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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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Archive for the ‘Book Printing’ Category

3 Benefits of Using Electronic Book Services

Saturday, September 5th, 2020

The E-book industry has gained a lot of popularity in the past few years, and its demand is only rising. Today, the world has upgraded in terms of technology and gadgets. You will find entertainment, education, information and shopping, everything on the internet—another popular addition to the digital world books. E-books are getting increasingly popular and have doubled its reach. There are many electronic book services that can help an author publish their e-book on a particular platform so that it is reachable to everyone. The printed books industry will not die out, but the e-books also have a lot of benefits. If you are a staunch book lover, you will love to use e-books along with your regular reading dose. Also, it is a good chance for authors to publish their books online and make it easily available for the readers. Let’s look at some advantages of e-books for the authors.

  1. It is Cost-Effective

When you as an author, want to publish your book the traditional way, you will have to bear the cost of the publishing house. Right from printing to making the design cover and then distributing it to stores all over the world, you need to incur a lot of expenses. On the other hand, if you use electronic book services, you need not bear so many expenses. Publishing an e-book saves your printing cost and also widens your global reach. It is the best way to save your costs if you are on a limited budget. You only have to invest in the essentials of publishing your e-book, and it will be easily reachable to millions of users around the world. You may only have to pay a royalty to the publisher after your books are sold. It is different for every publishing house, and you also have a chance to self-publish your book.

  1. It has a Global Reach

If someone publishes a book in the USA, how do you think will be its reach in India or other eastern countries? Well, it’s not necessary that the books will be available worldwide in all the stores. In that case, you will be missing out on your reading audience in other parts of the world due to lack of copies or additional cost. But, when you publish an e-book, any reader across the world can download or buy your copy in just a few seconds. It is quite an effective way to reach out to a larger audience in a short span of time. Your fans need not wait for your hard copy to reach them.

  1. You Get Instant Gratification

If you are selling your e-book on one of the popular platforms, you can get instant comments from your readers. Whether they liked the book or disliked it, they will post their reactions, and you can easily have access to their comments. But, with a printed version, they would not know whom to reach out to and sometimes their messages won’t reach you on time.

Book Printing: Short-Run Digital Case-Bound Books

Monday, June 8th, 2020

For the most part, the title of this blog post is an oxymoron: “short run digital” usually doesn’t mesh with “case binding.” That’s because of the complexity of case binding, the make-ready process, the skill level involved, and the post-press finishing equipment needed. The list goes on. Short of binding the books one at a time by hand, the elusive goal of a short press run of case-bound books seems more akin to the proverbial unicorn everyone seems to be seeking.

But my client needs this. And you may, too, at some point when buying book printing. This is how I’m going about the task.

First the Book Specifications

First of all, the book is 8 1/2” X 10 7/8”, with a quantity of 300 vs. 350 copies, 302 pages plus hard cover. The text paper is 60# white offset. Endsheets are 80# Rainbow Oatmeal Antique. And the dust jacket is 100# C1S, with gloss film lamination.

Interior press work involves K/K ink only, with no bleeds. And the dust jacket prints 4/0.

Finishing is more complex. The book requires adhesive case binding with .098″ boards, with colored endsheets, and a flat back (with board in spine). The wrapping material is Arrestox B (Fern L535). The printer must stamp the spine, back, and front cover with one impression of gold foil, from printer furnished dies. Then the printer will wrap the dust jackets around the print books, possibly shrink wrap them individually, and then carton pack them.

A Quandry

While all of these specs sound reasonable enough, they reflect some potentially conflicting client requirements (although they can still be remedied by the right book printer).

First of all, the book is long enough (302 pages) that in past editions it would have been printed either by sheetfed lithography or more usually by web-fed lithography (i.e., a web press or roll-fed press). This was back when the book (a yearly title for this particular textbook-printing client) was 600 pages in length with a press run of 1,000 copies. Those specs more closely matched a web printer I used to work with many years ago. In fact, that particular vendor might consider a short-run book (and probably would be competitive), but their minimum order is 1,000 copies, not 300 or 350 copies.

Moreover, this particular vendor could conceivably send the book to their digital plant (note that this printer has multiple book plants, with digital capabilities as well as sheetfed and web-fed offset presses on their pressroom floor). But to remain competitive, this printer has only limited materials for their digital books. Their covers, for instance, are produced with a few generic paper stock options laminated over binders boards (i.e., not fabric). Basically, they tell you what you can have. Since their prices are spectacular, their limits are reasonable. This is particularly true when you consider that this book printer only has such good prices because they buy a massive amount of only a few brands of printing and binding materials. In my client’s case, if this particular printer produced a short-run case bound book, it would not be bound in Arrestox B (Fern L535) casing fabric. Rather it would be bound in whatever the printer was offering to keep the prices down.

Since my client has been printing and selling this book (at a premium) for decades, it’s important for the final product to look as close to the older versions (produced on a web offset press and bound with high-end bindery materials) as possible. So this particular vendor is not an option.

Two Alternatives

I have approached two other vendors. Plus, I have put the specs up on the Printing Industry Exchange website to see if any new printers might show interest.

One of the two book printers promotes itself as offering prices close to those of Asian printers without the risk. I have found this to be true for the most part. This particular printer is actually a representative for two different dedicated book printers, one on the East Coast and one in the Midwest. One of the printers specializes in black-text-only printing. The other does primarily 4-color work. But what both printers have in common is that they focus almost exclusively on print books. Therefore, they have all of the printing and finishing equipment anyone could need for book production.

To clarify this, I have found over the last forty years that most printers have on-site saddle-stitching equipment. Some but not all have perfect-binding equipment. And only a limited number have case-binding equipment. This makes sense. The goal is to keep all printing and finishing equipment running all the time. Since most printers would not need to run perfect-binding and case-binding equipment all the time, they don’t buy it. Instead, they farm out this work to other printers who do have this specialized equipment. Or they go to companies that only do binding.

But dedicated book printers are a different breed. And I have two vendors in mind (accessible through one representative, who is not quite a broker because he represents the printers rather than the clients, as I do). His two printers have all of this equipment. Therefore, their prices will be lower (i.e., I’ll be more likely to win my client’s bid), and the turn around will be faster (subcontracting not only costs more but takes longer, too).

But I also have one more option: the printer who has produced this book as page counts and press runs have declined from 600+ pages to 300+ pages, and from 1,000 copies to 300 copies. This book printer has done the job for many years (they are motivated to keep it). They are a dedicated book printer, so they have all equipment needed to produce it onsite. (In fact, if they determine that the combination of page count and press run would be more economical on a digital press, they can print the book this way; and, if they determine that web-fed offset, even for this short a run, works better financially as well as in their schedule, they can print the job via offset lithography.)

In most cases, printers with this much equipment are “consolidators.” They buy up multiple printing plants and offer everything to all clients. When work comes in, they send each job to the appropriate plant (like the printer noted earlier in this article). But in this particular case, the printer is smaller, not a consolidator, still has all the equipment in-house, and has provided aggressive pricing for years (and doesn’t want to lose the client). In short, it’s a perfect fit (hopefully my client will agree).

