Understanding Book Printing Estimates for Self-Publishers, Part 1

by | Jan 10, 2011

Most book printing today is done by offset lithography, not at digital print-on-demand suppliers. This is unlikely to change anytime soon due to the big cost difference between the two methods.

Four of the books I’m working on now are headed for offset printers. Although digital printing has made self-publishing a possibility for thousands of people who otherwise would not have printed a book, offset printing remains the best way to produce printed books. Offset offers better quality, 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 because many self-publishers will find themselves customers of short-run book printers, it’s important to understand the estimates they will present to you for your approval.

In fact, the estimate itself is also a contract that will establish prices, parameters and all the other details of producing a book. Because this is the most important document you’ll encounter when you order a printing, I think it’s worth going over in detail. In this section I’m going to review the terminology used by the Book Printing Estimate. In the second part, we’ll look at an actual estimate to see how it works in action.

Understanding the Language of Printing and Printers

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

This is especially true when dealing with estimates. How can you sign a contract you don’t understand? That doesn’t make sense. Here are the terms we’ll run into and how to understand them. Although you may not be ready to order a 5,000 copy printing of your new novel, you might want to bookmark this page so you can come back to it when the time is right.

  • Quote number—This is the printer’s reference number, and any correspondance with the printer should include this number.
  • Title, Author—You will have supplied this information and the printer will include it on the estimate.
  • Quantity—Why not 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. This is the opposite of digital print-on-demand, in which (with some exceptions) prices stay the same regardless of the quantity ordered.
  • Trim size—Sizes are typically stated as width x height, as in 6″ x 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. These are known as “trim sizes” because that’s where they trim the books.
  • Pages—In offset printing it’s important to paginate your book correctly. Books are printed in signatures of 8, 16, or 32 pages. To avoid extra charges you might incur due to using only part of a large sheet, make sure the number of pages in your book is a multiple of 8. This means all physical pages, not necessarily what the page numbers say.
  • Copy—How will you need to provide the “artwork” that will be used to print your book. For instance, you might supply “print ready PDF files” or in some cases people are still providing “camera ready” copy, which might be actual boards for each page, with the artwork pasted on the boards. The vast majority of books today are supplied as either reproduction-quality PDF files or “native application files,” which mean the files produced by the program in which you did the book layout. If your book is done in 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 of your book if you request it. In some cases you will not have a choice. For instance, on color books the printer will send you proofs that you must sign off on before they will start the printing. Even though the proof adds to the cost, I recommend you always get a proof of a new book that’s never been to press before, 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. Do keep in mind that any changes made at this stage of production, no matter how small, will be very expensive. Although these proofs used to be supplied as “bluelines” which were made on paper very similar to blueprints, most printers are now supplying digital proofs, which are cheaper and a lot more accurate.
  • Press—This indicates what kind of presswork will be needed and explains what inks the book and its cover or jacket will be printed in. Typically, your book will be printed in black in with no bleeds (areas that run off the edge of the paper) and the covers will be printed in four color process (full color) and varnished or laminated to protect them.
  • Stock—What paper will your book be printed on? Since paper accounts for the majority of the cost of most printing projects, this is an important specification. When reading estimates provided by a printer, make sure they have specified the kind of paper you want to use. For instance, to be more competitive, printers will usually estimate your book on their “house sheet” a standard paper they buy in bulk and which is, consequently, a lot less expensive. But it’s equally important to match the paper to the intended use of the book, and to the market into which you are trying to sell your book. Most of the literary fiction or 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 as an equivalent white paper. On the other hand, many book printers will automatically quote your book on 60# white offset, a paper that would not please most of my clients.
  • Binding—There are numerous types of bindings used by book printers. The most common are perfect binding and smythe sewn binding. Although perfect binding is mostly associated with softcover books, it’s also used on popular or ephemeral hardcovers. Likewise, although smythe sewn books—in which the folded signatures are sewn together before being covered—is usually used on hardcover books where the publisher wants a more permanent binding. You can also smythe sew 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 it will be the cheapest form of binding: perfect binding.
  • Packing—Books are heavy, and will need to be shipped from the printer to your home, your garage, a storage space or to a distributor or wholesaler’s warehouse. Taking a 200 page 6 x 9 paperback as an example, you will receive cartons of approximately 40 books to a carton. You’ll want to check that the printer has specified “heavy duty” or “275# test” cartons for shipping to properly protect the books. Also realize you are paying a manufacturing company to manufacture a consumer product (not much romance in this part of publishing) and they may arrive with all cartons shrink wrapped on wooden pallettes which the truck driver will want to leave on your driveway. You need to make proper arrangements before the truck arrives. Consider that at 40 books to a carton, you will be looking at 25 cartons for a printing of 1000 books, or 50 cartons for a printing of 2000 books. That’s a lot of cartons.
  • Shipping—Has the printer included an estimate for the 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 that 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, or if there are steps or elevators they will have to negotiate.
  • Terms—What credit arrangements have been made with the printer? Their requirements will be listed here.
  • Prices—Prices will be expressed as a total cost. Sometimes these costs are broken out for printing and binding. Keep in mind the biggest cost in most printing jobs is the cost of the paper. This means that changes in paper specification can have a major effect on the eventual unit cost of your books. Prices should also include the unit cost at each estimated quantity, although you will have to add to these unit costs extra items, options, and some allowance for the freight cost of shipping your finished books to their destination. For new customers, expect to be asked for half of the cost of the printing when you place the order, and the other half due before the books ship.
  • Overs/Unders and Trade Customs—There are many trade practices in printing, and the back of printed Estimate forms has for many years been covered with 10 point type printed in gray ink detailing these sometimes odd or arcane customs. The most important “trade practice” to understand regards the quantity of books you order versus the number of books that will be delivered. Trade custom dictates that you may receive “10% overs/unders.” This means that the printer can deliver as many as 10% fewer or more books than you ordered and still have fulfilled your print order. 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.

