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Why is the Trimmer Operator Spread Eagled Over the Equipment?

If you've ever been to an offset print shop and gone back into the finishing department, you may have seen a man or woman cutting stacks of printing sheets on a guillotine cutter. It looks rather impressive, because the machine clamps down on a huge stack of 25” x 38” (or whatever other size) press sheets, and a large, thick knife comes down and cuts through all of them.

If you watch closely, you'll see that the operator of the equipment must spread his/her arms wide to push buttons on opposite sides of the machine before the knife will do its job.

Why? As unusual as this may look, it keeps guillotine cutter operators safe. By needing to stand in such an awkward position, they have no chance of inadvertently having the fingers under the knife when it comes down.

Since I once got my fingers too close to a hedge trimmer blade, I can appreciate the logic in this workflow.

What Happens to Unsold Print Books?

On one trip to a printer for a press inspection about twenty years ago, I was surprised to see a fabric sided basket truck (like a hospital laundry bin) full of books with no covers. It was actually in the sample room, and I was surprised that all the covers had been torn off the books.

When I asked what the books were for, I learned that unused overage had to be destroyed, and in addition to keeping a record of the books destroyed (one cover per book), this rendered the books unsalable. While this seemed a bit brutal to me at the time, I came to understand that customers who had purchased the books in stores would not be happy to learn that other people were getting their copies for free. Hence, it was actually fair for the printer to deface and discard unused books.

When the books have been sent to a brick and mortar bookstore, or for that matter to a fulfillment center for an online store such as Amazon, it is also cheaper for the store to not return any unused books to the publisher but rather to tear the covers off and return them for reimbursement (i.e., covers cost less to ship than complete books).

In either case, the goal is to keep track of any unsold books and make sure they don't get distributed for free.

The moral of the story? Many, many books end up unread, in landfills, and while understandable, it's still a shame. So if you're involved in publishing and have influence over the copy count for a press run, be mindful of how many books you will really need—as best you can, given that it's impossible to accurately predict future sales.

Sample Book: A Few Elements of Quality Printing

You can read about printing technology and learn why things are done a certain way, but nothing makes the techniques of offset printing more understandable than a physical, printed sample.

Today, I found a copy of a book I had loved and lost thirty years ago. It was at a thrift store, and although the covers of the book I found were dog-eared, the paper and binding were in great condition. I asked myself why.

First of all, the book in question is a trade paperback, somewhat large format (approximately 5.5” x 8”), and over 700 pages in length.

When I looked closely, I could see that the paper had not yellowed. By now, the paper in many books printed at this time would have taken on a yellowish tint and become brittle. In this book, this did not happen. Why? The lack of impurities (like lignin) in the paper and its lack of acidity (in contrast to a cheaper paper stock such as the groundwood paper of a cheap magazine or the newsprint of a tabloid) made the paper easily tolerate three decades.

Another thing I noticed was the binding. The book had been perfect bound, but rather than being ground off and then glued to the covers, or notched and then glued to the covers, the signatures of the text block had been stitched together. I could open the pages a little more than usual and see the string lacing in the binding.

Stitching is good for strengthening both hard-cover and soft-cover bindings. Some paper bound books use a combination of stitching and gluing (at least gluing the book block to the covers), while stitched case-bound books are more likely to omit the glue and just hang the book block on the endsheets of the case side. But in either option, the stitching makes the resulting book very sturdy. In the book I bought at the thrift store, the binding had lasted thirty years, even though the spine had been compromised a bit by so many openings and closings of the paperback book.

What makes this an interesting and informative story, in my opinion, is that it can give you an idea of why you might specify certain techniques for printing and binding a book, and why you might choose certain book papers. Granted, not all books need to last thirty years. But perhaps at this time in particular, when books are migrating to electronic formats and print books, while not dying out altogether, are becoming a boutique item that may be more expensive, and more of a keepsake, it's prudent to consider longevity.

Look at various text and cover papers and ask your printer if they have “archival qualities.” That is, will they last over time without yellowing?

Ask your printer about binding methods as well. Some last longer and take more abuse. Others are more appropriate for throw-away items like perfect-bound marketing materials or perhaps an annual report that will only be needed for a year.

Thinking about the intended use for a print product, and whether it needs to last a long time, is good business sense. After all, if you check the inventory of some rare book dealers, you'll find books that are much older than thirty years. Many are over a hundred years old, and quality print production and binding methods and supplies have made the difference in ensuring their continued existence.


[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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