Book Printing: Quick Guide to the Top Three

With all the talk about print on demand, digital printing and the future of the publishing industry, it’s easy to forget that we’ve got books to produce in the here and now. We need to know the best book printing method to create those books today, this week. Okay, we’re all busy, so I’ll make… [Read More]

3 book printing methods by Joel Friedlander for BookWorks.com

With all the talk about print on demand, digital printing and the future of the publishing industry, it’s easy to forget that we’ve got books to produce in the here and now. We need to know the best book printing method to create those books today, this week. Okay, we’re all busy, so I’ll make this as quick as possible. Let’s dive in.

Three Book Printing Methods

There are actually three different technologies that are used to print books, and each has a role to play for particular kinds of books. Let’s take a look at them and see where each technology come into play.

Letterpress Printing

3 book printing methods by Joel Friedlander for BookWorks.com

This was the main method of printing books and everything else from the dawn of modern printing in Gutenberg’s day until the middle of the twentieth century. Type, pictorial engravings, or etched metal plates made from photographic originals are inked and then brought into contact with a sheet of paper, transferring the images to the paper, one sheet at a time.

Letterpress technology led to large, automated, and very loud printing presses. You can judge just how versatile this printing method became since it overshadowed all other forms of printing for over 400 years.

Letterpress is still in use today. You’ll usually find it employed for very fine limited edition books, and in areas of the world where electricity is unreliable. A letterpress that’s powered by the operator pumping a foot pedal can run for many years with simple maintenance and doesn’t need electricity at all.

Letterpress is valued for its ability to create a page with texture, due to the way the metal type or plates “bite” into the paper being printed. Generally, letterpress books are printed on fine papers and bound with great care, since their price is much higher than for the other methods of book printing

Offset Printing

3 book printing methods by Joel Friedlander for BookWorks.comOffset printing’s development at the beginning of the twentieth century was sparked by the accidental discovery that an image transferred to paper by a rubber covered cylinder was sharper than the image from the original type. This process that employed an image that was offset from the cylinder to the paper gave rise to the name offset printing.

With the advent of industrial uses of photography and advances in paper and platemaking materials, photolithography, the making of printing plates through the photographic process, allowed offset printing to overtake letterpress.

In sheet-fed offset, paper is fed to the press and printed one sheet at a time. In web offset, special presses are used to print from a large roll of paper which, as it travels through the press, forms the web for which it is named.

At the end of a web press, the paper is cut into individual sheets. Bindery equipment to fold, trim and assemble the book is often set up right at the end of the press, allowing the printer to complete a printing project in one pass from blank paper to a finished, assembled job.

Digital Printing

3 book printing methods by Joel Friedlander for BookWorks.comDigital printing, the result of marrying a computer-driven high-speed copying machine or laser printer to computer-driven bindery equipment, is the fastest-growing form of book printing today. Computer servers hold separate but coordinated digital files for the book’s cover and interior text block.

At a request from the operator or a computer instruction, book files are downloaded to the printing end of the press and imaged with toner or ink in the same way your high-end copier images copies. The resulting pages are combined with a cover that’s been produced on a similar machine that can produce color output.

The whole book is glued together and trimmed. Some digital printing equipment can produce an entire book, color cover and all, in just seven minutes.

The major difference between letterpress and offset printing, on one hand, and digital, on the other, is that digital printing is designed to create one copy of a book at a time. The other, earlier methods of printing produce books in stages and only work efficiently when producing many copies at once.

Comparing the Three Printing Methods

3 book printing methods by Joel Friedlander for BookWorks.com

Well, now we know about the three printing methods, but how does that help pick the right one? Here’s how each printing method is best used:

• Letterpress printing is used almost exclusively for fine, limited edition books. The characteristic “bite” of the type into the paper and the resulting subtle texture it adds to the page is impossible with other methods. These books are usually made with lavish materials and can cost hundreds of dollars each.

• Offset printing is used for most books produced today. Web offset is used to make mass market paperbacks, like the ones sold in racks at supermarkets and at airports, and for large print run of other books. Sheet-fed offset book printing offers the best quality reproduction of artwork and photography and is the most flexible when it comes to the number of sizes offered for books and the different kinds of materials available for printing and binding.

• Digital printing is increasingly being used in the print-on-demand distribution model that’s becoming so popular. Larger publishers are moving their backlist books to digital printing, saving money on warehousing and shipping. The self-publishing phenomenon has created a huge demand for digital printing through print on demand distribution since it has eliminated almost all of the cost of putting a book into print.

In Summary: Letterpress printing is for very fine, limited edition collector’s books. Web offset is used for mass market and very high volume books that don’t need to be high quality. Sheet-fed offset is best for print runs over 500 copies or where high-quality reproductions are needed. Use digital printing where print runs are very short or where you have no need of an inventory of books.


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9 thoughts on “Book Printing: Quick Guide to the Top Three”

  1. Tom Parker says:

    Thank you for a “correct” photograph of a letterpress type form locked up in a chase. Letterpress printers view their work reading upside down, from left to right. The is correctly shown in your photograph.
    Most photos online do not have this correct orientation.

    1. Glad we got that right, tx for your comment.

  2. Sharp eyes, Tom! Online photos that get this wrong bug me, too.

  3. Joel has a wealth of information that is very important, and very valuable.. All the forms of book printing are needed and should not be abandoned. I would like to see my book printed in the finest possible way, one day.

  4. Sam DuBois says:

    How nice to get this look “under the tablecloth” at how it actually works! I’ll bet all of us non-specialists, even if we thought we could kinda sorta give a simpler version of this explanation, learned something new! Thanks!

  5. Gerardo, although some people (including me) feel that the highest expression of the physical form of the book occurred during the early- to mid- 20th century, when letterpress was the only way to print books, letterpress printing a book today would be very expensive, ruling it out for most everything except books that carry a high retail price.

  6. Thanks for reading, Sam. Glad to expand the book production knowledge of BookWorks folks.

  7. I run a small elf publishing company in Sydney Australia. I would respectfully suggest that there is a 4th print method that could be added to the list: web offset (it may have a different name in the US).
    It’s used extensively in Australia to print newspapers and magazines but several companies use it for books as well, especially in the 2,000+ quantity range (which is admittedly outside the range for most self printers)

    1. Hi Andrew,

      We call it web offset here in the U.S. also, and it’s used widely in book printing. I considered it a subset of offset printing, so I didn’t think it was a different technology in and of itself, but thanks for filling in my exposition.

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