Because it is relatively new, digital printing gets a lot of attention these days. Digital is associated with on-demand, which is associated with short runs, low cost, and fast turnarounds. Do most on-demand printers live up to the hype? Not really but… it’s better than it was even a few years ago and it’s definitely here to stay. Is this process fast for short runs of books? Sure it is. Is it less expensive than other forms of short-run printing? Until a few years ago, despite the hype, the answer was no. Now the answer is yes, depending on the company, equipment, and pricing philosophy. Self Publishing used short run offset for all quantities from 100 to 500 up until about a four or five years ago because it was less expensive than digital. That is no longer the case. The path to the new “economies” of digital printing probably started with the entrance of competition on the equipment side of the equation. Where Xerox once enjoyed a near monopoly, there are now many newcomers to the field of digital printing. Increased competition on the equipment side has had a general lowering effect on the price of all digital book printing. What are the strengths of digital printing? A digital press can take the digital files from your computer and go right to print. In the case of text type, it’s hard to tell the difference between the different types of equipment. What is the major weakness of digital printing? There is no real quantity discount. Your unit cost stays more or less the same no matter what quantity you print. That’s great if you want a small number of copies but not so great if you want several thousand copies. Digital “printing” is generally more expensive than offset in quantities over 500-600.
Short-run offset printing is a scaled-down version of the traditional book manufacturing process. The average short-run press prints 8 pages of a 51/2 x 81/2 book at a time, as compared with 32, 64, or 128 pages at a time on the traditional sheetfed book press. While the traditional sheetfed press uses metal plates, the short-run press uses lessexpensive paper plates made directly from your laser-printed text. Advantage: no pesky electronic files moving to where you don’t want them. If it shows on your laser copy, it will print the same way. The finishing processes for digital and short-run offset are essentially the same. The sheets go to “little” collators, and then to “little” perfect or case binders, and then to “little” cutters to complete the book. Short-run offset is real printing. Your book looks like a book, feels like a book, and smells like a book. The only real downsides are that the ink density from the front to the back of the sheet may vary a bit, and the paper plates do not do the best job with halftones. Short-run offset is about 25% higher than digital printing on quantities of 100 and falls to only about10% higher on quantities of 400-500. Self Publishing only uses this process when specifically requested by the customer.
Traditional Sheet-fed Printing
The traditional sheet-fed press has little use in today’s book manufacturing. I can almost guarantee that if your book is being printed on a sheet-fed offset press; you are paying more than you need to. This method used to fill the gap between short-run sheet-fed and web. That is no longer true due to the fact that the newer web presses are efficient right down to around 500 copies, where the short-run presses leave off. There is still room for traditional sheetfed printing. Most book webs and all digital presses cannot print on coated paper. A sheetfed press using metal plates on coated paper does a much better job on halftones than any other process. Using a standard paper and trim size, the traditional sheet-fed press cannot compete with modern web presses. If you want coated glossy paper for a lot of halftones, and/or your book has an odd trim size, traditional sheet-fed printing may be the best for you.
A web press prints on rolls of paper, which are cheaper than sheets; and at the end of the press run, it delivers a folded signature instead of a flat sheet, thus consolidating two book manufacturing processes. Running speeds sometimes exceed 25,000 impressions per hour. This compares with about 2,000 per hour on the short-run presses and about 5,000 per hour on the larger sheetfed presses. Makeready spoilage used to be very high on web presses, making them economical only on quantities over 5,000 or so. This has all changed for those printers who have replaced decades-old webs with the more efficient up-to-date machinery. Modern-day makereadies are extremely efficient and spoilage is low. The advantages of a web press are speed and low cost. If you are printing more than 500 copies of a standard-sized book on uncoated paper, there are no disadvantages to printing on the web.