to the steps involved in “make-ready” for each kind of commercial printing technology. This will help you understand the differences in fixed and variable costs for different jobs produced with different technology.

Discuss with your printer what the optimal transition point would be for your print book (whether you should print it digitally or via offset lithography). You will need to tell him the page count and number of copies needed.

Don’t assume the quality will be exactly the same for digital vs. analog (traditional offset). Ask for printed samples, preferably with whatever cover coating you have chosen (UV or matte laminate, for instance). Fortunately, digital printing is getting to the point that it usually looks great compared to offset lithography, but if your job involves 4-color images, it’s always best to review printed samples before making your decision.

And if you don’t like the samples of a digitally printed cover for whatever reason (different digital technologies, such as laser vs. inkjet, or different brands of digital printing equipment yield different levels of quality), consider hybrid printing. For instance, you may want to produce the text of your book digitally and then have the printer offset print the covers. It’s always smart to discuss all of these options with your print sales rep based on both price and quality, and to confirm your choice based on your review of printed samples.

Book Printing: Ensuring On-Time, Accurate Delivery

Monday, August 19th, 2019

“We uploaded the art files to the printer only a day late. Why can’t the printer make up the time? Don’t they want our business?”

A print brokering client of mine asked these questions recently, reminding me that their print books needed to be in the book distributor’s possession on time, and not even a day late. (To be completely honest, I have exaggerated my client’s actual questions a bit in order to make a point: Schedules matter.)

It is important to remember that your commercial printing job (and in most cases your schedule, or drop-dead delivery date) is of utmost importance to you, but at the same time your print provider has many clients who feel exactly the same way about their projects. Some of these will flow smoothly through the process. They will arrive on time and then proceed through all the various stages of the process (prepress, printing, finishing, packing, and delivery).

Others will hit snags. Maybe your files will not pass preflight (perhaps there will be problems with the resolution of the photos). Maybe, when you receive the hard-copy proof, you’ll catch an error or two.

Errors like these, the ones you have inadvertently introduced into the process, will slow you down. These are different from errors the printer introduces into the process (such as a broken saddle stitching machine that slows down his bindery work, perhaps necessitating overtime work to compensate).

Error-Free Files

I had a client earlier this year who submitted three 5.5” x 8.5” print books to press. There was a simple editorial correction needed on one of the book covers. Because of this, the printer put all three books on hold while the cover designer made and uploaded corrections and while new proofs were generated and approved (fortunately they were PDF proofs, so no further time was lost mailing proofs to the client and then back to the book printer).

This revision process (for as small a correction as was needed) added a week to the overall production schedule. Did the printer need to take this much time? After all, the book printer’s actual production time was probably only minimal. While it’s true that fixing the problem most likely took very little time, it disrupted the overall workflow of the book printing plant. To minimize this, the printer focused first on the clients who had provided accurate, error-free files—on time—and then came back to my client’s three print books.

Not all printers are like this. Printing is a business, and different printers have different business models. The one in question has rock-bottom prices but provides stellar-quality products. Therefore, they are always booked. In fact, since the overall volume of book printing has been increasing year over year in the recent past, the turn-around time this book printer now offers is much longer than even a year ago.

Other Options

My client could go elsewhere. A reasonable choice. I work with another printer that’s huge. They are a consolidator. They have branches all across the country. They also do digital printing (which my client needed for these three titles due to their short press runs). But this printer’s business model involves limiting the choices for digital binding to keep their machinery costs down. After all, if they offered all types of binding (French flaps on the paperback covers, for instance), this would require additional machinery, which would require additional expense, which would drive up the costs the printer must charge customers.

A third book printer will do almost anything I need. They’re great. However, I have to pay a premium for this. Some of my customers prefer this treatment and are willing to pay for it.

So my client made his choice. He chose two of the three manufacturing goals (quality, price, but not speed). In effect, we paid for the discounted price.

Some will say that clients now demand more, and it’s possible to hit all three goals (quality, price, and speed). That sounds good, but in reality those printers who over-promise eventually go out of business.

For instance, I’ve had clients leave for other printers who promise more only to find that their schedules were not met or that the printed jobs were not of the highest quality. These clients then came back to me. In my case, as a printing broker, I try to advise clients not to do this because it takes time: going out, finding a new printer, having problems, and then coming back. This can also waste a lot of money.

Now I want to make it clear that the situation I’m describing is very different from working with a printer who is slow, sloppy, and/or inaccessible. Most are not. Some get into trouble precisely because they are trying to be all things to all people. They are charging less than the competition, taking in too much work, and turning it around with too few staff. Eventually they go out of business.

How do you know what’s really happening with a particular printer? You don’t. This is where experience comes in. If a long-standing relationship with a printer who has been a good partner hits a bump in the road, you can discuss matters, be frank, and come up with solutions. But if you’re working with a new printer, it’s usually smart to start slowly. Make your first few jobs small ones with flexible deadlines. Then you can build up to large, deadline-critical custom printing projects.

The Solution

After the first set of this year’s print books came too close for comfort to my client’s drop-dead delivery date, I came up with a solution for the next set of three jobs. I asked for the printer’s longest projected time frame for each component of the schedule based on the printer’s workload at that particular time (which was heavy). Then I listed them:

  1. Prepress and proofing
  2. Printing
  3. Binding
  4. Shipping and delivery

Then I added a week to the estimated prepress and proofing stage. Then I added a week to the shipping stage. Then I added a week to the whole process just for safety’s sake. Would I have done this for all printers’ schedules? No. In some cases my clients want to go go with the more expensive printers I frequent, and these book printers don’t often present this problem.

