Book Printing: How to Avoid a Printing Disaster

Going to press is exciting. Lots of hard work is behind you, and the finished book is close to becoming a reality. But as you print your books, you should be aware of potential complications. Consider the printing of your book as a custom project. The jacket, covers, and text are unique–written, designed, and printed specifically for you as opposed to being interchangeable commodities to be pulled from a shelf.

That being said, it's difficult for a printer to produce the precise amount of books you request. When the printer orders materials for printing a book, he must allow for spoilage at each manufacturing stage. If production runs smoothly and spoilage is kept to a minimum, there will likely be higher yields of the final product. These extra books are referred to in the industry as "overs."

And here's where people tend to get confused: Your invoice will reflect the total amount of books shipped from the printer, meaning that if relatively few books have defects, you'll end up being charged for the total number of books shipped.

Potentially, there are also "unders." You guessed it–that's when spoilage is higher than anticipated, leaving you short on your print run. Unders are less common than overs, but your chances of receiving them rise with smaller runs and more complex projects. Press "make ready" (bringing a press up to speed, setting the proper ink densities, registration, etc.) typically takes the same amount of time and material whether you're printing 2,000 or 20,000 books. Thus spoilage, or lack thereof, can have a greater impact on the actual copies shipped on smaller runs versus larger runs.

When you go to press, you should be prepared to receive up to 10% variance in the final amount of copies. That's the industry standard, but you shouldn't be charged for overs that exceed 10% of the initial run. Likewise, the printer should be expected to provide at least 90% of what you ordered.

Don't, however, assume anything. Communicate with your printer, getting detailed information on their over and under policy, before signing an agreement. Set a print run that takes into account worst-case scenarios. If you must have 2,000 books for an event, order more to avoid too few copies. An unexpected underage can leave you in a tight spot, as you will probably not have time to go back to press. (Average time to allow for reprints can be 5-6 weeks, even longer if you're printing overseas.)

It's best to go in knowing that you'll have to be flexible. But the important thing, as always, is to create consumer demand and sell the books you do get, no matter what the exact quantity may be.