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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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 December, 2014

Commercial Printing: More Benefits of Using a Broker

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Writing the last PIE Blog article about print brokering work got me thinking. Since them I’ve come up with a few more benefits of working with a custom printing broker: the kinds of services I bring to my own commercial printing brokerage work and what I have seen in the work of other brokers.

Identifying Errors in Printing Bids and Clarifying Specifications

If you review a number of custom printing bids, even pertaining to the same project, you will see that all printers approach the bids somewhat differently. The order of specs may be different; the language may be different. It’s easy to miss something when comparing bids. You might even make the mistake of assuming the low bid is actually the low bid. After all, what if a printer has left something out of the estimate or substituted something. This could actually bring the price of the low estimate above the price of all the other estimates.

Here are a few examples:

  1. On a job I brokered recently for a client, I had specified Finch Opaque paper for the text of a print book due to its brilliant, bright-white character. The printer had substituted a different paper, and had only described it generally in the bid as an opaque sheet with a certain caliper (I don’t remember the exact “ppi” number). Because I knew Finch Opaque had a caliper of 416 ppi (pages per inch), I could see that the paper the printer had specified was not Finch Opaque. Only when I called to question the bid was I informed of the paper substitution. According to the printer, switching back to the initially requested Finch Opaque would have driven up the price by about $5,000 to $8,000. This meant that comparing one bid to another was not a true “apples to apples” comparison. A printing broker can catch substitutions such as this and bring them to a client’s attention.
  2. Another job referenced a C/W paper stock. White paper substrates come in a number of shades. Some are blue-white (or cool white); some are yellow-white (or warm white). The notation “C/W” can be misinterpreted as cool white. For this particular printer, however, it meant “cream white,” which would be the same as “yellow-white.” To distinguish C/W from its blue white counterpart, this printer uses the term “B/W.” This could be confusing if you’re thinking in terms of cool white and warm white paper. When I saw this, I asked for samples of the paper stock for the client—to make sure she would be happy with the final product. If you’re expecting your job to be printed on a bright white substrate and it comes back on a cream stock, that might be a catastrophe. A commercial printing broker can make sure this doesn’t happen.
  3. What if your job is late? A client of mine recently printed a number of different titles at the same printer simultaneously. Most of the jobs went to press on time, but one did not. It went to press two weeks late. For various reasons, the print book distributor needed all books at the same time. This meant holding all titles while the final book was printed. Unfortunately, this option would not work either. The book distributor needed copies early. Fortunately, I was able to work with the printer to come up with a different shipping option and an improved schedule. This is a service a printing broker can often provide. Because he or she can understand both the client’s needs and the needs of the printer (the physical limitations of the printing process plus the printer’s schedule), he or she can be a fair and often successful negotiator.

Understanding Printing Trade Customs

Did you know that a printer can send you (and bill you for) for up to 10 percent overs/unders (i.e., more or fewer copies than requested)? This means that a printer will usually produce more copies of a print book (for instance) than you have requested to account for spoilage (each of the printing and binding operations can ostensibly damage printed books or any other printed products). For a print book, for instance, the printer produces more press signatures than needed since a certain number will be destroyed by the perfect binding process. If the printer did not do this, the final number of completed print books would almost always be less than requested.

If you don’t know about the commercial printing trade custom regarding overs/unders, you might think the printer was trying to take advantage of you when the final bill arrives. Knowing the trade custom can help you avoid sticker shock when you get the bill. Conversely, it can provide the opportunity to negotiate a lower than 10 percent overage/underage policy. Of course, you can do this yourself, but if you don’t know about printing trade customs such as overage (or any number of other standards of the commercial printing industry), a printing broker can help.

Ship Date vs Delivery Date

You may need your print books on Februaray 15, and your printer may note in the estimate that the books will ship on February 15. Obviously this will get them to you late. If you don’t know to look for this discrepancy between the “shipping” date and “delivery” date, you might be unhappily surprised when it’s too late to change the schedule. A printing broker knows to look for such discrepancies.