And there’s one other reason the printer has lower prices. It’s in the Midwest in a location that has a lower pay scale than here on the East Coast (for good or ill, this does make a difference).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Keep an open mind. A printer halfway across the country might be the perfect match. If you like their pricing, ask for an equipment list. You may see why their prices are lower based on what printing and finishing equipment they have in-house. That said, since you can’t necessarily visit the printer if something goes wrong, it’s very important to perform all due diligence. Get printed samples. Talk with references. Do careful research.
  2. Think about what kind of technology is most appropriate for your book-printing job. If you’re not sure where the sweet spot is for short-run digital work based on your page count and press run, ask your printer.
  3. Some book printers have tabletop binding equipment. They can be competitive on smaller press runs because they don’t necessarily have to cover the cost of large and expensive equipment (at least for the short-run print books).
  4. Ask colleagues. A lot of the information you need will be in the printers’ equipment lists, but nothing is better than one printer’s recommendation of another vendor who might be more appropriate based on your printing needs.
  5. Large printers with multiple plants may not be as attuned to your particular job needs. In fact, to keep their materials costs down, they may offer only limited options for printing or binding styles. Sometimes a smaller printer who really needs you to be happy is a better choice.
  6. Keep in mind that, across the country, the press runs and page counts of book printing jobs are declining. That said, print books are not going away. Readers and publishers still want a high-quality product for a good price. And the market drives vendors’ offerings. So it is quite possible to find vendors who will print short-run, multi-page books and bind them to your specifications. You don’t need a lot of vendors. You just need to find one or a few.

Book Printing: Everything Is Connected to Book Length

Monday, March 30th, 2020

A print brokering client of mine (a husband and wife publishing team) has a perfect-bound print book going to press in a week. As initially bid, the book was 80 pages in length, 1500 copies, produced on 60# antique eggshell text stock with a 12pt. cover, 5.75” x 8.5” in format with French flaps, hinge score, luxury matte film laminate, and deckled edges on the text pages. It is one of a series of books with these very specific qualities, aimed at a market that appreciates the tactile qualities of print books.

A few days before the file upload date I found out that the actual book length was less than expected: 62 pages rather than 80. Of course, since the print run length will be 1500 copies (i.e., offset lithographic printing rather than digital printing), I knew this page count would need to rise to 64 pages to be a complete press signature. So I revised the specs and sent them back to the book printer for repricing.

However, it didn’t end there because in book printing, everything is connected.

Considerations (The Number of Signatures)

On the side of economics, the book will be shorter, so it will cost less to print. Specifically, here’s why. At 80 pages, the print book would have been three signatures (presumably), since this printer likes to work in 48- and 24-page press signatures, so the book would have included a 48-page signature, a 24-page signature, and an 8-page signature (i.e., for this particular book printer, it is apparently cheaper to break down the book like this—as opposed to breaking it into 32-page signatures).

But once you reduce the page count to 64 pages, presumably the signature count will now be two signatures rather than three (probably a 48-page signature and a 16-page signature, and for this particular printer the 16-page signature may be more expensive to print because it doesn’t fit the ideal scenario for the print shop—i.e., it may require a bit more work).

Why does all of this matter? It makes my head spin.

The short answer is that two press runs will be cheaper than three. So my client (the husband and wife publishing team) will pay less overall, even if the 16-page signature production will not be as efficient as the 48-page signature. But to be sure, we’ll have to wait for the revised estimate.

Considerations (Design Issues)

As noted above, all of this client’s print books follow the same format to support their brand. That is, the cover art may change, but the size, French flaps, luxury matte film coating, and deckled edges identify all books as originating with this publisher. Subconsciously, clients can tell.

That said, a 64-page print book is much thinner than an 80-page book, so the spine will not have room for text that is of a readable size. In fact, in many cases a book designer would produce this title as a saddle-stitched book rather than a perfect-bound book (i.e., with no spine). But this would make the book not match its peers from this publishing house.

In addition, for such a thin book, the 12pt. cover and the French flaps folding back under the front and back covers will make the cover feel more substantial than the text block (presumably). In fact, in other cases I might even suggest to the client that she/he request a paper dummy (unprinted book sample made with the chosen cover and text paper). But in this case, this publishing team has a consistent brand look to uphold by using their standard paper stock and cover format.

Now what I did do is provide options. I did ask whether my clients wanted to keep or forego the French flaps (to make the covers less substantial) and move the cover stock from 12pt. to 10pt. (the next lower paper thickness I would suggest), and as expected they said no.

Considerations (Art File Preparation Issues)

Since the print book will be going to press in a few days and the text of the book has already been laid out and finalized, one key art production task will be to create the cover file. The cover designer (a different person than the text designer) will need to create one flat piece of art in Photoshop that has a (reading from left to right) back cover, spine, and front cover (the interior covers, front and back, do not print in this case). Again, this has to be of one piece, and the spine in particular has to be the correct width, or the printed back, spine, and front of the cover will not fit correctly on the text block. (In fact, if the book were long enough to have a spine with the title on it, the title might not be centered on the spine if the spine were not of the correct width.)

So how do you determine the spine width?

The printer does this, based on the page count (64 pages) and the specific text stock (60# antique eggshell), which in this case has a caliper of 420 pages per inch. (My math says this yields a spine width of .15”, but I always have the printer do the math and actually give me this number to ensure accuracy.)

With this in mind the cover designer can create a Photoshop file with a 5.75” x 8.5” back cover, .15” spine, and 5.75” x 8.5” front cover stitched together, and with 1/8” of bleed past the trim edge for any art that bleeds off the page.

For those who are wondering, the 5.75” measure (rather than 5.5”) allows the cover to extend slightly over the deckled edge of the text pages.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First and foremost, remember that everything in book printing is connected. Even a change in the page count can affect not only the text but also the cover, any space you need on the spine for a title, the feel of the weight and size of the cover relative to the text block, and on and on.

Second, always ask for a cover template when you’re preparing the cover art. This will show you exactly what the book printer will need in the art file to ensure that the cover fits the text block accurately.

Third (and this does not apply to my clients because they want the same production specifications for all of their books), consider requesting a paper dummy of your book before you actually print it. How everything will look and feel (from the weight of the cover stock to the bright white or cream tint of the text) will be evident, so there will be no surprises when your printed job arrives.

Book Printing: Thinking Outside the Box

Monday, March 9th, 2020

In my recent print brokering work, I have worked with two clients whose print books have lent themselves to various optional presentations to save money. The thing to keep in mind when designing a book is that book printing is actually a physical manufacturing process. We forget this. We often think of a book as an intellectual or artistic product, something more than an “object.” However, if you approach it as a physical product made from various kinds and thicknesses of paper that has to weigh a certain amount and open and close, and if you take into account the fact that different printers can do different things well and economically, then book printing becomes a puzzle of sorts, a challenge.

The First Book

The first book, from the first client, is a 5.5” x 8.5” perfect bound print book (with a press run of 50 or 100 copies; i.e., short enough to be a digital print job). Unlike most perfect bound books, it has an additional dust jacket. Usually, dust jackets are reserved for case bound books. Like a case-bound book, my client has designed a very simple outer perfect-bound book cover with just the book title in black.

