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Publishing Note: How Paper and Print Production Affects the Value of Your Book


For a couple millennia now, books have taken print form. Publishers edit, design, and typeset the content of a manuscript, then print and bind that content into a book. Electronic technology and processes replaced physical and manual processes more recently, but the end result is still ink on paper. Although ebooks, audiobooks, movies, podcasts, and other formats are also available, people still like to buy, hold, browse, and read printed books.

Long before bound physical books appear on shelves in bookstores as finished products, the publisher has to decide what material the book should contain and look like. That involves choosing production values before going to press. Production values pertain to all the required materials, design specifications, the vision of what the finished salable physical item will look and feel like, the desired impact of the book on consumers, and the processes required to manufacture that product. These factors are inseparably intertwined, yet each is a discrete element. Production value choices directly affect the cost, time, and technology required to print a book, which in turn contributes to the retail price the publisher assigns to the book and the perceived value of it when customers pull it off the shelf to leaf through it before buying.

Those choices start with format. Hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market are the most common formats, aside from board books, spiral bound, and others, each presenting a different set of options or decisions. Regardless of format, each book will have a given page count, trim size (i.e., the dimensions of the bound book), and print quantity. The book will require ink, paper, and some sort of binding (e.g., glue, thread, wire, staples).

If the format is hardcover, it will have a case, which is made of some grade of board, some type of material to wrap around the board, and material to join the different parts of the case (front, spine, back, hinges). The case may be plain, printed, or have a jacket cover affixed to it (i.e., paper-over-board). A loose leaf dust jacket is commonly wrapped around the outside of the bound book. Endpapers (printed or plain) and stocking headbands and footbands secure the book block (i.e., the signatures of the interior of the book gathered together and bound into a single unit) to the case. Along with all these elements comes an array of variable options the publisher may choose to include, for myriad reasons and with an equally wide spectrum of purposes in mind.

Trade paperback and mass market formats come with their own sets of production value choices. But you get the idea that printing a book is a complex process involving many decisions, each decision potentially entailing countless options.

Take the foundational part of a book—the paper—for example. Manufacturers develop their own processes to produce the paper they sell to printers. Paper is made of various materials, some natural, others synthetic, and comes in a virtually infinite number of colors. The size and shape of the paper a printer uses varies too, based on the technology and machines used to print the paper for offset and digital printing machines. The signatures or pieces of paper that come off the press, then are folded, gathered, and bound into finished books. The industry uses fairly widely accepted standards to measure the thickness, bulk, and weight of paper. Thickness, more technically “caliper,” is an absolute measure (e.g., 10 pt. is 0.138009 inches thick). Bulk or volume is a relative measure, normally expressed as pages per inch (e.g., 500 ppi). That is, to measure one inch thick, you will need to lay 500 pieces of stock on top of one another. Weight also is a relative measure. The base number (e.g., 40#, 50#, 60#, 100#) refers to the weight of 500 sheets of stock. Printers distinguish the weight of different types of stock, which is used for different parts of a book. Some stock is for the interior of a book (i.e., text stock), other stock for the dust jacket (i.e., cover stock), or endpapers, and each type of stock uses a different base size. The standard size for text stock is 25″ x 38″, whereas the standard size for cover stock is 20″ x 26″. Thus, 500 sheets of cover stock is a smaller block (i.e., its volume) but can be the same weight as 500 sheets of text stock. When a publisher stipulates 50# text stock and that stock has a bulk of 500 ppi, and the book has a castoff of 256 pages, that means the book block will be around one-half inch thick. Paper, just one specification in print production, can be its own topic, so I invite you to read more at Printing Industry Exchange for their explanation of some of the arcane details about printing and paper.

When publishers decide on paper, they are factoring in the type of content (i.e., the mix of textual and graphic material), the subject category, target market, and more. Plus, decisions about paper cannot be separated from decisions about the ink. A cookbook with full-color interior, for instance, contains high density ink on a lot of pages, due to the high number of images. To avoid bleedthrough (i.e., being able to see the ink from one side of a page when looking at the reverse side of the page), a publisher may insist on a thicker paper (e.g., 12 pt. vs. 10 pt.) to allow the ink to set up on the surface of the paper without being absorbed through to the other side. When using full-color ink, the publisher might add a gloss or matte finish to the surface of the paper to seal the ink onto the page. Or, to avoid producing a doorstop of a book, with an especially long page count (say 896 pages), the publisher may look for paper with minimal bulk. Further still, a title that is high on the merch scale may add all sorts of goodies on the cover, such as glitter, a mirror cutout, even rhinestones, or bind-ins such as ribbons or a pouch with some item stored in it. All of these production value choices shape the end product the publisher wants to sell to consumers. The finished book on a bookstore shelf contains all the production values chosen in the print process, and those production values help the publisher realize the vision of what they wanted the book to be.

Consumers usually respond to a printed book as a package and the impression it makes on them. Rarely do they consciously decide whether they like a book by assessing all the discrete production values that contribute to the finished product. The sum of the parts truly is greater than the whole. Obviously, many other factors come into play to influence a customer to purchase a book, but production values are an essential ingredient in converting interest into a sale. Matching the right production values to the perfect book for a specific target audience creates a wave of customer interest and results in purchases. That’s why publishers sweat the details of print production.