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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: Learning By Deconstructing a Print Book

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

As noted before, I am a printing broker, writer, and printing consultant in the DC metropolitan area. Along with my fiancee, I also do art therapy with autistic students. So my fiancee and I are always looking for art books, particularly at our favorite haunts, thrift stores.

My fiancee and I recently found a copy of the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial 2022 print book, Quiet As It’s Kept.

My fiancee pointed out the die-cut work, leather (or faux-leather) cover, and cross between tape binding and case binding (which produced a lay-flat book that opens with the entire cover totally flat on the table (on the left) and a pristine stack of tape-bound text pages on the right.

When my fiancee checked online, she learned that the book could be bought with any of four different colors for the leather (or faux-leather) binding on which artist names and the book title had been both debossed (recessed into the cover) and foil stamped with an added color (red on a textured leather or faux-leather background).

The deeply incised, die-cut thumb tabs running down the pages give the entire text block of the print book a sculpted look in addition to their being functional, making it easy to jump around in the book.

Needless to say, I assumed that the unit cost for the book was quite high (depending of course on the overall press run). Regardless, I knew that outsourcing the die cutting (presumably, since many printers would not have the equipment to do this in-house) would also make for an expensive book. So I was surprised to learn from my fiancee’s research online that the print book cost only $50.00 for nonmembers or $40.00 for members of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Since the book production values intrigued my fiancee, I looked at it closely with a loupe and became intrigued as well.

Technical Analysis: My Initial Thoughts and Assumptions

When I looked closely, I saw that colors outside the CMYK range had been included to extend the color gamut, and I noticed that these had been printed in both solid coverage and gradations within the halftones. So my first assumption was that the printer had used touch plates or kiss plates to broaden the perceived color range.

Then I looked for the tell-tale rosette patterns within the images and didn’t see any. So I was confused. Prior to this, whenever I had looked closely at a printed product and had found no trace of rosettes (but had still found halftone dots at particular angles to one another), the printed product had turned out to be digitally produced via laser printing. So I checked out the printer’s equipment list online and noticed they have an HP Indigo laser printing press.

The Whitney Museum book noted in the copyright page which printer had produced the book, which was very fortunate and not a usual occurrence. Plus, since many printers do not list their equipment online, it was another fortunate occurrence to find this particular printer had listed all of their capabilities and equipment.

Their website also listed key personnel and their email addresses, so on a lark I wrote to the production manager of the custom printing plant and asked what equipment had been used to print this book. I also noted my assumptions about the lack of rosette patterns in the halftones as well as the additional colors.

In addition, I mentioned that I had seen how crisp the text was, which is unusual for electrophotography (laser printing). More specifically, laser printing is usually done with dry toner particles that don’t always conform to the curves and lines of intricate type letterforms. Toner can easily be deposited outside the letters, making the text look a little ragged overall. This is not the case in offset lithography, which maintains a significantly crisper appearance of the type.

In contrast to dry-toner laser printing, toner particles used in an HP Indigo are very small. They are also suspended in fuser oil. Hence, I had assumed the printing had been done on an HP Indigo because of the crisp letterforms, absence of rosettes in the halftones, and the additional colors.

I knew the additional colors could have been printed on an offset press, but this would have involved using a multi-unit press (maybe eight colors) or running the press sheets through the press a number of times. This costs a lot of money. On an HP Indigo laser printing press, more than the usual process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) can be used at the same time, making a reasonably short run of a low-page-count print book potentially less expensive than an offset printed product.

Finding Out How the Book Was Really Produced

To my surprise, the plant manager wrote back to me almost immediately, on a Sunday no less. He said the following:

“The text pages for this book definitely [were] printed [via] conventional offset, not digitally. Probably [a] 200-line screen, possibly with a 20 micron stochastic plate for the black halftones to prevent a moire on any rescanned images.”

So, I was wrong. Under the circumstances, it seems that the high frequency of the halftone screens (200 lpi) had minimized the rosette patterns. Or, the stochastic plate had made a difference. By the way, stochastic halftone screening (also referred to as FM–or frequency modulated–screening) works differently from traditional (or AM, or amplitude modulated) screening.

AM screening uses larger or smaller halftone dots distributed over a regular pattern (the same number of halftone dots in a liner square inch, just smaller or larger dots depending on the required amount of ink). In contrast, FM screening uses the same-sized halftone dots (in this case 20 micron, or very small, dots). Under a loupe you will see minuscule dots, with more dots in dark areas or areas with an abundance of a particular color, and fewer dots in areas with less of a particular color.

This is also what you see when you look at inkjet printed halftones. Stochastic screening provides the illusion of continuous tone photos (which is what you get with color or black and white prints made from photographic negatives).

The Takeaway, or What You Can Learn from My Approach

I made some incorrect assumptions, but that’s less important than the fact that I looked at the print book as both an artistic expression and a physical product that required certain technologies to create.

I would encourage you to take a similar approach if you design books or buy commercial printing. The more you understand both the traditional, analog methods and the more modern digital ones, the better able you will be to choose the technology that best fits your job.

For instance, if you were producing a short run of this print book, you might have chosen an HP Indigo press (i.e., you may have found a printer with this equipment) because the text of the book would be more crisply printed than text from perhaps a dry-toner laser printer. Or, if you were printing a longer run, you might have opted for offset lithography.

Keep in mind that a museum-produced book like this is itself a work of art. Readers will be looking at the print book expecting gorgeous, faithful color. If you were designing this book, you might use extra colors on an HP Indigo, or you might use additional plates (called “touch plates,” “bump plates,”or “kiss plates”) to expand the color gamut. After all, there are some colors you can’t achieve with only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

If you were designing this print book, you could take into account both the budget and the schedule when deciding whether to include such specialized work as the tape binding/case binding mix or the die-cut thumb tabs. But beyond the cost and schedule, you might want to put the aesthetics of the book ahead of the time and cost, since your clientele at an art museum would presumably be sophisticated, artistically trained readers.

If you approach a print book (or any printed product for that matter) in this way, your knowledge of commercial printing will grow exponentially, and you will be a more knowledgeable and more effective (and fiscally prudent) print buyer. In fact, approaching a print job in this manner will make you more aware of what the designer was trying to do, what technology it required, how much it cost, how long it took, and most importantly whether the artistic goals and the processes chosen to bring them to fruition were successful. Did everything work together to create the “wow” factor that both my fiancee and I experienced when we saw this print book? After all, book design and book production are fine arts as well as crafts.

That said, it does help to also have gurus (as I have) who know more than you do and can help you understand how the book was really produced: that is, which of your assumptions were correct and which were off base. There’s no better way to learn. I’ve been in the field for 49 years, and I’m still learning, every day.

One Response to “Book Printing: Learning By Deconstructing a Print Book”

  1. Eris says:

    Please post the cover of this book you are too talking about. I’m curious because of the way you described it as an art piece. Thank you


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