What You Can Learn from This Discussion

As noted in the prior blog article, you may not need a printing broker. You may have the knowledge and time to do this yourself. Then again, you may actually appreciate having someone who knows exactly where to look in a printing contract for the kinds of miscommunications that might arise. In this sense, a custom printing broker is an advocate, kind of like a printing lawyer reading a contract for you and giving you advice. Sometimes this is just what you need.

Commercial Printing: Why You Might Need a Broker

Monday, December 29th, 2014

An active print brokering client of mine recently contacted the printer directly regarding a new job. This was a printer we had been using for a number of recent jobs. The printer contacted me immediately. He said he had made it clear that my client needed to present all new jobs directly through me, her commercial printing broker.

I was grateful that the printer had seen my value in the mix and had made it clear that my client could not go to him directly. However, this experience (which happens periodically) raised some questions. Why shouldn’t the client go directly to the printer? What do I as a print broker bring to the table that justifies my commission?

The following are some random thoughts on print brokering. Maybe you need one for your work. Maybe you don’t. It will depend on your level of knowledge of custom printing and on the time you have in your schedule to find appropriate vendors and coordinate their activities.

Finding the Ideal Match

A good printing broker is a matchmaker of sorts. Over many years, he or she has developed long-standing relationships with commercial printing vendors, often across the country or around the world. Once he or she understands your printing needs, he or she can find a vendor with the specific skills you need and the exact equipment appropriate for your custom printing job.

For instance, if you are producing a diecut set of keys printed on cover stock, with variable data to personalize the marketing piece, a printing broker can find a supplier skilled in both offset and digital printing, with experience in diecutting, hand assembly of complex jobs, packing (to make sure the promotional pieces will arrive at their destinations unharmed), and mailshop work.

Negotiating a Good Price

If you were able to pay less than you had expected overall for a custom printing job, would you mind that the final bill included a commission for the printing broker? Probably not, since your total bill would be less than expected. In terms of your budget, the total expense would look great, regardless.

A savvy printing broker can often save you hundreds or even multiple thousands of dollars by finding the most appropriate equipment for your job.

Let’s say you had been producing a print catalog on a sheetfed offset press. Perhaps the press run has been on the longish side, but you have been comfortable with a local sheetfed printer. In this case your printing broker might have an established relationship with a web-offset printer that could reduce your overall cost substantially by using this alternate offset printing technology (roll-fed rather than sheet-fed offset) that is more appropriate for longer press runs.

In addition, since your printing broker often brings a lot of work to his or her select printers, he or she can often get lower pricing than you can (this is called “broker pricing”). In these cases, you will benefit from the printing broker’s connections.

Fixing Problems

What happens when a job goes wrong? Maybe the lamination on the cover of your print book is showing bubbles underneath the coating and/or peeling up on the edges of the book. Who will stand behind you and negotiate a remedy (a discount, a total reprint, or a reprint of the cover and rebinding of the book)?

Moreover, who will know when to suggest reprinting the cover, and then hand-trimming and rebinding the print book, and staggering final deliveries to meet your client needs? Your printing broker.

A good printing broker has specialized knowledge acquired over many years (or decades) into how to remedy problems that occur on press and in post-press operations. At best, you have a trusted ally, an advocate, and a technician able to discuss problems with the printer and come up with the best remedy.

Why You Should Care

If you can do all of these things, more power to you. You don’t need a print broker. But if you’re stressed out because you already have too much to do, or if you need an expert (even for a specific job you’ve never confronted before), you might just consider this option.

And if you decide you need a commercial printing broker, how do you find one?

This is a tough question, since not all printing brokers will have the comprehensive level of experience you seek in your particular niche.

My best advice is to only approach a broker who comes recommended by people you trust. Referrals are essential. Otherwise, how do you know that he or she will have the specialized experience?

If that isn’t an option, interview the prospects carefully and ask them to describe problems that have occurred in jobs and how they solved them. Look for concrete, logical answers that reflect a deep knowledge of the printing process.

And remember that the more you know about a particular custom printing or finishing process–whether it be screen printing, inkjet printing, or offset printing—the more effective you will be in selecting the right commercial printing broker for your job.

