Digital, Sheet-fed, or Web?

Basically there are three ways to print the text of your book. will only solicit pricing on your behalf from printers whose technology best fits the specifications you’ve submitted.

But in the interest of understanding how your book will be printed let’s take a look at each process.

Both of the ink based printing methods described are offset lithography, a system using plates that are sensitized to hold ink in specific areas while the rest of the plate is kept clean with a thin film of water (lithographic). The inked image is transferred to a compressible rubber blanket that then transfers the ink to the paper (offset printing).

Digital Printing

This is a toner based process also called “on demand” printing. The digital printer uses a file to print directly to a toner based printer, based originally on copying equipment and evolving to today’s sophisticated systems. The printer can print on regular sheets of paper, and some even print from roll stock.

Either way, price seems to be the determining factor in paper selection, and grain direction seems to be less than an afterthought. This means some trim sizes will be produced with the grain parallel to the spine and some won’t (i.e. some books will open easily, and some will try to snap themselves closed).

Covers are also produced digitally from your files on toner based color printers. Quality varies from printer to printer; make sure you request samples of their work. Film lamination is offered for cover enhancement/protection but of a different grade generally used by lithographic printers.

Digital printing has allowed publishers to keep thousands of their slow selling titles available and to test market new titles.

Digital pricing is unusual in that, with most producers, the cost for one digital copy is the same cost per book as the cost per book of ten or even one hundred copies.

Books printed traditionally (with ink) have high fixed costs, making the first book incredibly expensive, but the cost of the second book is roughly half of the first, and copy number 100 is about 1% of the first.

Since traditional production costs per book decrease with the number of copies, the cost per book of the two processes is about the same, somewhere around 300 to 500 copies. Traditional book costs continue to decrease with run length while digital per book costs remain constant.

Further, digital books are produced in exact quantities; an order for ten copies means exactly ten copies will be produced.

But traditional manufacturing produces some waste, so in order to print 1,000 copies, materials to manufacture 1,100 copies may be allocated. This could yield 1,100 finished books, but if there are any problems in production, traditional manufacturers reserve the right to ship as little as 90% of the ordered quantity. Overages are billed per book for the extra copies, and shortages are credited per book on the final invoice.

Either way, the over-run or under-run price is figured on the cost of producing the book with no fixed costs, just time and materials. A book with a unit cost of $2.00 may have an over-run under-run price of just $.85. Most publishers prefer receiving overruns and don’t mind paying for these books because of their reduced price.

As a caution, libraries generally won’t purchase digital books and CIP registration is not available. And while bookstores will special order a digital book for a customer, they generally won’t stock the book on their shelves.

Sheet-Fed Printing

Sheet-fed lithographic presses were once the work horses of the short run book manufacturers. They were made ready quickly with little waste and reached top speed in a minute or two. Some even perfected the sheet, meaning it printed both sides of the sheet in one pass through the press.

Sheet-fed presses print paper one sheet at a time and deliver printed flat sheets ready for folding or finishing. Some feed paper directly from skids, and some have a roll sheeter that cuts custom size sheets from rolls as the press runs (roll paper runs 10 – 20% less than sheets.)

Modern sheet-fed text presses run almost twice as fast as presses 25 years ago. Speeds of 12,000 sheets per hour are common even on perfecting presses (24,000 impressions per hour perfecting).

The capability of sheet-fed printing is proven by the fact that small format sheet-fed presses print almost all book covers, the most demanding printing of a book. Small format sheet-fed presses excel at controlling inking and color to color register while minimizing waste.

Given the press speeds of modern sheet-fed text presses, they are now competitive on longer runs that were once most efficient on web presses.

Web Press Printing

If digital printing is seen as adapting most quickly to the demands of book publishers, lithographic web printing is a close second. Once viewed as inefficient, wasteful, and incapable of high quality printing, today’s newest book web presses combine high speed with minimal waste and excellent reproduction.

Since the paper is fed steadily from a roll rather than lifting and feeding individual sheets, much higher speeds can be attained, as fast as 1500 feet per minute, or 25,000 signatures per hour.

Another advantage is that web presses print then fold the paper to yield 24 or 32 page signatures ready for the binder straight from the press.

A number of printers run older web presses which produce signatures at high press speeds but generally can’t compete with the newer models in terms of waste and quality. Still, a long run book without graphics would print just fine on an older press, and older presses seem to have hourly rates that are just a fraction of the newest webs.

By minimizing waste to near sheet-fed levels, the newest book webs compete actively for run lengths that were once automatically sent to sheet-fed shops.