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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: More Approaches to Book Cover Design

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

Every so often I come upon a book that reminds me why book printing has not disappeared, in spite of rumors over the past several years. In fact, based on my recent research, it seems that there has been a resurgence in the printing of physical books. After all, ebooks do not have a tactile component—at all. None. There’s no smell or feel of the paper, and no difference in coating texture between various elements on the cover of an ebook. Don’t get me started.

At the very least I’m pleased that my print brokering clients who produce print books on a regular basis continue to do just that.

In this light I have collected a number of books in the past several weeks and will endeavor to break down for you those elements of cover design that go beyond just the visual enhancements.

Varnish vs. Foil Stamping vs. Embossing

My fiancee has a book about statins (drugs that reduce cholesterol) called A Statin Nation. The background of the front cover (the front of a pill bottle on a light blue screen) as well as the spine and the back cover (exclusive of most of the text) are flood coated with a dull varnish (or a matte film laminate). This absorbs all light rather than reflecting it back to the reader’s eyes.

In contrast, the print book designer has flood gloss coated the title, A Statin Nation, on both the front cover and the spine. Because of this, the title jumps off the page whenever the reader moves the book and these words catch the light.

In short, by accentuating the difference between the matte coating on the overall background of the perfect-bound book cover and the selected text highlighted in gloss varnish, the book designer has produced what looks like a multi-dimensional, as well as multi-textured, cover treatment. You can even run your fingers across the gloss and matte finishes and experience on a physical level the difference between the two.

Something like this could never have been accomplished on an ebook. And it works on more than an aesthetic level. On a cognitive level it separates the title from the rest of the cover as being of the highest importance.

Now the same thing achieved by playing dull and gloss varnish against one another can be achieved with a matte and gloss laminate. In your own print design and print buying work you may want to ask your book printer which of these capabilities he has in house and which might be more expensive or less expensive. If he has to subcontract out such work because he does not have one of these technologies on the pressroom floor, your print book will cost more. Also, it’s wise to request printed samples so you will know how each option will look and feel.

In most cases, if your printer can apply the cover coating in house, the extra cost should not be excessive, because this coating process usually involves only the custom printing plates.

That said, UV coating and lamination will outlive varnishes, which will tend to yellow over time. Therefore, you might want to use a dull laminate on the background for the softer effect and then use a spot gloss UV coating for the highlights.

Based on my research, the laminate for the background is either a transparent flat sheet (a film) applied to the underlying press sheet or a gloss liquid spread on top of the press sheet (which apparently tends to be more uniform than film lamination).

Then, if you add a gloss UV coating (cured or hardened instantly by exposure to UV light) for the title of the book, your printer might use a custom screen printing technique (rather than an offset printing technique) to gloss highlight the type in an especially bright and reflective manner.

Beyond these, there are two more options for setting one element of the design (like the title) apart from another (like the photos). These are foil stamping and embossing.

To be more specific, I have another sample book, an art book that describes the various movements in art throughout history, including Impressionism, Regionalism, Cubism, and many, many more. It is entitled …isms: Understanding Art. This particular sample print book also has a matte or dull coating in the background (like the prior book), and the book designer has set apart the “…isms” portion of the title by using a deep yellow stamping foil instead of ink to print the word (at a rather large point size).

What makes this treatment different from the aforementioned varnish, laminate, or UV coating is that on a tactile level the foil stamped word (…isms) feels a bit thicker and more substantial to the touch. It’s subtle, but I can feel the difference.

On a production level, however, there are a number of differences. Varnish is printed on a commercial printing press inking unit from a printing plate and press blanket. And, as noted above, spot UV coating (which is usually a flood coating) can be added as a spot coating (text only, for instance) using a custom screen printing technique rather than an offset printing technique.

But for foil stamping your printer must have a metal die made in the shape of the letters (in this case …isms). This metal die will then be heated and struck against a roll of foil. It will “punch out” the text, and then using high heat it will adhere the foil to the substrate (in this case the spine and front cover of my sample art book).

In addition to the high contrast between the gloss yellow foil and the dull matte background coating, in the case of …isms: Understanding Art, the contrast is more dramatic because for the most part readers expect to see metallic gold or silver foils rather than a brilliant canary yellow foil (which is also denser than any printable process-color ink, like yellow, would be on an offset press).

Stamping foils come in gloss or matte versions and in multiple colors (including matte and gloss black), which make for a unique look. In your own work, ask about prices and request printed samples before committing to this technique.

The final (and even more tactile) option is embossing, in which a two-part metal die (a raised portion under the press sheet and a recessed portion above the press sheet) produces a three dimensional image when forced against the paper using a letterpress. (Embossed elements rise above the surface level of the paper, while debossed elements are recessed.) Before the embossing or debossing process, you can also register an offset-printed image where the embossing/debossing will be.

Like foil stamping, embossing and debossing will require an extra metal die (made by your printer’s subcontractor), and this will add time and money to the job. However, this effect can look quite dramatic, so it may be worth it.

Faux Case Binding

Here’s another technique to make your print book stand out. Usually a case-bound book has a heavy binding made from thick binders’ boards (a chipboard product). It’s great in terms of durability, but it’s a bit cumbersome.

As an alternative, you may want to use thick cover stock for the turned-edge cover. The book I mentioned earlier (…isms: Understanding Art) has a cover produced on a thinner (thinner than chipboard at least) cover stock (like the paper used for the cover of a perfect-bound print book). It has endsheets, pasted over the turned edges of the cover, and flyleaves—all just like a case bound book. It even has headbands and footbands to cover the bind edge of the folded and stacked press signatures. And you can see a crash (liner) between the press signatures and the outer spine. Plus, the text block actually floats away from the exterior spine like a loose-back case-bound book.

If all of this sounds like gibberish, the only important thing to remember is that it looks and feels like a case-bound book but without the weight. Plus, the cover is more flexible.

And in the case of my book, there are French flaps folding in (over part of the interior front and back covers).

So what you have is a cross between a paperback and a hardback.

Paper Half-Cover Wraps

Finally, here’s a novel idea. A book called American Junk, which my fiancee bought at our favorite thrift store, has no title on the front cover, but it has a half-cover wrap to carry the title, byline, and a little blurb about the book. Fortunately, the title is also on the printed spine of this case-bound book, so you will know what book it is when the cover wrap is removed.

When I say half-cover wrap, it is actually centered vertically on the cover (letting the reader see photos above and below the wrap), and it goes around the book like a dust jacket and into the front and back inside covers.

It is also produced with thick brown kraft paper, so it looks and feels like the paper of a grocery bag (or the book covers we used to make from grocery bags in the 1960s). The type is huge and printed in black ink (the word JUNK) or small and printed in burgundy ink (the word American), which is letterspaced (i.e., spread out letter by letter dramatically).

Consider something like this for one of your upcoming projects. The contrast between the gloss stock of the cover and the mottled, uncoated cover wrap is striking.

And that’s what this is all about—creating a print book design no one can forget.

The Takeaway

Reading a book on a computer will tire your eyes more quickly than reading ink on a page. With an e-reader, this is less of a problem. However, there are a lot of tactile elements of a print book that cannot be replicated in an electronic version.

When you design a print book for offset printing or digital printing, ask yourself the question, “How can this book design benefit from the qualities only available in physical, printed books?” Look for samples in your own home library (as I have done), and also ask your book printer for samples that will inspire you.

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