Commercial Printing: How CD Labels Are Printed

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

I just bought a CD at a thrift store, and I was struck by the beautiful artwork printed on the face of the disk. So I wondered how it had been printed. Then I pulled out a number of my CDs and noticed that some were printed differently from others. Unsure of what the options were, I went online and did some research. This is what I found.

Screen Printed CDs

CDs decorated with custom screen printing have a thick surface of ink. The ink has texture and gives an opulent sense to the product. Unfortunately, the surface of a CD has a number of different sections. Printing even the thick silkscreen inks directly over these three distinct portions (the regular surface, mirror band, and stacking ring of the CD) would produce an image with visible shifts from section to section. Therefore, laying down an initial background of white ink is preferable. The white is opaque, so it evens out the differences in the various “rings” of the CD.

In addition, the white ink also lightens colors printed over this background (since some custom screen printing inks are translucent). This avoids any dulling effect that might otherwise occur, since the unprinted, mirrored surface of the CD has a bit of a grayish tone (i.e., it is not pure white).

Halftones can be printed on CDs along with type and solid areas of ink. Many custom screen printing shops use lower frequency screens due to the thickness of the screen printing inks (such as a 100 lpi halftone screen). Because of this, fine detail in halftones can be lost. Therefore, it is wise to consider this limitation when choosing images for a CD label.

Some print shops, however, can print up to 200 lpi screens, which are more suited to the detail of full-color CMYK images.

Another thing to consider is the range of tones that can be captured on a screen printed CD. Unlike offset printing on paper, which may be able to hold detail from a 2 percent dot in the highlights to 90 percent dot in the shadows, a screen printed image may only have a tonal range of 15 percent to 85 percent. (Below 15 percent, the image would not print; above 85 percent, it would be solid ink.)

Finally, it’s wise to avoid gradations (also known as blends, which transition gradually from a lower to higher ink percentage). Since gradations are produced with halftone dots, since dot gain is a problem in custom screen printing, and since the photographic transfer of a gradation from film to the printing screen is not precise, there can be visible tonal jumps that show up as banding in screen printed gradations.

Even with all these caveats, screen printing is still ideal for longer runs of CD labels. The set up charge is higher than with digital printing (inkjet), but a long run will yield a much lower per-unit cost than will digital printing. In addition, the ink is thick and lush. I personally prefer the look. However, it does require forethought and the avoidance of certain problematic design elements.

Inkjet Printed Labels Affixed to CDs

I have seen labels that can be printed on inkjet printers, then peeled off a backing sheet (like a Crack’N Peel label) and affixed to the CD surface. This looks like an easy solution, but the labels do peel off the CDs occasionally and may damage the CD player (or computer optical drive). The main benefit I can see in adhesive labels for CDs, though, is the white background. As with screen printed CDs that have a white layer laid down beneath the colored ink, the white background of the paper CD labels does provide a bright, even ground for the inkjet inks.

Unlike screen printed CD labels, which require so much set-up work as to only be practical for very long runs, an adhesive label printed via inkjet technology can have a press run of a single CD label, and you can do the printing at home on your own inkjet printer.

Inkjet Printed CDs (Direct to CD)

Fortunately, inkjet printing has evolved over the years, and a number of inkjet printers now can print directly on the surface of a CD. The benefit of this process is that the label cannot peel up and damage the CD player or computer optical drive. The overall effect is also more aesthetically pleasing than a separate inkjet label (i.e., it avoids having a second layer).

If you look online, you will see images of inkjet printers with CD trays that can hold one, or even six or eight (or more) CDs in position for inkjet printing. These trays can be fed through small tabletop inkjet printers or larger commercial inkjet presses. In this way the CDs can be held in place and protected during the custom printing process.

Based on my research, it looks like the pretreated CDs for direct imaging have a layer of white (like gesso on a primed canvas board or stretched canvas). As noted in the description of the custom screen printing process, this white ground will both brighten the resulting inkjet image and also make it appear more consistent across the surface of the CD.

Unfortunately, due to the thinner consistency of inkjet inks, the printed image will not have the same thick, tactile feel as a screen printed product. However, it will allow you to print only a few (or a short run of) CDs with labels, since digital inkjet printing requires only minimal set-up time compared to custom screen printing.

