The Publishing Life

Book Manufacturing

If you ever get the chance to visit a printing press, do it. I’ve had the privilege to visit two of them. The first was in the late 80s in Cincinnati at Standard Publishing’s printing press. (That facility closed in 2004.) Their plant was quite large and did a wide variety of printing, everything from books to church curriculum to Star Wars coloring books. It was rather amusing to see those Star Wars coloring books on a pallet next to Sunday school take-home papers. Hope they didn’t mix them up!

The other plant was Bethany Press International in Bloomington, MN. During my years with Bethany House Publishers I visited this facility many times since their building is about 100 yards from the back door of the publishing company. It was fun to take our authors on a tour to see their books come “hot off the press.”

The beauty of watching the books being printed is partly the fascination of cool machines, but also an insight into all of the incredible details that go into the manufacturing process.

Many may not know that books are usually printed in 16-page increments called “signatures.” This is because the pages are printed on two sides, then folded, bound, then cut. Take a look at the top edge of a typical hardcover book. You’ll see the image below. Each section is a signature. That is why you’ll find blank pages at the end of some books. They are not for note taking; it is simply leftover paper. That is why you see a page count of 192 or 224 or 320, etc.

There are times where 32-page or 64-page signatures are also used for printing efficiency. But an 8-page signature is an extra expense as it is not as efficiently handled by the offset web presses.

Example of eleven signatures in a printed book

Note, however, that print-on-demand does not have this blank-page problem. They literally charge for each page printed. Thus having blank pages in the back is unnecessary.

Also there are certain book-jacket treatments that make a book feel or look special. The standard lamination is what we are used to seeing because it is the most inexpensive process. That is the glossy lamination on the majority of books.

Some books get a matte finish, which gives a tactile feel to the cover, almost a rough, yet smooth, touch. This has become more common over the years.

Next is the spot-gloss finish. This is where they start with the matte finish above, but use the gloss lamination on specific spots on the cover. They might laminate only the letters in the author’s name, the face of the character on the jacket design, or maybe only the title. This is an additional cost for every book printed.

Last is the embossing or stamping process where they created a metal plate that stamps an imprint on every jacket. So instead of a flat cover, each book has embossed, or raised, letters or symbols. This can be expensive because the publisher must first create the metal stamp (a few hundred dollars just for the plate). Then, after the cover is printed, each jacket must be run through the process a second time to stamp the imprint into the paper. This is very labor intensive and a lot of spoilage can happen if the imprint starts to miss its mark. We’ve all seen a few books that got past the inspectors where the stamp doesn’t fit the design by being off by as little as a sixteenth of an inch.

And then some really special books get a gold foil that is also applied to the cover before the embossing process.

Why am I telling you all this boring stuff? Partly because its fun for book nerds! But also it can help you understand the big picture behind the traditional publishers who use offset web press print runs. The following is a four minute video of the printing process of The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. It takes you behind the scenes of a printing company to see it at work. This book was released in 2009 with a first printing of 5,000,000 (five million) copies. Note the cover treatments described above as they are applied to the manufacturing of this book. The publisher had to use more than one printer to fill this print order. At the stated rate of 30,000 books per hour, a single press must run for more than 167 hours (nearly seven full days) to print that many books! Thus they had to spread it out among many presses.

[an earlier version of this post ran in September 2009]

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Four Questions About Publicity

by Steve Laube

Publicity is the art of telling the world about you and your book. We recently received a few questions about publicity via the green button you see in the right hand column of our blog (yes, it really works).

1.) When should a writer hire a publicist?
I think an author should wait to see what their publisher will provide in this area. If you do hire a publicist make sure they coordinate with your publisher so as to not duplicate efforts. (Don’t aggravate your local TV station with multiple PR contacts.)

But the question was “when” not “should.” So let me re-answer.

If you are on your own with regard to your PR, you should hire that firm six to nine months prior to the release date of your book. The PR firm will be handicapped if you wait too long. They need lead time especially in the area of getting reviews for your book. Few review outlets are interested in a book after it has already been released.

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Books Are Still Selling

Despite the desire of many to declare the death of the book, they continue to sell at a breathtaking pace. (New Yorker magazine “Twilight of the Books”  and BBC future – “Are paper books really disappearing?”) According to the “Association of American Publishers’ StatShot Annual Report for Calendar Year 2018,” …

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What Are Average Book Sales?

by Steve Laube

We recently received the following question:

“What does the average book sell today? An industry veteran at a writers conference recently said 5,000. What??? I know it all depends….but … nowhere near 5K, right?”

My simple answer?

It’s complicated.
It depends.


Average is a difficult thing to define. And each house defines success differently. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at one publisher they celebrate and have steak dinners. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at another publisher you find staff members fearing for their jobs and in total despair.

Let me give you some real numbers but not revealing the author name (and there is a wide variety of publishers represented):

Author 1: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 8,300

Author 2: novelist – 12 books – avg. sale = 19,756

Author 3: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 7,000

Author 4: novelist – 7 books – avg. sale = 5,300 (Two different publishers)

Author 5: non-fiction devotional – 5 books – avg. sale 10,900

Author 6: non-fiction – 2 books – avg. sale = 5,300

Author 7: novelist – 4 books – avg. sale = 29,400

Author 8: non-fiction – 3 books – avg. sale = 18,900

Author 9: fiction – 7 books – avg. sale = 12,900

Author 10: non-fiction – 5 books – avg. sale = 6,800 (three different publishers)

So you can see it DOES depend. Depends on the author and publisher and topic or genre.

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How Long Does It Take to Get Published?

How much time does it take to get published?

I came to the publishing business from the retail side of the equation. The biggest adjustment was understanding how long the process takes. In retail there is instantaneous gratification. But book publishing is a process business.

There is no question the timeline varies from person to person and project to project. In the world of major publishers the diversity can be quite extreme.

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Would You Buy Your Own Book?

When I ask a room of writers if they would buy their own book if they saw it on the shelf at a major bookstore I am met with a variety of reactions. Laughter. Pensiveness. Surprise. And even a few scowls. How would you answer that question?

But the question is meant to ask if your book idea is unique. Whether it will stand out among the noise of the competition.

It is not a question of whether your book is important or valuable or even well written. It is ultimately a question of commercial viability.

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Got Questions?

The intent of our blog and podcast is to help writers understand what they need to know about the publishing industry and to hopefully succeed with their books. Everything from craft to conferences to proposals and even to ISBN numbers. We’ve been attempting this for nearly 10 years and yet …

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The Quest for Originality

Are you tired of being told by a publisher “We simply don’t do books like that”? or “Yours is certainly out of the box, but is not what we are looking for at this time”? What’s the Deal with Boxes? In general all books are sold under a category. Be …

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One Agent’s Rearview Mirror

Since I was nineteen years old (yes, I was that young once, smart aleck), I’ve set goals every January instead of making resolutions. I set one-year, three-year, five-year, and lifetime goals in six categories: spiritual life, physical/health, intellectual/educational, marriage/family, financial/household, and professional (writing, speaking, agenting). Yes, I am a tad …

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