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Printing Options

There are basically 2 methods of printing available to publishers — digital and offset. The method to be used is generally determined by the number of copies to be printed at any one time.

Offset printing
Most books are still printed using the offset printing method. It is a technique whereby ink is spread on a metal plate with etched images, then transferred to an intermediary surface such as a rubber blanket, and finally applied to paper by pressing the paper against the intermediary surface. Equipment and set-up costs are relatively high, but the actual book printing cost is quite low. It generally takes 4 to 6 weeks to print books using the offset process.

The quality of halftone images (photos) and illustrations produced on an offset press are a little better than those produced on a digital press, but the difference in quality of typed text will not be noticed by most readers. The selection of paper for cover and inside is much greater with offset press printing. Minor changes at the blue line proofing stage are relatively inexpensive, but changes once the metal plates are produced can be quite costly. All proofing should be done before files go to the printer.

Printing fewer than 500 books on an offset press is generally considered economically unfeasible; usually 1000 is considered a minimum print run. Cost per book goes down dramatically as quantities beyond 1000 are printed.

Books printed in full color require much higher setup costs because four plates are required instead of one as in black only printing of inside pages. Economic feasibility begins with larger print runs (over 3000 or so). Many publishers choose to print full color books in Asia where printing costs have been lower (there are, however, some disadvantages to doing this).

A publisher should choose an offset printer who specializes in printing books.

Digital Printing
High volume, high speed digital printing became available to book publishers in the late 1990s with the introduction of the Hewllet Packard Docutek printer. Since then HP and other manufacturers have made substantial improvements in quality and speed. The technology is similar to that of a high quality photocopier that receives its output information from a digital computer file rather than from a scanned hard copy original. Digital printing is often referred to as print-on-demand and sometimes confused with publish-on-demand.

Digital printing, or print-on-demand, enables books to be printed in small quantities, and even one at a time, literally “on demand”. The digital printer’s procedures are:

  • obtain digital files for the book cover and book text from the publisher (or book designer).

  • check file format and set up a file account.

  • print books when requested (on demand).

  • store the book files for future use.

Full color covers are of a very high quality and often indistinguishable from those printed on an offset press. The quality of greyscale (black and white) photos in the book are improving, but still not up to the standards of offset press.

The cost of full color printing of inside pages is quite high and in most cases raises the printing cost to such an extent as to make the cost of the book well beyond what can be expected as a retail price. Color printing should be considered if only a few pages are to be in color, or only a few books are to be produced.

Paper selection is usually limited, but special orders may be accepted.

A publisher should be careful to choose a digital printing shop with experience in producing books—most rely on other digital printing applications for the majority of their business.

Publishers (including self-publishers) find digital printing appropriate for the following applications:

  • If an offset print run of a book has run its course and all the books have been sold, a publisher may find it uneconomical to print another batch of 1000 books. Although the cost per book of digital books will be higher than the cost per book of a batch of 1000 offset printed books, the publisher will be able to fulfill small orders and continue to keep the book in print without a large up-front expenditure.

  • A publisher of a new book may want to print a small number of books to test the market and test their own ability to market the book.

  • A publisher/author may want to print a few books to distribute to friends and peers for critique with the aim of possibly making changes before printing a large run.

  • Books sent to media reviewers often have the words “Advance Review Copy” printed on the bottom of the front cover. Reviewers like this special treatment and may look more favourably at the book.

  • Publishers who have little expectation of ever requiring more than 500 or so books printed can print a few at a time as required without the high up-front cost of batch offset printing.

File submission requirements may be beyond your capabilities, so you may need to get help from a book designer, since re-submission charges can get quite costly. Some digital printing companies offer some services in addition to simply printing, such as fulfillment, advertising and distribution.

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