Custom Printing: That’s Weird. How Do They Do That?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Have you ever picked up a mug or a golf ball with a particularly interesting graphic and wondered how the manufacturer could possibly have printed it? After all, if most presses print flat images on flat substrates, just how can a graphic be printed on an irregular surface?

Or think about functional or industrial printing, in which the graphics are intended for informational rather than design or promotional purposes. How can a commercial printing supplier put a logo and text on the face plate of an appliance or a piece of electrical equipment when the surface is uneven?

Printing on Industrial Control Panels

I read an article today on Screen Web. “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska (3/18/03) raises some intriguing issues in describing how to print on control boxes and other industrial components.

When you think about it, there are three options:

  1. pad printing (a direct printing option)
  2. decal printing (an indirect method, which is not as attractive or durable as the other options)
  3. and screen printing (a direct printing option)

Pad Printing

The first option, which I have described in prior blog articles, involves transferring an image from a gravure custom printing plate onto a silicone pad (like a bulb), and from the pad onto an irregular substrate (concave, convex, spherical, cylindrical, or uneven). For example, you would use such a process to print an image on a spherical golf ball. Since the silicone pad is flexible, it will compress as it is pressed down onto the golf ball, and the silicone surface will conform to the irregular surface as it deposits the ink.

Frecska’s article notes that such a technique might be appropriate for printing on an industrial control panel or box; however, the silicone pads are somewhat fragile. Therefore, the printing process would quickly damage them. The bolt heads and other protrusions on the industrial control panel would tear up the pad and require its frequent replacement.

In addition, silicone pads cannot be stored for long (and they quickly degrade, unlike custom screen printing equipment, for instance).

Finally, according to Frecska’s article, pad printing inks don’t adhere well to powder coated metal surfaces.

Printing and Affixing Decals

Frecska’s article goes on to note that decals would be another option for decorating a control panel with an irregular surface. For instance, you might print one decal for a logo, and then another decal for pertinent numbers or other information about the control panel. Then you would apply these to the powder coated metal individually. This way you could avoid all the metal pieces that stick up off the surface of the control panel.

The problem with this approach, according to Frecska’s article, is that in some cases regulatory agencies require that such functional printing be permanently attached to the surface of the control panel (or other industrial item). Adhesives of any kind are apparently not considered adequate. Therefore, you might even need to add rivets to the adhesive labels, which would not be efficient.

Furthermore, if you decide not to produce a series of individual small labels but rather to diecut holes for the protruding bolts and tags in one large label so it will lay flat, this process can become very expensive.

Screen Printing

In such a case as printing on an irregular surface of a control panel or box, custom screen printing would be ideal except for the fact that the bolts and other protruding elements of the control panel face plate would tear the screen. Or they would keep the screen from laying flat against the control panel or box. (For custom screen printing to work, the screen must maintain adequate contact with the substrate.)

So “Printing on Porcupines” by Tamas Frecska proposes an innovative solution. Cut holes in the screen to accommodate all the protruding parts of the control panel, or other industrial equipment, on which you’re printing.

Frecska notes that such a process would need to be manual (some custom screen printing is automated). However, he does not see this as being a problem since the print runs for such components are usually very small (100 to 1,000 copies).

Why This Is Relevant

You may wonder how this pertains to your work, particularly if you never produce design jobs for industrial or functional printing.

More than anything, an article like Frecska’s “Printing on Porcupines” can challenge you to ask the question, “How did they do that?” when you see a printed product that intrigues you.

In addition, this expanded mindset might lead you to consider not just one option, but rather multiple options, for custom printing your job. The more printing techniques you understand, the more options you have, and the more likely you are to find the most economical and most effective printing process for your particular project.

Finally, an article like “Printing on Porcupines” can open your mind to just how broad the field of custom printing really is. It extends well beyond promotional and educational materials into a huge realm of industrial or functional printing opportunities.

Nothing can benefit your career, or your craft, like keeping an open mind and expanding your awareness.

