The Business of Publishing: Formatting for Print

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This is the fourth post in a series of articles for aspiring publishers. The series is written by Joe Biel, the founder and owner of Microcosm Publishing and author of A People’s Guide to Publishing.

Formatting for Print

So you’ve got a book. Or at least, you have a lot of content and want to turn it into a book. This part can turn out to be tricky, and has stymied many a would-be publisher (or at least cost them a lot of money).

The very first thing to do is find a proper trim size (the size of the finished book) for your work. One way to figure this out is to go to a bookstore with a ruler and see what the most typical sizes are for books in the section that your book would most likely be in. Then figure out which printer you are going to use and get quotes for a few sizes that you like.

Once you have figured out a size that is practical both to your wallet and the genre that you are publishing in, create an Adobe Indesign or Scribus (the free alternative!) document.

How Many Pages?

Your book should be as long or as short as it needs to be, in terms of content. But figuring out the right page count and designing your work to fit is an art form you can spend many years perfecting. This is in part a production issue.

Once you’ve decided on a printer, ask them how many pages fit on each signature for a book with your trim size. The signature is the number of book pages that can be cut from one of the giant sheets of paper the printer feeds through their press. This is typically four, 16, 24, or 32 pages, depending on how big the printer’s equipment and size of your page are. Then you’ll want to design the book to be a multiple of that number of pages. For example, if your book will print with 32 page signatures, you’ll want it to be exactly 64, 96, 128, 160, 192, 224 pages, or so on. If it has 24 page signatures, you would likely save money by having a 240 page book over a 232 page book, for example. We once created a book with 20 pages of notes so it would reach the finished signature size.


Consider how you want your book to look. White paper? Unbleached acid-free natural paper? Colored paper? Textured paper? How thick? How many pages? You can simplify this decision (and lower your price considerably) by just asking your printer what their stock interior paper options are.

(Side note: If you decide to order a special paper, there is a dizzying array of options. Paper is always classified by its “weight,” which used to mean something universal, but modern paper weights have virtually no meaning except in relation to other paper from the same supplier. So the question you want to ask is “what is the pages per inch (PPI) of this paper?” That will tell you how thick your finished book will be and give you a better idea of how its perceived value on the shelf will stack up against the price you want to sell it for, though it won’t help its perceived value in a catalog. )


Another fundamental question to ask while you are setting up your document (and when you are getting quotes from printers) is: “Will the book have bleeds?” This means: “Will the printing extend all the way to the edge of the page?”

The alternative to bleeds is margins—most text-based books have a margin around the edge of the page (usually .75” on all sides with ideally 66 characters on each line for maximum readability); this allows the printer’s equipment to get a grip on the pages and is thus cheaper to print.

Bleeds allow you to do a number of interesting things in print that are more artistic in nature, like inversing your colors, printing patterns behind your content, simulating colored paper when it’s not available, or making a visual point when your art wanders off the edge of the page.

But like all things, there are consequences. Adding bleeds requires roughly an extra .25” of paper on all three exterior edges. Your book will be printed on large sheets of paper and then cut to size, so even this much extra can require the printer to use more paper and raise the cost of your book. I have found that it is possible to save $800 on a project by shrinking your page by the same amount instead. Experiment!

If you are printing with bleeds, you’ll need to set up your cover and interior files to include a (usually .125” or .25”) bleed when you export your PDF. The printer will then trim this off to create the desired look. Your book formatting program should have a bleed setting within its preferences. Look up documentation instructions about how to do this properly.


The most costly part of pre-press is proofing and plating your book. This is because the printer needs to thoroughly check to make sure before they hit the big green button that what you have ordered from them is the same thing as what they are providing for you.

Most books are printed simply in one color, usually black, and that ink comes from a single plate used to print the whole book on the printing press. If you add a second color (let’s say pink), that would be done most economically as a second set of plates for the whole book setup to make second a pass over every page to print a second single color. You’ll want to identify these colors by the Pantone Matching System (PMS). PMS is a code; each color number is the key. The PMS number instructs the printer how to create that color from the inks they have in their shop. It also shows you what the ink looks like (at 100% opacity). You can look up these colors online, but what you see on your screen is unlikely to be the same as what you see in print. The only way to verify that you are choosing the exact colors you want (and to compare ones that you are considering using together) is by matching up your numbers with Pantone’s proprietary (about $100 new) color booklets.

