The Persistent Myth of Standardization in Book Printing

In a recent post, Mike Shatzkin argued that book publishers ought to face up to the necessity of “standardization.” But what would actually be gained–and what lost?

I’ve heard this argument before, usually from smart people in the book business who are on the sales or distribution side rather than in production. I think it’s one of those instances where a lack of specific knowledge makes easy to have great ideas, independent of the facts. (Just as I once, in my youthful ignorance, argued that publishers ought to just say they won’t sell books on a returnable basis.) Just to be clear, I always argue against spending money on production that provides no perceivable value to the consumer, as I do here. Especially within the trade publishing model, with its dismal margins and ever-present spectre of returns, publishers shouldn’t spend a penny more than is necessary. However, I would argue that there are production decisions that seem frivolous upon superficial examination, but are actually intrinsic to creating value for the reader, including trim sizes and typefaces, the two examples Shatzkin gives as ripe for standardization if only publishers would see the light.

Let’s look at those two things: trim sizes and type faces. What would actually be gained by standardizing them–and what lost?

Trim Sizes

It is absolutely the case that an eighth-inch increase in page size can increase printing cost significantly. Printing presses–both offset and digital–are limited in terms of the size of the paper they can print on. Printing the maximum number of pages on a sheet keeps paper and press-time costs to a minimum. For example, our Océ 6320 digital perfectors can print pages up to 6-1/8″ x 9-1/8″  eight pages to a sheet. Increase the page size to 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″ or 6-1/4″ x 9-1/8″, and only four pages can be printed per sheet: a 50% reduction in the number of pages printed per hour, and increased waste in paper trim. The same logic applies to offset presses, even though they allow printing more pages per sheet. So page size definitely makes a difference!

However–and it’s a big however–between 6″x 9″ and the next sheet size down, which supports 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ pages, size makes no difference whatsoever. If we are printing eight pages per sheet, it makes absolutely no difference whether those pages are 6″x9″, 6″x8-1/2″, 5-7/8″ x 8″, you name it. It is true that the setup for the final trimming of the book has to be adjusted, but we, like all book printers, have preset setups for a huge variety of page sizes, having long ago bowed to the marketplace requirement of flexibility. It takes no longer to set up binding equipment for one of the odd sized books.

This is not true just for digital book printing. We buy about a million dollars a year worth of offset printing on behalf of publishers and have been doing so for over 25 years. So I can tell you that offset printing is no different than digital in this regard: if you ask for a printing quote at 6″x 9″ trim, and one at any of these intermediate sizes, with everything else comparable there will be no difference in cost. And I’m just using the range of sizes between 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″ and 6″x 9″ as an example: there are other ranges of sizes, smaller and larger, within which the printing cost is going to be the same. The fact is that book printers are in fact the original mass-customization manufacturers.

It is true that trim size standardization is important for a true Print-on-Demand model, as used by Lightning Source. In this circumstance, setup times basically have to be zero because there is only one book across which to amortize the cost of that setup. Even in this production environment, equipment manufacturers have responded to the market with binders and trimmers that can adjust automatically for each individual book in a cycle. And in any case, assuming you’re going to sell more than 50 copies of a book in a year, it is significantly more economical and provides higher quality to print in runs much longer than one-at-a-time.

So within the imposition ranges there are no benefits to standardization. Are there any costs to standardization? Why not stick with one trim size for all your books?

Well, for one thing, word count in books varies rather drastically. Printing a book with a short word count on even a medium-sized page can result in too thin a spine for distribution, on the one hand, or excessive printing cost on the other. Conversely, printing a big book in a small page size can make the spine too thick to bind and the pages really awkward to read. This is one of the things that designers and editors scope out when they are planning production for a book. In fact, the first task of a book designer is not to focus on style elements, but rather on the most efficient way to produce the book, which includes the choice of trim size.

Shatzkin argues that publishers should focus on editorial and marketing, and leave other tasks up to specialists. Well, trim size choice is in fact a marketing decision. Different trim size signal different kinds of books to people who buy books–at least those who buy a lot of books. I learned this at thirteen, when I haunted the bookstores on Telegraph Avenue: Moe’s, Cody’s, Shakespeare and Company, and others. A Grove book had a certain look, New Directions another, etc. Now, at the time I didn’t even know what a book publisher did, but I had learned the association of differing content with the different trim sizes. The books in Moe’s and Cody’s were all over the place in terms of size, as well as thickness and cover design, of course. And that meant, and means, something. Trim size is an aspect of the language of book design.

There was another book store a few blocks away on Bancroft–Jensen’s, I think–that mostly had books in standard sizes, 5-1/2″ x 8-1/2″, 7″ x 10″, 8-1/2″ x 11″: study guides and textbooks and the like. Boring books, in other words. Trim sizes have connotations, and standardized book sizes belong to the the realm of text books, Cliff Notes, and the productions of Print-on-Demand outfits like Lulu and Createspace. They bring no cost benefits to most publishers, and in fact diminish the marketing message, appeal, and value of the book.

Type Faces

As with choosing page sizes, a lot of what designers and editors do when working on the designs of books is making practical decisions about production. As mentioned earlier, books vary tremendously in word count. It would make no sense to print Piketty’s 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century in 14-point type, nor Yoko Ono’s 216-page Acorn in 9-point type. As with choosing trim sizes, these seemingly trivial choices can have a huge impact on the cost to print the book: a slight increase in type size can add dozens of extra pages, or a reduction in type size could result in a book that is too thin to have a printed spine. Same goes for typeface choice: Palatino allows 10% fewer characters per page than Baskerville. So a book that is 600 pages set in Baskerville will run roughly another 60 pages in Palatino. That’s two 32-page offset signatures! With a short book, the reverse consideration comes into play. Which is the better typeface depends on the book.

It must be said (apparently) that the design of books is part of marketing as well. Readers are graphically sophisticated. It does make a difference whether you use Baskerville or Times Roman. Even at thirteen, I knew that Times Roman is what you find in the books in the bookstore with standardized trim sizes. The boring books.

The Myth of the Uber Template

The next bright idea that comes up with smart book people who are not production people is a general-purpose book design template with every possible element defined. Been there, done that: in 2001 I started a venture-funded company called Pagewing whose purpose was to build an eponymous online system enabling book publishers to create books as master XML objects from which high-quality print pages and various flavors of eBooks could be automatically generated. As part of that project, we created master book models based on Docbook with every conceivable element and a corresponding catalog of book designs. We did books for Houghton Mifflin, FS&G, Graywolf Press, and others on the system. And what we found was that even novels would almost inevitably throw curveballs at us: there was no alternative to sitting down and analyzing the text and producing it in a deliberate fashion. Which is what designers do.

None of these arguments mean that the process of design shouldn’t be efficient. I, too, have been in meetings where the choice of typeface occupied ridiculous amounts of time. But that doesn’t mean that design choices aren’t important, it just means that the decision-making process was dysfunctional; a management issue, not a design issue. Further, choosing not to use a designer is in fact a design choice, one curiously retrograde in the extremely design-conscious world of the twenty-first century consumer.

I do actually agree with Shatzkin that there is potential for unbundling publishing functions. We participate in this with our client OR Books. OR focuses on core publishing functions, while we produce and manage inventory and fulfill orders. The difference between their very successful model and what Shatzkin proposes is their definition of core functions: while he limits the core functions to editorial and marketing, they add a third: design. With good reason. Thinking that books can be all forced into cookie cutter templates will not save money, and will impact the value of the book.

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Don Leeper is founder and CEO of Bookmobile, which has provided design, printing, eBook, and distribution services for book publishers since 1982.