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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: a Handful of Ways to Save Money Buying Print Services

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

If your job involves either buying commercial printing services or designing print products, your experience over the years will teach you that some custom printing processes cost a lot. It’s easy to spend money quickly on a print job. However, you can also be mindful when designing or specifying a print project and make choices that actually save you money.

The Best Book Size

In this light, a colleague recently contacted me regarding the best size for a particular print book. The question was posed from a marketing perspective. Which format would sell better: 5.5” x 8.5”, 6” x 9”, 8” x 10”, 8.5” x 11”, etc.?

I told my colleague that I didn’t have the experience to speak to the marketing aspect of the question but that I could address the commercial printing aspect.

I said that the goal would be to lay out as many pages on the front and back of a press sheet as possible, side by side in a standard press-signature format. Of course, this would necessitate knowing the size of the press and press sheet, as well as the space needed for bleeds, printers’ marks, and the press gripper (which grabs the press sheet and feeds it into the press).

The overall approach would be as follows: for instance, a 40” press will accept a standard 25” x 38” press sheet. If you draw out on a piece of paper a sketch of a press sheet with a width of 38” and a depth of 25”, and then draw four pages across and then another four pages immediately below them, you have a diagram of a press sheet containing a sixteen-page signature (four pages across on top, four across immediately below, and the same on the back of the sheet for a total of sixteen pages). Without bleeds, printer’s marks, and room for the press gripper, you will have just used 22” x 34” of the total 25” x 38” sheet (11” x 2 pages down and 8.5” x 4 pages across). So you will have a little wiggle room for the bleeds and other printers’ requirements.

My Colleague’s Question

So, to return to my colleague’s question, you can do the same kind of math for any of the other page sizes, based on the size of the press sheet. Your goal is to group pages in multiples of four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, or sixty-four. Remember, you’re dividing by the two sides of the press sheet. Moreover, since some presses are as large as 50” (rather than 40”), you can get more pages on a press sheet if you’re designing smaller pages. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily do the math without involving the printer. Just ask about the ideal page size and the number of pages in the “most efficient” press signature based on this approach.

And remember, if your page size yields a print book that feels good in the reader’s hands but that wastes a lot of paper (i.e., maybe you’ve chosen an unusual page size, and you can’t quite fit as many pages on both sides of a press signature without a lot of unused space around the pages), you’re still paying for the unused paper that lands on the trimming room floor.

Marketing Thoughts

Now here’s one marketing perspective. The size and weight of the print book make a difference on several counts:

  1. If it’s too heavy (maybe an 8.5” x 11” format), the book may be uncomfortable to hold when reading.
  2. If the book is too large in its length and width, both the envelopes used to mail copies to clients and the postage may cost more than you expect.
  3. If the booklets need to fit in a display rack for marketing purposes, their size will matter. Find out where and how the print books will be displayed.
  4. If the print book has a small format (let’s say 5.5” x 8.5”) and therefore has grown to 600 pages in length, it may be very difficult to trim. (More on this later.)

Oblong Books

My colleague’s colleague (a writer and publisher) recently printed another book, which had an oblong format (wide and squat rather than narrow and tall). Sometimes this is called a “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation. The publisher was amazed by the high printing cost and vowed never to design an oblong print book again. He had assumed that the same book dimensions would cost the same to produce in either an upright or oblong format. Ouch.

Why is this not true?

To go back to the pages laid out on a press sheet (from the prior example), since facing pages touch at the short dimension in an oblong book, and since the double-page spreads are significantly wider than for standard upright pages, you might not be able to lay out as many pages on one press sheet in one press signature.

(A wild guess might be that four pages will fit on one side of the sheet and four on the other, rather than eight per side, or that eight pages will fit on each side of a press sheet rather than sixteen. In this case, you would need twice as many press runs, significantly increasing the overall commercial printing cost.)

So why not turn everything on its side on the press sheet? Good idea. But maybe that will change the orientation of the paper relative to the paper grain. After all, you want the paper fibers to be parallel to the spine in a print book, or you may have trouble turning the pages easily. Or, as another option, maybe your printer can use paper with the grain going in the perpendicular direction.

