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Archive for September, 2019

Custom Printing: Three Fine Art Printing Techniques

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

In addition to my work in the commercial printing field, I do art therapy work with my fiancee. We teach autistic students to make art. We do everything from drawing to painting to sculpture to custom printing.

In past issues of the PIE Blog I have written about a number of the techniques of custom printing that we have brought to our students, and in the last week I have been studying one that we have not yet used: collography. I’d like to briefly describe this technique along with another one I just discovered in researching Andy Warhol for a recent painting class. His technique was called “the blotting line,” and this along with his tracing work developed into the Pop Art custom screen printing for which he was famous. Finally, I want to describe “monotyping,” a third technique I plan to share with my fiancee’s and my autistic students.

What makes all of these interesting to me is that all can be done with simple materials and no commercial printing press. These printing plates can be inked and printed by hand. What this means is that anyone with the interest can do any of these techniques with a fair amount of success. Moreover, there’s nothing that makes you understand the artistry in current, automated, commercial printing like a personal experience with one of the hand-printing techniques. After all, custom printing is both an art and a craft.

Collagraphy

The word “collagraphy” (also spelled “collography”) is derived from the Greek words for “glue” and “writing.” The process was developed in 1955 by Glen Alps. Collagraphy starts with a printing plate made of wood or paperboard (bristol or perhaps chipboard, for instance). You add materials to build up texture (and/or subject matter). Then you paint ink or roll ink onto the raised areas of the plate (to produce a “relief” or raised print), or you use a roller or paint brush to flood the plate with printing ink, and then you wipe the ink off the raised areas. (This yields an “intaglio” print in which the recessed areas of the plate transfer the ink to the paper substrate.)

What makes this interesting is all the materials you can use. In addition to gluing down pieces of cardboard, you can build up texture with gesso or other acrylic media, or you can glue leaves or even banana peels, textiles, string, or sandpaper to the plate. In this way you can create patterns or textures.

Overall, this process will allow you to create dramatic tonal variations due to the depth (i.e., thickness) of the relief plate and the textures you can create.

(If you think about it, this is not that different from the raised areas that are built up for creasing and scoring paper using the Highcon Euclud digital machine. With this equipment, you can use digital data to produce raised areas on a plate that will then crease and score press sheets.)

One thing I have read about collagraphy in some art books is that once you make the plate, you can shellac it. This will seal the plate and provide an impermeable surface that you can more easily wipe clean as you change or add ink colors.

Once you have created the plate, you can print it. Since most of you (myself included, actually) won’t have access to an art printing press, you can just lay the printing paper on top of the inked plate and then burnish it with the back of a wooden spoon. When you peel off the printing paper, the image will transfer from the collagraph plate to your printing sheet.

(To refer back to the art therapy work my fiancee and I do, we once made tribal masks using the fluting of corrugated board for texture. Our students glued pieces of this fluting to flat corrugated liner board, creating relief sculptures of the masks. Although we didn’t have time to do any printing, we could easily have used these relief mask sculptures as collagraph plates and printed the masks onto press sheets. In fact I hope to do this same project again sometime and have the students not only make the masks but use them as custom printing plates as well.)

Andy Warhol’s Blotting Techniques

I studied Andy Warhol’s work for a recent art class with our autistic students so I could provide background information as the students drew and then painted shoes. Early in his career, Andy Warhol, who was actually born Andy Warhola, did illustrations for Glamour magazine. If you look him up online, you will find many of his drawings of high-fashion shoes. My fiancee and I used these shoe illustrations as a starting point for this week’s art therapy painting project.

While Warhol was drawing and painting shoes, he came up with a technique called the “blotting line” technique which involved drawing a line in ink and then blotting it while it was still wet. This changed the texture of the line and was in a very basic way a printing technique (transferring an image from one flat surface to another by blotting). As simple as this sounds, it developed over time into not only Warhol’s signature style of advertising art but also the photo-silkscreen printing for which he is so well known. In both cases (and in his use of photocopy machines and tracing), Warhol explored the artistic effects of repeated images. (You may have seen Warhol’s multiple images of Campbell’s Soup Cans or multiple images of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic face.) All of this, plus the initial “printing” quality of the “blotting line” technique, was incorporated into Warhol’s artistic style.

Monotype Printing

Here’s another technique you can do at home without a commercial printing press. It’s called monotyping, and you can do it in a number of ways. You can paint an image onto a non-porous plate (such as a plexiglass, glass, or—as was done historically—copper plate). Then you place the printing paper over the inked plate, and you burnish it with even pressure all across the back of the sheet using the back of a wooden spoon to press the paper into the ink. You can do this with a printing press as well, but in this case, you can’t use a glass plate, or it will shatter from the pressure.