So in the simplest terms, I acknowledged reality. Then I made a conservative schedule. Not just a realistic schedule, but a conservative one, with wiggle room. With this in hand, I approached both my client and the printer, received their approval of the schedule, and made sure everyone had a final copy. This was our agreement. At this point it was set in stone, but I sweetened the pot by arranging prepayment. The printer needed half of the cost up front, but since my client “got it” (he understood human motivation), my client offered to pay for the entire order at once, up front.

Keep in mind two important things. My client had been exceptionally pleased with this book printer’s prior work. All books delivered for several jobs had been gorgeous. Also, this printer (and most others) require cash-only clients (as opposed to credit clients) to pay the first 50 percent prior to the onset of the job and the final 50 percent prior to its shipment. This is the norm (an accepted trade custom in commercial printing). So by paying both 50 percent, up-front payments together, my client showed good will, made it clear that the job was a real job, and didn’t pay any more than was required (he just paid it earlier).

Final Check of Art Files

When the text designer sent me final art files for the three print books, I carefully checked the individual pages in the PDF file and also the trim size (format) of the books. Two of the three had the correct format. One was slightly off-size–in error. I brought this to the text designer’s attention, and she quickly fixed it. (If I hadn’t caught this error, the printer would have caught it in preflight, and this would have used up precious time in the schedule. In fact, all three books might have been put on hold until the problem had been fixed.)

My client also caught errors on the cover of one of the three books. He asked whether I thought it would be better to upload the files now (one day past the submission deadline) and make corrections at the proof stage, or whether he should take the time to correct the files first. My response was that it was definitely worth taking the time now.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Make a schedule. Pad it. Then get everyone’s buy-in. Then, don’t deviate from the schedule. Remember the consequences of missed deadlines.
  2. Realize that you can have any two of the following: quality, speed, price. Any vendor can make wild promises. Choose printers that under-promise and over-deliver. Don’t waste time looking for the perfect printer. It’s more than likely that you’ll spend a lot of money and time, and wind up back at your first printer’s door.
  3. That said, develop relationships with printers prudently. Start with small jobs and then build to larger ones.
  4. Have more than one person check your art files. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s always better to fix them before submitting files. Don’t wait until the proofing stage. You will not make up lost time.

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

  1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.
  2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.
  3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.
  4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.
  5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).
  6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student), or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Book Printing: A Fanciful Journey Toward a Print Book

Monday, August 5th, 2019

I am a pushover when it comes to romance and swashbuckling. I must have been a pirate in a former life. So when I had the opportunity to join a Facebook group connected to a print book a client of mine was designing for a friend, I joined.

My client’s friend apparently is writing a book, a journal of sorts, describing his early life, many years ago, in the cannabis trade. Now I know this is less highly charged now, and I neither oppose nor condone its use, but this sounded like a good story.

So when I reached the Facebook page and joined, I first assumed that all of the Facebook members—who made me feel quite at home with their welcome—lived together on a beach in some Caribbean land as ex-patriots presumably fleeing the law. I further assumed that if they were keeping on the low down and engaging in legal professions, they were probably digital nomads writing or designing articles and books, and then submitting files over the internet while lounging in their beach huts.

(I have since discovered from my friend that almost all of them are in fact scattered–separately–across the United States. They are middle aged or older, and they presumably all have day jobs. Oh, well.)

The Tone of the Journal

To protect the innocent, I will not get specific about the content of the print book. At the very least, this is because it has not yet been published. So for now we’ll assume it is like Miami Vice set in Tahiti, full of smuggling and theme music for all the main characters. (One of the inhabitants told me he was homeless, but upon further reflection as to how this might be true if he was writing to me on a computer, I asked my friend. She told me he was renting lake-front property. He just didn’t own a house.)

That said, the exposure to the Facebook page has given me a wealth of information on the tone of the print book to come, such that I can now make cogent suggestions regarding its format, paper, binding, and perhaps even design (hopefully without stepping on my friend’s, the designer’s, toes).

Magic Translated Into Print Book Production Values

Having reviewed and considered the photos on the Facebook page along with the writings from both the author and the other group members, and having been told by the author that he wants to charge more than usual for the book, I had some thoughts.

First of all, I agree with a Dr. Who (on television) t-shirt I have that pretty much says that in the end we’re just stories. In my own view, someone who can tell a good story full of concrete, evocative details that engage the reader emotionally can charge almost anything. People love stories. Good marketing is even based on telling stories, on engaging the reader’s emotions. Particularly if the stories are believable—as was the story I gleaned from the Facebook page.

How this filters into print book production specifications is what this blog article is really about, and I think that as designers and print buyers each one of us needs to be able to understand the story, whether the printed product will be a book, a brochure, a sign, or anything else. Then, each one of us has to translate this story into a printed product using the aesthetic building blocks of design and the physical building blocks of commercial printing.

So these are my thoughts, which I have already started to share with my friend who will be designing the print book:

  1. If the author plans to charge a premium, it will be important to make the book presentation unique.
  2. This may include such attributes as an unusual size (not the traditional 6” x 9” or 8.5” x 11” of contemporary trade books, which cost less than what my friend’s client plans to charge). Perhaps a square, large-format book would be intriguing to the reader.
  3. It may include such trappings as French flaps. These are the extensions to the paperback cover that fold back into the book and extend 3” or 4” across the interior front cover. They make the book look like it is a hard-cover text with a dust jacket. These are very popular, apparently, in Europe, so they lend an international sensibility to the book: perhaps an air of mystery or opulence.
  4. Since the subject matter involves cannabis, I plan to suggest a more earthy approach, involving an uncoated, heavily textured paper for the interior pages of the print book. I can acquire paper samples from my printing suppliers when the time comes. I may even suggest a toned paper, perhaps an off white or a light gray or green. Anything that has a crunchy granola feel.
  5. Given the subject matter, I may also suggest an uncoated cover stock. I need to be very careful, though, because uncoated paper does not necessarily age well. Readers may easily crush or dog-ear the cover paper, inadvertently, through heavy use. Even if the paper holds up, the ink printed on the cover may smear unless it is coated, which would defeat the purpose of having an uncoated cover stock in the first place.
  6. Granted, I have seen designers use a light varnish to seal ink on an uncoated stock, even though it’s a little like painting a sponge. You protect the ink but you can’t see any gloss. Also, ink laydown on a textured cover stock with a “tooth” (uneven surface) may be a bit uneven, with pinholes, so the design of the cover art will be of prime importance. It must be printer friendly as well as attractive. The custom printing technology (offset vs. digital) will also be important in order to ensure good ink or toner coverage on the cover paper.
  7. Readability. This is not a printing consideration, but since the writer already noted that he likes Comic Sans for a font, I checked this typeface out on the web. I went to Google Images and found the whole alphabet. It is attractive. It seems to be casual and quite appropriate for the storytelling tone of the print book. However, I’m not yet convinced that it will be easily readable over the course of 200 to 300 pages, especially by older readers. So I suggested to the designer that she increase the point size, increase the leading (space between lines), and make the copy flush left/ragged right. The typeface will echo the tone of the book, but it must be readable.

