Does Your Book Need a Lay-Flat Binding?

by | Sep 11, 2017

Although the vast majority of print books published by indie authors are print on demand paperbacks, there are lots of other kinds of books we can publish.

Sometimes a different format or a book with more features to it can really help you stand out in the crowd and create desire for your book.

Recently I’ve helped produce a number of workbooks for a variety of clients, and I’m working one right now. When authors ask me the best way to produce these books, and if they can be done through the usual print on demand vendors, we often get into a prolonged discussion.

That’s because although print on demand is a terrific innovation that eliminates the financial risk in print book publishing, it has severe limitations, too.

But sometimes the standard print on demand paperback just won’t do.

For instance, suppose you are publishing a workbook. This is a great way to extend a franchise created by an instructional or inspirational book, and allows you to quickly create another book that will please your readers.

But a typical print on demand paperback has a pretty stiff spine, and most of them do not open all the way so they can lay flat on your desk. That’s what you want if you intend that your readers write in them.

Whether you’re teaching a process or preparing people to take a standardized exam, or providing ways for individuals to apply the ideas in a book you’ve published, workbooks are popular with both readers and publishers.

But a book that won’t lay flat when you want to write in it can be a pain.

Journals, Cookbooks, and Manuals, Too

When you start thinking about it, there are lots of books that would benefit from a binding that allows the book to be opened fully and laid flat when necessary.

But how to do it?

That’s the question I faced when I started putting together the requirements for my WriteWell Writers Journals (currently in production).

One of the reasons I dislike hardcover journals is that most of them are also made with tight spines that don’t allow the book to lay flat.

But there are other kinds of books that can benefit from a lay flat spine.

  • Journals, diaries, daily quote books with lines to record your own thoughts, all these books would benefit from a binding intended to help people use them as they were meant to be used.
  • Cookbooks repay the investment in better binding because you make your book easier for cooks to use in the kitchen.
  • Manuals that you need to refer to while doing a repair or other operation are much more useful if they lay flat next to you.

I bet you can think of your own examples, too.

During my research I looked at a lot of binding styles, each of which can create a lay flat binding or something very close. I also learned a lot about adhesives and binding techniques.

Here are some of the methods and processes that I ran across:

  • Spiral/Wire-O/Comb bindings—These binding can be grouped together since they all involve punching holes in the sheets of paper that make up the book, then insert wire or plastic to bind the pages. Although these bindings do lay flat, they present other problems. The wires can bend, the plastic “fingers” can come loose, they are awkward to pack, and many bookstores don’t like them because they are hard to shelve. Aesthetically, they leave a lot to be desired for trade books.
  • Sewn bindings—You might be surprised that binding books by sewing the signatures together and them affixing them to a cover is still being used. After all, it’s the oldest style of binding there is. and that’s exactly how the Gutenberg Bible was bound. With today’s Smyth sewing machines, trade books can be economically sewn together providing the strongest binding, and the one with the most integrity to the way the book was manufactured. This is the method I chose in the end to use on the WriteWell journals.
  • Otabind/RepKover—Two variations on a proprietary system that allows the spine to flex separately from the cover, allowing a great degree of flexibility and the ability to lay quite flat. Unfortunately, this technology is most appropriate for long runs of books, or titles with a high cover price because the manufacturing will add substantially to the cost of the books to the publisher.

    RepKover

    RepKover binding, clearly showing the spine flexing independent of the cover. (Courtesy Edwards Brothers Malloy)

  • PUR vs EVA adhesives—Until the 1990s perfect bound paperbacks used EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) glue almost exclusively. You may recall early versions of this adhesive for its ability to dry out, crack, and start shedding pages. But it got better with time, until the appearance of PUR (Polyurethane Reactive) adhesive. Using completely different chemistry, PUR is able to create a permanent, flexible, strong binding with less material than EVA. Because it requires more curing time, some printers have been reluctant to embrace it, but I’ve seen PUR-bound books that were astonishing because I could turn them as open as a book can be, and the individual pages simply would not budge.

My conclusion, after quite a bit of research, testing, having prototype books created so I could try to destroy them, is this: sewn bindings will give your book a structural and aesthetic integrity unachievable by other means, and it’s surprisingly affordable from the right vendors. And PUR is the undisputed choice for books that need a flexible binding and permanent adhesion, so it pays to check with your print vendor.