To the unaided eye, it looks like someone has just not yet affixed the cover (i.e., the accompanying dust jacket) over the book block (the text plus the existing book cover with only the title printed on it). How do I know this? Because my client sent me a photo of the perfect-bound book and the accompanying dust jacket. Take this as an object lesson for your own print buying work. Nothing conveys the goals of a print book designer as well as a photo or a physical copy of the book.

Once I understood my client’s desires, I didn’t question them. I assumed this treatment was what he was accustomed to from other countries (other countries often have different approaches; for instance, French flaps seem to be more European in design than American). So I sent out bid requests to four printers, “as is,” with no changes in the specs.

I have now received three of four bids. The printers changed some of the specs (offering what they could produce with their equipment or what they would suggest as an alternative approach to my client’s specs):

  1. Two printers bid the book as is (perfect bound with an additional dust jacket). They may or may not have thought this was an unusual format. (Usually you would produce a perfect bound book with or without French flaps, or you would produce a case bound book.)
  2. One printer could only produce the book digitally (no offset print runs under 1,000 copies). He would have limited options for digital printing. They would include a paper-covered case-bound book (as opposed to a fabric-covered case-bound book), made with limited options for the paper cover. This could then be wrapped with a 4-color dust jacket printed on laminated, enamel text stock. Based on the economics of scale, this printer would probably provide an extremely low price for such a printed product. Keeping options to a minimum insured the printer’s buying a limited number of supplies in bulk, rather than a lot of different supplies for higher prices. The only reason I asked this printer to essentially bid on a different product than my client had specified was the following. My client had mentioned three times that his budget was tight. That is, maybe he would be open to alternate ways of doing things to save money (such as a simple case-bound book).
  3. The fourth printer bid the book as a case-bound book without asking me about changing the requested bindery method. Again, I didn’t mind. Options might yield lower pricing. That said, when I received the price I asked the sales rep about options, and she suggested a perfect-bound option with French flaps. The book would have the look of a case-bound book. It would have three-inch fold-in flaps on which the author could put explanatory and marketing information. But this cover would replace the separate dust jacket, and the 65# cover my client wanted with the book title in black would then become the title page of the print book. The sales rep said this would cost less than the case-bound version (at this point her bid was the low bid, so I was hopeful that once she rebid the project, her bid would be wonderfully low. We’ll see what happens).

To complicate matters, my client had noted that he had solicited pricing from China. The unit cost was great: $8.50 per book. However, the shipping cost had made the total cost prohibitive. Hence, he had come to me.

Now what makes all of this interesting is that the low bid vendor’s price (with the French flaps, which as noted would already cost less than a case-bound volume) was only about $17.00 per book, with money included for both potential overs and estimated freight. And this price would most likely come down as the printer rebid the job as a perfect-bound book with French flaps rather than a case-bound book with an additional dust jacket.

You could say that almost double the initial cost is bad. But we don’t know that yet. (I haven’t received the revised bid yet, or my client’s projected freight cost from China.) All we know is that the manufacturing cost for the book through the Chinese vendor is half that of the US vendors.

The total cost all depends on what my client’s Chinese vendor would charge over and above the $8.50 per unit manufacturing cost to account for shipping. Moreover, this particular low-bid US vendor could potentially omit the French flaps and bring down the price even further, depending on what my client wants to do (and what he wants to pay). And he may like the comfort level of not printing as far away as China.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Think about these things for your own commercial printing work:

  1. Don’t necessarily be wedded to a particular print book style or format. Discuss the look and feel you want (early) with your print provider, but listen to his suggestions.
  2. Get multiple bids. Keep in mind that some printers will have all equipment in house (like my low-bid vendor). This drives down the price and often increases the number of options he can provide (again, my low-bid vendor can do remarkable things with low-run work—50 copies–for a great price).
  3. Use physical samples and photographs to communicate your needs and desires, not just lists of specifications.

The Second Book

Think of the second book as an unbound book comprising 68 pages. It is from my “fashionista” client who usually produces small color-swatch books of hues used to help women choose clothing and make-up based on their complexions.

This particular print book is a second product based on the same color samples and color theory. It contains 66 pages (33 cards), each with a different color on each side and a semi-circular cut-out for the user’s chin (plus a two-sided instruction sheet). You hold the color up to your chin and see whether it works with your complexion.

My client had a prototype made on 14 pt stock, laminated both sides, just to see how it would “look and feel.” After all, it had to feel substantial enough because she planned to charge a lot for her set of color chin cards. They would have to be firm and hold up to heavy use (hence the lamination).

She received the prototype this week and loved the colors but thought the 8.5” x 11” cards were a bit flimsy. She asked about printing on paper thicker than 14pt. So I approached the sales rep.

The commercial printing sales rep said the digital press (again the equipment at this particular printer, as opposed to at all possible printers) would accept nothing heavier than 14pt stock.

Moreover, he suggested increasing the thickness of the lamination to solve the problem. He had priced the job with 1.5mil laminate on both sides, but he could provide 3, 5, or 10mil as well.

So I have something to bring back to my client, to see how she wants to proceed.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Think outside the box. What my client was really saying was that she wanted a thicker product (overall, not necessarily thicker paper). After all, think about how bulky menus can be. That’s not just the paper thickness; it’s the thickness of the lamination.
  2. Be aware that digital presses have more limitations than offset presses. Some can only handle thinner paper. Moving the job (in my client’s case a 50-copy set vs. a 100-copy set of the 68 pages, or 34 cards) to an offset press would have driven up the price significantly. Adding a thicker laminate, on the other hand, solved the problem through creative thinking and an open mind.

So the take-away is as follows: Look to the book printer for his expertise and creative thinking. Be flexible, and you might wind up happier with the printer’s advice than you would have been with your own initial plan. And you might wind up saving money, too.

Custom Printing: Book and Magazine Signature Work

Monday, January 6th, 2020

If you’ve been in book or magazine printing for any length of time, the term “signature” is familiar to you. You probably think automatically about how your print book or magazine will break down into the most optimal press signatures to keep the printing cost down.

On the other hand, if you’re used to designing and printing flyers, large-format signage, and other products without multiple pages, then the term signature is probably new to you.

A signature is a press sheet with a certain number of pages printed on both sides, folded and trimmed such that the pages are all consecutive. Pages are laid out in this way (called a press imposition) so that four, eight, sixteen, or even thirty-two pages can be printed at the same time (if the press is “perfecting,” or printing both sides). If the press is not a perfecting press, then one side of the sheet is printed at a time. The ink is then allowed to dry. Then the job is “backed up.” (That is, the stack of press sheets is turned over, and then the sheets are fed through the press again–often with new press plates–to print the other side of the press form, which is the name for an unfolded signature.)

