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Managing Book Printing Estimates, Part 1: Learn the Language

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Although e-book formats, POD, and digital printing generally get much more attention from the media, most books are still produced by offset lithography, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon because offset offers better quality and more flexibility in materials, sizes, and finishes, all at radically lower prices.

Every book has to be evaluated separately according to the aims of the publisher, and no one process is right or wrong for all books. But many independent publishers solicit bids for offset runs, so it’s important to understand the estimates printers will present for approval.

It’s good sense and common practice to request prices from three printers for comparison. Having a firm set of specifications will help make the comparison worthwhile. Ask your book designer about printers where they have printed books, and check Pete Masterson’s great list of book printers at aeonix.com/bookprnt.htm.

It’s also important to understand that, once you accept it, the printer’s estimate is a contract that establishes prices, parameters, and all the other details of producing a book. Because this is the most important document you’ll encounter when you order printing, I think it’s worth going over in detail. What follows demystifies the terminology used in the Book Printing Estimate (also known as a Request for Quotation or RFQ). The next articles in this series will look at an actual estimate and explain how it works.

What the Words Mean

Like every other field, book publishing has a specialized language. Although it can be intimidating to newcomers, once you learn its terms and understand how they are used, you can communicate with other people involved in your production process with greater efficiency and accuracy.

Terms you’ll find in estimates are usually presented in the order in which a book will be produced, and that’s how they’re presented here too.

Quote number. This is the printer’s reference number. All correspondence with the printer should include it.

Title and author. You will have supplied this information, and the printer will include it on the estimate.

Quantity. Get prices on three quantities. You’ll learn a lot about where the price “breaks” occur by seeing the unit cost drop as the quantity increases. (With digital print-on-demand, unit prices generally stay the same regardless of the quantity ordered.)

Trim size. Sizes are typically stated as width × height, as in 6″× 9″, which is an upright (portrait) format. Make sure the trim size you want to use is one that the printer is optimized for. Most printers won’t have any trouble with standard sizes. You can take a look at some standard book trim sizes at thebookdesigner.com.

Pages. In offset printing, it’s important to paginate a book correctly. Books are printed in “signatures” of 8, 16, or 32 pages. To avoid extra charges you might incur by using only part of a large sheet, make sure the number of pages in your book is a multiple of 8. This means all pages, including front matter and back matter that may have roman rather than arabic numerals or may not be numbered at all.

Copy. This is the place to specify how you will need to provide the artwork that will be used to print your book. For instance, you might supply print ready PDF files. In some cases people are still providing camera ready copy, which might be boards for each page, with the artwork pasted on the boards.

The vast majority of books today are supplied either as reproduction-quality PDF files or as native application files, which means the files produced by the program used for the book layout. If a book layout was done with Adobe InDesign, for instance, the native application files would be the .INDD file produced by InDesign, along with all the linked graphics and fonts used in the book.

Proofs. The printer will send you a proof copy of your book if you request it—and you should, so you can check that the printer has put the pages in the right place, that all alignments are correct, that no pages have been left out, and that there are no obvious defects that would stop the print production. In some cases you will automatically get proofs. For instance, printers send proofs of books with color in them that you must sign off on before they will start printing.

Proofs used to be supplied as bluelines, which were very similar to blueprints, but most printers now supply digital proofs, which are cheaper and a lot more accurate. Still, any changes made at the proof stage of production, no matter how small, will be expensive.

Press. This indicates what kind of presswork will be needed and explains what inks will be used for the book and its cover or jacket. Typically, books are printed in black with no bleeds (areas that run off the edge of the paper), and the covers are printed in four-color process (full color) and varnished or laminated to protect against wear.

Stock. This is the paper the book will be printed on. Since paper accounts for most of the cost of most printing projects, this is an important specification. Make sure the printer has specified the kind of paper you want to use. For instance, to be more competitive, printers usually estimate paper costs for a book on their house sheet, a standard paper that they buy in bulk and that is, consequently, a lot less expensive than paper the printer doesn’t regularly use.

But it’s important to match the paper to the intended use of the book, and to its market. Most of the literary fiction and nonfiction books I produce for clients are specified to print on a 55# cream- or ivory-colored stock that is not as smooth as some white stocks, is more pleasing to the eye, and creates a book that is a little thicker for the same number of pages than a book would be on an equivalent white paper.

Binding. There are numerous types. The most common are perfect binding and Smythe-sewn binding. Perfect binding—in which glue is used to attach the cover—is mostly associated with softcover books, but it’s also used on some hardcovers. Likewise, Smythe-sewn books—in which the folded signatures are sewn together before being covered—is usually used on hardcover books but can be used on softcover books as well.

Make sure your estimate specifies the type of binding the printer will use. If no binding method is specified, you can bet you’ll get the cheapest form: perfect binding.

Packing. This specifies how books will be packed for shipping. Books are heavy and need to be shipped from the printer to a storage space or to a distributor or wholesaler’s warehouse. Imagine a 200-page 6″× 9″ paperback shipped 40 books to a carton. You’ll want to check that the printer has specified heavy duty or 275# test cartons to properly protect the books.

Also realize that the cartons may arrive shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets, which the truck driver will want to leave on your driveway if the books are coming to you rather than to a warehouse. You’d need to be ready to receive 25 cartons for a printing of 1,000 books, 50 cartons for a printing of 2,000 books, and so on. That’s a lot of heavy boxes. (For more information about this part of the book business, see “Conduits to Customers, Part 2: Fulfillment Options,” March.)

Shipping. This is the estimated cost of shipping to your destination. Shipping 50 cartons of heavy books is going to cost a few hundred dollars, and you’ll want to know the price up front. You should also let the printer know whether the books will be delivered to a residence, whether you will need them brought indoors, and whether there are steps or elevators to negotiate.

Terms. The credit arrangements the printer requires will be listed here.

Prices. Prices will be expressed as a total cost. Sometimes costs are broken out for printing and binding. Since the biggest cost in most printing jobs is the cost of the paper, paper specifications have a major effect on the eventual unit cost of a book.

While some estimates include unit pricing at each quantity specified, on others you’ll have to get out your calculator and work it out yourself. Remember that you will have additional costs for extra items, options, and freight. New customers are usually asked to pay half the cost of printing when they place an order, and the other half before the books ship.

Overs/unders and trade customs. For many years, the backs of printed estimate forms have been covered with 10-point type printed in gray ink detailing sometimes odd or arcane customs (see “What the Boilerplate Means and Where There’s Wiggle Room,” March). The most important of them pertains to how many books you order versus how many will be delivered.

Trade custom dictates that you may receive 10% overs/unders. This means that the printer can deliver as many as 10 percent fewer or more books than you ordered and still have fulfilled your print order. In other words, if you ordered 2,000 books, your shipment will be somewhere between 1,800 and 2,200 books; your invoice will be adjusted to reflect the final quantity shipped, and the printer will use the run on or overs/unders price to reach a final and exact invoice total.

Next month’s article in this series will explain how to create a request for an estimate.

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 the author of A Self-Publisher’s Companion, he blogs about book design and the indie publishing life at thebookdesigner.com.



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