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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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Book Printing: Six Lay-Flat Paperback Binding Options

A book printing client of mine does contract work for a multinational world organization. I know this sounds like a plot for a movie, but like all government organizations and NGOs, this one produces a lot of printed material. For this I am grateful.

My client’s boss needs to print a handbook in Africa for local use. Having some questions about this project, my client has secured my services as a consultant on certain aspects of this book printing project.

The Book Project

Like most of the work my client produces for this government organization, the print book will be a medium format, soft-cover book of approximately 200 pages plus cover. It will print in four-color process ink throughout. Other than that, a lot of the production details are sketchy and open to review and revision.

My Client’s Initial Questions

My client forwarded an email to me today from the printer in Nairobi, Kenya. First of all, he wanted to know what text stock would be used for the book block (text pages without covers). He suggested 115 or 130 gsm, noting that the thinner paper would make the book less bulky (presumably a reference to a lower cost for distribution), and the thicker stock would make the book more durable.

First of all, it’s an eye opener to realize that most of the world measures physical items (including commercial printing paper) on the metric scale. Starting to do even a small amount of international business intrigues me as well.

With the metric information in hand, I typed the following keywords into Google: “paper weight conversion.” I find this kind of site supremely useful in comparing text weight printing stocks to cover weight stocks, or for converting paper weights expressed in pounds to comparable weights expressed in points (i.e., by paper thickness rather than by basis weight).

This particular chart (found at also converts pounds and points to “grams per square meter” or gsm, the unit of measurement sent to me from the African printer. For 115 gsm and 130 gsm I found comparable text weights of approximately 80# and 90# respectively. Since I have often specified paper for posters as 100# gloss text, I thought either of these would produce a substantial 200-page book, and I told my client as much. For durability (rather than weight, thickness, and delivery cost), I also suggested the heavier stock, noting that for a 200-page book, the spine of the book would be just under 3/4” (since the caliper of the paper is .006”).

The Next Question: Binding Methods

The client also wants the print book to lie flat when open. This is not a bad thing. It just points toward the following binding techniques:

  1. The client can bind the book using GBC technology. This is a plastic comb that would fit through holes punched through all pages near the binding edge of the book. It is hand work and therefore very expensive for all but the shortest press runs (100s, not 1,000s). Pages also tend to come unhooked from the plastic comb. It’s not my favorite binding. Fortunately, the end-user client (the multinational government organization) didn’t like it either.
  2. The client could bind the book with plastic coil. A quick search on the Internet put the page limit for such a binding at 450 pages (so 200 pages would work just fine). I like this technology because the plastic coil has “memory.” If you try to squeeze or damage it, it immediately comes back to its original shape. Unfortunately, the client didn’t want this option.
  3. Spiral wire (or Wire-O) binding (which are separate technologies) would be two other options for this length of a print book, but both could unfortunately be crushed. That is, stepping on the wires would bend them easily, and the book would no longer allow for easy page turning. Accidents do happen. But the client didn’t want this option either, which was fine since mechanical bindings (such as GBC, plastic coil, spiral wire, and Wire-O) are all rather expensive and therefore more appropriate for short press runs.

The Final Option

Lay-flat binding is the final option. This is what I also consider the best option since it is more professional looking (and less similar to a notebook). In this binding method, the text pages (grouped as press signatures) are attached to thick gauze at the bind edge. The gauze, called a “liner” or “crash,” extends out from the spine on either side, far enough to be attached to the front and back covers just beyond the scoring made by the printer for the spine of the print book.

The binding side of the gathered press signatures never touches the actual paper spine of the book. The book block just hangs on the covers. This is in direct contrast to a perfect-bound book, in which the signatures are roughed up on the bind edge and then glued directly to the spine. Such a perfect-bound book will not lie flat; however, by attaching the book block to the covers but not to the spine, the entire book will lie flat.

If you look closely, you might see a similarity between a lay-flat softcover book and a case-bound book. In fact, you would approach binding a hardcover book in much the same way as a lay-flat paperback. In most cases (except with a “tight-backed” case-bound book), you would “hang” the book block on the front and back covers and then paste the book’s front and back endsheets over the extended “crash” or “liner.”

Lay-flat binding comes in several branded options. One of these is “Otabind.” When queried, the printer in Nairobi, Africa, noted that he doesn’t have Otabind capabilities. However, he does have “swing bind” capabilities. Another quick search on the Internet came up with relevant photos of this technology, which appears to be approximately the same. So we have the beginnings of negotiation, depending on the quality of the sample print books.

A Postscript: An Even Better (But Far More Expensive) Option

Interestingly enough, the client emailed me (after I had written this blog post) to discuss Smyth sewing. In this (sixth) option, the press signatures are stitched with string. Then the crash is glued to the binding ends of the signatures, and the extensions of the crash (or liner) are attached to the paper cover. This technology can also be used for case binding. The stitching makes the book pages lie flat, but it also makes the books extremely durable. You might find such a book in a museum gift shop.

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