by Olivia M. Croom

As someone lucky enough to design book covers full time, I spend basically my entire professional life in front of a computer screen. It can be easy to forget that paperback book design is as much a physical production process as it is a digital one, which is why I jump at any opportunity to go on a press visit. Understanding the printer’s and binder’s roles can help everyone involved in the design process of your book make the most cost- and time-effective decisions.

First, your designer should provide a print-ready PDF of your finalized and approved book cover design. The printer runs the PDF through a prepress check to flag any potential technical issues. The designer should be able to work with the printer to fix anything that might come up. Once the PDF is properly tweaked, the printer generates a proof. This is your last chance to catch any errors.

Digital proofs are printer-generated PDFs of what your cover will look like. They are the most common and cost-effective proofs for paperback books. Color proofs are print-outs that will more accurately show the colors on your cover, but they are more expensive, take longer to generate, and you’ll need to build time into your schedule for any mailing that might need to happen.

Once a proof is approved, the files are sent to the digital printing department. Digital printers use CMYK ink cartridges. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. (Don’t ask me why black is represented by “k”—I’ve never gotten a straight answer.) The print-ready PDF your designer provided tells the machine how much of each ink needs to be mixed to print your cover. For example, you might have heard about black versus rich black. Regular black is 100% “K,” so the printer uses only one out of the four available inks. All printed color photographs, and the majority of printed materials, are CMYK. Many types of printers use heat to dry the ink, so when your cover is hot off the press, it’s literally warm to the touch.

The next step is lamination. Lamination is done on a separate machine and protects the ink and paper. Generally, there are two types of lamination: glossy and matte. When considering what type of lamination you want for your book, keep in mind that generally, gloss will better protect wide areas of color (especially black or white) but can be shiny and show smudges. Matte is not shiny (duh) and has a nice feel but can dull colors.

It can be tempting to try to save some money and skip lamination. I do not recommend it for paperback covers. Without lamination, there’s nothing protecting the ink and paper, meaning nicks, scratches, tears, and cracking are very likely. Think about all the handling books need to stand up to: browsing by bookstore shoppers, shelving and reshelving by libraries, readers carrying it around in a pocket or bag, not to mention the shipping process itself. If you’re determined to not have lamination, make sure you’re working very closely with an experienced book designer and printer.

The printed and laminated covers are then matched and bound to the interior block of your book. Most paperbacks are perfect bound, meaning the interior pages are glued together at the spine and then attached to the cover using a strong but flexible thermal glue. The three other sides of the book (top, right, and bottom) are then chopped so the books are uniform. (Tidbit: Deckled edging refers to books where the right side of the pages have been left ragged.) Your books are then packed up and shipped.

Push of a button indeed!

Collaborative Editor Olivia M. Croom is an award-winning book designer living in New York City. She has worked with a number of literary organizations to produce high-quality marketing materials and, of course, books, including Indigo, Alfred A. Knopf, and Henry Holt. She holds a master’s degree in writing and book publishing from Portland State University. You can find her on Twitter at @OliviaCroom and Instagram at @reddish.ampersand.