Adding colors to your book’s cover often doesn’t raise the price very much because it’s only one plate. But adding a second color to the book’s interior increases the work of printing so much that it can add 10-40% onto the cost of a project. On the other hand, it can also give your book a notable flair and value and make it more fun as a designer. Sometimes designers can get carried away and want to use a lot of colors; or they get confused and forget that black is another color and use black ink plus two pantone colors, which requires three sets of printing plates and yet more cost.

What about full-color printing? There are only four colors involved. Just like your home laser printer, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) can effectively create purples, oranges, greens, greys, and most colors that you can imagine. Using four colors this way is called “full color” and makes sense for photo books, cookbooks, and art books. But as you might have guessed, it is even more expensive to use four-color offset printing on the interior and costs at least double what the same book would cost with one color of ink. The good news is that unless your designer has really taken over your project with wild ideas, you can reliably create most any (non-neon and non-metallic) color with four sets of plates.

If you are only printing in one, two, or three colors though, there are a number of interesting tricks you can still pull off. You can play with white space and use your paper as an extra color. You can lower the opacity of the ink to create lighter shades of the same color just like grey is created from using less black. You can print two colors on top of each other to achieve a blend. Some printers will do more experimental things like putting a variety of unmixed colors of ink into the press to produce different colors on different parts of the page. This is called a split fountain.

If your book includes photographs or halftones, ask the printer for guidelines regarding shadows, mid tones, and highlights before you begin design and production. They will know what reproduces best on their press and setting it up correctly in the first place will save you both time and energy and create the best-looking book!

When working with Pantones, make sure that every color in your final document (including black!) is set up as a Pantone that you are printing. Adobe Acrobat has a print production feature where you can ensure that all of your colors have exported correctly. Otherwise, correcting this mistake later can be extremely time-consuming and costly, often delaying your book at the printer. If you are working in full color (CMYK), you don’t need to setup in Pantones.

Another simpler option for a travel book or even some biographies is to create one signature in full color to print photography or art while the rest of the book is only one or two colors. This color section can also be printed on a coated paper to make the visual pages look nicer.

Stocks & Varnishes

When working on your cover, go to the bookstore again. Look at the multitude of coatings on covers there. Look at the variety of thicknesses and textures of paperback covers and all of the neat tricks that can be employed. If you’re going to use a textured paper, you likely would not want a varnish put on top of it, potentially defeating the effect on the outside of the book. Then again, I don’t know what’s best for you, so do what you like.

Frequently your cover will be printed in glorious full color but sometimes the best results and most visible covers can be created by doing interesting things with two Pantone colors. And when you are setting up your cover file in Pantones, be sure to use the appropriate kind of Pantone to match your varnish—uncoated, coated, or matte.

Matte covers are a generally accepted standard for any book that is remotely artistic. Coated covers have a glossy look to them, that while it may make your book feel special or professional, can also carry with them an outdated aesthetic. That’s not to say that you cannot or should not choose it, but understand the implications when you do.

Another option is a matte etch, which is an image cut into the gloss coating on the cover that is visible when you hold it up against the light. Most big publisher mass-market paperbacks use this method to make the title of the book stand out on the cover. An interesting variation on this is to create non-corresponding artwork on the matte etch that creates a hidden image on the cover for those inspecting it up close.

Don’t Cut Corners!

Know yourself and put as much time into the details of the layout as makes sense for your project. While generally you shouldn’t cut corners, sometimes literally cutting the corners gives a nice look. The printer could give a rounded or angled cut. It’s a nice way to add a little more production value and take advantage of using offset instead of digital printing.
When you are all finished and ready to go, export the finished PDFs, one for the cover (and inside cover if you’re printing on it) and one for the interior. Check all of your export settings and make sure that you are putting out print-quality files and that you aren’t compressing line art under 1200 DPI or putting JPEG compression on illustrated pages (so they don’t look choppy). Sometimes it is safest to turn off all image down sampling or compression to be safe. Export two large files and send to your printer. If you’re unsure of how your printer would like to receive some aspect of the book, ask them. Some printers who are particularly helpful will also go over near-finished versions of your book and double check that there are no errors before press time. This can relieve your stress as well as save time during the eleventh hour! Good luck.

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