Custom Printing: Vetting Digital Print Samples

Friday, December 12th, 2014

A print brokering client of mine wants to produce about 100 copies each of almost twenty color print books. I have mentioned this in past blogs, and I have noted that due to the variable-data nature of the job (different books with different colors), digital printing is the best way to approach the job. If you can envision a PMS swatch book, you’ve got a mental image of this product.

Selecting a Printer by Selecting a Custom Printing Process

For this job, the goal was not just to get the cheapest price, although this was a consideration. Getting the best product was equally important, and this actually involved choosing a particular custom printing process (digital, which would include either toner on paper or inkjet). Moreover, it really went beyond the process to the more specific choice of the custom printing press itself.

I had initially chosen an HP Indigo press as the target equipment, because I felt it was superior to other digital electrophotographic (laser toner) equipment on the market at present. I had not considered inkjet because I was not sure the heavy ink coverage of the color swatches in my client’s print book would fare as well as with a laser toner process.

With this in mind I approached all the vendors I knew and trusted that owned HP Indigo equipment. I solicited estimates, but they were higher than expected. I wasn’t pleased. One of the more expensive aspects of the job was the off-line coating process. The HP Indigo presses owned by the vendors with whom I work do not yet coat jobs inline.

Considering A New Option

I was visiting a friend at a local offset and digital printer, and he showed me a new press of his, a Kodak NexPress, which could add a gloss coating inline. His pricing was spectacularly low compared to the other vendors’ bids since all processes up to the drilling and round cornering (diecutting) would be done right on this press.

I had been cautious, since I don’t automatically trust electrophotography. Over the years I have seen uneven laydown of colored toners producing banding in solids, and I have not always liked type I have seen reversed out of laser-printed solids. After all, toner placement is less precise than ink placement in offset custom printing, so final output can look fuzzy or uneven.

That said, I tried to keep an open mind, and I was floored by the quality. Unfortunately, this printer could not find and send me a sample of the job I had seen that day, but it was stellar. It was a multi-panel brochure with metallic inks (or toners, actually) and a gloss coating that looked like gloss UV. Wow.

So after I had received prices, and once I felt this printer could do a great job on this press, I requested printed samples for my client. They arrived tonight. (I needed to see and vet the samples before passing them on to my client in the Midwest.)

What I was Looking For

As soon as I opened the box, I pulled out the samples, but I also grabbed my loupe and sat under a strong light. This is what I saw under the high magnification:

  1. The colors were brilliant, very bright and vibrant.
  2. The text was crisp. There were very few random particles of toner around the text letterforms. So the letters looked like offset printed text.
  3. Color builds reflected tight register. Overlapping colors were precisely positioned.
  4. The gloss coating made the photographic images look crisper than usual (i.e., the resolution looked higher than than I expected). In fact, the images looked like high-end inkjet photo prints.
  5. I saw that the solid areas of color were even. There was no banding, no sense that toner had been used instead of offset ink.
  6. Next I looked at a large area of type reversed out of a heavy coating of blue toner (apparently a mixture of all process colors). The letterforms of the reversed type were all clean with no stray particles of toner. Granted, the type was a sans serif face, but it was very small. It would have been interesting to see if the Kodak NexPress could hold the detail in a serif typeface at this small point size.
  7. The only thing I’m concerned about (and I expect there will be a work-around) is the rub resistance, or scratch resistance of the toners, with and without the additional gloss coating. Once this custom printing supplier can assure me that the color swatch book will be durable, I’ll be completely sold.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, if you’re vetting a printing technology, or a printing press that’s new to you, ask for printed samples. Then look at heavy coverage ink, reverses, the toner laydown at the folds (look for cracks), gradations, the scratch resistance of the coating, etc.

Then look for color fidelity of memory colors (like flesh tones and grass). Sometimes digital printing (especially toner-based processes) can look unnatural or waxy. Granted, the technology has been improving in leaps and bounds, so the product really is close to offset quality now. But nothing will help you decide how to proceed more effectively than seeing a handful of printed samples.

