printing-plate-1030849_640For many self-publishers, printing is where they make their most expensive mistakes. Large print runs can see them shelling out hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds, only to have piles of books sitting round, unsold, for years afterwards.

Making the wrong decision, here, could cost you dearly so it’s important to take time to consider all available options before handing over any money.

Size and Method of Print Run

The most obvious decision is how many books you want printed. The answer to this question will determine which printing method you choose.

Traditionally, all books were printed using offset lithography. The set up costs are high but the price per unit is considerably cheaper when producing books in the thousands. Even today, this remains the best method for longer print runs (of over about 750 copies).

Digital printing is a relatively recent innovation. It’s revolutionised the publishing industry by making smaller print runs economically viable. If you want a few hundred copies or less, your printer will almost certainly employ this method. Set up costs are low so the cost per copy stays relatively stable, no matter how many you print. This means printers won’t offer great discounts for bulk orders. However, it’s always going to be cheaper per book to order 500 copies rather than five.

The speed of the digital method has made it possible to print books on demand so that a copy is only produced when a customer makes an order. Some care is needed with this term, though: different people mean different things by it. Many traditional printers who offer short, digital print runs refer to these as Print On Demand because a publisher or author can order any number of copies, at any time (on demand). This is very different to a Print On Demand company, such as CreateSpace, who print and dispatch copies directly to customers, as and when a purchase is made.

This type of fulfilment service is an important development in publishing that makes the author’s life much easier but it comes at a price.

Firstly, the cost per copy is higher.

Secondly, bookshops will rarely stock Print On Demand books. This is because they generally work on a sale or return basis where they have the right to return an unsold book. This isn’t usually possible with POD.

Even with these two drawbacks, POD remains a very attractive proposition. You don’t have to decide how many books to print, store them or deal with order fulfillment.

In addition, the whole bookshop issue may well be moot. As I’ll discuss in my upcoming post on distribution, your chances of getting your book onto the shelves of all but a few local shops are virtually zero. Even if you do, the commission they charge (known as a trade discount) is likely to make it unprofitable, unless you print in the thousands. A first time self-publisher should never be thinking of printing in the thousands, at least until they’ve ascertained demand.

Which method do you recommend?

As you might have guessed, I’m a fan of Print On Demand. However, even if you opt for this, it might also be worth doing a short digital print run of 50 – 100 books. It can be very useful to have a small store of copies to sell through your website, to friends and family, to send as review copies and to use for general promotional purposes. In addition, if you do decide to sell through local and/or specialist bookshops, you can supply them using this stock.

If you find demand is high in these areas and you see your stock dwindling, simply order a reprint.

This combination is the one that suits me best and that I’d recommend for most self-publishers just starting out. However, it may be that your book has different needs. Before you make any final decisions about the size of your print run, hold on for my upcoming posts on distribution and marketing. The choices you make in these areas will greatly influence decisions on printing.


Book Properties

Once you’ve determined the size of your print run, you still face a plethora of decisions about your book’s appearance. The good news is that these are a lot easier to make, providing you base your choices on sound economics and don’t get carried away with the idea of seeing your name embossed in gold foil.

Book/Trim Size:
You should already have decided on this during typesetting but do make sure the printer you choose offers a book size that matches your internal layout.

Do you want paperback or hardback? It’s possible to get hardbacks at most printers but they’re significantly more expensive.

The only time I’d advise you to explore this option is if the other books in your genre are published exclusively in hardback. For example, short picture books for very young children where their usage requires them to be particularly robust.

If you’re engaged in a special project, such as a memoir or gift for family members, you might consider going the extra mile and getting your book bound in hardback. However, if you’re publishing a text-based book and looking to sell to the general public, I’d strenuously advise against the expense.

Your printer will, almost certainly, use perfect binding . With this method the pages are trimmed down and stuck to each other and the cover using very strong glue. If you look at most modern novels, you’ll see a small layer of transparent glue between the pages and the spine indicating they’ve been bound in this way.

There’s also the option of having your binding sewn. Here, the pages are grouped and sewn together, generally onto an extra bit of fabric which is inserted between them and the spine. You’re likely to see this approach taken on high-end art books and the like. For most books, though, it’s an unnecessary expense. Modern glues mean there’s little chance of a book with perfect binding coming unstuck, even with prolonged usage.

There are, of course, a number of other options. Saddle stitch or staples are often used for smaller books. In addition, certain academic books or user manuals sometimes employ spiral/coil binding. Again, unless there’s a very good reason, I’d avoid these methods as they’re likely to be financially prohibitive.

Paper Type:

Bookwove: This is the most common type of paper used for book printing. It has a slightly rough feel which novel-readers will be familiar with.
Art Paper: A smoother, heavier paper available in matt, gloss or silk and best suited to art/picture books.
Offset Paper: Smoother than bookwove but also thinner, this paper is ideal for text books. It handles black and white photos fine but doesn’t quite have the quality of finish offered by art paper.

Paper Weight:
Paper weight is measured in grams per square metre (gsm). Getting the right weight makes a huge difference to the feel of your book. A thin, flimsy page looks cheap but too thick and your book will feel clumpy and amateur.

The ideal weight for a text-only paperback, such as a novel, is 70 – 80gsm although you can get away with 60gsm.

Hardbacks often use heavier paper of around 100gsm.

Books that require extra quality or durability, such as art or children’s picture books, usually employ paper of between 150 and 200gsm. If you’re unsure or your book has special requirements, consult your printer. They’ll be more than happy to advise you on the right paper for the job.

