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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: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

A print brokering client of mine will soon produce a set of print books that provide a good object lesson in both the differences between digital and offset printing and also in ways to save money by creating larger press signatures.

Background Specs for the Two Books

To provide some context, the first job is a run of 20 copies of an 80-page, 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book, on 60# white offset text with a 10pt cover. It is a reader’s “galley,” a proof for reviewers to check for errors prior to the final press run of the print book. In many prior printings of books for this particular client, I have contracted for the commercial printing of 50 or 75 copies, but to save money and meet the reviewers’ requests, my client only needs 20 this time. Other copies will be printed out from a PDF file as needed. This is not a problem, since only the content will be relevant for corrections. (That is, this doesn’t need to be a perfect rendering of the final print book.)

The second book is a higher-end version of the first. It has French flaps, luxury matte film laminate on the cover, a press score, and deckled edges on the face trim of the book. It also will be produced on a 60# natural eggshell text stock. It will be 5.75” x 8.5” (slightly larger in format than the first book) because the French flaps on the covers will extend slightly beyond the deckled edges of the text stock (thus requiring a wider horizontal measure). In contrast, the galley books will only be 5.5” wide (with no cover flaps). After all, they are only a proofing device; therefore they don’t need the expensive, high-end production values. My client will print either 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the final print book.

Considerations for the Books

My client had asked to produce a 78-page book (in both cases). For the sake of consistency, I made both books 80 pages, since the 1,500- or 2,000-copy run will need to be produced via offset lithography (too long a press run to be a cost-effective digital job), and this print book will therefore need to be a multiple of 4, 8, 16, or 32 pages. This is because it will be composed of press signatures (large flat press sheets folded down and trimmed into little 5.75” x 8.5” booklets). In contrast, since the 20-copy print book will be produced digitally, it will not need to be printed in press signatures. In fact, as long as the total length of the book is a multiple of two pages, the 20-copy “galley” book can even be a 78-page printed product (divisible by 2 pages but not by 4, 8, 16, or 32). (This is a benefit of digital printing, which is not really signature press work.)

When I received pricing from the book printer, the first thing I noticed was that he had given me the option for printing in 48-page signatures or 24-page signatures. This told me that in contrast to my original assumption about 4-, 8-, 16-, and 32-page signature options, this printer’s (larger than expected) press actually allowed for larger press signatures at this particular page size (5.75” x 8.5”). That is, the size of the press sheet the printer’s large book press could accommodate would allow 12 pages, or 24 pages) to be produced on each side of the press sheet before it is folded down to the 5.75” x 8.5” stacked press signatures that would comprise the 80-page book. The printer would offer an approximately $100-$200 discount for larger, 48-page signatures. Why? Presumably because they would necessitate fewer press runs.

(To provide an example, a 96-page book would comprise two 48-page press signatures. Or it could contain four 24-page signatures. If you can produce the book with two press signatures, you only have to run the press half as many times—two rather than four. This saves time and materials, and hence money.)

Going back to my client’s actual print book, 80 pages is not divisible by 24 or 48 pages. When I noted this to the printer, he said this was a general statement about ways to save money on his press, but that he would still give me the lower price because the 24-page vs. 48-page signature stipulation didn’t really apply to my client’s work. (It did, however, remind me why it is good to design books with the largest possible press signatures.)

What we finally settled on for the final print book with the French flaps was a signature composition of one 48-page signature, one 24-page signature, and one 8-page signature for a total book length of 80 pages. (My client did not plan to bind anything within the larger press signatures–a reply card or small press signature of photos on different paper stock, like gloss coated paper. Otherwise, this would have necessitated breaking the larger press signatures into smaller signatures–maybe three 24-page signatures with an 8-page photo signature on gloss stock between two of them–requiring more press runs for more money.)

Finally, I compared the estimated prices to those of another print book this client had produced in the same format but with a 128-page book length rather than an 80-page book length. The prices for the 80-page book almost exactly matched the prices for the earlier-produced 128-page book. Needless to say, I queried the printer. He said the 60# natural eggshell paper had driven up the cost by several hundred dollars (compared to the price of the 60# white vellum of the first book), despite the fact that the job was a short book with a 1,500- or 2,000-copy press run.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though the specifics of this case study are rather convoluted, there are a number of object lessons the job illustrates:

  1. If the normal assumptions for offset printing press signature lengths are 4-pages, 8-pages, 16-pages, and 32-pages, don’t make this a hard-and-fast rule, as I did. Ask the printer. Larger presses at some book printers can accept other signature page counts such as 24-page and 48-page signatures. The longer the press signatures, the fewer the press runs. Unless you need to break a press signature into smaller signatures to insert a card or alternate paper stock, go for the longer signatures to save money. But always ask your printer about this first.
  2. Understand that digital printing does not require (or for the most part even accept) traditional press signatures. Therefore, if you need to add or remove book pages, you can do this in multiples of two pages. Ask your printer if your combined page count and press run will benefit from either offset lithographic printing or digital printing.
  3. Nice paper costs extra money. The total cost can be surprising. Ask your printer about options, if you want a natural color—cream–rather than a standard blue-white press sheet. Sometimes your printer can get you a deal on paper if you list the required specifications—weight, thickness, color, brightness, etc.–instead of asking for a particular brand of paper. Get printed samples, particularly if you plan to print color images on natural paper. (The yellowish tinge of a cream stock can affect people’s flesh tones in bad ways.)
  4. If you don’t need a galley proof version and a final version of your print book, you still may benefit from a lower-production-value and higher-production-value version. This might be a case-bound version vs. a perfect-bound version. Or it may be a low-end version on white offset with flush-cut covers and a cover varnish for one version, and French flaps, luxury matte film laminate, press score, and natural eggshell paper for the other. You may want to sell these for different prices, as a normal version and a premium version.
  5. Regardless of what you do, remember two things: 1. Involve your printer early in the process in terms of available book printing techniques, pricing, and schedules; and 2. always ask for samples of the printing (or binding, or coating, or foil embellishing) effects you want for your print books.

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