Commercial Printing: A Flexography Primer for Labels

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

I’ve been excited about label printing recently, reading whatever I can get my hands on and looking closely at samples of products at home and in the grocery store. Label printing is a growing field, and I find this thrilling, since many other printing arenas are in decline. One thing that intrigues me the most is the use of digital custom printing in this venue, as well as the relatively new shrink sleeve package printing technology. In a digital world, it’s encouraging to find an area of commercial printing that’s growing and spurring technological advances.

Label printing lends itself to printing technologies other than offset. In fact, the technology of choice is most often flexography. So here’s a brief primer on flexo to help you in your print buying work.

What Is Flexography?

Flexography uses flexible rubber custom printing plates with a raised image area to transfer ink from the press to the printed substrate. This actually sounds a lot like letterpress. And that’s exactly what is is: a contemporary spin on the older art of letterpress printing.

What makes flexography (often referred to as just “flexo”) ideal for labels is its ability to print on substrates that are inappropriate for offset, such as plastic sheets, metallic films, foils, and acetate.

In addition, the water-based nature of the flexo printing ink makes it easier to print on these plastic sheets and films. (Offset ink is oil-based.) Flexo inks can be printed on non-porous substrates, which makes this process ideal for food packaging. Also, flexo inks can be of a lower viscosity than offset inks, which allows them to dry much faster, making flexo a more economical process.

In addition, flexo presses can run very quickly. One article I read described a press operating at 2,000 feet per minute. Along with the quick drying time of the aqueous inks, the velocity of the press makes flexography cheap and efficient.

A Roll to Roll Printing Process

Unlike some offset printing (sheetfed as opposed to web-fed litho), flexography uses rolls rather than sheets of its printing substrate. The unprinted paper or plastic comes off one roll, goes through the press, and then is wound up onto another roll.

In addition to being an extremely fast process, the roll to roll nature of flexography allows for such in-line processes as inkjet personalization, hot foil stamping, custom screen printing, and embossing. And in-line processes are faster and therefore cheaper than off-line processes.

What Kinds of Products Are Appropriate for Flexo?

This is only a short list, since there are many more uses for flexo:

  1. wallpaper
  2. shopping bags
  3. corrugated board (cardboard boxes)
  4. food packaging
  5. paper and plastic cups

The intense pressure of offset press rollers would not allow such substrates to be printed without being damaged.

The Limitations of Flexography

I haven’t seen much written on the down-side of flexo, but I have seen samples of the printed products under a high-powered loupe. I have seen:

  1. slightly coarser halftone screens than with offset commercial printing
  2. slightly mottled, or uneven, solid areas of ink laydown, in contrast to the smooth solids of offset printing
  3. slightly less precise registration (colors seem to be less precisely positioned than in offset litho)
  4. and an odd halo effect, in which type letterforms seem to have a lighter area around both the inside and outside edge of each stroke of each letter.

That said, most people don’t read their product labels with a loupe, so these limitations don’t outweigh the huge advantages of flexography. Plus, you’d be hard pressed to print on corrugated boxes without such a technology (unless you chose custom screen printing to print the boxes). After all, an offset press would crush the fluting in corrugated board.

What This Means to You

In your design career, you may have an opportunity to design labels, bags, corrugated cartons, or product packaging that will be printed via flexography. Therefore, it will serve you well to observe products on the shelves of retail stores to see how the designs accentuate the benefits of flexo and minimize its limitations.

Book Printing: Notes on Creating a Book Cover Art File

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

A print brokering client of mine recently had to upload to the book printer’s website two separate revised book cover art files (a total of three covers for each of two titles). This was to make sure all design elements had been placed properly, such that when printed and folded, everything would fall correctly on the front and back covers, the spine, and the two cover flaps (the print book has French Flaps).

To give this some context, the client is printing two trade paperbacks, 5.5” x 8.5” in dimension, perfect bound, with a 12 pt. cover (4-color plus UV coating on the outside) and 55# Sebago text inside the book (with black-only text ink). This client has produced about five titles with this particular printer.

The Specs of My Client’s Book

When covers are laid out prior to being uploaded to the book printer, the graphic designer creates a single, large page spread including the front and back covers, the spine, and the cover flaps (if there are any).