You can do the same thing with a smaller job. In this case, you would just print more than one copy of the job on a press sheet. For instance, if you’re printing a four-page, 8.5” x 11” (when folded) brochure, you might lay out two of these such that they will be printed simultaneously on a press sheet. In fact, to avoid changing the plates, you might even place one two-page spread face up and the other face down on the same sheet. In this way, without changing custom printing plates, you can print one side of the sheet, dry the ink, and then flip the stack over and print the other side of the sheet (called work and turn or work and tumble, depending on how the press sheets are turned over—side to side or end over end).

I know all of this may be confusing or maddening. But here is how it is relevant to commercial printing products with multiple pages.

The Case Study

A client of mine is producing a relatively simple print book. It is 5.5” x 8.5”, with 60# white vellum text paper and a 12pt. cover. The cover will be coated with a luxury matte film laminate. The book will be perfect bound. It will also have a 16-page insert printed on 80# gloss coated text paper. All told, the text will be 288 pages, and the insert will be 16 pages, so the total page count will be 304 pages plus cover.

Now, back to signature work. This would be absolutely the same if the product were a magazine. As long as we’re doing multi-page work, like a catalog, magazine, or print book, we talking about press signatures.

A 288-page book can be composed of 72 4-page signatures (highly inefficient), 36 8-page signatures, 18 16-page signatures (more reasonable), or 9 32-page signatures (ideal). Think about it. If your book page size is small enough and your press sheet size is large enough to fit 16 pages on either side of a press sheet, you can produce the entire print book in nine press runs (as opposed to 72 press runs if you can only fit four pages on a press sheet: two on either side of the page). Less time, less money. Also, fewer consumables such as press plates, fewer wash-ups, and therefore less labor.

If you take a sheet of paper, draw a rectangular press sheet, and rule out sixteen pages on this drawing, you can visualize what I’m saying. Now, write 40” on the long side of the rectangle and 28” on the short side. This is the total length and width of the press sheet, so you can further label the drawing by noting 8.5” (length of the individual pages) in each of the smaller book pages within the large rectangle across the 40” dimension and 5.5” (width of the pages) for each book page across the 28” dimension.

Of course, this assumes your press is large enough to accept a 28” x 40” press sheet.

When you have drawn out this miniature press sheet diagram, you will see that the long side will accept four 8.5” page dimensions equaling 34” (close enough to the 40” length to allow for gripper margin, printer’s color marks, and bleeds). The short side of the sheet will accept four 5.5” book pages, totaling 22” of the total 28” width of the press sheet.

So this is an economical use of the press sheet (less waste, and more print book pages per press sheet allowing for fewer press runs).

The Insert

My client’s insert will be 16 pages. It will be printed 8 pages on either side of the press sheet, so presumably it can be produced “two-up” on a 28” x 40” press sheet. This just means that when the press signature is folded and trimmed, you will get two full 16-page signatures from each press sheet. As noted before, the insert paper will be a gloss text sheet, and the book text pages will be uncoated book paper.

So this will be the marrying of two separate paper stocks: one a single, 16-page gloss text signature containing photos (which will look crisper on a gloss coated stock) and nine 32-page text signatures on an uncoated 60# offset paper.

Now the insert can’t go just anywhere. It has to go between press signatures. This may be a problem editorially. For instance, the gloss coated photo pages may pertain to certain pages of the remaining text. But if they all have to go together (all sixteen pages), and they all have to be positioned between text signatures (between any two of the nine comprising the text block), then their placement will be constrained.


Let’s say you had money to burn. You could do things slightly differently. If some of your text signatures were shorter than 32 pages (let’s say two 16-page signatures in one position in the print book), you would have more options for placing the insert. Conversely, you could break the 16-page photo signature into two 8-page signatures and position one in the first half of the book and the other closer to the end of the book.

Either way, you would be decreasing the size of a press signature and thus necessitating more press runs to create the same book (plus new plates and ink wash-ups, so more labor, more materials, and more time on press at the printer’s hourly rate). You may still want to do this, for editorial reasons (pertaining to the content of the print book rather than to its most efficient manner of production).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

If you are doing signature work, the first thing to do is think in terms of signatures. This will gradually become an automatic approach. Ask your printer about the size of the press and the size of the largest press sheet it will print. (Some presses will even print a 50” sheet.)

Then think about the number of book, magazine, or catalog pages you can get on a sheet and what size they must be. You will need to ask your printer how much space he will need for color bars and other printer’s marks, for the commercial printing press gripper (to pull the press sheets through the press), and for bleeds on the book pages. You’ll need to leave this much space as you determine the page size of your book, catalog, or magazine.

Your printer can teach you how to fold a sheet of paper to create a model of a press signature. You can then number the pages to see how the press form (the unfolded press sheet) can be printed and then folded into a little 8-page, 16-page, or 32-page booklet, after which these little booklets can be stacked and then bound together.

It’s also most useful to see all of this actually happening at a printer’s plant (to see the printing of one side of the sheet and then the other), then to see the folding, signature stacking, binding, and trimming operations that yield multi-signature products.

Once you have seen all of this being done and also have the little folded models and drawings of the press sheets that you have made, you will find it a much more intuitive process to lay out each signature of a print book and to understand where you must position an insert produced on different paper.

Book Printing: An Approach to Multiple-Signature Press Work

Monday, December 30th, 2019

A print brokering client of mine will soon produce a set of print books that provide a good object lesson in both the differences between digital and offset printing and also in ways to save money by creating larger press signatures.

Background Specs for the Two Books

To provide some context, the first job is a run of 20 copies of an 80-page, 5.5” x 8.5” perfect-bound book, on 60# white offset text with a 10pt cover. It is a reader’s “galley,” a proof for reviewers to check for errors prior to the final press run of the print book. In many prior printings of books for this particular client, I have contracted for the commercial printing of 50 or 75 copies, but to save money and meet the reviewers’ requests, my client only needs 20 this time. Other copies will be printed out from a PDF file as needed. This is not a problem, since only the content will be relevant for corrections. (That is, this doesn’t need to be a perfect rendering of the final print book.)

The second book is a higher-end version of the first. It has French flaps, luxury matte film laminate on the cover, a press score, and deckled edges on the face trim of the book. It also will be produced on a 60# natural eggshell text stock. It will be 5.75” x 8.5” (slightly larger in format than the first book) because the French flaps on the covers will extend slightly beyond the deckled edges of the text stock (thus requiring a wider horizontal measure). In contrast, the galley books will only be 5.5” wide (with no cover flaps). After all, they are only a proofing device; therefore they don’t need the expensive, high-end production values. My client will print either 1,500 or 2,000 copies of the final print book.

Considerations for the Books

My client had asked to produce a 78-page book (in both cases). For the sake of consistency, I made both books 80 pages, since the 1,500- or 2,000-copy run will need to be produced via offset lithography (too long a press run to be a cost-effective digital job), and this print book will therefore need to be a multiple of 4, 8, 16, or 32 pages. This is because it will be composed of press signatures (large flat press sheets folded down and trimmed into little 5.75” x 8.5” booklets). In contrast, since the 20-copy print book will be produced digitally, it will not need to be printed in press signatures. In fact, as long as the total length of the book is a multiple of two pages, the 20-copy “galley” book can even be a 78-page printed product (divisible by 2 pages but not by 4, 8, 16, or 32). (This is a benefit of digital printing, which is not really signature press work.)

