The Business of Publishing: Working with the Printer

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This is the third post in a series of articles for aspiring publishers, written by Joe Biel, the founder and owner of Microcosm Publishing and the co-author of DIY publishing how-to book Make a Zine.


Once you’ve decided how you want to release your work, your next publishing decisions are going to be technical.

If you use a full service digital platform like Amazon’s CreateSpace, your production setup will be mostly automated, and your options will be limited to a few choices. But as we discussed in the last column, the lowest cost and highest payout for a publisher is in doing offset self-distributed paperbacks. It’s a little more work, but nothing you can’t learn (or you can pay someone to do it for you).

Here’s a look at some of the nuts and bolts of offset printing production.

Choosing your production values
In order to select the best format for your book, investigate other books like it.

What size are they? What kind of design do they employ? What kind of coatings do the covers have? How long are they? What kind of interior paper do they have? Do they have any full color sections? Are the interiors one or two colors? How much overall effort is going into their production?

Bring your ruler and a notebook to your bookshelf or local bookstore, and start looking, measuring, and taking notes. This step is all about the details.

Many genres have standard production values. For example, cookbooks are often 6”x9” or 7”x9” and have stunning and scrumptious full color photography inside, with the best photo on the cover. Travel books tend to be smaller and use lighter paper because they get carried around in the bottom of a bag for a month when every ounce counts. Fiction books run the gamut of sizes but disappear on the shelf if the spine is too slim. Other genres will be displayed face out.

If you cut corners on production values or change the formula too much, there is a danger that people will see your book as lesser. But sometimes this can be a good thing—being seen as the odd one out or the underdog is the secret weapon of the independent publisher. Occupying that space in people’s minds makes people feel kinship with you and want to help you, because it feels like you need it and they can relate to that. Yours is a passion project and people love passion!

Make informed choices that don’t stray too far from the norms of your genre but also give it a bit of character. Choose production values that help your book reflect who you are and what you’re doing, but be wary of going overboard with either expensive add-ons or extreme budget cutting measures.

Choosing a printer
Once you’ve selected the format for your book, you need to find a printer. It’s important to get at least two or three quotes to compare to each other to understand the pricing that you’re getting. Further, not all printers are alike. You are specifically looking for a book printer. Other types of printers will not be able to price competitively because they don’t have in-house bindery equipment or don’t have their equipment set up for this type of production. Book printers that have been operating for many decades can often offer better pricing because they have already paid off their equipment.

Many people want to find a local printer, believing this to be both cheaper and an ethical choice but the opposite is true. Unless your region has established printers, the cost is likely to be triple what it would cost at a printer who is set up for it.
For starters, I’d recommend getting quotes from printers of various sizes and see how comfortable each one feels for you:

1984 Printing in Oakland uses only post-consumer recycled papers. They are friendly and growing, but still a very small operation that is well dialed in.

United Graphics is a large printer in Illinois. It offers some of the most competitive pricing in the United States and offers great service and quality. It’ll be a lot easier to work with them once you know the ropes and industry jargon a bit better than beginner level.

Transcontinental is a big company, the fourth largest printer in North America. They are in Canada, which has artificially low printing prices, but if you are not located in eastern Canada, shipping costs may be a concern for you.

Lebonfon is also located in Canada but is in Montreal, which is fairly accessible to New York City. In my experiences there, the prices and quality are great and the sales people are helpful, but when they make a mistake they are reluctant to resolve it. Sometimes that gamble is worth it.

Requesting a printer quote
Request a quote for your book from each of these printers. Like all secret societies, printers and publishers use a lot of shorthand and jargon to communicate common subjects quickly.

Because you’re a relatively new publisher, it can be tough to get the time of day from some printers. This is one reason it’s important to have all your details dialed in and to be able to speak their language. Printers have the responsibility to print your job according to the parameters you choose. They typically will not correct or even point out your formatting mistakes, or consult with you extensively about your options. Any mistakes you make will be at your peril and may result in considerable extra expenses and delays.

You can avoid such mistakes by communicating well in printer speak, and also making sure your book is properly designed and formatted for print. We’ll talk about that next time.

Here’s a sample quote request; the actual one from Elly’s recent book:

Bikenomics
192 pages
5×8″
1/1 on interior
60# natural
Quotes for 5,000 and 7,000 copies
12pt c1s matte 4/1 cover

Let’s take a closer look at what each line means:

Bikenomics (this is the title of the book for the printer’s reference. They put this on the outside of your shipping boxes, and use it to organize multiple quotes for the same customer)

192 pages (the is the number of pages in the book, often times it is most economical to plan your book so it’s an exact number of signatures—the number of pages produced by one parent sheet of paper on the press—so there is less waste and you get everything you are paying for. Signatures are typically 16 or 32 pages each, unless it’s a very small printer, in which case they can be four or eight pages. When in doubt, ask!)