(French Flaps provide a more European look to the product. They fold back into the front and back of the book and make a perfect-bound book look like it has a dust jacket.)

Laying all of this out in one large InDesign file provides multiple opportunities for mistakes. Therefore, the book printer usually provides a template. Based on the number of pages in the book (one of my client’s books had 80 text pages, for instance), the printer computes the width of the spine. Using the page count and the caliper of the paper (360 ppi, or pages per inch, for example), the printer can arrive at an exact width of a print book spine (let’s say 1/4”). If the cover designer positions the spine art (background color and type, vertically) in an accurate manner, the front and back covers, once printed and folded over, will align precisely with the two sides of the spine.

If the measurement is off (or if the printer’s computation of the spine width based on the pages per inch of the particular printing stock is off), the edges of the spine may fold in such a way that the spine type and graphics wind up on the front or back of the book. Ouch.

It is easy not to foresee this when reviewing a cover proof because the proof is a single, unfolded page.

How You Should Approach Print Book Cover Creation

First of all, request a hard-copy proof. It helps to have something physical that you can fold. That way you can see where the front and back covers will be, how the French Flaps (if any) will look, and whether the spine will land in the right place. Better yet, make it a point to start proofing the cover at the laser proof stage. If the laser proofs are accurate, the printer’s high-quality “contract” proof of the cover will be far more likely to be accurate.

My client had a problem with the placement of type on the French Flaps. The copy was too close to the trim at the top and outside edge of both flaps. It was also too close to the folds of the flaps, and a photo came too close to the top (head margin).

My client had to adjust the copy so all elements of the design were at least 1/4” from any trim or fold. The first time, the art still wasn’t right (as evidenced by the proof). Fortunately, since my client had approved the color in the initial hard-copy contract proof, the printer could make the corrections using the cover designer’s revised cover art file and then send him only a PDF proof. This made proofing the cover quick and easy. Furthermore, in the proof there was a dashed line showing where the “live image area” was. That is, the designer was not supposed to extend any graphic element beyond this dashed line to avoid having it trimmed off by accident in the printer’s bindery.

It took two proofs, but the designer finally got it right by reducing the type size on the covers and flaps. However, since the book printer had to start over with each iteration of the covers, there was a surcharge.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. First of all, always ask the book printer for a cover and spine template. Then follow this religiously, and ask the printer to give you feedback after the preflight check.
  2. Before you design the cover, find out what the live matter area should be. That is, past what line should no type or images extend?
  3. Ask how close to the fold any copy can be. For this printer, the distance was 1/4”.
  4. At the page proof stage, print out a 100 percent size, tiled copy of the flat page containing the front and back covers, the spine, and the flaps. Make sure you can see all bleeds. Rule this out with a straight-edge and a pencil. This will show exactly where the graphic elements will fall relative to the trim and the folds. It will also show whether the bleeds are sufficient (1/8”). Then fold this to make a mock-up of the cover. Make sure you like how it looks. It will be increasingly expensive to make corrections after the laser proof stage.
  5. If you have any questions, ask your book printer. Creating an accurate cover file is not an easy thing to do.
  6. If all else fails, create separate pieces for the front and back cover and spine (and flaps). Ask your printer to make the spine the correct width and then put all elements together. Keep in mind that this will cost more than making the cover file yourself.
  7. Think like a printer. Once this art has been correctly positioned in your InDesign file, it will travel to the offset press, and the final product will be a single-piece cover that folds correctly.
  8. If you print on the inside covers, make sure that you put no art or varnish or anything else where the glue will be deposited on the inside of the spine. Otherwise, the covers won’t adhere to the book blocks.

Book Printing: How to Approach a Functional Print Job

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

I always prefer to work with people who are more knowledgeable than I in their particular field. I consider these to be my gurus, and in the field of custom printing I have a number of resources for whom I am grateful. They have been a huge help in the following job.

