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Designing for Print-on-Demand Production

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Designing for Print-on-Demand Production

by Joel Friedlander

As the technology we use to manufacture books changes, designers responsible for creating those books adapt. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes reluctantly. But we adapt, because the new technology will eventually supplant the old technology.

Today most books are still printed by offset lithography, and any print run over about 1,000 units will benefit from the more mature ink-and-paper way we’ve been printing for a long time. But digital technology, used in print-on-demand distribution, is now very popular and gaining in popularity even for short runs, and for getting into print without having to pay for a print run up front. Anyone who has studied the history of technological transitions can see that eventually offset printing will die off and some form of digital imaging will replace it.

For now, we have to know how to design for both technologies, because our books—and sometimes the very same books—are produced on both.

Images on the Move

Recently I sent a book to Lightning Source for setup and proofing. In designing the cover, I used a technique I’ve often used before—choosing a color from the front cover, which has a white background, to use as background on the spine and back cover. I like the way the color crisply meets the white background right at the corner of the spine. At the time I wasn’t sure how the book would be printed, but I didn’t give it another thought.

Then I had several discussions with a client and the customer service reps at Lightning Source, because the client wasn’t happy with how the type on his book’s spine looked. The rep explained that with the digital equipment they use, they could not guarantee that the image wouldn’t move. How much? As much as 1/16″. And keep in mind that the movement could be left to right, top to bottom, or twisted one way or another.

Now 1/16″ doesn’t sound like much, does it? Except that the human eye is very sensitive to pattern disruptions. People easily and immediately pick up things that look “off.” In the days when we created our reproduction artwork on a light table with a T-square, lining things up and making everything perfectly “square” was an exacting job. That challenge disappeared with the advent of software tools.

But what happens when your perfectly aligned design hits the machines that will produce an actual, real live book?

When the proof came back, I was quite surprised. Here’s what the spine looked like:


Instead of forming a crisp corner, the spine background color looks as if it has slipped down on one side. It turns out that the entire cover is rotated about 1/16″, which results in the rather messy-looking spine you see here.

But that wasn’t all that happened when the whole cover got skewed. Here’s another shot:

You can see that when the book rotated out of square, the quoted type at the top of the front cover, which had been running close to the edge of the book, made the trim of the book look crooked. From halfway across the room, it looks like a mistake. That’s the power of 1/16″.

Designing for Digital Reality

Since there was nothing I could do about the equipment producing this book, I had to adapt. There was only one way to solve the spine problem, and that was to completely eliminate the color, thereby eliminating the need for a precise join of color and white at the corner of the spine.

Okay, I now had a white cover. For the type running along the top, the solution was to move it much farther away from the edge. Having more white between the type and the cut edge would mitigate any errors, since the long line of type wouldn’t be acting like a ruler, showing the defective trim in all its glory.

As I sent more books to Lightning Source, and to CreateSpace, I found that their digital printing equipment doesn’t provide tolerances as tight as what we’ve come to expect from offset presses. For many years the standard for bleed (where your image extends right off the edge of the paper) has been 1/8″. But the digital printers sometimes require 1/4″ bleed.

This may not sound like a big difference until you realize that it’s 100  percent. The digital printers are one-half as accurate on bleed and trim as the offset printers.

Another problem that cropped up has to do with the interior margins of the book page. Traditionally we follow classic book-design models that dictate a larger margin on the outside edge of the book than on the inside (gutter) of the page.

But most books coming from digital printers have very tight spines. Because of the way the books are manufactured, they are stiff to open. The result is that with standard margins, text sometimes disappears into the gutter of the book, not a good situation for readability.

The solution here, obviously, is to adjust margins and forget about classical models. For digital presses, you need a larger-than-average inside margin, particularly on shorter books, than what you are used to with offset printing.

Make sure your designer knows how your book will be produced. Even a small change—as small as 1/16″—can sometimes make a large difference. When you’ve put a lot of time and care into creating a book, it should look just as good as it can.

Joel Friedlander is the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, a publishing services company in San Rafael, CA, that has launched many self-publishers. An award-winning book designer and a self-published author, he blogs about book design and the indie publishing life at http://www.TheBookDesigner.com

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