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Book Printing: Approaching a Client’s New Print Directory

A client came to me me today with a new variable-data custom printing job. It’s a directory of congressional information–names and data–and my client wants to be able to change various names in the text and then print 100, 500, maybe even 1,000 copies.

I want to share with you how I’m approaching this job, because you may want to consider your options in a similar way when you’re faced with such a custom printing challenge. You may even want to address your options for workflow, custom printing technology, and materials in much the same logical, step-by-step way that you would approach a word problem in a math class.

The Specs for My Client’s Print Book

The directory is 194 pages, 4” x 9”, printed on a 60# white matte text stock in 4-color process inks with bleeds. The book printer will need to provide only the book blocks (no covers or binding), drilled (26 holes) for the insertion of Wire-O binding by my client. (My client has a warehouse and the requisite equipment and skills for attaching the covers and mechanically binding the book.) The book printer will need to add a paper slip-sheet between each print book block to facilitate my client’s grabbing one copy at a time for the addition of covers and for binding.

The Variable Data in the Print Book

My client and I can approach the variable data in two ways. If the change in names (personalization within selected pages of the book) will be the same over the course of 100 to 1,000 books, the job really is more of a “versioned” product than a variable data job. (I think of variable data work as incorporating changes in names and addresses on a unit-by-unit basis. That is, each printed item is slightly different and is geared to a specific, named recipient. In this case, the goal is to hand off stacks of identical books to a client. For each new press run, my client can revise the master copy (adding different names) and print 100 to 1,000 print books for the new client.

Alternatively, the book printer could devise a computer database application that would make the name changes automatically, but this would just shift responsibility from the client to the printer. It could even cost more than my client’s producing her own InDesign “master file” for each version of the book. In addition, my client would still need to check the book printer’s work.

Therefore, my client is willing to start with a master InDesign file and then change it as needed for each version. Every time the names change within selected pages of my client’s directory, the printer will use a new InDesign file.

Printing Options (A Change in Plans)

Approaching the print book in this way necessitated a change in plans. I had initially expected to choose a printer based on their database skills and their digital printing capabilities, but this might not be needed, given my client’s willingness to provide a series of complete InDesign print book files with a new title for each version.

Approaching the job in this way will allow for either digital printing or offset printing.

My next step was to draw a press sheet for each option, leaving enough space around the 4” x 8” pages for bleeds. I knew that for an offset press, I could assume the press sheet would be approximately 20” x 26”, 25” x 38”, or 28” x 40”. Or at least this would be a good starting point. If I lined up eight 4” x 9” pages across the top of the press sheet and eight pages immediately below these, and then duplicated the layout for the reverse side of the press sheet, I could “impose” a double-sided, 32-page press signature.

This would take up 32” (4” x 8 pages; on the 38” or 40” width of the press sheet, plus room for bleeds) in the horizontal direction and 18” in the vertical direction (9” x 2 rows; on the 25” or 28” height of the press sheet, plus room for bleeds). Obviously the 20” x 26” sheet size wouldn’t work. It would be too small. So I abandoned that idea. To minimize waste, the book printer would probably use the 25” x 38” press sheet size.

This configuration would necessitate six different press runs (six signatures) to complete a 192-page book. Perhaps I could find a book printer with a larger press and increase the number of pages in a signature (i.e., larger signatures would mean that the book would require fewer press runs).

The number of separate press runs gave me pause. If a digital press like an HP Indigo accommodates a 13” x 19” sheet size (approximately), then it would take forever to print even 100 books, let alone 1,000. Maybe the digital printer will have some idea I hadn’t thought of for producing the print book digitally, but I’m expecting this will be an offset custom printing job at this point.

How to Find a Printer

Local: My client wants the book to be produced locally. The information in the directory is time-sensitive, so there’s no time to ship printed book blocks across the country. Next-day delivery will be essential.

General Location: I have vendors I work with in the Shenandoah and in Richmond. Both are less expensive due to the overhead in the particular location. I could go to a Florida printer or to one in the Midwest, but this would take too long for shipping.

Large-format Presses: Under the circumstances (multiple book signatures), I’m thinking of printers with large-format presses: at least a 40” press and perhaps a 50” press. A dedicated book printer will be more likely to have such equipment.

Web vs. Sheetfed:
Could this be a web job? That will depend on the final press run. For a 100-copy run (100 books x 6 signatures), the book-copy count would be too small for a web press run. For 1,000 copies of a 6 signature book, the job would still probably be too small. So I’d want a sheetfed printer.

Commercial vs. Book Printer: A dedicated book printer would be more likely to have the equipment and skill required for this job, and therefore would probably provide a lower bid than a commercial printer.

The next step will be to go to work finding a handful of printers that fit these requirements. So far, I have four in mind. Then I’ll distribute specification sheets and see what they can offer.

What You Can Learn from This

  1. Break down a complex job like this into smaller steps.
  2. Consider appropriate equipment (digital vs. offset, sheetfed offset vs. web offset).
  3. Consider the best way to prepare the art files. For versioned work, or even variable data work, make sure the printer is skilled and has the appropriate database equipment. Will the job lend itself to in-house preparation (at your shop) or to more preparation work at the printer’s shop?
  4. Consider the size of your printer’s equipment. Larger presses (40” or 50” presses) will cut down the number of signatures and therefore the number of press runs. A small press (20” x 26”) might be too small for your job.
  5. Consider location. A local printer can get you the completed job faster. Also, printers in some locations might have lower overhead, and this might show up in lower estimates.

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