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14 Comments

  1. Gale

    Hello Joel,
    Thank you so much for all the information you have shared. I am grateful. I am looking to print a self development, self exploration book for young women. I have been a therapist for many years. I’ve been pricing coil binding but it seems quite a bit more expensive.

    I’m now looking at the lay flat binding possibly. That doesn’t seem to be in any bodies quote calculator. Lol. What is the best way to find a reputable printer that could possibly offer a wider range of options for things? One of the things i’m doing in my book is an additional little saddle stitch book that has to be completed as part of the larger process in my book. The problem is it needs a pocket or some place to live so it doesn’t get lost. On demand is out for me because I have a lot of crazy ideas but I’ve been emailing a lot of printers and the prices are all over the place.

    How do you know who is honorable? Thanks again for all you do. It feels doable when I hear you say it! Lol.

    Take care. Gale

    Reply
  2. Paul Gardner

    Joel, love your blog! (and lay-flat bindings!)

    There’s a new lay-flat alternative being introduced by Peleman Industries based in Belgium. It’s called Vpaper, and I just joined the company to help bring it to the US market.

    I’ve been a book lover all my life, and a printer for 30 years, and yet this simple innovation never occurred to me.

    The paper is creased twice near the spine, then folded and pressed in both directions. This enables a lay flat book using any single-sheet binding method including EVA and PUR perfect binding. It’s not a replacement for any of the lay-flat binding methods you describe above, but it does create a remarkably friendly book that can be easily made by almost any printer, including the POD / On-Demand Book vendors.

    And if needed, you can even bind such a book at home or at the office.

    Reply
  3. Benjamin Drury

    Brilliant article and hugely helpful. Thank you.

    Did you ever manage to find a print on demand supplier for lie flat sewn binding?

    I currently use CreateSpace to print on demand non fiction books, but I am looking to create a calendar/journal/planner type book and really need lie flat options.

    Thanks,
    B.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Benjamin, thanks for reading. There are no print on demand vendors that I know of who offer lay flat bindings :-(

      If your calendar/journal/planner needs to lay flat, you will need to print them offset.

      I wrote about the end of this process here: The Epic Saga of WriteWell Journals: Book Production Success

      Reply
  4. David Bergsland

    I was curious about on-demand publishing options. I know Lulu has 4 sizes offered. Lightning source seems to offer a lot, but it looks like a minimum print run of 25, so my guess is no distribution for their wire-o books. I don’t know of any other modern self-publishing options. Do you, Joel?

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      David, no, I don’t. It seems like the POD process is way too automated to allow for all the extra bindery work. I recently tried to get a POD supplier (smaller one) to do a paperback with flaps via POD, they said they just can’t do anything that’s not a trade paperback.

      Reply
      • David Bergsland

        Lightning Source is tantalizing with it’s wire-o options. But there’s a 25-book minimum so on-demand won’t work.

        Reply
  5. Michael W. Perry

    For workbooks to be used by students where cost matters, I’d add another option, that of tabloid-sized newspapers. They cost almost nothing print. You local newspaper might be happy able to take on the project. And if it’s a use-once-and-discard project, the durability matters not.

    And they certainly lay flat.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Michael, I’m curious if you’ve ever used newspapers, they don’t seem a very practical alternative to a bound book, and I would be surprised if newspaper presses were amenable to anything like short run book production. Who did you use as a vendor?

      Reply
      • David Bergsland

        There were some suppliers in New Mexico around the turn of the millennium who offered 60# and did some good looking tourist guides of up to 100 pages. But, I wouldn’t call it book quality. I was lamenting in a post today about the options we’ve lost with on-demand. Even the tradpubs seem to have eliminated many of the fancy options. Just priced out of the market, I guess. I remember doing an annual report which used embossed and drilled 1/8″ aircraft-grade aluminum covers. But those are commercial printing options where distribution is not an issue.

        Reply
        • Joel Friedlander

          David, yes, it’s all about distribution, isn’t it? These books are no more difficult to produce than they ever were, but we’ve become so accustomed to the “on-demand” model most authors would likely not be interested in paying a printer for this type of production.

          However, I believe that will change as more successful self-publishers realize they are in the book publishing business and start to morph into more traditional publishers taking on the works of other authors and entering the normal book distribution system to get the kind of exposure they will be looking for.

          In fact, I believe this is happening already.

          Reply
          • David Bergsland

            That would be good to see.

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