Producing Your Book - Part 2
Digital Printing
The Henry Ford of the Printing & Publishing Universe

Why Henry Ford, you ask?

Because before he came up with his assembly line for maufacturing the Model T, only rich people could afford to buy a “horseless” carriage. The average man had to stick with a real horse and buggy. But when automobiles began to be massed produced, the unit cost dropped and now everyone could afford one. All the barns became garages and here we are today ...

That’s about what has happened with digital technology and the printing industry over the last thirty years. In Producing Your Book – Part 1, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about “mortgaging your home, car and first-born” in order to afford to offset print a four-color process book. It was that expensive. It was because of the technical skills, labor, equipment and materials that would be needed to produce a job like that. And it could take six, eight, maybe twelve weeks to see the final product. And it had better be a large quantity of books, because, if not, just like those early Model T’s, your unit cost would be so high you wouldn’t be able to price them to sell. So not many authors or artists with ambitions to self-publish a children’s book filled with lavish wall-to wall color illustrations would have seen their dream come to pass.

Fast forward twenty or thirty years – technology! Technology that’s made four-color process printing affordable. If you just need a handfull of flyers – say you’re putting up flyers in your neighborhood to advertise your yard sale or to ask for help finding your lost dog – you probably will create and print them at home with a computer and a desktop printer – in full glorious color!

But maybe you’re needing a larger quantity than that – a big fund-raising bake sale at the school or church – and don’t want to use up your ink at home. So you simply email full color electronic graphics files to a digital shop at 9 am and pick up your printing on the way home from work. Maybe even lunch time! Did you need bindery work? Like maybe letter-folding? Maybe a few informational pages bound and coiled? Maybe add a cover? No problem! Most of those can be done at the same shop, but if not, they’ll send it out to a vendor that specializes in that and you can pick it up in days, not weeks.

This technology has had a huge – and I do mean, HUGE – impact on book publishing. It’s probably the reason you are even considering publishing a book. And why you’re here on my website finding out about the process.

Because there was once a day not so long ago when traditional publishing houses and their authors kind of sniffed their noses at self-published authors: “How sad for poor Mr. Jones! No real publisher would touch his book! Poor dear had to go it alone!”

But no one’s sniffing at Mr. Jones any more!

Those once questionable vanity publishers have evolved into reputable self-publishing houses. Many traditional publishers have jumped on board, adding self-publishing divisions. These outfits are great for inexperienced authors that want to self publish, because they will assist an author through the whole process with graphic art services, printing, marketing and promotion.

Let’s add the internet to the equation, and opportunity abounds! If Mr. Jones is really ambitious, perhaps he will totally go it alone. The world is at his finger tips. If he’s willing and able, he can do his research, learn the process, decide the path he will follow and then do all the hard leg work to make his dream a reality! And he can be very successfull! Sometimes wildly successful!

And it’s not just the authors. The artists and illustrators – me! – have the same great opportunities beckoning to them. What a great time in history to be a creative person!

So, enough jabber already! Let’s find out how a digital shop differs from an offset shop.

Digital Printing – Welcome to the 21st Century

In the offset shop, you do the art on the computer, send that file to the image setter to separate colors and print film, then proceed to strip up the film on masking sheets, burn the plates – for 4-color process that means 4 plates per side per signature! – attach and line up the plates on the press, adjust the press for the paper you are running, fill up the inkwell ... whew! Now you can print.

In the digital shop, you do the art on the computer. You usually have the original design file to show your client. Then you will probably have another file that’s set up for printing so that everything can be arranged correctly for cutting, scoring or folding or whatever is needed. That print file replaces film, stripping, plates, plate and blanket adjustments, and messy inkwells. Just hit “print”.

In those last paragraphs of Producing Your Book – Part 1, I was explaining how it’s much better to print large quantities of books to keep the cost per book affordable. Because of the set-up involved, smaller runs in offset printing are not economical.

This is basically true for digital printing also. There is some set-up in preparing the files and the press. The same amount of set-up to produce a few books will be needed to produce hundreds of books. So you will get a better per-unit price on larger runs. But – and this is a very big BUT! – if you only want 20 books, 5 books, 1 book – it will probably not be totally cost prohibitive! Offset can’t do that!

