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Choosing the Kind of Printing
Digital Printing
Working with the Printer
Making the Contract
The Production Process

Choosing a printer and method of printing requires weighing several factors: print-run size, the publisher's aesthetic and print quality requirements, and cost.

Choosing the Kind of Printing

Today most books are printed using offset technology. A few books are now being printed with digital technology. The choice is dictated in part by a book's design specifics, the potential size of the buying audience, and budget limits.


Offset, also known as photo-offset, is the most common process. There are three varieties

  1. Sheetfeed press. Because it prints one sheet at a time, this is the slowest process, and also the most expensive. On the other hand, it yields the highest quality. Best for small print runs (2,000-3,000), two or more colors, or illustration work.
  2. Web press. Paper issues continuously from a large roll, feeds through at high speeds, and is chopped and folded as it emerges into 32-page sections, or "signatures." Web press printing is relatively inexpensive, used mostly for one color jobs (black ink), and best for runs above 5,000.
  3. Belt press. Used for trade books and magazines, this is a direct impression method that uses a web press, and combines printing and binding. Paperbacks emerge completely finished at the end and hardcovers need only jackets to complete them. However, you can print only one color, and elegant typeface and halftones do not print well.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is currently poised to revolutionize the world of book publishing. Computer and printing technology have come together to allow the printing of one book at a time, "on-demand," at a competitive cost. Although digital printing costs more on a per-book basis than offset, the guesswork and large, up-front investment of an offset print-run are eliminated.

Digital printers print directly to paper from a digital file provided by the publisher, using sophisticated machines made by companies such as IBM, Oce, Xerox, Kodak, and Scitia. The technology is an advanced form of laser printing. Four-color paper covers can be printed on different machines, laminated, and joined to the text pages to produce a product that is virtually indistinguishable from a traditional book.

See How-to/Printers/Digital Book Printing for a detailed introduction to the business and technology.

Working with the Printer

Most of the following information relates to working with an offset printer.

The publisher or the production editor typically sends the book job out to several printers for estimates. The designer and publisher prepare a list of specifications ("specs"). Details include:

  1. The size of the print run, including page size and count
  2. The kind of printing (number of colors) for the insides and the cover;
  3. Choice of paper stock for the cover and text pages
  4. The style of binding clothbound, perfect bound, sewn)
  5. Packing and shipping details
The printer often responds with several questions and may send materials to show different paper, cover stock, and binding cloth options.

Digital printers need essentially the same information as offset printers. However, digital printers may offer fewer options in terms of paper stock and trim size. For this reason, it's helpful to know whether the book will be printed digitally before designing the interior and cover.

Publishers typically ask for sample work and both large and small print-run estimates from prospective printers. Larger print-runs lower the unit cost of the book. If the estimate is too high, the printer can often provide options that will lower costs. A barely-noticeable change of paper or cover stock, for example, could lower the unit cost. It is fair to ask a printer to compete against another's price.

Making the Contract

The publisher and production editor review the different materials and estimates. A final decision is based on the following factors:

  • The printer meets aesthetic or quality standards, including consistent inking, good color work, and durable binding.
  • The unit printing costs fit the overall budget for the book and its retail price.
  • The work will be delivered according to an agreed upon schedule.
  • The printer's payment schedule is acceptable. For a first-time publisher, an agreement typically requires 50% upon signing and 50% sixty days after delivery.

The Production Process

The publisher or a member of staff will oversee the production process, which common the following steps:

  • The printer reviews all materials provided by the designer or production editor and answer any questions.
  • The printer provides a "blue line" mock-up of the book made from the film. The designer and publisher review the blue lines for any problems in page positioning, broken type, etc.
  • On approval of the blue lines the printer starts printing. The printed sheets are cut, folded, and gathered into 16- or 32-page sections, or "signatures." These may be sent to the publisher to review for any mistakes, particularly in the page order.
  • On approval, the printer prints and binds the entire run. The publisher is sent two or three sample bound books for final approval before shipping. Upon receipt of shipment, the publisher checks the boxes to make sure that the proper number of books are shipped and in good condition.
If the printer makes errors, the publisher may reject the job and ask that it be reprinted or rebound.


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