Print Positive: Selecting Binding

The choice of binding is a critical piece of the publishing process. The right choice can help maximize title revenue and margins, while the wrong choice can diminish sales and increase costs. Awareness of the technical nuances in book binding can add value while keeping costs down.

Overview
Definitions
Grain Direction
Hardcover or Paperback?
How Paperbacks Are Bound
Which Paperback Glue to Specify
Binding Glues Compared
Sewn Paperbacks
How Hardcovers Are Bound
Key Hardcover Binding Options
Hardcover Binding Recommendations

Overview on Binding

Note: This overview covers the relationship between binding choice, list price, and maximizing title revenue. If this is old news for you, you can skip to technical sections.

Choosing the binding for your book is largely a marketing decision. Genre titles selling to readers who consume them serially and pay for them out of their own entertainment budget must have a low selling price, and therefore require an inexpensive paperback binding—or no binding at all, as an eBook. A medical reference title, on the other hand, might contain information critical to the practice of a high-paying specialty. It will be a business expense, further reducing price resistance. The high price will easily pay for the additional expense of hardcover binding, and the hardcover binding itself reinforces the notion of high value. Binding type is strongly related to perceived value, as illustrated in this table:

Binding List Price Range
Hardcover $22.00–$200.00
Trade paperback $12.00–$30.00
Mass-market paperback $7.99–$11.99
Unbound (eBook) $1.99–$14.99

Some books are published in multiple editions with different binding. The editions are released in sequence, highest list price to lowest, to maximize revenue to the author and publisher. Called “windowing,” this is similar to the way that movies start at first-run venues with high ticket prices and move to cheaper-ticket theaters after the first run enthusiasm tapers off. With books, the theory is that for a big-name author there is a substantial audience of price-insensitive buyers who will purchase a hardcover at a premium price in order to read the latest and greatest. Following a year later, a less expensive trade paperback or mass-market edition (depending on the category) is released for sale to readers who will wait to buy the less expensive edition. In this way, revenue is maximized for the author and publisher.

A variant of this practice is the sale of paperback rights to another publisher subsequent to the publication of a successful hardcover first edition. Often, a smaller literary publisher with a hardcover success can make more money for themselves and the author by selling the paperback publication rights to a larger publisher rather than publishing the paperback themselves.

Windowing is getting trickier with Amazon pre-selling hardcover new releases at steep discounts, diminishing the market for the title at walk-in bookstores as well as for a subsequent trade paperback edition. Also, Amazon actively markets the lower eBook price as a “savings” over the print price for the same title. This is a battlefield for new titles, with publishers trying to hold the line on new-release eBook prices so they don’t kill the hardcover market, and Amazon pushing to reduce eBook prices, regardless of what it does to publishers.

There are markets where delaying a paperback edition is irrelevant: university press monographs–published for a small audience of academics–are often released simultaneously in a hardcover edition for libraries and a trade paperback edition for sale to individuals. This is called a “split run.”

Once upon a time, book reviewers were major influencers of book purchases. Because many refused to review paperbacks, there was incentive for publishers to publish in hardcover for publicity reasons. As influence has shifted from traditional reviewers to bloggers and Amazon reviews, that incentive has diminished.

Binding is not the only factor influencing list price: an author’s popularity or a specialist audience can push prices higher, while public domain copyright status and category competition can push it lower.

Libraries have their own requirements for binding. Because it is expensive for libraries to replace worn out books, libraries generally prefer hardcovers for their main collections. In fact, there is a whole category of businesses called “rebinders” that purchase books that are only available in a paperback edition and rebind them as hardcover specifically for sale to libraries.

Definitions

A “trade paperback” means a paperback book sold in a bookstore, as opposed to a “mass-market paperback”, which is the smaller size sold in drugstores and supermarkets as well as bookstores. Trade paperbacks are generally printed on better paper than the groundwood used in mass-market paperbacks.

A “hardcover” book may also be referred to as a “casebound” or “cloth” edition. They all mean the same thing: pages bound between hinged boards covered in cloth or special paper. Hardcover bindings come with a wide variety of options, from plain to extravagant; more on these options in a forthcoming article.

“Mechanical” binding uses wire or plastic in coil or comb form to bind the pages and cover of a book together. Commonly used for applications where the book must lie flat, such as cookbooks and address books, mechanical bindings fare poorly in the book trade. Booksellers often decline to order books with such bindings because they are easily damaged by browsing customers and typically do not have a spine to display the title when shelved.

Grain Direction

Whatever binding type you choose, make sure that your book is bound with the grain direction parallel to the binding. Because of the way paper is made, the fibers are aligned in one direction rather than randomly arranged. Paper flexes much better parallel to the grain rather than at right angles to it. The pages of a book bound with the grain direction perpendicular to the binding turn grudgingly and may warp or cup. Any printer that prints books as its main business will quote your book assuming that the book is to be bound with correct grain direction. Occasionally, a book with an unusual trim size is more economical to bind cross grain than grain correct: don’t do it–anything to be gained by the special page size will be lost in the lousy feel of browsing through the cross-grain pages. Change the trim size instead. Finally, beware of printers who claim they can print and bind your book, but don’t know what grain direction is.