5×8″ (This is the finished trim size of the book, always using the format of width times height.)

1/1 on interior (the number of colored inks on the inside of the book. Meaning both sides of every signature will have one color of ink. This is usually black, but for this book we used a dark teal ink for extra flair.)

60# natural (this is the type of paper stock you want on the interior of the book. You’ll want to use something that the printer stocks on site as it will be vastly cheaper than ordering a special stock. The exception here is if you need something special to fit the kind of book you are doing.)

Quotes for 5,000 and 7,000 copies (printing quantities—sometimes it’s good to request two options here to see how the unit price changes.)

12pt c1s matte 4/1 cover (The first number is the weight of the cover stock, in this case, twelve point. This is a more exacting caliper-measurement system than paper “pounds,” which relates to the weight of a case of that paper without really telling you much about its thickness. The second detail means “coated on one side with a matte varnish.” The outside of the cover has a matte varnish and the inside remains uncoated. You could coat both sides if that is the look you were going for or leave both sides uncoated, which is appropriate for certain special cover papers that are “toothier” in texture. The last detail is the number of inks used on the cover. In this case, it’s four colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black that are used to create CMYK or full color on the outside and one color, a metallic gold ink, on the inside cover. Most books are 4/0 but plenty are 2/0 as well, containing a black ink and a pantone color or two pantones, more on this later.)

Here’s another example, for a more complicated guide book:

Cycling Sojourner (title)
5.5×7″ (finished trim size, width by height)
50# white paper (this is a travel book, so lighter paper)
240 pages (length of book)
first signature in book is full color (meaning the first 32 pages are in CMYK, 4/4)
rest is 2c interior (one black, one pantone)
6,000 copies (number in print run)
12pt C1S cover 4/2 cover matte with matte etch (as above but with black and pantone inks on the inside cover and a more complicated finish, where an image is actually cut into the matte finish separate from the image printed in ink.)
perforated edges on interior (because of the nature and use of the book, the pages are perforated so sections can be easily removed and brought on a bike tour)

Getting Down to Business
Once your quotes start to come back from the printers, the first thing you want to do is divide the total plus estimated shipping costs by your print run to calculate your cost per book. You will use this to determine your retail price, which should be at least ten times the unit price for printing the book.

If this equation gives you a retail price that is much higher than similar books on the market, then you will need to either find a different printer or go back to the beginning of this article and change your production values (fewer pages, fewer colors, cheaper paper, different trim size, larger print run, etc) so that the math works out. Of course, as a small, independent publisher you can choose to pay more than a tenth of your book’s retail price for printing and eat the difference—but this will make it more difficult to raise money to reprint your book when the time comes, and is not a sustainable practice. Whatever you do, do not let your costs climb above 30% of cover price or you will not be able to make money when selling your book at wholesale prices.

Life Cycle of a Print Job
Once you’ve received your quotes, they are good for about two weeks, after which the price might (but isn’t terribly likely to) go up. Your quote may not be the final amount that you pay—if a printer prints too few or too many books, aka “unders” or “overs,” your price will be adjusted to suit (the quote will tell you how this is calculated), and your quote may or may not include an estimate for freight shipment of your finished books.

Once any questions are answered and adjustments are made to your quote, you will sign it and upload your print-ready files. You may have to pay a large deposit up front, and the rest before your job ships; or you can submit credit check paperwork and the printer will allow you to open a line of credit and pay later.

The printer will give you the option of digital or printed proofs, which they will send you once they are done setting up your files and getting them ready to print. The proofs are not an opportunity for further copyediting, content changes, or editorial decisions; they are simply to make sure that what the printer has set up matches what you intended in your own formatting.

If you do see any major bloopers, like a low-resolution image, a spelling error on the cover, or a mistake with the spine alignment, this is your last chance to fix them. But keep in mind that each page you change will cost you nontrivial amounts of money in this stage. It’s essential to make sure you’ve completely finished your editing and formatting before sending your files to print.

It is very important to return your proofs within 24 hours. Printers operate with a tight schedule, and a one day delay on your end might result in a ten day delay on their end.

Once the book is printed, it will be shipped to you. If it’s a small job, like 1,500 zines, it’ll probably come via UPS or something similar. If it’s a larger job, you’ll have a pallet of boxes delivered to your door by freight truck or carrier. Then you’ll pay your final bill and your printer rep will start calling to ask when the next job is coming.

Next week: We’ll look at how to prepare the files for your book and get it ready for the printer!


This has been a guest post by Joe Biel of Microcosm Publishing. It is the third entry in The Business of Publishing, a series of posts for aspiring publishers.

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