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Book Printing: Binding Problems with Book Signatures

I think nothing is more unsettling to me than an email or phone call from a customer with a printing problem. I always want to please my print brokering clients, but sometimes this just doesn’t happen–at least on the first attempt.

The Backstory of the Print Book Job

The book in question is a 5,000-copy press run of a 6” x 9” perfect bound textbook that was just printed for a client. The book was produced on 70# Finch opaque text stock with a 12pt. cover.

My client received an email from her client (one of the end users, a teacher) noting that 20 of the 40 books she had received had been misprinted. More specifically, all 20 books begin on page 33 and go to 64, after that they return to page 33 and continue to the end.

Three Issues to Address

My client really had a number of issues to address with her customer (actually one customer, but maybe more as well since we don’t yet know the extent of the problem):

  1. The snafu put both her and her company in a bad light for distributing misprinted copies of the book (half a customer’s total order).
  2. My client was being called upon to not only explain what had happened but also to resolve the issue to the satisfaction of her customer.
  3. And, at this point, my client had no way to know whether any of her other 249 customers had received misprinted books.

The Book Printer’s Response

Needless to say, I called the printer immediately and asked him to determine the cause of the problem, its extent, and his suggested solutions. He was patient and kind, and he agreed to do some digging and get back to me as soon as he knew something. This is what he wrote to me the next day:

“As a bit of explanation, the text of [the book] is run and folded as 32-page signatures. The first signature is page 1 through page 32 and feeds from its own pocket on the perfect binder. The next signature is page 33 through 64, which feeds from the pocket right next to the first. The person feeding the pockets mistakenly put a handful of sig 2 into the sig 1 feeder. That [resulted in] two sig 2’s in the front of the book…. The optical reader is supposed to catch this mistake when it occurs, but it missed this. We have checked the reader and it is working properly, and I can’t explain how the 2 sigs passed through undetected.

“We think the 20 bad books should be the extent of the problem. Not knowing how many were in that handful, I can’t guarantee there are not a few more, but it should be very few if any. Please keep me informed if you get any more. I think we delivered a number of overs with the shipment … that should cover any that need to be replaced.

“I apologize, for all of us here, for the error. We value your business very much and enjoy working with you on these projects.”

Thoughts on the Book Printer’s Response

First of all, I am pleased that the book printer explained the cause of the problem (which exactly matches the reported issue—page numbers and all). His apology shows regret, an interest in solving the problem to my client’s satisfaction, and his desire to do future work with my client.

Unfortunately, this does not solve my client’s customer’s problem. However (since there may not actually be as many overs as initially thought), it is fortunate that the book printer kept about a half dozen books of his own, which he can send the customer. I also have two printer samples, and I know that 100 copies were delivered to my client’s office (beyond the copies sent out by the mailshop to the 250 customers). Presumably, by drawing upon this extra inventory, it will be possible to replace the 20 misprinted copies.

If this does not provide an adequate number of replacement copies, or if other customers to whom my client had sent copies discover a similar problem, we’ll have to discuss a book reprint. But fortunately, my client checked all of her copies and did not find any more misprinted books. So at least that’s a good sign.

What You Can Learn from this Case Study

Here are some thoughts:

  1. This is proof that things go wrong from time to time. It’s maddening, but it’s a fact of life in custom printing.
  2. This is also proof that all of the fail-safe measures a printer has in place (such as an electric eye that is supposed to catch mis-fed book signatures) can still fail.
  3. The failure is often due to human error in hand-work (such as grabbing a handful of print book signatures and inserting them into the wrong perfect binder pocket).
  4. If you have a problem, alert the printer immediately. This is an example of why it’s good to choose a printer based on service as well as price. He’ll be more accommodating and ready to resolve any problems that arise during print book production. A printer who is a partner, and not just a vendor, is a major asset.
  5. Since you can’t ensure perfection, it’s often wise to print at least a few more copies than you need. This is one situation when having overs of a printed product is a blessing.
  6. Stay away from blame. Just hold the printer accountable for resolving the problem. (Fortunately, this is the approach my client brought to this incident.)
  7. Learn as much as you can about custom printing. This will help you understand the areas of the process most likely to experience problems. It will also help you understand the explanation of the problem and its extent when your printer gives you this information.

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