These are just some initial thoughts. In fact, when we get closer to publication, I’m going to ask the printer for samples of uncoated, printed cover stocks. I may also ask the paper merchant to create a mock-up of the entire print book on the selected stock to give the reader an idea of what the final book will feel like in the reader’s hands. A good story, written by a charismatic storyteller, skillfully designed, on substantial paper with special flaps, should fetch a premium. It all comes down to the same magic I felt on the Facebook page, when I thought all inhabitants of The Crew lived on the beach of the same Caribbean island and were not in fact retired men and women scattered all across the United States. Magic sells.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Anything from a book to a brochure must captivate the reader. This is a magical act. It is based not only on the story (referred to in the popular media as “the narrative”) but on the design and printing values.
  2. First, understand the tone of the book. Breathe it in. Let it sit with you, and then turn this into a design based on all the traditional tools: page geometry, font, color, imagery, etc.
  3. Turn two dimensions into three. The writing is abstract. The design adds the visual cues. Now add the tactile element: the print book production values.
  4. Acquire related print products, then consider unusual treatments that will set apart your printed product from all others. This includes paper, trim size, binding technology and materials, perhaps adornment such as foils, cover coatings, and such.
  5. Make sure all of this is congruent: writing, design, and paper. Even the commercial printing technology is important. Maybe a print book about pirates should be printed via letterpress, not offset lithography. Maybe it should be printed on a faux parchment with a mottled paper surface.
  6. Get samples: printed samples and paper books. It’s great to visualize something in your own head, but if you’re going to see how it’s really going to look—and feel—nothing beats a printed sample. It also helps you communicate with the author and the printer. Use the paper sample books not only to select paper stocks but to make sure they are current. Papers come and go. Check the dates on the paper swatch books. Make sure your printer can get the paper. Moreover, make sure the paper is reasonably priced and doesn’t require a special order or a minimum amount.

Use everything you know about paper, design, and commercial printing, but go beyond these and consider reader psychology, marketing tactics, and even the art of storytelling. To misquote Dr. Who (from British television): If it’s all a story, let’s make it a good one.

Book Printing: Why Skill in Typesetting Is Important

Monday, July 1st, 2019

One of my new clients is a “wordsmith.” She helps authors get their books into print and then promotes them. I have a lot of respect for her. Just recently, though, as I understand her situation, a new client of hers asked her to not only edit the text of his print book but also lay it out in MS Word. He wanted to save money by not paying a designer to lay out the text of the book (fortunately, he did pay for a professionally designed cover).

I want to clarify the direction in which my thoughts are going. My client referred to the text design of the print book as “desktopping.” This term, in itself, does not carry the weight of the skill and experience of the proper term, “book designer.” In fact, it is easy to assume that just because one can process the words of a print book, add photos, add a table of contents, and such, that this is of the same caliber as the product created by an experienced designer who understands typography, layout, page grids, the use of white space, and all the myriad of nuances that make a professionally designed book aesthetically appealing (and easier to read).

When I started in the field of publications management, back in the late 1970s, I would take the manuscripts for the magazine (I was the managing editor) to the typesetter. She produced galleys (a photographic process of setting each line of type on a dedicated computer). These were then physically pasted up on grid paper based on a mock-up of the design that I had created. (The key here is that the typesetter did nothing but set type. She was an expert in this aspect of publishing.)

Granted, this was before desktop publishing, which democratized publication design by making it “possible” for anyone to produce text. But the typesetter understood the various classifications of type, how the type letterforms differed, why to choose one over another, and how to “tweak” type with such precise controls as kerning and tracking. She also understood such elements of design as adding letterspacing (moving successive lines of type slightly apart to improve readability).

The designer who then pasted up the magazine also understood these elements of design. She knew exactly how to specify these type nuances and communicate directly with the typesetter such that both professionals could work together to create a readable, attractive magazine based on the paper mock-up I had taped together (using photocopies of the strips of typeset manuscript—the galleys). Everyone understood their own and everyone else’s job. Everyone could communicate based on this understanding. But since everyone’s respective job differed from everyone else’s and since each required a depth of knowledge not held by the others, it took all of the participants to produce a quality magazine.

Then, in the late 1980s, everything changed. At that point, everything could be done on a desktop computer. Granted, this made the publishing process faster, easier, and cheaper. Untrained staff could produce a newsletter for next to nothing. For certain things, that’s great. (I’m a great believer in doing what is necessary in a particular situation, neither more nor less. For certain publishing tasks, good enough is good enough. Most people won’t see the difference. When I started in the field, I couldn’t tell the difference.)

