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Case Study: A Self-Published Family History Book

I recently received a request from a print brokering client to solicit estimates for a family history book. A large-format, table-top edition with an extremely short press run, this job posed several challenges. I wanted to share with you how I have approached the job, so you can do the same if you have a similar project.

Printing Specifications

For the initial bid, I started with an 8.5” x 11” format since the text would potentially include hundreds of photos. I also chose a 70# coated text sheet to showcase the images. The book would include a lot of text as well as photos, but the images would take center stage, and the coated press sheet would make the images “pop.”

My client requested 100 copies of a 350-page case-bound book. He also asked about printing some of the photos as duotones.

Options for Printing Technology

For such a short press run my first thought was to get bids for digital printing (xerography). In this case the duotones would need to be quadtones consisting of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black laser halftone dots, since digital printing is a process-color technology that does not usually include any PMS colors.

When I multiplied out the total number of book pages (350 pages x 100 copies = 35,000 book pages), I realized that most commercial printers would bid the job as an offset lithography project. In this case the photos could actually be produced with black ink and a PMS second color. Therefore, I wrote the specification sheet requesting bids for both one-color text and two-color text. My client also expressed an interest in deckled edges on the text (also known as “rough-front” text, a process that can be simulated by turning off one of the trimming knives that would normally cut the pages of the text block evenly).

Concerns with the Photos

My client's request for duotone photographs struck me as a good one for two reasons. First of all, many of the photos were sixty or seventy years old and either had blemishes and flaws or were overly contrasty (blown out highlights and black shadows with not many shades of gray in between).

I thought the duotone process would not only give an antique sepia tone to the images (an artistic benefit) but would also minimize the harsh effect of any flaws that Photoshop could not eliminate. I also suggested that my client choose a slightly off-white, dull coated press sheet to downplay the flaws in the photos.

Cover Options

My client asked about including a photograph of a painting on the cover of the book. He also expressed interest in case binding and even potentially Smyth Sewing (a sewn reinforcement of all press signatures used to strengthen the binding in high-end coffee-table books). At this point I had no idea of his total budget for the book printing project, but considering the hard cover, two colors of ink in the text, and the deckled edges, I thought it would be an expensive job. So I decided to request bids for three cover options with various levels of quality and price:

  1. Case binding with the printed paper stock glued to the binder boards (like a textbook)
  2. Cloth case binding with a dust jacket
  3. Cloth case binding with the cover image printed on a panel that would be glued onto the front cover (or perhaps even inset slightly into the cover board)

I had also suggested a fourth option, a paperbound book with French Flaps extending from the cover and folded back in to mimic the look of a dust jacket. This would give a more upscale look to the book but would avoid the cost of case binding. My client turned down this suggestion since he preferred a case-bound book.

In an odd way, the shortness of the press run actually made the binding process easier to address. In most cases my clients want 1,000 or more copies of a case-bound book. In this case I would be looking for a vendor who could hand-case-bind the 100 copies of my client's personal history (in some ways very similar to a photo book produced online or at stores like Costco, only of higher quality).

Next Steps

I wrote down all of the specifications, along with such questions as who would fulfill orders for the books, whether there would be printing on the endsheets of the case-bound book, and anything else that came to mind.

Then I emailed the specifications to a high-end printer that had just completed a printed and die cut marketing job for another client of mine. I chose this printer because he focuses on unique promotional pieces. If he couldn't print the job, I would happily accept his referrals to vendors who could.

I expect the job will be expensive due to the high-end specifications. That's why I will request an itemized estimate. I assume the materials cost for paper (35,000 pages) and the binding cost will be the most expensive components of the total estimate. We'll see how the prices look when they arrive and how they compare to the client's budget expectations. We can always adjust and compromise.

What You Can Learn from This

This may be very different from any job you have designed, or it may be very similar. In any case, these are some things to consider that will be appropriate for any job.

1. The combined length of the book and the length of the press run will determine whether the printer will produce the job via offset lithography or digital printing. (For instance, a printer would digitally print 10 copies of a 350-page book, but 100 copies of a 350-page book would probably be an offset printed job.)

2. The length of the press run will determine whether automated binding will be appropriate (perhaps a 1,000-copy press run) or whether you will need to locate a hand-binding operation (perhaps a 100-copy press run).

3. It's wise to put all specifications in writing. Assume that both the printer and your client will react to your specifications, and eventually you will arrive at a list of specs that meet the client's goals, the client's budget, and your printer's capabilities.

4. Communicate with your client and your printer using physical, printed samples of books that you and your client like. Nothing conveys your goals and your client's goals like a sample you can hand your printer.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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