When I received pricing from the book printer, the first thing I noticed was that he had given me the option for printing in 48-page signatures or 24-page signatures. This told me that in contrast to my original assumption about 4-, 8-, 16-, and 32-page signature options, this printer’s (larger than expected) press actually allowed for larger press signatures at this particular page size (5.75” x 8.5”). That is, the size of the press sheet the printer’s large book press could accommodate would allow 12 pages, or 24 pages) to be produced on each side of the press sheet before it is folded down to the 5.75” x 8.5” stacked press signatures that would comprise the 80-page book. The printer would offer an approximately $100-$200 discount for larger, 48-page signatures. Why? Presumably because they would necessitate fewer press runs.

(To provide an example, a 96-page book would comprise two 48-page press signatures. Or it could contain four 24-page signatures. If you can produce the book with two press signatures, you only have to run the press half as many times—two rather than four. This saves time and materials, and hence money.)

Going back to my client’s actual print book, 80 pages is not divisible by 24 or 48 pages. When I noted this to the printer, he said this was a general statement about ways to save money on his press, but that he would still give me the lower price because the 24-page vs. 48-page signature stipulation didn’t really apply to my client’s work. (It did, however, remind me why it is good to design books with the largest possible press signatures.)

What we finally settled on for the final print book with the French flaps was a signature composition of one 48-page signature, one 24-page signature, and one 8-page signature for a total book length of 80 pages. (My client did not plan to bind anything within the larger press signatures–a reply card or small press signature of photos on different paper stock, like gloss coated paper. Otherwise, this would have necessitated breaking the larger press signatures into smaller signatures–maybe three 24-page signatures with an 8-page photo signature on gloss stock between two of them–requiring more press runs for more money.)

Finally, I compared the estimated prices to those of another print book this client had produced in the same format but with a 128-page book length rather than an 80-page book length. The prices for the 80-page book almost exactly matched the prices for the earlier-produced 128-page book. Needless to say, I queried the printer. He said the 60# natural eggshell paper had driven up the cost by several hundred dollars (compared to the price of the 60# white vellum of the first book), despite the fact that the job was a short book with a 1,500- or 2,000-copy press run.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Even though the specifics of this case study are rather convoluted, there are a number of object lessons the job illustrates:

  1. If the normal assumptions for offset printing press signature lengths are 4-pages, 8-pages, 16-pages, and 32-pages, don’t make this a hard-and-fast rule, as I did. Ask the printer. Larger presses at some book printers can accept other signature page counts such as 24-page and 48-page signatures. The longer the press signatures, the fewer the press runs. Unless you need to break a press signature into smaller signatures to insert a card or alternate paper stock, go for the longer signatures to save money. But always ask your printer about this first.
  2. Understand that digital printing does not require (or for the most part even accept) traditional press signatures. Therefore, if you need to add or remove book pages, you can do this in multiples of two pages. Ask your printer if your combined page count and press run will benefit from either offset lithographic printing or digital printing.
  3. Nice paper costs extra money. The total cost can be surprising. Ask your printer about options, if you want a natural color—cream–rather than a standard blue-white press sheet. Sometimes your printer can get you a deal on paper if you list the required specifications—weight, thickness, color, brightness, etc.–instead of asking for a particular brand of paper. Get printed samples, particularly if you plan to print color images on natural paper. (The yellowish tinge of a cream stock can affect people’s flesh tones in bad ways.)
  4. If you don’t need a galley proof version and a final version of your print book, you still may benefit from a lower-production-value and higher-production-value version. This might be a case-bound version vs. a perfect-bound version. Or it may be a low-end version on white offset with flush-cut covers and a cover varnish for one version, and French flaps, luxury matte film laminate, press score, and natural eggshell paper for the other. You may want to sell these for different prices, as a normal version and a premium version.
  5. Regardless of what you do, remember two things: 1. Involve your printer early in the process in terms of available book printing techniques, pricing, and schedules; and 2. always ask for samples of the printing (or binding, or coating, or foil embellishing) effects you want for your print books.

Book Printing: Always Submit Accurate Art Files

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Over time, small errors often grow in their scope and effects, and in book printing this can mean that a problematic file you submit today can delay the ship date for your project (or incur extra fees). If your project is time sensitive, this can be a serious source of stress.

The Case Study: A Case-Bound Textbook

A client of mine has come back to me this year with a book printing project I used to broker for her company. Her boss had chosen a different printer for a few years, but I was fortunate enough to win back the work once my client had regained control of the print book.

My client is very detail oriented and schedule oriented. Therefore, I padded the schedule a bit before I presented it. I wanted to make sure there was room to address author’s alterations. After all, in the five years I had worked with her prior to our hiatus, her print book designers had often requested corrections on multiple pages at proof time.

That said, I was actually surprised this time that as early as the book printer’s preflight stage there were problems with the margins of the book, the placement and accuracy of running headers and folios, and, in the case of the dust jacket, missing artwork.

To put this in context, this particular job is a 305-page, case-bound textbook. Interestingly enough, the press run is only 350 copies, and the specs for the case-bound cover materials are quite unique, firm, and precise. Since most vendors with whom I work will not print anything less than a 1,000-copy run via offset lithography, and since these same vendors have only limited options for case-binding digitally printed books (in order to keep costs down), I returned to a vendor in the Midwest for this job, a vendor with precisely the equipment to use the exact materials my client needed to match a previously offset printed case-bound volume of this textbook.

So the art files didn’t pass preflight. Live matter art on the pages fell too close to the trim, and page numbers were inconsistent (and in some cases not even correct relative to odd-page and even-page placement). In addition, running headers (text at the top of the page close to the trim margin including the title of the book) were inconsistently placed.

In response, my client’s print book designer made changes in some cases, agreed to live with the limitations in other cases, and uploaded a complete new file for the entire book.

To make a long story short, this happened two more times. Additionally, on the third attempt (approximately three weeks from the start of prepress work on this title), he submitted individual corrected pages rather than a complete, single file for the print book.

Making Sense of All of This: The Implications

So at the end of the three-week period we were still at the beginning of the process. Keep in mind that this printer, like most, will not commit to a delivery date prior to receipt of a signed proof approval. If the original file submission date is eight weeks out from the requested delivery date, this is an irrelevant target if the files are wrong. Only after the proof approval form has been signed (and in this case only after a revised contract reflecting a different page count from the initial bid had been signed), does the printer schedule the printing, binding, packing, and shipping steps of the book manufacturing process.

And this is all quite reasonable since the printer did nothing wrong, and since the printer has many other clients who have carefully followed (to the letter) all protocols for preparing art files.

My guesstimate, at this point, is that the ship date will slip about three weeks. My client (the one coordinating the buying process, not the book designer) understands the problems completely and is very accommodating. She plans to change the delivery date on her marketing materials. No harm/no foul. Not every client would be this accommodating. Some would even blame the printer.