Back to My Client

I don’t want to disparage my client. I think she is wonderful and highly skilled. However, in order to help her prepare the text for her client’s print book (with me working as her commercial printing broker), I have had to teach her to look closely for a number of things. Catching and correcting these errors will make her client’s book look more professional and be easier to read. If you are new to design, these are some things you might want to consider as well, whenever you design a print book:

  1. My client set the entire book—excluding the cover–in MS Word rather than InDesign. Some printers won’t accept MS Word files. When processed in prepress, some MS Word files can apparently develop problems. I believe these include reflowing of copy and/or potential inadvertent font changes. This may have been addressed and corrected in the recent past, but I was always taught by printers to use InDesign or Quark. Typesetting functions of these dedicated page composition software packages are more nuanced and more precise. In my client’s case, she will save the MS Word file as a PDF (which should eliminate problems, or at least keep them from creating unexpected results). However, I have asked the printer to check the files carefully as well. When my client reviews the hard-copy proofs of the print book, she will also be able to look for any anomalies (changed fonts or reflowed copy). But if she had used InDesign, there would have been far less opportunity for error.
  2. The Takeaway
    Always use a dedicated page composition program for laying out your publication, brochure, or any other commercial printing job. Don’t use Microsoft Publisher. Don’t use Illustrator. Don’t use Photoshop. Use InDesign or Quark.

  3. My client set the text of the book justified, without hyphenation. Therefore, MS Word either jammed words together (with too little word-spacing) or put too few words on a line (sometimes only three words with large spaces in between). This minimizes readability, because the spaces between words are so different from line to line throughout the 428 pages of the book. And minimized readability tires the reader’s eyes, making it less likely that she or he will continue reading. Moreover, if the type looks amateurish, people will question the accuracy of the content. It’s like a bad proofreading job. If your manuscript has spelling errors or errors in grammar, the reader will wonder whether the facts in the print book are also incorrect. It’s human nature. In fact, it may not always even be conscious. And at best, it slows down the reader’s progress.
  4. The Takeaway
    Avoid justified text whenever possible. Flush left/ragged right text is easier to read because the space between words is always the same. The reader’s eye gets used to this, and she or he gets into a reading “rhythm,” proceeding more quickly through the text. If you have to justify copy, use hyphenation to minimize differences in word spacing. But also carefully review the text (on a printout, not the computer screen) to identify problematic lines of type (which create a condition known as “rivers of white” running down the page).

  5. My client left some subheads at the bottom of pages without the paragraphs to which they referred.
  6. The Takeaway
    Make separate review passes through the entire print book text, looking for a number of errors and inconsistencies: in hyphenation, spacing between lines of type and particularly between typographic elements such as bulleted items (anything where the spacing is different from that of the running text). Make sure there are no “widows” or “orphans” (parts of words at the beginning or end of pages). Leave subheads with at least a few lines of the following paragraph, and start a new page with at least a few lines of copy.

  7. My client kept all photos as RGB images in a book text file that was for a black-ink-only print job. While the digital printer will automatically convert these to grayscale (black and white halftones), some of my client’s images will become too dark in this transition. So I have asked her to change the mode from RGB to grayscale and re-import the images. This way she will see how she can expect the final printed images to look. If they are too dark, she can lighten them before sending the job to press.
  8. The Takeaway
    Never send a color job to press with RGB images. Images for print should be CMYK (if the book is full color). For black-ink-only text blocks, always use grayscale, not color or bitmapped, images.

  9. On the title page, my client did not kern the letter pair “Wa” (in the word “War”). In large type, pairs of letters such as “Wa”–or, worse, “WA”–will appear to be too far apart. In my client’s case, this looked amateurish because of the size of the type (the title of the book on the title page). The type size magnified the flaw.
  10. The Takeaway
    In your own work, print out a copy of the text, and look for too much space in the pairs of letters, particularly in larger type. Learn how to tighten type using the “kerning” function (again, something like this will be superior in InDesign and Quark because these applications are intended for typesetting).

Why Is This Important?

Everything you design, print, and distribute is an ad. It reflects the quality of your work. If your type design looks amateurish, this will make your reader question the accuracy of the content, at worst, or tire his/her eyes, at best.

What’s the Most Important Thing You Can Do to Avoid These Problems?

Study typography. Learn the difference between Old Style, Transitional, and Modern typeface classifications. Learn to kern type. Make the study of type an interesting, lifelong pursuit. Understand how typography fits into the overall design of a printed piece. Look at printed jobs you like and try to articulate why they are attractive. Expect your knowledge base to grow and expand, but assume this will take time. If you don’t have the time, hire a professional designer (not a “desktopper”), and then focus on what you yourself do best.

Book Printing: Disc Binding, a New Bindery Option

Monday, June 24th, 2019

In commercial printing, I’m almost never surprised by new technologies, whether these involve closed-loop sensors that use computer feedback on a press to keep color accurate, or new printing technologies such as the ink transfer method called Nanography. I’m always excited by these things. But in post-press finishing and binding equipment, I’m more surprised by new technology. Somehow I expect to always see the perfect binding, saddle stitching, velo binding, tape binding, GBC (or plastic comb) binding, post-binding, and plastic coil binding I’ve grown used to over the past 40+ years.

But I’m happy to be wrong.

A friend and colleague sent me an article this week about a new binding technology called disc binding. I have actually seen samples before in stationery stores, but until now I haven’t looked at the new technology closely.

What Is Disc Binding?

If you can picture a disc with an extended rim, like a wheel, that extends beyond the central disc on both sides, you’re well on your way to grasping this concept. Disc binding is similar to the three-ring binding of a notebook, but the rigid wire loop has been replaced by a series of solid discs with extended rims.

To bind a notebook with this new method, you hook pre-punched pages onto the ridge on the disks. The pages, when punched, have holes and little tabs that will grasp the ridge of the discs, which can be applied one by one, every inch or every few inches down the length of the bind edge. Even though this sounds like a lot of work to set up, it is similar to a binder in that you can easily remove pages and reorder them within the notebook.