Hardcover or Paperback?

For an independent publisher, the answer is trade paperback–not mass-market paperback–with the following exceptions, where hardcover could be the preferred option:

  • The publisher has a track record of successful windowing with first-edition hardcovers and subsequent republication or rights sale in paperback.
  • Aesthetic concerns or cultural significance call for a hardcover binding and the budget allows for the more expensive binding irrespective of how many books are actually likely to sell. Bear in mind that hardcovers are physically larger and heavier than the equivalent paperback: not only will printing be more expensive, so will shipping and storage.

How Paperbacks Are Bound

  1. The interior pages of the book are printed and gathered together into a book block consisting either of loose pages or folded groups of pages called signatures.
  2. The cover is printed and, typically, laminated for protection. At this point it is a flat sheet.
  3. In the binding machine:
    a. The covers are stacked upside down in a feeder.
    b. The book blocks are inserted in a clamp one by one.
    c. The clamp moves the book block through the binder across stations where the spine is milled to prepare it for glue, and hot liquid glue is rolled across the spine.
    d. The clamp moves the book block over a nipping station where the upside down cover waits, positioned precisely on a steel platen.
    e. The platen raises to press the cover against the glue-covered spine and simultaneously closes to fold the front and back covers around the book block. The clamp pauses to allow the glue to cool and set a bit.
    f. The newly-covered book block travels to a delivery chute, where the clamp releases it.
  4. The book is trimmed on three sides: the top, foreedge and bottom.
  5. The book is packed in a carton with other copies of the same book.

This process is called “perfect binding.” The two kinds of glue that are widely used for perfect binding are Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) and Polyurethane reactive (PUR). Both are heated before application to the spine of the book.

Which Paperback Glue to Specify

In general, EVA is perfectly adequate for binding books on normal weight, uncoated paper stocks. PUR creates a stronger bond when binding coated stocks, heavy stocks, and pages printed on some digital color printers (e.g., the Xerox iGen). These printers use large amounts of silicone oil when printing, and EVA glues do not like to stick when silicone oil is present. PUR is also used in the school library market, where binding durability is critical. As a side note, some digital printing companies, including Bookmobile, recommend printing color illustrated books on high-quality, heavy uncoated stocks because they can then be bound strongly with EVA glue, as well as because digital presses print better on uncoated rather than coated stock.

Binding Glues Compared

Glue type Strength with uncoated papers Strength with coated papers Flexibility Cost
EVA Excellent Poor Good Low
PUR Excellent Excellent Excellent Premium

Sewn Paperbacks

Occasionally, publishers request that paperback books be Smythe-sewn before being perfect bound. Because the perfect binding still uses glue–whether EVA or PUR–the book will have the same qualities as a regular perfect-bound book. The durability depends more on how well the binding was done than on whether the book block is sewn. In other words, this belt-and-suspenders approach is a waste of money.

How Hardcovers Are Bound

  1. The interior pages of the book are printed and gathered together into a book block consisting of loose pages or folded signatures.
  2. The pages (or folded signatures) are attached at the spine with glue, sometimes with a reinforcing strip of muslin.
  3. A folded sheet called an endsheet is glued onto the first page of the book block, and one on the last page.
  4. A case is custom-made for the book.
  5. The front endsheet is glued to the inside of the front case cover, and the back endsheet glued to the inside of the back case cover. The glue floods the whole area of the endsheet and inside covers, creating a very strong bond.
  6. The whole assembly is clamped so that the glue sets it into a nice, tight book.
  7. If there is a dust jacket, it is wrapped around the book.
  8. The book is packed into a carton with other copies of the same book.

Key Hardcover Binding Options

There are many options for hardcover binding involving colors, textures and other aesthetic aspects of the materials used. The key production consideration, however, is how the book block is assembled. Here are some common methods:

  • The book block is perfect bound with endsheet material as a cover, using EVA or PUR glue. This is sometimes called “adhesive casebinding.”
  • The book block is glued up using cold glue in a process called “adhesive fan binding.”
  • When the pages are printed on large sheets and folded into signatures, the signatures can be sewn together into a book block. This is called “Smythe sewing.”
  • Signatures or pages can be “side-stitched.” This only works for books with lower page counts (e.g., children’s picture books).

Hardcover Binding Recommendations

The best hardcover binding technology choices are illustrated in the following table:

Type of book Best digital printing option Best offset printing option
Trade-sized hardcover; fiction, nonfiction Adhesive casebinding Adhesive casebinding. With some offset printers Smythe sewing may cost no more
Illustrated books with large page sizes Print on uncoated stock and use EVA adhesive casebinding; or, use PUR adhesive casebinding Smythe-sewn casebinding or PUR adhesive casebinding
Childrens books for library market, 24-48 pages Side-sewn casebinding or PUR adhesive casebinding Side-sewn casebinding or PUR adhesive casebinding
Childrens books for library market, higher page counts PUR adhesive casebinding Smythe-sewn casebinding or PUR adhesive casebinding