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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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Book Printing: A Fanciful Journey Toward a Print Book

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.

2 Responses to “Book Printing: A Fanciful Journey Toward a Print Book”

  1. Ulfras Floyd says:

    I have been reading your blog for years, but I had to hunt you down to ask how you could be thinking about design for a book about cannabis without suggesting hemp paper, at least for the dust jacket! Anyhow, just wanted to comment on that. Keep fighting the good fight.

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