Presumably, you would then add a cover at both ends of the stack of pages. Just like the interior pages, the covers are also pre-punched with little tabs that grasp the extended ridges of the disks.

If you want to add your own pages, you can buy a notebook hole punch that will match the pre-cut holes on commercially produced pages.

What Are the Benefits?

When I first saw these little books in the stationery store, I could see some benefits. Compared to a three-ring binder (even a small one), a disc bound notebook is slim, compact, and attractive. Clearly the designers wanted to make this an aesthetically appealing product.

You can also fold back the covers, which you cannot do with a three-ring binder. Therefore, writing in a disc bound book takes a lot less space. (Your “footprint” on the desk, if you will, is much smaller.) Of course, you can also do this with a spiral bound book, a Wire-O bound book, or a plastic coil bound book.

Unlike a spiral bound book, however, facing pages of a disc bound book (when laid open, flat on a table) exactly align with one another. If you have any image or text extending from a left-hand to a right-hand page, this can be a benefit. (It’s impossible with a spiral wire book because of the ascending/descending nature of a spiral. Facing pages will always be just slightly out of alignment with one another.)

With traditional mechanical binding methods (which include GBC, plastic coil, Wire-O, spiral, velo, tape binding, and notebook ring binding), you often have size limitations. If, for instance, you have a long print book, the page count may exceed the capacity of the binding method.

Let’s say the book printer tells you your 400+ page print book won’t fit the minimal binding capacity of a plastic coil. In this case, even though the plastic coil is more aesthetically appealing, you may need to move to GBC binding (which is a plastic coiled comb that curls through the holes punched in the collated paper sheets of your book). In my experience, this binding method can cause problems, since pages often come unhooked from a GBC bound print book. It’s also a very cumbersome process to unhook the plastic comb and then add sheets of paper to the print book.

If you’re using the disc binding system, it is much easier to expand the capacity of the rings. You can just replace them (swap out .5” rings with 1.5” rings, for instance). This is easier and more aesthetically appealing, and it allows you to add, remove, or reorder pages when you swap out the rings. So overall, assembling the disc bound books is an easier process than assembling traditional, mechanically bound print books.

Unlike some other mechanical binding methods, disc bound books also lie perfectly flat. This isn’t even true about most perfect-bound books, not to mention print books with mechanical bindings, like post binding, tape binding, and velo binding (all of which grip the pages with enough pressure to limit your ability to open the book so the pages lie flat). With disc binding, you can easily lay your book flat on the table, making writing in it a breeze.

Another benefit is the variety of cover materials, including textured, leather, and poly. Presumably, since the process is easy and the styles are standardized, you can swap out these covers at will.

Is It Ready for Primetime?

As with all new technology, from Barry Landa’s Nanography to the science behind the HP Indigo press (light years ahead of its cousin, the photocopier), things take time to become useful.

Currently disc binding does not come in all sizes. I’ve seen reference to 5.5” x 8.5” and 8.5” x 11” formats. In contrast, you can make a spiral bound book almost any size you want. Then again, three-ring notebooks also only come in standard sizes. But unlike three-ring binders, disc binding is based on adding a new ring every inch or every few inches based on the length of the book’s spine.

It seems to me that you would have a lot more flexibility with this overall concept than with the three-ring binder model. After all, the rings in a ring binder are attached to a metal strip running down the book’s interior spine. This has to be a fixed length. In contrast, with disc binding you can add more or fewer discs as needed (based on spine length), and there’s no need for the fixed-length “metal” (as the mechanism holding the binder rings in a three-ring binder is called).

Another problem is that disc bound books have no spine on which to print a book title. Now this doesn’t need to be a problem. After all, only a few of the mechanical bindings I have mentioned have spines. These include the three-ring binder (onto which you can screen print a title) and GBC binding (plastic comb binding), which also provides a screen-printable spine. In contrast, Wire-O, spiral wire, velo-binding, tape binding, and plastic coil binding do not have printable spines.

Final Thoughts

I realize that disc bound books, at the present moment, are high-design novelties you can buy one at a time at stationery stores. That’s their current purpose: a one-off product. That said, I personally look at the technology as a book printer might and ask how these can be used for long runs of print books.

In my experience, mechanical binding has always been the choice for short-run products (prior to the advent of digital commercial printing and short-run binding). For instance, a corporation hosting a seminar might produce 100 bound reports or workbooks for an event, and the technology of choice might be GBC binding.

For longer runs, mechanical binding has never been quite as efficient (i.e., it costs more per unit) because mechanical binding is usually labor intensive (i.e., it requires a lot of hand work). It also does not look as crisp and professional as the automated bindery methods (such as perfect binding).

That said, I can envision a seminar leader passing out disc bound workbooks. Since they’re so futuristic in design, this would even reflect well on the company brand. In fact, I can see disc binding potentially replacing many of the other mechanical bindings due to its ease of use.

When it comes to competition with long-run automated binding, such as perfect binding and saddle stitching, I don’t think this technology is ready for prime time yet. However, I could be wrong. All it would take would be a robotic assembly system that could add all the binding discs to a book at the same time. And that is within the realm of possibility.

Book Printing: A Cover and Page Design Analysis

Monday, June 17th, 2019

A consulting client of mine is a print book designer. She does work for government organizations like the World Bank and NATO. About five times a year, when she hits a snag in her book design, she brings me in to offer design suggestions. Having been a book designer myself at one point as well as an art director–and now working with my fiancee doing art therapy with the autistic–I can offer my consulting client (and long-time friend) a unique point of view.

My client’s strengths include her ability to balance simple page geometry (crisp, sparse design) with intriguing font usage, ample white space, and integrated color schemes. Keep in mind that the content of the print books is often rather dry, focusing on economic and social conditions in countries across the globe. So an approachable design that promotes readability is a major asset. This my client does well, and periodically I help.