What We Can Learn From This Case Study

Learn from my client’s mistakes so you don’t make them yourself. Consider these suggestions:

  1. Determine when you will need finished print books (when you absolutely need them). You may be lucky. You may have wiggle room in your schedule.
  2. Tell your printer what this “drop-dead” date will be, and see how his schedule looks. Printers are often busier in certain months than in others. For case-bound print books, some will offer you six weeks, others will offer eight. (This is often prior to shipping. Be sure to ask.) Some printers, the pricier ones, will even do the work faster, particularly if they know far in advance and have been working with you for many years. But you often pay a premium for this kind of “Cadillac” treatment. Often it’s worth it.
  3. If your book printer says six weeks overall, plus shipping, make your schedule seven-weeks in length. Be safe. Assume there will be corrections at the proof stage.
  4. Consider all elements of the schedule: preflight, proofing, corrections, printing, binding, packing, shipping, and delivery.
  5. The particular printer with whom I’m working on this job has a current 20-day schedule for production. That’s four weeks. If there is a holiday in this period, that’s longer than four weeks. Weekends don’t count. This production schedule only begins after final proof approval. Keep this in mind for your own work.
  6. Assume the physical proof will ship about five to seven days after you upload book files. Confirm this with your printer. If you get a hard-copy proof, you have to add proof shipping time to this schedule (both ways, from the printer to you and back to the printer when you’re done). You may want to consider a PDF proof instead, particularly if your book has black-ink-only text. Maybe a hard-copy cover proof and a PDF of the text will suffice.
  7. If you need revised proofs, ask for PDF proofs. Don’t add additional time to ship proofs for successive revisions.
  8. The printer’s proof is not the place to edit your manuscript. Things happen. Granted. But make sure the margins are accurate, that you’re not too close to the trim margin, that your running headers or footers are consistently placed, and that everything else is as close to perfect as you can possibly make it.
  9. Ask how close you can come to the trim margin: Usually live matter can come no closer than 3/8” from any trim. Your printer can be more specific for his equipment. (My printer for the job I mentioned says it’s 1/2”.) If anything on the page (text, photos) comes closer, it might get trimmed off and land on the bindery room floor.
  10. Ask whether your printer wants a completely new file with your corrections or just individual corrected pages saved as PDFs. Ask about extra charges. The printer I’m working with at the moment charges an extra $19.00 per page for individual pages that need to be swapped out. He prefers to receive an entirely new file from my client (and will accept three sets of files, plus preflight time, prior to adding extra charges).
  11. Throughout the entire process of creating PDF files and uploading them via FTP to your printer, use the printer’s “file creation and transmission” cheat-sheet, and adhere to all of its requirements. Not doing this opens you to extra charges and longer production schedules. If you don’t understand something, ask your sales rep or customer service rep.
  12. Not all printers have the same sense of urgency that you do. Sometimes this depends on the culture of the particular part of the USA (or other country) in which you’re printing (no offense to anyone). Pushing the vendor seldom helps. They have other clients. Particularly if the errors are yours. Some of the printers I work with will give me their cell phone numbers and take calls after hours. Others won’t even return calls or text messages as fast as I want them to during the work day, but their work comes out looking perfect. You choose your battles based on the quality of the printed samples, the overall price, and your history with the printer. As with all relationships, some things go smoothly, while other things drive you nuts.

The best single piece of advice I can leave you with is to pad your schedule–amply. Leave time for errors. They happen. Better to factor this into the schedule than to let it take years off your life.

Book Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photographs

Monday, September 23rd, 2019

A long-standing consulting client of mine designs print books for the World Bank, the United Nations, and other governmental and non-governmental agencies. She pays me to review her designs over the phone with her, page by page. She started as an editor, and over the years I have helped her learn to also be a print book designer. She’s very good. Sometimes I look at her work and say to myself, “I wish I had designed that.”

Needless to say, in your own design work, it’s always good to have another print professional check your work. As I have learned from working with my consulting client, sometimes the reader does not immediately “get” why we have made design decisions, photo selections, or type choices, and being able to bounce these design decisions off another designer always improves the final product.

A Few Issues with My Client’s Photo Treatment

I thought it might be useful to discuss some of the overall choices my client made regarding photos. You may learn something applicable to your own print book design work from my client’s photo choices and my responses.

Last night’s two-hour design analysis session focused on a book about Bangladesh. All of the design issues (type, design grid, infographics) had been addressed, and my client’s client was happy. The only variables to address were photo selection and photo treatment.

First of all, in this book my client either presented the photos as duotones (brown and black, like old sepia-toned photos) or as full-color images. This choice depended on the placement of the photos (within text or within sidebars and such).

My client told me that she had screened back (ghosted) the 4-color images by 25 percent because they were not of professional quality (i.e., they were snapshots). She thought this reduction in image color saturation (I believe she had used the “Luminosity” control in InDesign) would make the flaws in the photos less evident.

I actually voiced some concern about this choice. I told my client that when I was an art director I used to do the same thing (ghost photos), but that I would only do this if I planned to position type over the ghosted image. The ghosting of the image made the reader see it as less important than the surprinted type. (The fainter-than-usual image appeared to be in the background, which made the type stand out more.)

In my client’s design, I thought that readers would view the ghosted (less saturated) images as less important, or as too lightly inked (i.e., as a flaw). So I suggested that she only “dial back” the intensity of the colors (their saturation) by about 10 percent instead of 25 percent. I said I thought her readers would be less critical of non-professional photography than of what appeared to be an error in printing (the overly light photos).

On a more positive note, I did tell my client that her duotones were outstanding. I think she achieved her goal (giving the images less of a journalistic feel and more of an artistic feel). Many of these photos were of stellar quality, and she made them quite large (a focal point of the design). I told her I thought this was also effective, just as I thought making the less professional images smaller might make their flaws less visible to the reader.

Design Motifs (and Considerations)

One of the design motifs my client used in her print book on Bangladesh was to stack horizontal strips of photos (duotones) one over the other on the divider pages. She then repeated these strips as running headers at the tops of all following pages (repeating the image on the left and right at the top of the page until the next section, when she would change to the next photo in the stack).

I said I thought this was a good way to set up a rhythm in the design. I also said that it provided a visual anchor at the top of the pages from which to “hang” the columns of type and photos. I said I also liked how she had reversed the folios (page numbers) out of these thin (maybe 1” deep by the width of the page) photos.

That said, I did note one potential problem. The top of the head of a girl alone on a roof in one photo came very close to the trim (head trim, or top of the page). I noted that printers’ trimming capabilities are not perfect. If the trimming knife came too close to the girl’s head (or cut into it), the reader would see this and consider it a flaw. So I suggested that my client re-crop the photo to give the girl’s image more head room.

The tight cropping of images in the running headers, particularly those images that contained a number of faces, posed challenges. I loved the motif, but I suggested to my client that she change the crop of one photo in particular. Everyone else’s head was either fully in the horizontal frame or cropped (somewhat severely) below the nose. However, one woman’s face extended off the top of the page, eliminating her eyes and forehead.

