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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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Custom Printing: Discovering the Art of the Obi Strip

Ever since I studied karate in my late teens, I’ve had a penchant for things Japanese. I like the exotic. So when a colleague mentioned that his commercial printing company had just produced a print book with an “obi strip,” I was intrigued. So I did some online research.

According to Wikipedia, an obi is:

“a strip of paper looped around a book or other product. This extends the term obi used for Japanese clothing; it is written with the same kanji. It is also referred to as a tasuki (襷) (another kimono accessory), or more narrowly as obigami (帯紙, belt paper).”

So there is a sense of formality and ritual in this device, somewhat like the tone of a tea ceremony. Apparently such bands are added outside the dust jacket of a book, or they may also be affixed outside a slipcase, if the print book is sold in a slipcase.

Interestingly enough, an obi strip may also be affixed vertically (according to photos on Google Images) around an LP album, a CD, DVD, or even a video game. The purpose is to:

“…provide the title of the product, track listings (if applicable), price, catalog number and information on related releases in Japanese. It is used by the consumer to determine what is included in the album or book, and the store can use the information for ordering.” (Wikipedia)

Of further interest to me was the fact that collectors of these products value the obi strip very highly, and an LP, for instance, with an intact obi strip will be worth considerably more than the same LP without an obi strip. (It sounds a bit like finding a Hot Wheels car in an antique store in its pristine packaging from the 1970s.)

The Belly Band

Before I researched the Japanese product my colleague had mentioned, I thought it sounded a lot like the belly bands I had participated in producing and wrapping around periodicals back when I was a commercial printing consultant for a local political magazine publisher.

Although Wikipedia lists “belly band” as another term for the obi strip, I saw some differences. First of all, the obi strip seems to be primarily a vertical band of paper, of narrow width, that wraps around the print book, CD, DVD, video game box, etc. This makes sense to me because the Japanese writing is presented vertically, so the vertical format seems more appropriate as a design choice.

In addition, while the obi strip does obscure part of the underlying product packaging design, it does this to present (and perhaps highlight as well) information about the underlying product. It has an informational purpose.

In contrast, the belly bands the publisher affixed to the periodicals he printed were exclusively horizontal. They were wrapped, like a belt, around the “host publication.” For an 8.5” x 11” magazine with a white gloss cover, the belly band was approximately 8.5” wide (the same width as the magazine) but only about 4” high. In addition, it had a marketing rather than an informational purpose. It was tied directly to an advertiser, who for the most part also had an advertisement in the periodical (often on the back cover). The belly band was printed on a coated or uncoated stock (usually on an 80# or 100# coated text sheet). If the belly band was produced on an uncoated sheet, it was printed on 7 pt. card stock or 67# vellum bristol (very much like either a cover wrap or a reply mail postcard stock).

So the belly band was intended to obscure the underlying host publication and at the same time draw attention to itself as an advertising medium, first and foremost because the reader had to take action. To read the magazine, you had to tear off the belly band. And this strip of paper, the belly band, which was similar to a “sleeve” (which wraps around the whole magazine covering the entire back and front covers) was prime advertising space because the reader always saw it first.

Interestingly enough, a belly band had some requirements. First of all, it couldn’t cover the ad on the back of the magazine unless that ad was for the same advertiser. That makes sense. What advertiser wants to pay the premium price for a back-cover ad only to have it obscured by another advertiser?

In addition, the belly band had to extend over itself in the back of the magazine and be permanently glued into a closed loop, keeping the periodical shut. All of the periodicals produced by this particular publisher went out to readers in either polybags or envelopes, but according to my research, if the address label had been affixed directly on the magazine, the belly band would need to have been actually attached to the host publication in the back, if the publisher wanted to mail the periodical without a polybag. (The idea is to avoid the magazine’s opening up during the Post Office’s machining or delivery process, so the belly band had to stay closed and also stay attached to the magazine.)

If you paid close attention to the magazines this publisher sent out during the course of a year, you would see that other cover wraps of various kinds were used from time to time. Some were the complete flat size of the front and back covers and were stitched outside the magazine. Others were fugitive glued to only the front cover of the magazine. For the most part, all of these were printed on a cheap, uncoated presss sheet (postcard stock), and the idea was for the reader to tear them off after reading the marketing or advertising message (either for the magazine itself–perhaps a renewal–or for an actual advertiser).

In contrast, the goal of the obi strip seems to be more about communicating information about the product itself than promoting either the publisher or another advertiser.

Totally unrelated, but interesting as well, the colleague who told me about the obi strip noted that affixing an obi strip is hand work (time consuming and a bit pricey), and yet his printer could include such special effects as glow-in-the-dark ink and multiple tactile coatings (all of which would set a print book apart from an online book).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

If you’re designing a print book, think about whether you want to highlight information about the product by wrapping a strip of paper around the dust jacket. If you do so, you will immediately attract the attention of the reader. This may be useful if you have a quote about the book by an expert in the field or if the book has won a particular award.

If you’re producing a magazine, consider whether you want to promote an advertiser or the publication itself. However, in this case, since a magazine will mail out as either Standard or Periodical mail, you will need to conform in both the physical production details (size, placement, method of affixing the belly band) and the content/design (including specific printed wording about the periodical) to the requirements of the US Postal System. To be safe, I would provide the Post Office with a trimmed printer’s proof (not a laser proof, but an actual digital blueline or color proof from your print vendor) of the belly band attached to the magazine. It’s much better to have the Post Office request changes before the magazine goes to subscribers than to have the whole mail run stopped by the Post Office and ruled as being undeliverable.

To make this process easier (and more likely to succeed), before you produce the belly band or obi strip, ask the Post Office for both printed samples of successful belly bands and for their published list of printing requirements, which is usually either provided in printed book form or online. Then, when you’re ready, show a business reply mail specialist at your entry point business mail center the actual publication with an attached digital blueline of the obi strip or belly band. I’d also do this for a cover wrap, a sleeve, or any other wrap product that will be affixed to your magazine.

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