The New Book Cover Design

In this instance, the print book addresses the ecology of a small African country, Malawi. My client sent me a PDF draft of her page design, including the cover and all interior text pages. She requested my design feedback since she felt the overall look could be improved.

To start with the cover, the design was based on a central photo of several people seated in a small boat. A man standing in the rear of the boat guided a long paddle back and forth to move the boat forward. Above this cover photo, my client had typeset the title of the book in an informal font that looked hand-drawn, and had then (for contrast) typeset the subhead in an austere, sans serif typeface.

One of the elements of the design that I felt worked well was the color scheme. This she had taken from the colors within the cover photo, the browns and greens and mustard color of the foliage behind the boat in the water. All together, these colors evoked an earthiness that was also reflected in the informal headline type. My client used a yellowish brown and then a dark brown (to emphasize words) in the coloration of the headline type, and then switched the placement of these two colors in the subhead (using the yellowish brown this time for emphasis).

What she achieved was the following. By using hues sampled from the photo to add color to the head and subhead, she unified the cover design. The type and photo shared a color scheme, providing a sense of balance and unity to the cover. For contrast, the bright green of some of the foliage in the photo stood out against the reds and browns and yellows (in both the type and photo). This is because green is the complement of the predominantly brownish red of the dark headline type. And because complementary colors are opposite one another on the color wheel, each of these hues will intensify the other when they are placed in close proximity.

In addition, the blue of the water was aesthetically pleasing next to the green of some of the foliage. (This is because green includes blue and yellow hues, so the two of them together create a sense of unity.) At the bottom right of the cover, my client placed the logos for the organization, which include bright blue elements. (These also fit nicely with the blue water and the green foliage.)

Moreover, the image of the boat on the water, the earth tones of the foliage beside the river in the photo, and the informal typeface for the headline all work together to create a natural, relaxed feel to the cover. Not only does this work on an aesthetic level, but it also makes what would otherwise be a dry textbook appear more inviting.

Inside the Print Book

My client then continued the color scheme of the cover within the book’s interior, using the yellowish brown and the dark brown in the heads, subheads, and callouts of the text. This unified the design of the cover and the text, particularly since my client also brought the casual cover headline type and sparse sans serif subhead type of the cover into the design of the print book’s interior.

To make the interior text approachable, my client used the sans serif typeface from the cover as the main typeface for the text. She created a page grid comprising either one or two columns (slightly offset toward the center of the book, leaving a larger scholar’s margin to the outside of the book pages). Within this scholar’s margin, my client placed the folios (page numbers) reversed out of what appeared to be a horizontal stroke of yellowish brown paint (with jagged edges like a brush stroke) in the same color she had used on the cover. And under any large heads at the top of the page (section headlines, for instance) she placed a rule made in the same fashion (like a swoosh of paint). The distressed and reversed type of the folios and the horizontal rule at the top of the page added to the approachable, informal feel of the print book while unifying the design of the interior pages and the cover layout.

As noted before, my client is very good at simple page geometry. She groups all related elements into simple geometric shapes to make their relationship immediately clear. In this case, my client did this by setting type in justified columns, in the sans serif type noted above, and with generous leading (extra space between lines of type). She also included generous amounts of white space around the columns of type (this allows the eye to rest periodically; it also helps the reader’s eye group the columns of type together visually and cognitively as being related).

As I now look at a string of my client’s book pages along the left panel of my computer screen, with the large book page in the adjoining window of the PDF page image, I can identify everything in the approximately 1” x 2” thumbnail images. By color, relative size, and placement in the generous surrounding white space, I can see what is a headline, a subhead, an initial capital letter, a run-in subhead, and text copy. Because the images are so small, I can’t even read the largest headlines, but I can identify the purpose of each chunk of type and each color. That is good design. Why? Because it leads the reader’s eye through each page. The reader never has to wonder what to read next.

And because the overall “look” of the cover is echoed throughout the text of the book, there is a sense of unity. The reader can be carried onward, from the cover to the front matter to all interior text pages of this print book.

What You Can Learn From This Case Study

Although I have read many books about book design, and design in general, what has taught me the most about the craft of design is actually looking at printed samples I like and learning to articulate why I like them. I would encourage you to do the same. Keep a file of brochures, books, and posters, or any other commercially printed items that appeal to you.

Then look at the typefaces, color usage, page layout grids, and paper choices, and think about how these were chosen to give a sense of visual unity to the printed piece.

Then consider the use of white space. White space is anything that is not subject matter (not images or type). Nevertheless, white space is just as important as the subject matter in conveying to the reader what visual elements are related as well as their levels of importance. Ideally, when you look at a print book or brochure, you should be able to identify the hierarchy of importance for all visual elements, even if the printed piece is in a language you don’t read or speak.

The best way to learn this craft is to study the design work of those who are better at it than you. That’s how I learned. In fact, I often look at this client’s design work and say to myself, “I wish I had done that.” She’s that good.

Book Printing: Considerations for Perfect Bound Books

Monday, June 10th, 2019

A print brokering client of mine is a husband-and-wife publishing team. Each year they give me titles of poetry and fiction books to bid on, along with readers’ galleys for each new print book. The galleys are perfect-bound, 5.5” x 8.5” print books, and the final books have French flaps, deckle edge text paper (faux deckle edge, actually), press scores, and lay-flat soft-touch film laminate. In other words, the first set of books are for my client’s readers to review and critique, and the second set of the same titles are salable print books with superior production values (all the bells and whistles that set print books apart from their digital cousins).

The reason I bring this up is that I just bid out three sets of these books, and a number of issues arose that you might find interesting as either a print book designer or a print buyer.

The Trim Size and Page Count of the Books

Based on specs I had not yet adequately updated, I bid out the final books and the galleys with the same trim size: 5.5” x 8.5”. When the bids on the final books came back, the printer had changed the trim size to 5.75” x 8.5”.