I told my client that severe photo cropping did add drama to her images. I liked the motif. I thought the reader would accept tight photo cropping as long as one or both of the subject’s eyes were visible. Cropping through the mouth was more acceptable, but having the woman’s face extend off the page and omitting her eyes would be seen as a flaw. Granted, I did note that tight cropping of such photos (to fit in the 1” tall strip at the top of the pages)–when they included numerous people’s heads at different levels–would be a major challenge.

Technical Difficulties

My client noted that she had been given the photos (as JPEGs) by her client and that she had to use them. Two of these were initially 72dpi photos. My client’s client had changed them to 300dpi images (also known as interpolation), inadvertently adding noise and other flaws to the images. I told my client that this had happened because interpolation “makes up” picture information that is not really there in the first place. The better way to address photos is to always request 300dpi images and then never enlarge them (i.e., reduce but never enlarge). In addition, my client’s client had overly sharpened one image in Photoshop before sending it to my client for use in the print book.

Since it was very late at night, and since the print book had to go to press the next morning, this is what I said. I told my client to use Gaussian Blur (under the Filters menu, under Blur) in Photoshop to “slightly blur” the dots all over the photo subject’s face (the result of oversharpening). Then I had her use Unsharp Masking (also under the Filters menu, under Sharpen) to make the photo appear crisper. (Photoshop does this by increasing the contrast between adjacent pixels.) I then told my client to only do this in an absolute emergency. I reminded her that starting with a 300dpi image is the “best practice.” She agreed.

I did however note that if you can reduce the size of an image or turn it into a duotone or even interpolate an image and then print it very small, as long as you are below the threshold of visibility, your reader won’t see the flaw.

I would even add to this caveat that producing a print book on highly textured paper will also minimize flaws in photos, because the paper will scatter the reflected light rather than direct it straight back to the viewer’s eyes (as will a gloss coated paper stock).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

  1. Be objective in judging your photos. Consider their technical quality as well as their content and aesthetics.
  2. Often you can minimize flaws in photos. Make them smaller than the better photos. Turn them into duotones (or use another approach that highlights the aesthetics of the photo and minimizes its technical flaws).
  3. Don’t come too close to the trim. Either bleed an image off the page or give it at least a 3/8” or more (ask your printer) margin of error. The trimming knife in the printer’s bindery is not always precise.
  4. Always use photos that are 300dpi at the final size (100 percent size). Then crop them close to the final dimensions (in Photoshop). If you don’t have this option, as my client did not, research Gaussian Blur and Unsharp Masking on the Internet. These image tools, in combination, might save your photo. But then remember to make the photo as small as you can, because interpolation is never a good thing.

Book Printing: Pearson Shifts from Textbooks to Digital

Monday, September 9th, 2019

I spend a lot of time in thrift stores with my fiancee. She looks at the clothes; I go for the print books. In fact, I’ve collected quite a library of textbooks, which I have used since graduating from college to augment my education (and particularly my knowledge of commercial printing, art, and business).

So I’m familiar with the name Pearson, a mammoth United Kingdom publisher of textbooks. I have many of their titles on my bookshelves, all purchased second hand.

Pearson’s Move from Print Books to “Digital First”

Given my predisposition to learning from print books, and my work as a printing broker, I was surprised and a bit saddened by the news that Pearson will be “ending all regular revisions for its print college textbooks.” (I took this quote from an article I found today entitled “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” published on 07/16/19 by Sarah Min, of online Money Watch.)

According to Min’s article, Pearson will “focus on updating its digital products more frequently, offering artificial intelligence capabilities, data analytics, and research.”

This has to be taken in context, I think. The price of textbooks has been soaring, costing as much as $200 to $300 for a single print book. In contrast, e-books are closer to $40 each.

In addition, students, most of whom are on a tight budget, have been motivated to approach the secondary market to buy used textbooks, thus reducing the revenue of textbook publishers like Pearson. And this is not a situation affecting only Pearson. Other textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have been moving in a digital direction for a while now, investing heavily in artificial intelligence (as it pertains to textbook material, such as online audio, video, etc.).

According to “Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy,” Pearson considers this shift to digital first to be a win/win for students and publishers. The students get the enhanced learning capabilities of online media, and the publishers can eliminate the direct materials costs associated with book printing (all the paper) as well as the costs of storing printed books and fulfilling orders for print textbooks. In the long run, publishers will make more with this business model.

According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, as quoted in Min’s article, “ Students are getting more comfortable with e-books as the functionality gets better” (“Pearson Ditches Print Textbooks for College Students in Digital First Strategy”).

The Other Side of the Coin

Being a print broker and a lover of print books, I was not sold on this approach, so I did some more research.

I found an article entitled “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?” that provides a different view. It is from The Science of Learning and is dated 08/23/17. It was written by Claudia Wallis.

I was not deterred by the date (approximately two years ago) because of the scientific evidence it presents, which I don’t think would have changed in two years.

The gist of Wallis’ argument is the following:

1. Students learn better from a print book, in part because there are fewer distractions, in contrast to the multi-tasking approach of the Internet.

2. Students learn better when they can make notes in the margins of a print book. It has not yet been proven whether copying and pasting text electronically from source material works as well as underlining and hand-note-taking in fostering reading comprehension and the retention of facts.

3. Wallis references the work of Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland literary scholar, whose research from 1992 to 2017 uncovered only 36 studies (out of 878 potentially pertinent studies) that directly addressed whether online learning was as effective (in terms of retention and understanding) as learning from a textbook. So the bottom line is that more work needs to be done regarding how people learn and how online resources and print books compare in this regard.

4. Wallace references the work of Patricia Alexander in Review of Educational Research, which confirms that, for longer works (above 500 words), reading on a digital device reduces comprehension, when compared to a print book. (Apparently this is due in part to the flickering of the screen, the scrolling, the glare of the screen, and the fact that we are accustomed to multitasking on a digital device instead of focusing intently in a linear manner on the subject matter.) According to Alexander’s research, digital book readers have more confidence in the depth of their learning (due to the perceived increased reading speed on digital media) but had lower actual comprehension and retention. Apparently, readers of print books absorbed and retained more details.

5. Regardless of the medium, the most powerful approach to education is one that involves students’ “deeply questioning the text” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

6. Some texts (and some subjects) are linear and lend themselves to print books (as Wallis notes, based on findings by Joost Kircz, a Dutch scholar on this subject). You read them from beginning to end. Other subjects and books lend themselves to a less linear approach. These might benefit from the added videos and audio tracks accessible through online media. According to Kircz, these enhancements might include links to “annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.” (“A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”). One benefit of digital media is “in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.” (Joost Kircz and August Hans Den Boef in The Unbound Book). “Not all information is linear or even layered.” “The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding” (Joost Kircz in “A Textbook Dilemma, Digital or Paper?”).

The Takeaway

So, from my perspective, the question of whether to choose digital or print books involves the following issues:

  1. How do people learn? We need to better understand the mechanics (i.e., the brain functions) involved in the comprehension and retention of new subject matter.
  2. Do some kinds of subject matter lend themselves to one medium or the other? For instance, can a novel (a linear text, presumably), work better as a print book? Can the digital enhancements of online video and audio hyperlinks improve one’s ability to learn other kinds of subject matter?
  3. Do all people learn more efficiently and effectively from the same media, whether online texts or print books?
  4. Are we making decisions based on the effectiveness of the medium or its cost (from the point of view of the student) or its potential for revenue generation (from the point of view of the publisher)?