You’ve probably noticed that these terms are presented in the order in which the book will be produced, and that’s the way most estimates will present them as well. Now you know the terms your printer will use to communicate with you. Next we’ll take a look at a real, live printer’s estimate and see how this plays out in the real world.

Understanding Book Printing Estimates for Self-Publishers, Part 2

Understanding Book Printing Estimates for Self-Publishers, Part 3

Image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, original work copyright by Sam Beebe, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbeebe/5127130916

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Colleen Duncan

    Brother, am I confused. I must say that I really appreciate this blog that I have just now stumbled upon. I am so new to all of this; it would be nice just to find a dictionary for the terminology of printing and publishing. That said, I have a question. I am searching for a reputable printer whom I can work with directly (skipping the middle man). Right now, I am looking at printers in Hong Kong. I try to research companies before I jump into anything. This has been a challenge. Now the question: may I have your opinion on my decision to work directly with a printing company? Thank you.

  2. R Dan

    I read your article on “understanding book printing estimates”. It taught me how to prepare my book information for a quote and get a quote back that was so low I still don’t believe it. Even other authors were shocked at my unit cost.

    Thanks for the help……………..I’ll be here often. R. Dan

    • Joel Friedlander

      That’s great Dan. If you’re used to print on demand pricing, offset can be quick a shock. Good luck with your project.

  3. Aaron Charpentier

    Thanks for sharing that useful information with us Mr. Friedlander.

    I visited an offset printer in Shanghai-China recently because I’d like to print some novels. The problem is that they mostly print guide books and other types of books. They use wood-free printed paper and light duty paper. Are these types of paper used to publish novels?


    • Joel Friedlander

      No, they are probably specialty papers. Unless you are located nearby, I don’t see any particularly good reason to print novels in Asia, although almost all of our full-color books are printed there. We have a great selection of short-run book printers here in the US, most of whom have a wide variety of papers to choose from.

  4. Kay

    If I print my book with Lightning Source, must I get my proofs from them? Is there a less expensive alternate to getting the proof copy of a book?


  5. Betsy Gordon

    What’s impressive, Joel, is the breadth of your knowledge — hard-earned through experience, no doubt. And no matter how old this stuff gets for you, no matter how many times you explain the same thing over and over, there are always new learners coming along to benefit from your teaching in new ways.

    By the way, one of my favorite things about your blog is the way you point us to other blogs of interest to this field. I try to save a couple of hours each week to browse through your suggestions… and to go back and read other blog entries of yours that I might have missed.

    Please don’t get tired of blogging any time soon!


    • Joel Friedlander

      Or maybe it’s just from hanging around so long you just manage to pick up a lot of information? I do write the blog largely for new and almost-new self-publishers, because they are the ones most in need of education and most avid to learn about the field. And no, I’m not getting tired of blogging, I still have too many things to share!

  6. Betsy Gordon

    Hi Joel —

    I really appreciate all this nuts-and-bolts information you’ve given us today!Till recently, all I knew or cared much about was excellent editing of the manuscripts we receive at our new, small publishing company. Well, editing and, of course, building strong relationships with our authors! Now that I read your blog regularly, I’m learning so many other things that go into producing a fine-quality book — from fonts, to cover design, to e-book requirements, and now — to packing and shipping.

    Thank you so much for your generosity in sharing your knowledge with those of us who are less experienced. Besides being really fun to read, your blog has made me think of you as a mentor, of sorts. Hope you don’t mind that!

    And yes, I plan to buy all your compilations for the self-publisher, even though I live in the middle ground of independent publishing, not self-publishing. Thanks for those, too.

    Best wishes,

    • Joel Friedlander

      Betsy, I’m glad you’re interested enough to read through these “nuts and bolts” blog posts, that’s pretty impressive. I try to vary the posts throughout the week and month so there’s a balance. Sometimes I write posts for different reasons. I’ve explained some of these terms so many times it seemed like it would be more efficient to write it up so I can send clients to these pages to get the information they need.

      Thanks for your support, I really appreciate it.

  7. Clifford Feightner

    An extraordinary piece by Joel today. This article on understanding terms used in the printing of your book, and it’s second part coming soon, have the potential to save authors significant $$$, and helps to ensure that the book you envision will the book that comes out of the brown paper carton. I highly recommend it!



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