This is not unusual. It just means that one has to read closely and match the specs of one’s project to the specs the printer provides in his estimate. Seeing the discrepancy, I questioned the sales rep, and he said the book had to be 5.75” x 8.5” due to the deckle edge.

To begin with, a true deckle edge was created (actually as a flaw) on the oldest paper-making frames. These feathered edges were often trimmed flush. Later, certain paper-making machines simulated this feathered effect.

In my client’s case, the deckle edge is really a rough-front face trim. That is, the outer side of the pages (the long dimension parallel to the spine) is uneven (some pages longer, some pages shorter), a quality achieved (as I understand it from several printers) by turning off (or adjusting) the trimming knife that chops all pages flush. When I was growing up in the ’60s, most of my family’s hard cover books had this uneven face trim. It added to the tactile quality of the pages, and I found that it actually made grasping the pages a little easier. For my client, it just adds to the overall feel of the perfect bound print book as a quality product that readers will want to hold.

The point of this is twofold. When you’re specifying the trim size for a book, discuss with your printer the following issues:

  1. the most efficient size (that will fit his particular press equipment)
  2. and the physical requirements of the binding process (in this case, to ensure that the folded French flaps cover the rough-front trim, and to ensure the accuracy of the rough front trim)

In my client’s case, there were also changes in the page count. For one book, my client specified 100 pages; the printer bid on 104 pages. For another, my client specified 250 pages; the printer bid on 256 pages. In each case the printer changed the page count to the nearest number either divisible by 32 pages (ideally), 16 pages, or 8 pages, but not 4 pages. This was to ensure a fit (compatible press signatures) with his particular press equipment. The ideal was a 32-page signature (for example 256 pages = eight 32-page signatures). In your own print buying, remember to discuss this early with your printer.

The French Flaps

French flaps are part of a book’s cover. They extend 3.5” (more or less, depending on the book design) beyond the face trim of the book and then fold back part of the way over the blank (or printed) interior covers (front and back) of a book. They make a paperback book look and feel like it has a dust jacket. These, apparently, are very big in Europe. I think they add a cosmopolitan feel to a book, and since these particular clients of mine publish books of fiction and poetry, the French flaps are ideally suited to the ethos they want to project.

So far, French flaps have worked just fine on the 5.75” x 8.5” format of my client’s print books, but if you decide to incorporate these into your own print book design, discuss the size with your printer to make sure everything works on his printing and finishing equipment.

One additional thing I have found over the years is that for these flaps to fold in and still extend over the face trim of the book, the book must be trimmed twice. That is, the face trim of the book’s text block must be trimmed separately from the covers. If the folded front and back covers with the attached (and folded in) flaps were trimmed at the same time as the text block, the flaps themselves would be chopped off at the fold. Instead, the folded flaps must either be trimmed too short (they must not reach the edge of the text paper) or too long (they must extend over the edge of the text paper).

(If you look at the perfect-bound magazines in the grocery store, you’ll often see some space between the face trim of the magazine and the folded covers. The folded magazine covers with their French flaps–used to add space for an additional fold-out advertisement attached to the cover–often end about a half inch–more or less—short of the the trim of the interior magazine pages.)

The take-away from all of this is to discuss with your printer—early in the process–any French flaps or other cover extensions or modifications.

In the case of my client’s reader’s galleys that precede the final, salable books, the book trim size can actually be a true 5.5” x 8.5”, since the reader’s galleys have no deckle edge and no French flaps.

The Reader’s Galleys

Let’s get back to the reader’s galleys. These are probably even more unusual than a print book these days. When I was in college in the ’70s, I first came upon a reader’s galley at a thrift store. It was taller than a usual book, and it had no pictures, just text. The cover was simple. Later, when I learned to set type and do paste-up (a manual process that has become fully computerized in the last thirty or so years), I would cut up the long rolls of typeset material to paste up into book pages. Presumably, the galleys of this particular time period were taller than usual to allow for fewer book pages to print. After all, the sole purpose of this printed galley was as a final proofing tool. Publishers produced galleys so that authors could see their books typeset and make any final corrections to the text prior to the final book printing run.

(Advance reader’s copies are similar but a little more polished, since they are used for book reviews and marketing purposes.)

In the case of my clients, the 5.5” x 8.5” versions of the books (actually used as both galleys and reader’s copies) without French flaps, hinge scores, soft-touch lamination, or faux deckle edges just give reviewers an extra look at the text for their final suggestions.

In the age of the digital book, what I find interesting is that my client still wants a good number of galley copies prior to the final print run. This year the husband-and-wife publishing team asked for 75 galley copies of each title instead of 50. The reason I think these are popular with my clients’ reviewers is that you can easily write in a physical print book. My clients’ readers can easily annotate the text with all of their suggested corrections and comments.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Consider the small additions that make a print book a joy to hold, those qualities that add to the tactile experience. In my clients’ case it was the faux deckle edge, the French flaps, the press score, and the soft-touch laminate. Remember that holding a book is a physical experience.
  2. Discuss all of these variables with your printer to make sure that you understand the requirements of his press and finishing equipment as well as the cost.
  3. Ask for samples. Nothing speaks to the quality of a printer’s work like a physical sample, and nothing makes it easier to tell a printer how you want your book to look than a sample book with a comparable printing, finishing, or coating effect.

Book Printing: More Thoughts on Paper Choices

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

I received an email today from a reader who had taken issue with a few of my comments on choosing paper for a book project I was brokering. Needless to say, I felt a bit chastened, but I was also very excited to know that people were carefully reading the PIE Blog, and that someone in particular had taken the time to draft a long email.