Paper weight is by no means the only thing that affects the sturdiness and feel of your pages. Other factors, such as opacity (see-throughness) and the type of paper used also have a huge impact. Paper weight, though, is a good place starting point for ensuring your pages look and feel right.

Paper Colour:
Novels generally have cream or off-white pages. However, if you have a book with lots of illustrations, white is often more appropriate. Check other books in your genre to get an idea of what’s standard.

Cover board:

Just as with internal pages, weight is important for producing a professional-looking book. For a novel or text-based nonfiction, such as biographies, opt for cover board around 240 – 250 gsm. Much thinner than this and you risk the cover curling over time. Much heavier and it looks and feels like cardboard. 300gsm may be suitable if you’ve written a book that will get heavy usage, such as a children’s, cookery or textbook. It’s also better for larger books where it will be harder for the cover to hold its shape.

Just as with internal pages, there are a number of other factors which determine the look and feel of your cover, such a lamination techniques. However, cover board weight is a good starting point for ensuring a certain level of quality.

Matt or gloss finish:
The choice, here, depends on both personal preference and what’s standard for your type of book. I’d strongly recommend a matt finish for most genres. I think gloss, for novels at least, looks cheap and screams self-published. Often matt is no more expensive (or only a few pence more per copy) and makes a huge difference to the look and feel of your book.

Special finishes:
Many printers offer a variety of bells and whistles to make your book look extra special, including linen laminate, foil blocking and embossed lettering. I would advise against these for the same reason as I’d avoid hardback: they cost too much and are largely unnecessary. You can produce an attractive, professional-looking book without them.


Using a Printer

How to find a printer

Personal recommendation is always a good place to start. If you know anyone who’s self-published, ask where they had their book printed and if they were satisfied with the service and book quality. If you used a designer and were happy with their work, they may have a relationship with a printer and be able to coordinate the process.

Failing that, look again at books themselves. Check copyright pages to see if printers are listed. If they have an online presence, take a look at their websites. Some will only be interested in dealing with big-scale publishing houses but an increasing number are happy to work with self-publishers and offer smaller print runs.

Can you suggest a specific printer?

For short, digital print runs I’d recommend the following:

I had my novel, Falling Through the World, printed by their previous incarnation (MPG Biddles) and they produced a book indistinguishable in look, feel and quality to any you’d find on the shelves of a high street bookshop. They’re happy to do smaller print runs of just 10 copies upwards. They also have an optional add-on service, supplying an ISBN and barcode, registering your book with Nielsen and sending copies to all legal deposit libraries for just £40.

I know less about Clays from personal experience but have heard very positive reviews of them. In the communication I’ve had with them, they’ve also been the most helpful and professional of all. They’re established, reputable printers who have really embraced the world of self-publishing. They’re also exceedingly helpful, willing to answer questions and guide you through the process. Print runs start at 50 books and prices are extremely reasonable.

Book Printing UK
I came across Book Printing UK when I was pleasantly surprised by a book a friend of mine had printed with them. Both their prices and quality are reasonable. You can order any quantity from just a single copy upwards, although it’s only when printing in the region of 25 or above that the unit price drops to an acceptable level. Their instant estimate form lacks B Format (129 x 198mm) but it’s the same price as A5. Simply let them know you want a custom size when ordering.

For Print On Demand, I recommend CreateSpace. I’ll discuss this option in greater detail in later posts.

Again, I have no affiliation with any of these companies and accept no liability for any contract you take out with them.

How much will it cost?

Costs obviously vary immensely depending on the format and length of your book, whether you have colour interiors or any special requirements for internal paper or cover board. If you want to get an immediate idea, Book Printing UK have an instant estimate tool. Additionally, Clays, Biddles and indeed all printers I know are more than happy to get back to you speedily with quotes.

The best way to find out how much an individual project going to cost is to get quotes based on your individual specifications. However, to give you a general idea, I’ve provided a few quotes based on a text-based book with the following specs:

  • Paperback
  • B Format (198 x 129mm)
  • 300 pages (or 304 for Clays who work in multiples of 16).
  • Interior: B&W, text-only
  • Pages: cream or off-white 70/80gsm bookwove
  • Cover: 240 – 255gsm cover board with matt laminate finish
  • Postage to UK address

book printing comparison.JPG

Please note: unlike design services, there’s no VAT on book printing.

How does the process work?

The first step is to provide your printer with the correct files for cover and internal layout. Generally, they’ll require these in PDF format. Providing the cover should be relatively simply. Assuming you used a designer, it’s just a case of uploading whatever file they sent you.

With your internal layout, it’s important to make sure that fonts are embedded. If you’re using Word for Mac, this happens automatically when you convert to PDF. In Word for Windows, follow the instructions here, ensuring you select ISO 19005-1 compliant (PDF/A).

If your printer has any further special requirements, they’ll be listed on their website. If you’re unsure, just ask.

Once you’ve handed over your print-ready PDFs, they can begin the print run. If you order a printed proof, they’ll post this out to you first and then wait for your approval before starting the main run. All you need to do, then, is wait for the box(es) of books to be delivered to you.

How long will it take?  

The printers listed above offer a turnaround of between six and fifteen working days from receipt of print-ready PDFs (or approval of your proof). They’ll also, unsurprisingly, expect receipt of payment in full (Clays, Book Printing UK) or a deposit (Biddles) before they start printing.


Next time: Pricing a Paperback


3 thoughts on “Printing

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