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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: Notes on Creating a Book Cover Art File

A print brokering client of mine recently had to upload to the book printer’s website two separate revised book cover art files (a total of three covers for each of two titles). This was to make sure all design elements had been placed properly, such that when printed and folded, everything would fall correctly on the front and back covers, the spine, and the two cover flaps (the print book has French Flaps).

To give this some context, the client is printing two trade paperbacks, 5.5” x 8.5” in dimension, perfect bound, with a 12 pt. cover (4-color plus UV coating on the outside) and 55# Sebago text inside the book (with black-only text ink). This client has produced about five titles with this particular printer.

The Specs of My Client’s Book

When covers are laid out prior to being uploaded to the book printer, the graphic designer creates a single, large page spread including the front and back covers, the spine, and the cover flaps (if there are any).

(French Flaps provide a more European look to the product. They fold back into the front and back of the book and make a perfect-bound book look like it has a dust jacket.)

Laying all of this out in one large InDesign file provides multiple opportunities for mistakes. Therefore, the book printer usually provides a template. Based on the number of pages in the book (one of my client’s books had 80 text pages, for instance), the printer computes the width of the spine. Using the page count and the caliper of the paper (360 ppi, or pages per inch, for example), the printer can arrive at an exact width of a print book spine (let’s say 1/4”). If the cover designer positions the spine art (background color and type, vertically) in an accurate manner, the front and back covers, once printed and folded over, will align precisely with the two sides of the spine.

If the measurement is off (or if the printer’s computation of the spine width based on the pages per inch of the particular printing stock is off), the edges of the spine may fold in such a way that the spine type and graphics wind up on the front or back of the book. Ouch.

It is easy not to foresee this when reviewing a cover proof because the proof is a single, unfolded page.

How You Should Approach Print Book Cover Creation

First of all, request a hard-copy proof. It helps to have something physical that you can fold. That way you can see where the front and back covers will be, how the French Flaps (if any) will look, and whether the spine will land in the right place. Better yet, make it a point to start proofing the cover at the laser proof stage. If the laser proofs are accurate, the printer’s high-quality “contract” proof of the cover will be far more likely to be accurate.

My client had a problem with the placement of type on the French Flaps. The copy was too close to the trim at the top and outside edge of both flaps. It was also too close to the folds of the flaps, and a photo came too close to the top (head margin).

My client had to adjust the copy so all elements of the design were at least 1/4” from any trim or fold. The first time, the art still wasn’t right (as evidenced by the proof). Fortunately, since my client had approved the color in the initial hard-copy contract proof, the printer could make the corrections using the cover designer’s revised cover art file and then send him only a PDF proof. This made proofing the cover quick and easy. Furthermore, in the proof there was a dashed line showing where the “live image area” was. That is, the designer was not supposed to extend any graphic element beyond this dashed line to avoid having it trimmed off by accident in the printer’s bindery.

It took two proofs, but the designer finally got it right by reducing the type size on the covers and flaps. However, since the book printer had to start over with each iteration of the covers, there was a surcharge.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. First of all, always ask the book printer for a cover and spine template. Then follow this religiously, and ask the printer to give you feedback after the preflight check.
  2. Before you design the cover, find out what the live matter area should be. That is, past what line should no type or images extend?
  3. Ask how close to the fold any copy can be. For this printer, the distance was 1/4”.
  4. At the page proof stage, print out a 100 percent size, tiled copy of the flat page containing the front and back covers, the spine, and the flaps. Make sure you can see all bleeds. Rule this out with a straight-edge and a pencil. This will show exactly where the graphic elements will fall relative to the trim and the folds. It will also show whether the bleeds are sufficient (1/8”). Then fold this to make a mock-up of the cover. Make sure you like how it looks. It will be increasingly expensive to make corrections after the laser proof stage.
  5. If you have any questions, ask your book printer. Creating an accurate cover file is not an easy thing to do.
  6. If all else fails, create separate pieces for the front and back cover and spine (and flaps). Ask your printer to make the spine the correct width and then put all elements together. Keep in mind that this will cost more than making the cover file yourself.
  7. Think like a printer. Once this art has been correctly positioned in your InDesign file, it will travel to the offset press, and the final product will be a single-piece cover that folds correctly.
  8. If you print on the inside covers, make sure that you put no art or varnish or anything else where the glue will be deposited on the inside of the spine. Otherwise, the covers won’t adhere to the book blocks.

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