I write about a huge number of custom printing subjects, ranging from paper characteristics to various printing technologies to graphic design to marketing. I am a student of printing, not an expert. Since everyone has room to learn and grow, I took this as an opportunity to acquire more knowledge.

In that vein, I want to share with you what I had written in the initial PIE Blog article and what this particular reader had presented as an alternate point of view.

Moreover, this is a good opportunity to reiterate that no one knows more than your printer about how to put ink or toner on paper. This particular reader has been in the field for 23 years, working directly with equipment I have only read about and seen in custom printing plant tours. In your own work, as a designer, print buyer, print sales professional, or whatever other aspect of commercial printing you pursue, it is wise to learn from those who actually perform prepress, printing, and finishing operations themselves. They have learned the hard way by making (and correcting) mistakes on the job.

Choosing a Coated Stock

In a prior PIE Blog article I had said, “If you choose a coated stock, choose gloss coated paper for a photo-heavy book and dull coated paper for a text-heavy book that still includes some photos.”

I had written about how light is reflected off a gloss sheet directly back to the reader’s eyes and about how matte or dull stock scatters the reflected light, sending the light rays in different angles rather than directly back to the viewer’s eyes. I had said that this makes photos printed on gloss stock “pop” but tires the reader’s eyes if the book is text heavy.

The reader who wrote to me noted that on his equipment in his shop (mainly Xerox digital presses), a glossier effect can be achieved by printing photos on matte paper rather than on glossy stock. Over the reader’s 23 years’ of experience, he has also used other digital equipment to the same effect. He now specs matte stock whenever possible to ensure the customer’s satisfaction with the photos.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Always ask the printer’s opinion. If your job is a photo-heavy print book, tell the printer you want the photos to pop. In contrast, if you’re worried that your text-heavy print product might tire the reader’s eyes on a certain paper, voice this concern as well. It is often prudent to describe the results you want and then ask the printer how best to achieve them.
  2. Consider the technology in use. When I learned what I believe about gloss and matte stock (for photos vs. text-heavy content), it was the 1980s and 1990s, and most of the work I did (almost all of it) was traditional offset lithography. It would be my best guess that toner-based printing technologies (the ones the PIE Blog reader references with the Xerox printer) may yield different results from offset lithographic presses (regarding making photos “pop” on certain paper). It’s always best to talk with your printer and request printed samples to help you choose the right commercial printing stock for your job.

Choosing a 100# Gloss Coated Stock

The PIE Blog reader noted that he would have steered the customer away from such a heavy, glossy stock for such a long print book. He said it would have made the book heavy and unwieldy. I actually agree.

My own customer was initially wedded to the idea of a gloss coated paper stock, so I provided an estimate on this paper. She had wanted the feel of a coffee-table book, which is why I had initially suggested 100# gloss text. For a gloss coated stock, the PIE Blog reader who wrote to me suggested a 70# or 80# stock rather than a 100# paper, which I do agree would have been adequate.

However, once I had seen the PDF of the print book and had noted that there were only about ten photos scattered across more than 400 pages, I suggested a 60# uncoated text stock.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Again, ask your print provider for his opinion. I tried to give the customer what she wanted. Perhaps I should have been more direct initially with my reservations. Fortunately, over time we changed the printing paper from 100# gloss to 60# offset. Once I understood the content of the print book, it was easier to offer advice on the best paper stock.
  2. So in your own work, consider the content of the book when choosing paper. If you’re producing a coffee-table book of photos, I’d still suggest a matte, dull, or gloss stock (depending on the printing technology). But, as the reader suggests, I’d also consider the length of the book (100# stock is still heavy if the page count of your print book is high).
  3. If you’re unsure of the results, request printed samples on your paper of choice. Or, you can ask for an unprinted paper dummy (a bound, blank book made with your chosen paper stock). The paper merchant will make this for you. Your printer can coordinate this. Requesting a paper dummy is based on the belief that nothing is as good as a physical sample. You’ll know exactly how the book will feel in the reader’s hands. (For example, the reader’s comment that a high-page-count book produced on 100# gloss stock would be unwieldy would be proven to be true with a paper dummy. The book would be very heavy.)

Rebidding the Job to All Printers

The reader who wrote to me said he would have rebid the job to all vendors after having changed the paper specs. He noted that some printers that had been competitive on one paper stock might be either more competitive or less competitive on another. That is, one printer’s prices on 100# gloss text (if the printer’s prices are low relative to the other printers who provided bids) might not be in the same position (low bid) after a change of paper to 60# offset.

I agree with this. In my own case, I was actually only getting a ballpark price at the early stage of production to see how the overall cost might change based on the new paper spec. I had approached maybe four printers, and I knew there would be more rounds of estimates in the future.

Furthermore, I knew that print estimating takes time and effort (unbillable by the printer), so I wanted to minimize my requests for pricing. (I didn’t want to wear out my welcome with multiple printers.) So I chose one (who had been low bid on a number of similar jobs) to get the initial cost of such a dramatic change (from 100# gloss to 60# offset).

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. If you want to do what I did (get an interim price to see if you’re going in the right direction with a major change, whether it be a change in paper, book format, or whatever), start by asking your printer. He may give you a ballpark idea (for instance, maybe a 20-30 percent price hike because the change affects a major element of the price, like paper in a long print book). Or he may choose to defer to the estimator.
  2. That said, once you know what you’re going to do (once you’ve decided on the final paper stock, for instance), it is wise to go back to all the vendors for revised pricing, keeping in mind what the PIE Blog reader said, that different printers may well change the relative order of their overall prices once you make a major change in specifications. This applies to paper, format, post-press operations like die cutting, etc. Don’t just assume the printer with the lowest bid will stay in that position.

The Takeaway

The bottom line is that the PIE Blog is always grateful for readers’ comments. If you read something and really like it or really hate it, put your thoughts in an email. We welcome a healthy dialogue. It makes for better articles that are more useful to readers.

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