My educated guess is that “digital vs. print” will eventually be like the “radio vs. television” dilemma. People thought images would replace words. Now we have both. I think some people will learn better from printed books while others will learn better from online media. And I think this will change based on the kind of subject matter in question.

I think print books will be with us for a long time, although I think the ones that remain will incorporate the higher production values (for example, intricate die cuts or nuanced cover coatings) that set print books apart from digital books.

Book Printing: Finding Your Optimal Minimum Print Order

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

A commercial printing client whom I have mentioned before regularly reprints a series of color swatch books during the year. They are a bit like miniature PMS color swatch books, but their purpose is to help my client’s clients choose colors for make-up and clothing based on their complexions.

These little books are approximately 1.5” x 3.5” in size, are 118 pages plus covers, and are bound with a single screw and post assembly in one corner. The printer prints the swatches, drills and round corners the pages, collates the pages, and then binds each print book prior to shrink-wrapping it.

There are 28 master copies with titles related to the four seasons. During the year my client reprints a certain number of copies of each master text based on the orders she has received from her clients. The most recent reprint, for instance, was for 81 books. For these she paid $1,862.00, or $22.99 per book. On another occasion, she printed 154 books for $2,809.00 or $18.24 per book.

Explaining the Numbers

The first question most people will ask is why the unit costs are different. Why should my client have to pay $18.24 per book for one reprint and then several months later, when she has another batch of customers interested in her product, why should she pay $22.99 per book? Moreover, how can she know what to charge her clients if the unit cost keeps changing?

First of all, the overall price at any level, whether 81 books or 154 books, reflects two things: fixed costs and variable costs. I never formally studied economics, but I have learned this over the years. The fixed costs reflect the activities needed to prepare the job and set up the print run. These tasks include loading and opening the job files for my client’s product, making any corrections, producing PDF proofs, and, after proof approval, reloading the job into the computer and preparing for the actual print run.

My client usually prints between one and six copies of each master print book depending on her clients’ needs. This is one of the reasons the job is printed on an HP Indigo press. That is, her job is produced digitally via electrophotography (laser printing). Fortunately this involves less make-ready of the press than offset lithography, but there is still some work to do before the actual custom printing process. After the set up is complete, the press run cost varies based on the number of copies produced: hence, the range noted above from $1,862.00 to $2,809.00 for 81 to 154 copies. The length of the press run itself reflects the variable costs because these change depending on the number of copies produced, ranging from $18.24 to $22.99 per book.

Ideally, my client will produce more rather than fewer books. This actually benefits everyone. The printer makes more, and my client pays less per print book (you can see graphs of this sort of thing in economics books, where the unit cost drops as the manufacturing run increases).

If my client wanted significantly more copies of each master book (and a printer would need to figure out the exact number that would be appropriate for this), it would be less expensive to produce the books via offset lithography rather than laser printing. In this case, the make-ready (all activities, in this case, related to getting the offset press ready to produce the first and then all subsequent copies of each page) would be more involved. It’s a more time consuming, and more complex, procedure to make and hang custom printing plates on the press, prepare the ink, wash up the press when needed, etc., than it is to run clean, contained digital printing equipment.

That said, there would be a large magnitude of an increase in the final number of printed pages, so the overall cost of the print run (in the multiple thousands of copies range) would yield a lower unit cost (fixed preparation costs plus variable job-run costs divided by the number of books in the press run).

As noted before, in your own work it is prudent to ask your printer where the optimal transition point would be in choosing digital laser vs. offset lithography for your print books. It will depend on the number of copies and the number of pages in your print book, as well as the commercial printing equipment your supplier has on his factory floor.

Your Minimum Order Based on Page Count and Press Run

My client just took orders and deposits from a handful of customers and now wants to produce a reprint costing approximately $1,000.00. That’s her target “spend.” So I asked the book printer how many final copies this would yield, assuming that there could be any number of copies of any of the 28 master print books.

Since the $1,862.00 press run yielded 81 copies, I guessed that $1,000.00 might yield 20 or 30 copies, at most, since a lot of the $1,000.00 would be committed to the make-ready costs.

So I was surprised to receive the following cost spreadsheet from the printer:

5 copies: $1,765.00
50 copies: $1,806.00
81 copies: $1,862.00

In his email, the printer noted that the high cost was due to the set up time and minimum charges for lamination.

Now upon further review, I also thought about the following. The round cornering is a die-cutting operation (a metal die cuts rounded corners on all sides of each color swatch card). So between the laminating of each sheet (done by an outside vendor) and the die-cutting, the job is more complex than initially conceived, and it also involves minimum orders for the subcontractor to avoid his losing money on a short run.

Therefore, the book printer advised that my client use the 81-copy press run as a target minimum order (an order yielding a reasonable unit cost and factoring in all preparation and clean-up costs). This would avoid the $353.00 unit cost for 5 copies or $36.12 unit cost for 50 copies (as noted in the printer’s spreadsheet above).

With this information plus the job history of printing 81 to 154 copies over the last year or so, my client could get a really good idea of how much each print book (each unit) would cost, depending on how much her overall “spend” was ($1,862.00 to $2,809.00 ), and she could determine an amount to charge her clients for each book that would cover the costs and also yield a profit. (On small orders, then, she would make less per unit; the cost to her clients would be closer to what the printer had charged her per unit. And on larger orders for clients, she would make more per unit.)

Again, it would behoove her to wait until the last possible moment to receive client orders and then place an order with her book printer. Larger orders would always be better.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

I’d encourage you to do what I did. Get an economics textbook at a thrift store and study the section on fixed expenses, variable expenses, unit costs, and marginal costs (the cost of “one more unit” of anything produced). It will be much more interesting than it was in school because it will apply directly to your own print buying work, right now. Studying this will help you understand why longer press runs are better.

Learn the differences between digital printing (such as inkjet and laser printing) and analog printing (such as offset lithography, screen printing, flexography, or gravure). Pay particular attention to the steps involved in “make-ready” for each kind of commercial printing technology. This will help you understand the differences in fixed and variable costs for different jobs produced with different technology.

Discuss with your printer what the optimal transition point would be for your print book (whether you should print it digitally or via offset lithography). You will need to tell him the page count and number of copies needed.

Don’t assume the quality will be exactly the same for digital vs. analog (traditional offset). Ask for printed samples, preferably with whatever cover coating you have chosen (UV or matte laminate, for instance). Fortunately, digital printing is getting to the point that it usually looks great compared to offset lithography, but if your job involves 4-color images, it’s always best to review printed samples before making your decision.

And if you don’t like the samples of a digitally printed cover for whatever reason (different digital technologies, such as laser vs. inkjet, or different brands of digital printing equipment yield different levels of quality), consider hybrid printing. For instance, you may want to produce the text of your book digitally and then have the printer offset print the covers. It’s always smart to discuss all of these options with your print sales rep based on both price and quality, and to confirm your choice based on your review of printed samples.


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