Another way to make a monotype (in this case called a transfer monotype) is to first ink the plate completely in a single color. Then you lay the printing sheet over the ink and carefully draw an image on the back of the sheet with a pencil or stylus. (If your fingers touch the paper, even slight pressure will transfer ink from the plate to the printing paper.) When you peel the press sheet off the plate, the areas you have drawn will be in color (the pressure of the pencil picks up ink from the printing plate), and everything else will be the unprinted paper.

A third way to approach monotypes is to ink the plate completely and then use paintbrushes, rags, and/or a stylus to remove ink selectively from the solid background prior to printing.

Monotyping yields one good print. However, the transfer from the plate to the substrate changes the nature of the lines and solids in subtle ways (the pressure does this to the ink film). Therefore, you wind up with a single, somewhat uncontrolled but nevertheless unique image. If you try to print the plate again, you will usually get only a faint image.

(If you do some research, you’ll find that the British Romantic poet William Blake made monotypes to illustrate his poetry.)

Choosing the ink is an important step. I have read about printing with watercolors, but I have had more success with actual oil-based printing inks. If you choose oil-based inks you can print the substrate either wet or dry. If the printing stock is dry, there will be more contrast in the print. If the paper is wet, you’ll get a greater range of tones.

Once you have printed the plate, you can go back into the image with watercolor, ink, or any other medium to embellish the work.

What you get out of this is the serendipitous accidents akin to watercolor painting. Since you can’t control every element of monotyping, you incorporate the elements of chance and irregularity into your work, and this often makes the art print more unique.

How Does This Pertain to Commercial Printing?

Even though some artists consider fine arts to be superior to commercial art, if you do the research you’ll find that such famous artists as Toulouse Lautrec (posters), Piet Mondrain (Mondrain layout grids for graphic design), Andy Warhol (screen printing and illustration), and N.C. Wyeth (magazine illustrations) all worked in both the fine arts and graphic (or commercial) arts. After all, the principles of good design cross over from one discipline to the other.

If you are a graphic designer or a printer, it can only enhance your appreciation of your craft to see how famous artists have approached custom printing. Understanding the history of the arts broadens and deepens your own knowledge and skill in your craft.

As noted before, learning to hand-print images will help you understand the art and craft that underlie the automation of contemporary commercial printing. You will understand, for instance, what it means for images to be “in register.” This concept comes into play whether you’re using a million dollar press or printing colors from a glass printing plate, using a wooden spoon to rub the image from the plate onto the paper.

So the short answer is that nothing empowers us like knowledge and personal experience. Moreover, knowledge and experience can enhance our love for our craft.

Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

Custom Printing: What Is Collagraphy?

Monday, September 16th, 2019

I’ve been looking for new art projects my fiancee and I can share with our autistic students. Having been in the field of custom printing for over 40 years, I’m particularly drawn to hand-crafted approaches to what have become the super-automated technologies of commercial printing.

At the moment I’m still considering monoprinting (painting a design on a flat glass, metal, or plastic surface, and then burnishing damp printing paper against the plate to pull a single impression), but just recently I came upon another approach to custom printing that may also have promise for our art therapy work. That is collagraphy.

Collagraphy, also spelled collography, is relatively new, having been invented in 1955 by Glen Alps (according to Wikipedia). In fact, the description I read in Wikipedia makes it sound very much like a fine arts version of an offset “paper plate” or “polyester plate.” Granted, offset plates are flat. They have the image area and the non-image area on the same surface, and the ability of the image area to attract the greasy custom printing ink and the ability of the water-covered non-image area to repel the oily printing ink are what make offset printing “work.” That is, you can effectively (and definitively) separate the image areas from the non-image areas.

Not so with collagraphy. Collagraphy is either a relief process or an intaglio process (unlike offset printing). These are different from one another, but you can use a single collagraphic plate to produce either a relief print or intaglio print or both on the same substrate.

First of all, a relief printing process (which would include such techniques as woodcut printing and linoleum cut printing) involves creating a printing plate with a raised image area. The plate is inked and then brought into contact with printing paper, transferring the image from the plate to the substrate.

This image transfer is achieved with pressure (between the paper and the printing plate), but the pressure can be applied either with a printing press or with a burnisher of some type (such as the back of a spoon) rubbed across the back of the printing paper when it is in contact with the inked plate surface.

