Self-Publisher’s 5-Minute Guide to Book Printing Processes

by Joel Friedlander on November 9, 2009 · 19 comments

Podcast: Self-Publisher’s 5-Minute Guide to Book Printing Processes

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With all the talk about print on demand, digital printing and the future of the publishing industry, it’s easy to forget that we’ve got books to produce in the here and now, and we need to know the best way to produce those books today, this week. Okay, we only have 5 minutes, so let’s dive in.

Three Ways to Print Books

There are actually three distinct technologies to print books, all of which are widely used. Let’s quickly run them down and see where each comes into play.

  1. Letterpress—This was the main printing method from Gutenberg’s day until the middle of the twentieth century. In one way or another, type, pictorial engravings, or etched metal plates made from photographic originals are inked and then paper is rolled over them, transferring the image to the paper, one sheet at a time.
  2. Letterpress technology led to large, automated presses. You can see just how versatile this printing method had become because it overshadowed all other forms of printing for over 400 years.

    Letterpress is still in use today for very fine limited edition books, and in areas of the world where electricity is unreliable. A letterpress that’s powered by a foot pedal can run for many years with just a lube, and doesn’t need power at all..

  3. Offset—Offset printing’s development at the beginning of the twentieth century was sparked by the accidental discovery that an image transferred to paper by a rubber covered cylinder was actually sharper than the image from the original type. This offset image gave rise to the name offset printing.
  4. Komori 38 Web offset press

    Komori 38 Web offset press. Each of the four towers prints a separate color.

    With the advent of industrial uses of photography and advances in paper and platemaking materials, photo-lithography, the making of printing plates through the photographic process, allowed offset printing to overtake letterpress.

    In sheet-fed offset, paper is fed to the press and printed one sheet at a time. In web offset, special presses are used to print from a large roll of paper which, as it travels through the press, forms the web for which it is named.

    At the end of the press the paper is cut into individual sheets. Bindery equipment to fold, trim and assemble the printing job is often set up right at the end of the press, allowing the printer to complete a printing project in one pass from blank paper to a finished, assembled job.

  5. Digital—Digital printing, the result of marrying a computer-driven high-speed copying machine to computer-driven bindery equipment, is the fastest-growing form of book printing today. Computer servers hold separate but coordinated digital files for the book’s cover and interior text block.
  6. At a request from the operator or a computer instruction, the files are downloaded to the printing end of the press and imaged with toner in the same way your high end copier images copies. The resulting pages are combined with a color-imaged cover. The whole book is glued together and trimmed. Some digital printing equipment can produce an entire book, color cover and all, in just seven minutes.

    The major difference between letterpress and offset printing, on one hand, and digital, on the other, is that digital printing is designed to create one copy of a book at a time. The other, earlier methods of printing produce books in stages, and only work efficiently when producing many copies at once.

Comparing the Three Printing Methods

Well, now we know about the three printing methods, but how does that help pick the right one? Here’s how each printing method is best used:

  • Letterpress printing is used almost exclusively for fine, limited edition books. The characteristic “bite” of the type into the paper, and the resulting subtle texture it adds to the page is impossible with other methods. These books are usually made with lavish materials and can cost hundreds of dollars each.
  • Offset printing is used for the majority of books produced today. Web offset is used to make mass market paperbacks, like the ones sold in racks at supermarkets and at airports, and for very large printings of other books. Sheet-fed offset book printing offers the best quality reproduction of artwork and photography, and is the most flexible when it comes to the number of sizes offered for books and the different kinds of paper available for printing.
  • Digital printing is increasingly being used in the print-on-demand distribution model that’s becoming so popular. Larger publishers are moving their backlist books to digital printing, saving money on warehousing and shipping. The self-publishing phenomenon has created a huge demand for digital printing through print-on-demand distribution, since it has eliminated almost all of the cost of putting a book into print.

In Summary: Use letterpress printing for very fine, limited edition collector’s books. Use web offset for mass market and very high volume books that don’t need to be high quality. Use sheet-fed offset for print runs over 500 copies or where high quality reproductions are needed. Use digital printing where print runs are very short or where you have no need of an inventory of books.

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    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    Simon July 27, 2015 at 4:59 am

    Interesting post to read now that it is 2015. Digital printing has definitely come a long way since this post and with technology going forward in leaps and bounds who knows where it will end up in the future.


    GEORGE NAVARRO July 22, 2013 at 1:53 am

    Hello,All I’m doing is putting together a all ready written book side by side Tagalog and English. My biggest concern is when you take it to the printer to be printed, what format and resolution it has to be? I believe they have to transfer your written material into a special film to be able to make many book copies? I’m using MS Publishing some say it will not work because of the low resolution? What advice can you give me for using a word processor with high resolution or that will transfer into a film for off-set printing?
    Thank you!


    Joel Friedlander July 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    George, I suggest you have a look at our Word templates at You can put your text into one of our templates and create a PDF for your printer. They come with complete instructions.


    Douglas Bonneville May 12, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Can you point to or recommend a list of digital printers that specialize in short runs but also have binding in house? Something comparable to Lulu? Or even just a favorite few?


    Joanne Bolton November 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for your well-presented article. As far as quantities, although Walt thinks that number where pricing converges is 1,500, — overseas, where I print, the printers are looking very hard at digital printing. Offset printing is now available for 500 or lees books, which can be large format and high quality color printing either for photography or art. If you have the time, offshore is still a very viable solution for small numbers.


    admin November 11, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Joanne, thanks. Interesting that the Asian printers are looking at digital. Do they think the quality is good enough for their customers, or is it something they are still waiting to develop? I’m sure many people would be interested in the viability of photography and art books in a print-on-demand model with great quality!


    admin November 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    @Walt, thanks for your thoughts.

    You may well be right about the break point, although I’d put it closer to 1,000. My question is, once the two start to converge, wouldn’t people naturally prefer offset production? I don’t think there’s any doubt you will get better quality, more flexibility in production, perhaps a longer lifespan for your books (although the jury is out on that one) and far lower reprint costs.

    I do agree that the quality differences are getting smaller all the time, and I fully expect that at some date digital production will overtake offset; it’s just the nature of progress. Makes me think of that ancient Chinese curse (on the publishing industry, in this case): “May you live in interesting times.”


    Walt Shiel November 9, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Good overview of the processes, Joel.

    However, I see the offset-digital break point at 1500 copies (often even higher). With every book, I get quotes and run the numbers again, most recently four months ago. Even two years ago, I would have agreed with your 500-copy guideline, but not today.

    Most of the time, a run of up to 1500 copies can be done digitally for the same price as offset or for an insignificant unit cost difference over offset. And setup costs are almost always lower.

    Offset will still produce better graphics/photos (and some insist better text display, too — although I doubt many readers would notice anymore), even though digital is constantly improving.

    Regarding quality, I think the two main printing options are converging at an accelerating rate. I’ve seen discussions claiming offset pricing for short runs is going down but have yet to see the evidence in responses to RFQs.


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