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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: Short-Run Digital Case-Bound Books

For the most part, the title of this blog post is an oxymoron: “short run digital” usually doesn’t mesh with “case binding.” That’s because of the complexity of case binding, the make-ready process, the skill level involved, and the post-press finishing equipment needed. The list goes on. Short of binding the books one at a time by hand, the elusive goal of a short press run of case-bound books seems more akin to the proverbial unicorn everyone seems to be seeking.

But my client needs this. And you may, too, at some point when buying book printing. This is how I’m going about the task.

First the Book Specifications

First of all, the book is 8 1/2” X 10 7/8”, with a quantity of 300 vs. 350 copies, 302 pages plus hard cover. The text paper is 60# white offset. Endsheets are 80# Rainbow Oatmeal Antique. And the dust jacket is 100# C1S, with gloss film lamination.

Interior press work involves K/K ink only, with no bleeds. And the dust jacket prints 4/0.

Finishing is more complex. The book requires adhesive case binding with .098″ boards, with colored endsheets, and a flat back (with board in spine). The wrapping material is Arrestox B (Fern L535). The printer must stamp the spine, back, and front cover with one impression of gold foil, from printer furnished dies. Then the printer will wrap the dust jackets around the print books, possibly shrink wrap them individually, and then carton pack them.

A Quandry

While all of these specs sound reasonable enough, they reflect some potentially conflicting client requirements (although they can still be remedied by the right book printer).

First of all, the book is long enough (302 pages) that in past editions it would have been printed either by sheetfed lithography or more usually by web-fed lithography (i.e., a web press or roll-fed press). This was back when the book (a yearly title for this particular textbook-printing client) was 600 pages in length with a press run of 1,000 copies. Those specs more closely matched a web printer I used to work with many years ago. In fact, that particular vendor might consider a short-run book (and probably would be competitive), but their minimum order is 1,000 copies, not 300 or 350 copies.

Moreover, this particular vendor could conceivably send the book to their digital plant (note that this printer has multiple book plants, with digital capabilities as well as sheetfed and web-fed offset presses on their pressroom floor). But to remain competitive, this printer has only limited materials for their digital books. Their covers, for instance, are produced with a few generic paper stock options laminated over binders boards (i.e., not fabric). Basically, they tell you what you can have. Since their prices are spectacular, their limits are reasonable. This is particularly true when you consider that this book printer only has such good prices because they buy a massive amount of only a few brands of printing and binding materials. In my client’s case, if this particular printer produced a short-run case bound book, it would not be bound in Arrestox B (Fern L535) casing fabric. Rather it would be bound in whatever the printer was offering to keep the prices down.

Since my client has been printing and selling this book (at a premium) for decades, it’s important for the final product to look as close to the older versions (produced on a web offset press and bound with high-end bindery materials) as possible. So this particular vendor is not an option.

Two Alternatives

I have approached two other vendors. Plus, I have put the specs up on the Printing Industry Exchange website to see if any new printers might show interest.

One of the two book printers promotes itself as offering prices close to those of Asian printers without the risk. I have found this to be true for the most part. This particular printer is actually a representative for two different dedicated book printers, one on the East Coast and one in the Midwest. One of the printers specializes in black-text-only printing. The other does primarily 4-color work. But what both printers have in common is that they focus almost exclusively on print books. Therefore, they have all of the printing and finishing equipment anyone could need for book production.

To clarify this, I have found over the last forty years that most printers have on-site saddle-stitching equipment. Some but not all have perfect-binding equipment. And only a limited number have case-binding equipment. This makes sense. The goal is to keep all printing and finishing equipment running all the time. Since most printers would not need to run perfect-binding and case-binding equipment all the time, they don’t buy it. Instead, they farm out this work to other printers who do have this specialized equipment. Or they go to companies that only do binding.

But dedicated book printers are a different breed. And I have two vendors in mind (accessible through one representative, who is not quite a broker because he represents the printers rather than the clients, as I do). His two printers have all of this equipment. Therefore, their prices will be lower (i.e., I’ll be more likely to win my client’s bid), and the turn around will be faster (subcontracting not only costs more but takes longer, too).

But I also have one more option: the printer who has produced this book as page counts and press runs have declined from 600+ pages to 300+ pages, and from 1,000 copies to 300 copies. This book printer has done the job for many years (they are motivated to keep it). They are a dedicated book printer, so they have all equipment needed to produce it onsite. (In fact, if they determine that the combination of page count and press run would be more economical on a digital press, they can print the book this way; and, if they determine that web-fed offset, even for this short a run, works better financially as well as in their schedule, they can print the job via offset lithography.)

In most cases, printers with this much equipment are “consolidators.” They buy up multiple printing plants and offer everything to all clients. When work comes in, they send each job to the appropriate plant (like the printer noted earlier in this article). But in this particular case, the printer is smaller, not a consolidator, still has all the equipment in-house, and has provided aggressive pricing for years (and doesn’t want to lose the client). In short, it’s a perfect fit (hopefully my client will agree).

And there’s one other reason the printer has lower prices. It’s in the Midwest in a location that has a lower pay scale than here on the East Coast (for good or ill, this does make a difference).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Keep an open mind. A printer halfway across the country might be the perfect match. If you like their pricing, ask for an equipment list. You may see why their prices are lower based on what printing and finishing equipment they have in-house. That said, since you can’t necessarily visit the printer if something goes wrong, it’s very important to perform all due diligence. Get printed samples. Talk with references. Do careful research.
  2. Think about what kind of technology is most appropriate for your book-printing job. If you’re not sure where the sweet spot is for short-run digital work based on your page count and press run, ask your printer.
  3. Some book printers have tabletop binding equipment. They can be competitive on smaller press runs because they don’t necessarily have to cover the cost of large and expensive equipment (at least for the short-run print books).
  4. Ask colleagues. A lot of the information you need will be in the printers’ equipment lists, but nothing is better than one printer’s recommendation of another vendor who might be more appropriate based on your printing needs.
  5. Large printers with multiple plants may not be as attuned to your particular job needs. In fact, to keep their materials costs down, they may offer only limited options for printing or binding styles. Sometimes a smaller printer who really needs you to be happy is a better choice.
  6. Keep in mind that, across the country, the press runs and page counts of book printing jobs are declining. That said, print books are not going away. Readers and publishers still want a high-quality product for a good price. And the market drives vendors’ offerings. So it is quite possible to find vendors who will print short-run, multi-page books and bind them to your specifications. You don’t need a lot of vendors. You just need to find one or a few.

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