The one caveat in this is the cover ... if your book is getting a hard or soft wrap around cover. Most printers will have a minimum quantity that they require for geting bound. But you will still be able to get a much smaller quanity produced than you could with offset, and have it be affordable. If you have a very small book that will get saddlestitched or coiled, this won’t even be an issue.

And ... do you want to know the number one really amazing thing a digital press can do?

You can send over an electronic file with 32 single pages, in the correct order, for an 8.5”x11” book. Be sure to include blank pages where they fall.

Load up the paper tray with 11”x17” paper (or larger if you have bleeds).

In the print dialog box, adjust the settings to tell the printer to assemble those 32 pages into a book. Hit “print”.

What you will get out the other end is a 32 page folded book with all the pages in the correct order!

No film, no stripping, no plates, no setting up presses, no wet messy ink. Hit “Print” and in minutes you have a book! And NOT a mock-up of what the proposed book will look like ... but an actual book!

You can even add a pre-printed cover in another tray, and tell the machine to pull a cover to add to your book!

Some presses will also saddlestitch and trim the three outside edges of the book!

Don’t want saddlestitching? No problem! Let the machine print your book without folding. Cut the prints in half, put the first 16 pages in the correct position on top of the last 16 pages. Then glue or attach your cover and you have a book!

Digital Signatures

Check out Producing Your Book – Part 1 if you need an explanation of “signatures”.

In the digital shop the signature for an 8.5”x11” book will generally be 4 pages, because you are running 2 pages up, front and back. There are exceptions when a shop may be using a larger-format press that can handle larger size sheets. But most of the time it will be a standard size press that will only go up to 12”x18” or 13”x19” paper. These larger sizes are needed over a normal tabloid size (11”x17”) to allow for bleeds which will be trimmed away. Now if you need to add/delete pages, you will need to do it in multiples of 2 or 4. Always check with your publisher/printer to find out what they require.

Some Digital Gotcha’s...


I mentioned in the Part 1 article about the outstanding registration on an offset press. It’s because of the mechanics of the press that pulls each piece of paper exactly along the same path, and the stationary plate and blanket that put the printed image in the exact same place every time.

Not so with a digital press. While you won’t have a problem with blurry, unregistered images, there is the slightest bounce with digital presses and the image might not land perfectly on each piece of paper that travels through the press. This can make for some unhappy surprises in the bindery department when the pages get trimmed. Most of the time this isn’t a problem. But it can really show up if you like straight borders and tiny margins. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Outside Page margins need to be absolute minimum .25” from outside trimmed page edge. A little larger would be better. That means no typed copy, including page numbers, or important elements of a photo or illustration should be any closer to the trimmed page edge than .25”.
  • Inside Page Margins at the gutter need to be absolute minimum of .375” from shifted image edge to accommodate the gutter for typed copy and important elements. .5” or greater would be even better. This inside area of the page has to also contend with the rounded page as the reader reads the book. While not too much of a problem with thinner picture books, let’s not make reading physically challenging!
  • Keep vertical and horizontal straight lines in photos and illustrations, borders, edges of straight graphics, etc. well inside the above margins.


I said this earlier: that smaller quantities of digitally produced books are economically feasible depending on the type of cover your book needs. Print shops will have limits on minimum quantities for book binding. Of course you can use on-line services like Blurb or Shutterfly to get just one or two copies of a hard cover book.


Another gotcha’ is the slight color shift that can occur with digital equipment. Sometimes this is noticeable on second runs of the same book a few months later ... even when they are printed on the same press using the same files! Usually not a big deal, but sometimes it might be. If it is a big deal, consider using an offset shop where color can be controlled better and future runs will be consistent. See my article Digital Color in the Freebies tab for a more in-depth discussion of this.
For a real-life example of a color shift on a reprint of a digital job, see my blog from July 3, 2019.

But for now ... let’s talk covers! Click on Producing Your Book – Part 3.