As you can see, things get complicated, and complication drives prices up. The best solution is to ask the book printer about such things early in the design process. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t design an oblong book. You should just understand the potential cost ramifications.

Ways to Save–or Spend–Money

As with most things in life, buying commercial printing often requires trade-offs. Often this also involves paying a higher cost for higher quality. But not always.

Binding

For instance, it costs less to saddle stitch a book than to perfect bind it. But perfect binding gives you a printable spine and (presumably) feels more professional to the reader. Maybe you still want the perfect binding, and you’re willing to pay more for it and then pass the cost on to the customer.

Or let’s say you’re printing an ultra-short press run of 50 books. (A client of mine prints 50 galley copies of a book for reader reviews, and then prints 1,500 to 2,000 more copies—with a more elaborate book design–incorporating the readers’ suggestions.) Preparing a large perfect binder for 50 copies will be expensive. Possibly the 50 copies would cost the same (considering makeready and spoilage) as 200 copies for the binding component of the job. In this case it helps to know a printer with a tabletop perfect binder, which is made especially to bind short runs of books economically. (So in this case in particular, it helps to know what equipment your vendor has and to also have a good network of potential printers for your jobs.)

Trimming

Here’s another actual case study from my colleague’s colleague. He produced a 600-page book (noted earlier in this blog article). It was too large to be comfortably trimmed by the printer. So the printer’s automated trimming equipment had to be slowed down significantly. This caused workflow bottlenecks and raised the overall price. Maybe my colleague’s colleague had actually been lucky. The next step would have been to hand trim each print book. For a long press run, this would have been extraordinarily expensive.

Mechanical Binding

For short-run books (let’s say a book for 50 people attending a convention session in a hotel), GBC binding (also referred to as plastic comb binding) is ideal. You don’t need to pay makeready and spoilage costs for an automated perfect binder (or bind 1,500 copies to reap reasonable per-unit bindery costs).

However, GBC binding is done by hand on a little machine (hooking the pages onto the plastic combs). Handwork is expensive and takes time. So for 50 copies, your unit cost will be high. And if your press run goes up (let’s say to 500 copies) and you still choose GBC binding, your overall cost (as well as your unit cost) will be high.

Cover Coatings

Maybe you asked your printer to film laminate the covers of your books. Let’s say he doesn’t have in-house laminating capabilities but he can aqueous coat your print book covers in his shop. Consider this seriously. (Substitutions are often a smart option, for cover coatings, paper choices, etc.) Making your printer subcontract out the lamination might well cost you a lot more than accepting the printer’s in-house aqueous coating capabilities. It might take less time, too.

(A good rule of thumb is to ask for specific results, such as a gloss or matte cover coating, rather than to ask for a specific technology, like laminating, UV coating, or aqueous coating. It’s also a good idea to ask for samples. Always make decisions based on what you can see and feel, whether it’s a choice of press papers or cover coatings.)

The Takeaway?

What can we learn from my colleague and her colleague? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Ask your printer about the most efficient page sizes and press signature configurations based on his presses and the press sheets they accommodate. You want the largest press signatures produced with the fewest press runs.
  2. Develop relationships with a handful of printers. Learn what equipment they have and learn how this determines ideal page size, press signature size, cover coating capabilities, etc. Be able to choose a particular printer for a particular job based on your knowledge of the equipment he has in his pressroom and bindery.
  3. Study all of these subjects in depth. The more you know, the more effective you will be at economical print design and print buying.

4 Responses to “Book Printing: a Handful of Ways to Save Money Buying Print Services”

  1. Chance Cook says:

    It’s good to know that commercial trading requires trade-offs. I’ll see what I can do about finding a printer near me that has good trade-offers. Maybe I can find a publisher that knows a couple of good printers.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment. Whenever I’m stuck, I go to the Printing Industry Exchange website, upload specs for the job, and see what printers reply. Then I vet them. I know that sounds like an advertisement, but it actually does work. The CEO of PIE has good printers checking for bid requests. That said, I also go through printers I’ve worked with if I need something new. Since I’ve already come to trust these vendors, their recommendations are meaningful. I’d suggest you try both approaches.

  2. I love to read your blog. Gives me lots of useful information. I often visit your blog. Thank you for sharing this.

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