This pressure transfers the image. That is what makes this a custom printing process. And that is also what makes this process—at its most rudimentary level—akin to a more developed printing technology called letterpress (and another one called flexography). If you find a commercial printing vendor with a letterpress or flexographic press, this is exactly what he is doing with his equipment.

In contrast to relief printing, intaglio printing involves wiping the thick commercial printing ink across the surface of the printing plate (which has recessed image areas cut into the base substrate of the plate). When you then wipe the surface of the printing plate clean, the only ink left on the plate is in the recesses cut into the substrate. When you place printing paper (damp but not actually wet) onto the inked plate and then run it through a press, the damp paper (combined with the pressure of the process) pulls the ink out of the recessed image areas on the plate and deposits it on the paper.

What makes collagraphy unique is that you create a paper plate with multiple textures in the image areas, and then you either apply printer’s ink onto the relief areas of the plate (anything that sticks up above the flat printing surface), or you ink the entire plate and then remove (wipe off) any ink on the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the recessed areas of the paper plate. (All of this is prior to the printing step.)

Or you can do both relief and intaglio printing with the same plate. In this case you would just print one version intaglio (recessed image areas) and one version relief (anything that rises above the surface). Presumably you would print both images in register (alignment).

What Makes Collagraphy Different?

So far, anything I have just described can refer to any relief or intaglio process. If, however, you are doing collagraphy, you start with a paper (or actually sometimes wood) substrate, and then you build up its surface in a number of different ways.

Wikipedia notes that you can use “acrylic texture mediums, sandpapers, textiles, bubble wrap, string or other fibers, cut card, leaves, and grass” (Wikipedia, Collagraphy). You affix these to the printing plate surface with glue. Other articles I have read suggest using wallpaper (since it has depth and texture). These articles also mention carborundum (since it is a powder that you can sprinkle over glue to create a rough texture that holds a lot of printing ink). Even thick glue-drenched threads can be used to create depth on the printing plate.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word “koll” or “kolla” means glue, and “graph” means drawing, so you are effectively drawing with glue. Or, more specifically, in making the collagraphic plate, you are creating a custom printing plate on a paper board (or sometimes wood) using glue and all manner of other items to create raised image areas that will accept ink from a “brayer” (a roller made for applying ink) or brush. And even the glue itself can be used to build up raised areas such as lines and curves that will accept ink and print it on the substrate.

Once you have created the plate, you coat it with shellac to seal everything so it does not degrade as you add the ink, print the plate, and then wipe off the ink to clean the plate. The shellac acts as a sealant and protective coating while also strengthening the plate.

But it doesn’t stop here. You can actually build up areas of the plate with wall filler. You can then shape the wall filler with tools or press textured items into the wall filler before it dries to transfer the texture from the items (such as the fabric) onto the printing plate.

Printing the Plate

Once you have crafted the plate to your satisfaction, and the wall fill and shellac coating have dried, you can wet the printing paper in a tray of water. The paper has to be of sufficient thickness to not come apart with the pressure applied by the raised areas of the plate (which actually embosses the paper).

Articles I read suggested using brushes (such as toothbrushes) to work the thick ink into all recesses of the printing plate. You can also use scrim material to work the ink into the plate or to clean off excess ink. (Scrim is a gauzy textile with a dominant weave pattern that will help in either applying or removing ink.) Paper or fabric can be used to “polish” the plate, ensuring that those areas you want to be white (highlights) will retain no ink.

When the plate is ready, you place it in the bed of the press, check its alignment with a registration sheet, ink the plate, take a piece of printing paper out of the tray in which it has been soaking in water, place it between sheets of blotter paper to remove some of the water (to make it damp but not actually wet), put the paper in the press, and pull a proof.

If the ink is muddy, dark, and/or sticky, you need to back off on the ink. If your print is too light, you may need to increase the pressure of the press.

If you want to use more than one color, you can wipe the plate clean with the tissue and scrim, and then apply different colors of ink to different areas of the plate before pulling your next proof.

How Does This Relate to Commercial Printing?

If you actually go through the process of hand printing anything, you will better understand the computerized and mechanized technology currently in use. The huge, multi-unit presses in commercial printing establishments still apply ink to paper substrates, even if they are run by computers and even if they use closed-loop electric eye mechanisms to control the color. The better you understand the core custom printing process (intaglio and relief printing in the case of collagraphy), the better able you will be to create the printing nuances you need in order to achieve the precise effects you desire.

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.

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