March 26, 2023


Digital Art Community

Making Book Part 9: Don’t be a Dumb Sheet
Rolls of paper at our Tennessee plant, before they are cut into sheets that will be fed into the Japanese-built printing press.

Some of the entries in this “Making Book” series are deeply personal. Others are technical. This one is all business.

Printing and woodworking share similarities. The obvious: Both use trees as the most important raw ingredient, and a knowledge of wood, moisture and finishing is critical to doing things not completely stupidly.

The other similarity I run into all the time is how we optimize parts from a board the same way we optimize the size of a book to get an efficient number of pages per sheet of paper.

Quick example: Let’s say you have a pine 1×12 (which is actually 11-1/4″ wide) and you need to rip some trim pieces out for a baseboard. If you choose to make your baseboard 5-1/2″ wide, then you could easily get two pieces of baseboard from the 1×12 with only a little waste (depending on the width of your saw kerf). But if you made your baseboard 6″ wide, you would get only one piece of baseboard from the 1×12 and have a lot of waste/leftover material.

The same goes with books. The typical sheets of paper that we work with are 23″ x 35″ and 25″ x 38″. So if we order an 8.5″ x 11″ book, the press can print eight “leaves” (eight leaves equals 16 pages printed front and back) on that sheet. We print the 16 pages, fold it up into what’s called a “signature,” assemble all the signatures and trim it with little waste.

A 32-page sheet that will become a signature after folding and trimming.

Let’s say you decided your book should be 8.5″ x 12″. That will almost double the cost of the book because of all the wasted paper involved. 

If you do the math, you’ll find there are a lot of efficient sizes that can be squeezed onto this sheet of paper and produce signatures from four pages up to 64. And whether you know it or not, these sizes are also commonly paired with the type of information inside. Here’s a chart (which has been reproduced many times in my lifetime) on the sizes common to each genre:

  • Fiction: 4.25″ x 6.87″, 5″ x 8″, 5.25″ x 8″, 5.5″ x 8.5″, 6″ x 9″
  • Novella: 5″ x 8″
  • Children’s: 7.5″ x 7.5″, 7″ x 10″, 10″ x 8″
  • Textbooks: 6″ x 9″, 7″ x 10″, 8.5″ x 11″
  • Non-fiction: 5.5″ x 8.5″, 6″ x 9″, 7″ x 10″
  • Memoir: 5.25″ x 8″, 5.5″ x 8.5″

To some degree, this makes perfect sense. A Fabio-centric beach novel that was 11″ x 17″ would be pretty odd (though it would definitely add to the spf of your sunscreen and your knowledge of Fabio’s pore structure).

So if you want to save money on printing, pick an efficient size. Your graphic designer might be sad with your decision because odd-sized books are exciting to design, especially after you had to design 3,000 cookbooks that were 8.5″ x 11″. I get it.

You also have to pick your paper, which is a major expense in printing a book. This is more art than science. But there is some science. Paper is sold with a “basis weight.” This is why we talk about a book having #80 pages. The “#80” is pronounced as “80 pound.” And it means (broadly) that 500 full sheets (23″ x 35″ or 25″ x 38″) will weigh 80 pounds. (Paper nerds are now folding origami swords to stab me. Yes, I know there are different parent sheets for bond, book, text, index, bristol, and cover.)

Basically the bigger the number, the thicker the sheet. Paper can also be measured directly by thickness, called its “caliper” – just like woodworking!

Paper can be uncoated (like in a pulp novel or a newspaper) or coated (like in an expensive art book). Uncoated is far less expensive, in general, and more tactile. But image reproduction isn’t typically as crisp. Coated paper can be smoother, produce crisper images and have many different sheens. (What are papers coated with? It’s complicated.) Paper also has a lot of other characteristics, such as its whiteness and opacity.

I choose papers for our books based on the type of press and what that factory is happy using. A sheet-fed press (where the pages go through individually like a photocopier) is way different than a web press (where the paper is like a giant roll of toilet paper). Before I spec a paper for a Lost Art Press book, I request printed, finished examples from the press on the different papers I’m considering.

This allows me to be dumb-ish about the whole world of paper and its characteristics. I get to see the finished result and compare it to other papers printed by the same plant.

This allows you to get away from the “expensive and heavy papers are better” problem in book production. They’re not always better. There are sweet spots in print production, where a cheaper and thinner paper gives you a better result.

This is what allowed us to use a #70 matte coated paper for “The Anarchist’s Workbench” on a web press that was inexpensive but really really crisp. When I compared it directly to the pricey #80 paper, it was no contest.

Numbers are one thing. But there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.