Specs of the Functional Print Job

A client of mine is producing a print book of color swatches, in many respects very similar to a PMS swatch book or a color book you might find at a paint store. It contains 60+ leaves (120+ pages), and its only binding is a single screw and post assembly (one screws into the other, holding all pages together at one end of the print book). Each page has a full bleed color on one side (a process color build) and black-only, descriptive text on the other. The size is a little over 1.5” x 3.5”. So it’s very small.

Approaching the Experts for Advice

This is really more of a functional or industrial printing project than a commercial printing project. It’s a bit out of my area of expertise, so I chose two trusted advisors at two separate book printers to provide estimates and advice. What I like about them is that they always challenge my specifications for job estimates. This actually makes them particularly valuable because they always see things slightly differently from me, and they come up with novel questions and solutions.

As a functional print job, this project posed a few novel issues to consider:

  1. What will the clients do with the product? How will they handle it? What is its purpose, if not to convey information or a brand?
  2. Will everyone get the same product? Or will the screw and post binding be removable, and will some print books be altered prior being sent to my client’s clients?
  3. How long will the color swatch book be useful before it needs to be replaced by a new edition with new colors?

The Answers Lead to the Printing Process

After discussing the project with my client, I learned that some clients will get different iterations of the color book. For some end-users, my client intends to pull out some of the pages and replace them with other color swatches.

What This Means

  1. First of all, this is why the print book has a binding mechanism that can be disassembled and reassembled. In prior years, my client had been using plastic screw and post assemblies for binding, but apparently they broke easily in disassembly. So my advisor at one of the print shops suggested metal screw and post assemblies and worked this into his price. These would last longer and could be disassembled and reassembled more easily. My client could swap out pages without distress.
  2. The end users of this color book would need to use the books regularly. Therefore, protecting the heavy ink coverage on the pages would be important. The natural oil in the user’s hands might cause problems with ink rub off. I asked my two advisors to look into this. The verdict is still out.
  3. Since the press run is short (100 sets of sixteen books), the product is ideally suited for printing on an HP Indigo press. Fortunately both printer/advisors have access to this equipment. Based on the need for color fidelity, I made it clear early on that only the best digital press (the HP Indigo, in my opinion) would do. (This reflects the industrial printing nature of this product. More than with many other kinds of commercial printing jobs, in this case color accuracy and consistency over the entire press run are crucial.)
  4. An HP Indigo does not coat the printed product in-line. Both vendors would need to subcontract this work after the Indigo digital press had completed printing the press sheets. Outside work slows down the schedule, but, more importantly, it also raises the price. However, given the nature of digital printing (in this case with liquid toners), I wondered whether a cover coating would even be necessary.
  5. The client had requested rounded corners on the job. The samples she sent me showed this had been done in prior years. When I received pricing from the vendors, I heard two different stories. One vendor would do the diecutting for $160.00. The other would send it to a subcontractor, and the overall price of the job would go up significantly compared to the cost of a square-edged printed product.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

  1. At this point I have no final answers, just questions. Fortunately, I have two respected advisors who will tell me the truth about the job. So the first point I would stress is the importance of developing strong professional relationships with commercial printing suppliers, and using them as resources for their expertise.
  2. Consider the function of a print job. Making it pretty is useless if the colors are not faithful or consistent throughout the press run. Conversely, keeping the price down by omitting the cover coating (such as a UV coating) makes no sense if this omission will allow fingerprinting and skin oils to damage the product.
  3. Consider how long the printed product needs to last. Is it a brochure that will be read and discarded, a print book that will be kept for decades, or a functional printing product that must endure harsh use and be color fast for a number of years?
  4. If you have a tight budget and no definitive answers, have your printer list the component prices of the job in a “menu” format. Perhaps some things can be sacrificed (like the rounded corners in my client’s job) to meet the budget. At the very least it will show you what components of the job are the most expensive. If you see what elements of a job need to be subcontracted, you can in some cases replace these with in-house procedures your printer can do himself. This will save money.
  5. Always get printed samples. In my case, I will get HP Indigo digital samples for my client. She can put both a UV coated and an uncoated sheet (hopefully from her own color book art file) through some stress tests to see if she really needs the cover coating.
  6. When in doubt, return to suggestion #1 above. Develop professional relationships with experts in your field. Do this before you need their help.

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