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003: Book Printing 101

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

I love books, that’s no secret. And today we’re talking books and the making of books.

This episode could also have been called “my friends won’t go to bookstores with me anymore”. I may or may not walk around bookstores showing anyone who will listen all the cool stuff about book production. So with any luck, after this episode, you too, will be stricken with an inability to find friends to go to bookstores with you.

Check out this video for an overview of How Books Are Made.

Let's piece together a paperback book (also called a softcover book) - so please grab one off of your shelf. Preferably, please find a softcover novel with text only on the inside (not full colour children’s book or cookbook with lots of pictures). Also, try to find a best seller or popular softcover book, one where thousands and thousands of copies were likely printed. This helps ensure (although it’s not a for-sure) that the book was printed and bound using traditional machinery and techniques, versus digital presses.

There are two main parts of a book (text and cover) and there are three main processes to manufacturing a book: printing the text, printing the cover, binding the two parts together.

Let's start with the text.

- Text is typically printed at high speeds on a printing press called a web offset printing press

- Web = roll of paper (kind of like a giant roll of toilet paper that weighs thousands of pounds and is as tall as a person)

- Offset printing prints the same image over and over again from a ‘master’ (an thin aluminum printing plate)

- Pages are not printed in order, instead there are many pages that are laid out (imposed) on the printing plate so that when the text pages are printed and folded the pages will be in the right order

- Both sides of the web are printed at the same time = both front and back, significantly speeding up the process

- The text component can be broken down further into what are called signatures (a fancy name for sections of the book)

- Signatures are not the same as chapters, as they aren’t broken down by content, instead they are broken down into sections of the book for printing

- For example, most signatures are a multiple of 8 (32 pages or 48 pages, commonly), which is why there are often blank pages at the end of a book, to make it a multiple of 8

- A 288 page book might be made up of 9, 32 page signatures (9 x 32 = 288)

- Take a minute to figure out how many total pages are in the book you’re holding

- Remember that each single sheet or leaf of paper is 2 pages

- Also remember that you can’t necessarily go by the page numbers, because sequential numbering usually starts after the front matter (copyright page and title pages, for example)

- See? Multiple of 8!

- The press prints one signature over and over and over again until all copies are printed.

- On a web offset press, the huge roll of printed paper is also cut and folded in-line, so that the lean mean printing machine prints, cuts and folds all on the same piece of equipment.

- A huge roll of blank paper is fed into the press and printed and folded signatures (a section of the book) are spit out the other end

- This happens again and again until all of a book’s signatures are printed

- So again, in that 288 page book made up of 9 signatures, we still have 8 press runs to go, changing the master (printing plate) each time

- All signatures are bundled up, placed on a skid and taken to the next step in processing - bindery

But wait! We’re missing something... the cover!

- While text (or the inside of the book) is usually printed from a roll of paper, covers are printed from sheets

- If printed the traditional way, this means doing so in a sheetfed offset press - similar to a web offset press, in that each cover is printed over and over again from a master printing plate

- More book printers are seeing the value of printing covers on digital presses, even when the text is printed conventionally - faster speed, ability to customize covers, and the ability to print a single cover (proof) to show publishers exactly what they can expect the final cover to look like

- The quality of digital presses has vastly improved in the last few years to the point where even experts have a hard time discerning conventional from digital with the naked eye

- Most softcover books are either 10 pt. cover stock or 12 pt

- Covers are typically printed using the 4 process colours - cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK)

- When these four colours are laid over top of one another in varying amounts across a printed page, you get all the colours of the rainbow!

- Now feel the cover of your book. What does it feel like? Glossy, matte and dull, or maybe uncoated entirely?

- Coating is added to a book for sensory reasons (it feels good in your hands when you pick it up from a book shelf), aesthetic reasons (sometimes covers can contain both matte and glossy areas - called ‘spot gloss’ or ‘spot UV coating’), as well as for protection from handling and water

- Most books have some sort of coating on them that was either applied after printing (but on the printing press) or as a separate process after printing

- Coating is a huge opportunity for designers to be creative and make their books stand out; we all judge books by their covers!

Text, meet cover...

- When all text signatures for a book are printed and the cover is printed, coated and trimmed, binding the two parts together is the final step

- Most softcover books with relatively high page counts (essentially page counts that result in a spine that’s ⅛” or thicker) are hot glued together - we call this perfect binding

- Perfect binding is literally like a giant glue gun - like some can be 30 feet long or more depending on how many signatures it can accommodate - these are loaded in compartments are the front of the machine (also called hoppers)

- What’s most important to remember in this process is that the signatures are STACKED on top of one another in sequential order

- Remember that they’re already folded down so that the pages are in the right order, that happened directly after printing on the web offset printing press

- They now just have to be assembled or put in order and stacking the signatures on top of one another is how that happens

- Once the complete stack of signatures is assembled inside the perfect binder and held together by a clamp, the spine of the signatures (where the glue will be applied) is ground down with a little saw (it kind of sounds like a skate sharpening machine), the hot glue is slathered onto the spine and a little on the front and back page and the cover is stuck on

- Take a look at the top of your book and you can see the dried glue. Notice that the glue is also on the first and last pages so that the cover has something to stick to and this helps hide the glue on the spine.

- Once it’s all stuck together the last step before giving the hot glue some time to dry and then boxing up the books is to trim the book on three sides

- Why 3 sides and not 4? The spine, of course! We don’t want to trim off the spine we just glued on.

A giant knife with three blades (called a three-knife trimmer) comes down from above and cuts through the paper (it’s kind of like a giant cookie cutter that is the exact final size that the book needs to be)

To review:

1. The insides of the book (the text) is grouped into signatures (chunks of the book) and printed from a roll of paper on a web offset press

2. The cover of the book is printed and coated - maybe on a sheetfed offset press or a digital press and all different types of coatings can be applied to jazz up the design

3. All text signatures and finished covers are taken to the bindery department where they meet for the first time, to live happily ever after

The End. We have a book!

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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